Open season, another lonely night on the calendar.
February 7, 1999, and three days earlier, Amadou Diallo had been shot.
Twenty-two years, all summarized in a single moment: reaching for his wallet, violently thrust into the next life with the help of nineteen slugs from four officers of NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. Dead on his own doorstep, as a doornail.
Starting Thursday at sundown, then all through the weekend, the boroughs ran wild with bad blood. Whether taking to the streets in isolated protests, or secure behind double-barred deadlocks, everyone waited, baited breath, to see whether civil disobedience might undergo some unfortunate antigen shift.
Come Sunday, very little had changed.
Proof that, at the very least, God was most certainly resting.
Perhaps a little too heavily on everyone’s shoulders.
Otherwise, just another lonely night, sure. Even the bottles seemed scarred by neglect. I graced them with a reassuring smile. Caught my reflection in the mirror, barback lights in no mood for sweet talk. Dark hair cut haphazardly short, a few stray tufts sticking up and out. Unseasonable white tee showing off my ribcage beneath a worn, gray leather jacket. Olive skin. Brown eyes cradled by matching baggage, topped with a pair of overly ambitious eyebrows balancing on either side of a sharp, inelegant nose.
A week or so shy of my twentieth birthday.
Not much chance that face would be looking to make improvements.
I lit a cigarette, practiced a few unconvincing sneers.
Still early in the evening. Not one fresh face had ventured down the steps to Creole Nights.
Zephyr, Ayizan , Jacob and a few other Haitians, Jamaicans, Dominicans were huddled at the end of the bar. All the unusual suspects. They spoke in low murmurs, holding their own early mass beneath the red and white seconds of an illuminated Budweiser clock. On occasion, their muddied eyes would venture up to the mounted, twelve inch screen. The floating head of Rudolph Giuliani cast his spectral gleam. Not a hint of reconciliation on the other side of that looking glass, and I kept to my drink.
Laying quiet bets on the end of the world.
Imagining a worst case scenario where it might never take place.
Zephyr wandered over, mixed up a rum and coke.
“Lucky Saurelius…” he said absently, Haitian accent drawing out the vowels along the entire length of the bar. “The man.”
I reached over, plucked a few cocktail napkins. “Let’s not get carried away.”
He nodded. Thick mustache matching trimmed hair, trace amounts of gray in both. Wire-rimmed spectacles perched low. His ordinarily mischievous eyes were opaque with simple, commonplace curiosity. “Where’s your woman tonight?”
“Don’t have a woman.”
“Not a one.”
“What about that red-haired girl? Sandra?”
“Over and done with over a year ago, Zephyr.”
“She ain’t so wild about me right now.”
“One night stand, it would seem.”
“Then have a drink.” The bottle of Jack seemed to magically emerge from the sleeves of his purple Baja. He laid a pour on me, asked if I’d heard about Amadou Diallo. “Nineteen bullets, all over a goddamn wallet.”
I told him I’d heard. Didn’t mention it was his third time asking.
Thought it best to let that one go.
“Man, it is dead tonight,” he sighed. Wandered off.
I put my pen to the first napkin.
Couldn’t find a match for the occasion.
Took a look around. Neck craned over the back of my seat, one sweeping glance to take in the details of my underground world. Cracks in the wall displaying what must have once been an eggshell white beneath the dulled, tangerine paint job. Lit candles dotting the rickety tables, backed by the soft, orange glow of scattered lamps built into the wall. Row after row of straw hats, stapled upside down against the ceiling . An immense mural had found its home along the entire length of the far wall, wild medley of colors depicting a Caribbean village. To my left and right, empty stools nestled beneath the chipped, unfinished bar, where ghosts of evenings past awaited indefinite departure.
I reached for a cocktail napkin, scribbled a few notes.
An hour passed.
A stream of smooth reggae made its way through the speakers.
Television on mute, closed captions telegraphing the outside world.
I ordered a beer, went to the bathroom. Had a little group hug with the soiled toilet, rusted sink, and plywood walls. Plans to paint over the exposed grain had fallen to the wayside. Time being, countless lines of graffiti bunched together like makeshift poetry, making fun of me and my little ol’ Bobby McGee.
I smiled along.
Sense of humor; some nights, even the walls had it.
Even on the worst of nights.
I walked back to Jack Daniel’s.
Bamyeh had nested himself next my seat.
Aged eyes moist and wandering. Pupils pushing through professorial glasses and past gray dreadlocks. A wool sweater hung over his frame, bathed in the glorious reek of eucalyptus and rum. Split fingertips forgetting the difference between his drink and a flickering candle.
“It’s the young writer,” he greeted me, calloused handshake taking me for a ride. “Don’t forget me when you reach the top, Lucky.”
“I won’t.” I thought about it, “…and I won’t.”
“Where’s your woman tonight?”
“Don’t have one of those.”
“Can I have a cigarette?”
I handed him a Marlboro Red.
Got my change in a dime-store smile and went back to sitting.
Raised my eyes to the straw hats along the ceiling. Rims sprouting wild, jagged reeds.
Up on the television screen, the mayor’s teeth worked between thin, indignant lips. White block letters at the bottom of the screen, close captions assuring us all that AMADOU DIALLO WAS NO ALTAR BOY.
A chorus of mournful cries rose above the music.
Or maybe that was what he would someday say about Patrick Dorismond. Shot in the chest by an undercover officer in March of 2000. Bled to death all the way to St. Clare’s Hospital. Haitian immigrant, father of two, and once altar boy at the same Catholic School attended by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
There were times it all bled together, even with one year later still one year away.
But in the now, there was Amadou Diallo.
I flattered my drink with one last kiss, asked for another.
It was ‘round about 11:30 when Clarence walked in with that woman.
One inch shy of six foot. A thin composition of fifteen degrees. Cheeks flushed with pure February over a peculiar, gray hue. Chestnut hair. Wrinkled white dress-shirt hanging over black jeans. Eyes leading her face down a dozen different paths, drunk as the day was done.
Trapped in her own world, yet another animal in from the cold.
Clarence was a regular, and in all my hours underground, I had never seen him walk in with a woman. First time, that time in ’99.
Her scuffed flats shuttled her to the end of the bar, got the standard greeting from Zephyr.
“Welcome to Creole Nights.”
A few minutes’ worth of harmless details sailed by. A middle-aged couple, two women in oversized winter coats, asked for their check. One or two tables helped themselves to a fresh round of drinks. Beaks dipping into Hennessey, rum, gin and tonic. All business as usual, before traces of an argument began to float past the cloud of exhaust. I glanced over, down to bar’s end. Cocked my head. Did what I could to casually peek around the pillar that bisected the surface. I grimaced, situation making itself readily available.
That woman, our own pale horse, was locked in a desperate battle against the rest. Words flew from her mouth, covered in pasty spit. Sliced by gleaming incisors. Foaming at the corners, an unrepentant hatred of everything.
Clarence stood by her side, doing what he could to make peace. Hazelnut skin noticeably pale. Sweating beneath his brown leather jacket, cherub face looking for a way out as voices clashed
A few customers pulled the wish out from under him, and made for the door.
Zephyr caught my eye, gave me the long and short: “She doesn’t like Jews.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Ok. Gonna be one of those nights, then.”
The woman caught wind of an extra card in the deck, sent her fury my way. “What of it?”
Before I could answer, Bamyeh slammed his hand on the counter, drawing her back into the fight. “Do not get mad at him! This is not about him!” His gravelly voice rose, cracked. Strained to the limit with three days’ worth of accumulated rage. “Explain yourself! You explain yourself to us, if you plan to continue talking that way!”
“My kike boss fired me today, how many times do I have to repeat it?” Practically talking to herself at this point. “Fucking Jews, all the same.”
“All the same what?”
“And why?” she marveled, answering her own question with more mad rhetoric. “Because I drink? Because I like a fucking DRINK sometimes, every now and then?”
“All the same what?”
“All the same, all the same, you need me to draw you a fucking PICTURE?”
Back and forth, battle of the underground all-stars.
Each reproach louder than the last.
And it might have been alright on any other night.
Zephyr leaned back, crossed his arms. “What do you think, Lucky?”
“What do I think?” Leaned back. Stretched. Made careful use of my words. “I think all you fucking Caribbean motherfuckers can all go fuck yourselves.”
And everyone laughed, thank God, for the first time in days.
Except that woman. If anything, it cut deep into thin skin. Stuck like barbs of chicken wire. Eyes bulging, something desperate struggling to escape as she burst out: “What the FUCK would any of you know about JEWS!?”
Bamyeh stopped laughing. Grabbed her arm, thick lips spread wide with every damning syllable: “I am the ORIGINAL Jew, WOMAN!”
Brimstone words from the lost tribes.
The woman jerked her arm from rooted fingers.
Knocked her seat back with a hopeless shriek, and ran out of our lives.
Out the door and up onto Macdougal Street.
Whether she went left or right was a question well above our pay grade.
Clarence gave chase, but he was up against a running start.
The rest of us stared at the tiny brass bell, shuddering against the wooden frame.
“Can’t believe that fucking woman,” Zephyr muttered. “She should not bring thoughts like that into a place of love…” He raised his voice high over the shadows: “Creole Nights is a place of LOVE! Life is too short for that kind of bullshit.”
“That’s right, Zephyr,” Bamyeh said, too proud to wipe his eyes. “That’s right.”
The door opened, and Clarence walked back in.
Stood in the middle of red brick tiles.
Throat working its way between guilt and honest sorrow.
“I’m sorry I brought her in here, guys,” he managed.
We forgave him.
“I met her in the bar across the street,” he explained, unsatisfied with our readiness to let tides recede. “She looked sad, so I bought her a drink. She told me about her job, and… she said she was going to kill herself. I thought that if I brought her here, introduced her… Let her feel a little warmer, it might cheer her up. I didn’t know…”
“It’s all right, Clarence,” Zephyr assured him. “Sit down. Have a drink, for God’s sake.”
Clarence didn’t move. He turned to me. “Sorry about that, Lucky.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I replied.
“I really am.”
“So am I.” I brushed some ash from my jeans. “It’s cool.”
Beat. “Where’s your woman tonight?”
“Atlantic City,” I told him, and went back to my drink.
Clarence returned to the end of the bar, where the lamps shone their brightest Clementine.
And they all went back to what was now.
What was New York City in those days.
Amadou Diallo, nineteen slugs from NYPD.
I lit a cigarette.
The streets were dangerous with rage that night. You could sense it in the air, and I could taste it in my drink. The evening continued on its sad and steady course.
Zephyr closed early and everyone went home, though I stayed open. Wandered along Macdougal, up Third, all along University Place, down in SoHo town. In and out of bars, clearly not as cool as the weather. Searching for a disjointed conclusion to something conceived on and beyond my own, limited reach.
“There’s a woman out there about to commit suicide,” I slurred, half smiling at the eight foot bartender before me.
“That’s real nice,” he replied, crossed his arms. “But it’s still ten past four, and you still owe me twenty one seventy-five.”
Hope I remembered to tip him.
There’s simply no excuse for that kind of behavior.
stories from a bar with no doorknobs is available at smashwords.com
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