Open Your Eyes
At least I knew where I was. Manhattan. New York City in the late 90’s. A megalopolis awash in fame and cash lust, the Twin Towers soaring sentinels over a cold fusionish impact point. Some of mama earth and daddy world’s more colorful aspects of spiritual-material evolution were meeting head on. And apparently, I was in the middle, smack dab right in between them.
That particular Thursday evening, as my bartending shift was ending, NYC nightlife was just starting to limber up. In a half hour, come seven p.m., the city would be getting its swerve on, and I’d be heading out the door to hail a taxi for downtown, destiny, and the latest love of my life. Glamorous to folks all over the globe, but for NYC and me, just business as usual.
Billie pushed past the wide assortment of suits, bikers, blue collars and creatives circling three layers deep around the small bar. Business as usual for her was not giving a shit that they collectively drooled in the wake of her curvaceous self.
“This place jerks my panties in a wad every freakin’ shift, ” she said, flipping a drink check at me, and a double bird at the ceiling and the occupant of the office above it. “I mean, jesus freakin’ christ, pick a demographic, will ya?”
“Freakin’?” I asked. “When did your mouth clean its act up?”
“This mouth is being groomed for a better life,” she said, hip checking a suit who’d sidled up beside her. “Yo, don’t be a booze scrooge,” she said as I scanned the back of the check. “Give that guava margarita a kick, babycakes.”
I leveled the Hairy Eyeball at her. But she was immune, as were all non-Southerners to that particular method of mine to try and appear surly.
“C’mon. Do a sister-mama a solid, Elle, you know he's cute,” she said, that coy half-smile of hers taunting both me and tequila to resist her if we could.
“Yeah, yeah, Bill,” I said, throwing ice, guava syrup, triple sec, sour mix, and a geyser of tequila into the blender, hitting the On switch. I hollered over the blender roar, “but only looky and no touchy or I’ll tell that boyfriend of yours and he’ll pout you to death.”
She shot me The Evil Eye, only slightly more effective than the Hairy Eyeball.
I poured, then placed the guava marg on the service bar, tequila vapor rising off it like steam. And we cackled like the witches we were. Eyebrows arched, she launched away from the bar, her prow parting the waves of humanity that stood between she and her tables.
“Free drinks!” I sang out to the happy hour crowd, inspired to spread the love, “for all my pallies!” Maybe there weren’t a whole lot of perks that came with a bartending gig, but the ones available were dang skippy Yes. Heads turned my way in silent, blank-faced unison as a quickflash image of our Illustrious Bossman busting my hump for giving away the house reined me back in. “No go,” I shouted, “too slow!”
Scooter, my favorite barfly, pointed two fingers of the non-middle variety at me. “Cheater!” he cried. “No take backs!”
Scooter was insane but charming in a rowdy, sweet kind of way. He was a Wall Streeter who’d made delirious cash playing the markets. But had that wild-eyed weasel shared his financial secrets with me? No. He had not. And for that, I would continue to punish him.
“Calm down, Scooter,” I said. “You'll get your free liquor like you always do.”
“Sure, right,” he said, sloshing his margarita as he turned, shouting to the crowd. “She drains the bar mats and gives me the runoff when she thinks I'm too wang-chunged to notice!”
I cranked the sound system volume up a notch to drown him out. Scooter started moshing his fellow suits to the delightful stylings of Orquesta de la Luz, the hottest of all the Japanese Salsa bands. His friends looked skeeved though the cause was a toss up between the mention of the fabled, dreaded Mat Shots or Scooter's unkempt appearance. His tie was wrinkled and bunchy, his mousy-brown hair splayed into an asymmetrical, white-boy ‘fro, those forest-green eyes of his zinging from the charge of a half-dozen, fully-loaded Patrón margaritas.
Vito, our very own patrón of this fine, funky establishment, came thundering down from the small upstairs office. “What the hell am I hearing? Free liquor?”, Vito hollered from the acoustics of his four-hundred-and-fifty-plus pounds. “Elle, what the hell is going on?”
Like a school of frightened fish, the suits moved as one, throwing money down on the worn bar before they streamed out the door, Scooter in tow.
“Nothing, Vito. I wouldn’t dream of giving anything to these lovely people free of charge. Never. Ever. EVER. I was making a joke,” I said, patting him softly on the vast expanse of his sweaty back. “I make small joke, no?”
“Never joke about free liquor. Never. EVER,” he said, his miniature Mexicali mustache twitching in something akin to rage. “EVER.”
I tried not to yawn. “How much does this cost?” I asked him, holding up a sip straw.
“One half of one cent,” he answered with a sigh, his anger evaporating at the appearance of the routine we’d developed over the past couple of months.
“And this?” I held up a bev nap.
“Two cents apiece.”
“How ‘bout this little sweet-thang?” I said, twirling a coaster.
“Free from the distributor.”
“And what is underneath every drink at this bar?”
“Coasters,” he said, his gun-metal grey eyes reflecting a smidge of amusement.
“How many sip straws are in each cocktail?”
“And what do I do with folks who chew through too many sip straws?”
“Spank them. But lovingly,” he warned.
“Sí, senór, but of course. Te amor, Vito. I’m master of my domain. Go back to your lair.”
“I am master of this domain,” he said. “And everything in it. Even the air. I OWN THIS AIR,” he said, waving his hands around.
“Okay, Vito,” I said. “Thanks for the air.”
He nodded, turned around to walk upstairs, then turned back. “I love you, too. Does this mean I can fondle your breasts?”
He shrugged. “Never hurts to ask,” he said with a sparkling smile. His feet kaboomed up the stairs back to his office.
“Hey, don’t forget I have to leave right at seven tonight,” I yelled up to him. “But we can play Scrabble tomorrow night.” No answer. “Dirty word!” No answer. “If you want!” Crickets.
I sighed. In light of the discovery that an unhappy Vito was Medusa on a good hair day, and turning to stone was hard on the tip cup, keeping Vito happy had become a hobby of mine. And as I spent more time in this hot pink and burnt orange painted restaurant than anywhere else in my life these days, cultivating happiness in moody Vito was way more than a creative endeavor. It was a necessity.
Maintaining my appearance as Bar Goddess was another hobby. Pulling a sassy crimson lipstick out of the beer/margarita/sangria pitcher that served as my tip cup, I leaned into the mirror above the blenders to apply a fresh coat. My eyes glowed luminescent green in the soft glow of the jalapeno twinkle lights woven around the bar area. Auburn hair was pulled up, black-lace dancer’s bodysuit pulled low to show serious cleavage that was lightly freckled, as was my nose. Whoop-ass, no-shit black cowboy boots peeked out the bottom of snug black jeans worn specifically to show off a butt that could never be streamlined. The bodysuit colors changed - I had a couple dozen of them - but the uniform itself never varied. It didn't need to. Efficient, sexy, confident. All the right effects created. Though having a turbo brain and a wonky sense of humor certainly didn't hurt.
Dang, but I loved that job. Therapist. Cruise Director. Legalized drug pusher. The workday dance a whirl of hanging out with people, entertaining them, getting them to mingle with other kids at the fiesta. There was even the occasional opportunity to lay a philosophical mind-boggle whammy on some of them, which kept the metaphysical chops up and running. And, of course, I got paid to get folks so tore up they’d pass out in the chip baskets. But not before they groped one another’s body parts right there at the bar, and how fantastic was that to have on a daily To Do list?
Yeah, it was the best job I'd ever had, and Lord knows I'd had plenty. Upwards of sixty or so, though I'd stopped counting by that point. I’d hopped around from place to place for almost a decade living the serendipitous life of a spiritual seeker in the late 80’s and early 90’s, a hardcore granolahead back when it was still weird and fringe and fun. But one night, after an extended stint in a secluded ashram in Massachusetts, the fun slammed shut, for reasons I refused to tell anyone about, no matter how hard they pressed. In the space of a couple of weeks, I’d dropped out of what was then the counterculture, abandoning it all to go work for the enemy: a big cosmetics corporation.
But that leap to supposed freedom had lasted barely over a year. One night, several margaritas into a bottle of tequila, less than a month away from an assured promotion and a sizable bonus, I washed up on the shore of my old friend Vito’s bar. Listening to an edited version of my tale of corporate woe, witnessing the floor to ceiling rashes manifested from escalating allergies to the carpets, the printer ink, the unholy amount of petty bullshit tangling up in my grill on an hourly basis, he made a halfway joking job offer to come manage his bar. And in that moment, startlingly sober despite all the agave, I thought of how I had no kids to support, no mortgage to pay, no husband to synch a schedule to, and said, “Hell yeah, Vito, when do I start?”
Friends, family and foe alike thought I’d gone insane. No one but me seemed to get that cubicle living was killing me. They saw me finally getting my post-ashram shit together, then walking away from security, benefits, and a wad of cash because I’d gotten a bit rashy. But to me it was crystal: Life offered up an emergency exit out of this second ring of hell, and I was taking it.
Within a month of stepping behind Vito’s bar, my skin was glowing in a way a year of prescriptive cosmetics and anti-inflammatory drugs never could pull off. Liquor, laughter, sex, and sleeping in til noon could do that for a gal.
I'd found a niche for myself at Vito’s Upper West Side glorified taco joint. Even as it was clear that my bar scene shelf life wouldn't hold out for much longer. In NYC, the prerequisite to preside over the ongoing ritual of hooch, lust, and cash was fresh, sweet meat. But until my expiration date came due, I’d keep having delicious fun, meeting people with lives so very New Yorkish, having those wild-ride conversations only possible when at least one of the talkers had tossed back several cocktails. And stress? Virtually non-existent, unless you counted the once a week pilgrimage Vito forayed up my hindparts when he harshed my mellow over some godforsaken cash issue. When it came to money, Vito provided no respite.
I picked up a copy of The Post a bar customer had left behind. A photo caught my eye. “Slain Hero Cop Laid To Rest,” read the headline. A chick at the grave sight looked so much like me my eyes widened. But then I laughed. Because it was surely proof I was leading a double life so secret even I didn’t know about it.
“No mas tables for moi,” Billie said, plopping herself on the barstool closest to the service bar.
She was one of those creamy-cocoa-colored New Yorkers of unfathomable genetic origin. When I’d asked her she said, “to the best of my knowledge there’s Puerto Rican, African American, Native American, Greek, Irish, possibly Jewish, and definitely Southern White Trash which means you and I are fourth cousins twice removed or some shit.”
She dressed exclusively in shades of black, designer wear purchased fresh off the back of pirated delivery trucks parked near my old stomping grounds up on 181st in Washington Heights. Her pillow lips were invariably painted into a black cherry, smooch-sneer hybrid. Usually cranky, always radiant, she was also crazy smart, finally letting that massive brain of hers off the leash a little now that she’d traded in the life of a struggling actress for the gig of first-year law student at NY Law. Along with everyone else, I adored her.
“Gimme a beer,” she said, followed by a extended, sonorous belch. She reached into her black cotton waitress apron to pull out her tip money, counting it out aloud as she quickly faced and flipped through the bills.
“Charming,” I said, sliding her an icy long-neck. “Catch any fish?” I asked.
While her attention was focused on her cash, I poured a shot of blackberry schnapps, setting it off to the side.
“Too small. Threw him back,” she answered, tossing my tip-out for the shift onto the bar.
“Good girl. Catch and release. But would you like to weigh in on the whole girth versus length debate? Me, I prefer a yin-yang kind of balance, but really, what are your feelings?”
“You know what they say about spindly men. . .”
“Ah, a lover of length.” I laughed.
“Honey, at this point I’d be happy with a dedicated inch and a quarter,” she said.
“What’s wrong with that man of yours? Is he blind? Don’t he know you built from the front to the back, and he should be driving that rack like a fine Cadillac?” I said, shaking my head.
She rolled her eyes, even as she laughed. “You’re way too white to say that, woman.”
“There might be some cocoa somewhere back in my family tree.”
“Elle, you’re so white you’re Lucite. But you do control the liquor.”
“I refuse to be The Man. Don’t make me The Man.”
“So slip me a snort to ease the pain of my poontangless existence.”
“I could do that.”
“You definitely could do that.”
I bowed my head in a supplication holdover from my ashram days. “What flavor of firewater might this priestess provide to ease your loneliness, o beauteous one?”, I said, pressing my hands together in prayer position, a puja that would conclude with an 80 proof blessing.
“So kind, chiqua. I don’t know. . . ” she said, scanning the liquor shelves. “Something different this time . . . maybe some blackberry schnapp-“
Before she could finish, I picked up the schnapps shot I’d stashed to the side and set it in front of her. As usual, her mouth fell open, which never failed to amuse me no matter how many times I pulled this on her.
“How the hell do you do that? You’re a freak, Elle. Tell me how you do it.”
“Spoon bending party tricks. Guaranteed to amaze and astound your friends.” I laughed and shrugged.
“Oh, I don’t know, Bill. I get a picture in my head and pour the drink to match the picture. Freaky-deaky, what can I say?”
She shot back the schnapps in one fell swoop, probably as much in response to my freaky-deakiness as to buff the edge off her wait shift.
“Speaking of freaks, take a look at something,” I said, passing her The Post. “Doesn’t she look just like me?”
She looked at the photo, then back at me. “Who? The obese grandma or the hoochie with the platinum dreds?”
“Give me that,” I said, snatching it back. She was right. Neither chick in the picture looked even remotely like me.
“Hey, don’t you have a hot date with your soulmate? Isn’t destiny or some shit calling?” she said, motioning for another shot.
My heart did a little flip. I poured another stream of purple schnapps, this time up to the rim til it was so convex only centrifugal force kept it from overflowing. “Just waiting on Buck. He’s late for his shift again. Shocking, ain’t it?”
“My man’s late for most everything these days,” she said, bending over the bar to take the whole shot glass in her mouth, then throwing her head back. She wiped her mouth and let another belch rip. “Get Vito to cover the bar. Might as well get some mileage out of that worship he’s got for you.”
And so after a little pleading on my part and a great deal of grumbling on his part, Vito squeezed his girth behind the bar. I headed to the upstairs bathroom for a quick transformation with some make-up, fresh clothes, and a hot air brush.
The mirror showed a woman on fire, gearing up in anticipation, frothing herself into a love frenzy for the yummy meal and even yummier man that lay ahead. Love-lubricated coitus: what was better than that? Nothing, nothing in the world, I thought as I headed out into the early autumn chill to manifest a taxi in the middle of rush hour.