By the week’s end the shifts become intense—blurry-busy—and I finish punch-drunk. Friends who work in the daylight love to give me grief about my easy schedule, and I’m past trying to make them understand that 12-hour shifts, with no breaks, on my feet, assaulted by noise, and asphyxiated by smoke, hardly constitute a holiday. The physicality of this job can be frightening. Your hands are papery dry from the slurry of water, alcohol, and citrus, which makes them crack and slice easily, which then stings horribly when exposed to more of those same solvents. Your legs and feet howl with a leaden ache, and your lower back cinches from the hours of bending over involved in a night of steppin-fetchit.
The inevitable plea from a group of British late owls for “Just one more,” well after last call at 3:30 a.m., has zero effect on me. Sure, I think, just one more hour I have to stand on throbbing feet waiting for your drunken ass to slurp another beer. Roberto, the Mexican busboy, dozes in the corner, his arms folded and his head slumped over his chest. Eric, the other bartender, stomps grimly back and forth to the tables, his eyes ringed with harried fatigue, clearing everything abruptly to the mild protests of the hangers-on. My throat is raw from smoke and from shouting out prices over the racket all night. Spencer threatens to spin all morning, but then DJ’s are a different type of fauna. I ask him to shut it down and he incorporates a nod into his head-bopping.
Although the temptation hovers constantly, I try not to drink before doing the money and dropping the till into the safe. While stocking the bottled beer and mopping the tables and bar top, however, I pour myself a glass of Champagne, as I do at the end of every week’s labors. With the first sip I feel the night’s vigilance begin unknotting from my shoulders. The last customers slink off, leaving a pair of ski gloves and a woman’s sweater on the bench. Eric and I are joking about people’s foibles. Roberto chimes in that maybe go will win.
“Go?” I ask.
“Yeah. I see in the paper, lotta pictures of Go. Maybe he beat Bush.”
Putting up the barstools I ask Eric if he wants to go for a steak. He never does. He likes to finish quickly and get home to sleep. I see no reason to hurry, especially at this point. After running frantically all night I need to close up leisurely, regardless of the time. Outside it’s bracingly clear and I gulp in the freezing wind lacing along 15th Street from the Hudson like it’s ambrosia. We lock the doors, pull the clanging metal shutters down, and exchange shivering goodnights. Walking east and then south I start passing the transvestite hookers down Ninth Avenue, catcalling and tottering around like out-of-work linebackers in stilettos. Evening, ladies.
Dumping myself onto a banquette at Florent, the only place nearby that’s open at 4:34 a.m., I realize I’ve been standing for roughly 14 hours and 20 minutes straight. At the table to my immediate right are the limeys I just cut off half an hour before. I order the hangar steak with mushroom sauce and French fries, then pull out a copy of Wallace Stevens’ collected poems that a customer gave me, imploring me to give it a chance, despite my allergy to poetry. I crack it open and browse until I find a poem called “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad.” I plod through it blankly, until the last line, “One might. One might. But time will not relent.” Yikes. I close the book and fish the Times out of my backpack to go over the NFL matchups and predictions for the weekend.
Working my way back up Washington Street, the only matinal activity I pass is that of the meat packers. One, decked in a bloody apron and chain-mail gloves, heaves a huge box of tallow trimmings into a red dumpster marked “INEDIBLE.” The flowers normally beckoning outside the Korean deli have been pulled in, away from the frost. A white garbage truck spews bilge on the corner of 15th Street, and the Pakistani man setting up his coffee and doughnut cart in front of the Chelsea Market hollers at the driver to take it somewhere else. The wind is behind me, pushing me up the avenue, lifting the smell of the stale smoke from my hair. All the storefronts are shuttered. An idling green van outside the Port Authority Terminal building sports a bumper sticker that reads: “Got Jesus?” which prompts me to say to myself, “Come to think of it, no, I’m fresh out.” But taking in the deep cerulean sky that’s creeping into dawn, against some old red brick tenement façades on 16th Street, I reconsider; maybe I’ve got some of that old old-time religion, however you might define it.
Farther up Ninth Avenue there’s a cabbie pulled up to the curb. He’s in his socks, crouched on two pieces of cardboard next to a fireplug leaking water. His shoes, some terribly worn beige brogues, sit one on either side of him, looking like roasted flounders. I’m impressed that he has stopped in the middle of his shift, removed his shoes, and is facing Mecca to pray. Then I realize that he’s facing west, and Mecca is routinely taken to be in the opposite direction. He’s actually washing his feet, is what he’s doing, in the freezing cold. Three blocks up there’s an empty bed awaiting my sweaty and smoky arrival. I palm the $318 in my left-hand pants pocket and finger the wad aside to find my keys. Tomorrow I’ll sleep ‘til 2. Except tomorrow is now.
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