I arrived at my hotel early. Check-In wasn’t for another three and a half hours, but the woman at the counter just smiled and processed me. The staff were all extremely gracious.
I dropped my gear and headed out onto 42nd St.
It was in the mid 70s, sunny and perfect. People thronged everywhere. I was the only man on Manhattan wearing logger boots and a flannel shirt.
The city was buzzing. This was exactly what I was looking for.
I had no plan. I didn’t need one. With over 18,000 bars and restaurants to choose from, boredom was a mathematical impossibility. I grabbed lunch at a deli nearby and headed down 5th Ave.
Sunlight reflected off of every surface. I pulled my hat down to my cheeks and squinted through the glare, stepping wordlessly around street hawkers. It was a tourist cruise, scoping out architecture. Occasionally, something ridiculous put a crooked smile on my face.
Hybrid cop cars.
I burned the whole afternoon wandering. When I hit my room the AC was welcomed. I showered and changed and uncorked the whiskey I bought. By the time I made it back down to the street the sun was setting. I felt loose.
I headed north through Times Square.
I remember the first time I saw Times Square. I turned the corner and was blinded by the psychedelic kaleidoscope of lights. It looked like a concentrated dose of Las Vegas.
This time I hardly looked up, shifting through the thick knots of tourists. I turned the corner on 52nd, strolling past busy windows and theater goers in the neon twilight. I was so mentally preoccupied that I nearly walked past my destination.
Inside was just as I remembered it – a Russian caricature of Goodfellas. Everything looked careworn. The combination of dark colors and dim lighting make the interior feel somber and comfortable. Stern dignity and proletarian charm.
It was still early when I positioned myself at the end of the bar, overlooking the whole restaurant. Prime real estate. I set my hat on the bar and smiled as the little blonde came over with the vodka list.
I didn’t bother to look at it.
“Shot of pear, shot of raspberry.” I said, ticking off drinks with my thumb and forefinger. I smiled.
The first sip was Heavenly. Pear vodka. I fired off a message to Shogun Marcus to gloat.
The Shogun introduced me to this bar. They infuse their own vodka, he told me. I remember very little of that night. When I stepped off at Penn Station that morning I knew that vodka was in the cards.
When Shogun called me back he sounded more than jealous. And less than sober.
“Anton is in back in New York! He’s living in Brooklyn!”
“You’re kidding . . . ” I croaked. I told him to give Anton my number.
I went back inside. Not long after I received a text from a number I didn’t recognize. Anton was only a few blocks away. He told me to stay put.
“I’m at a birthday party! Tell the Tsar I’ll be there later!”
I made eye contact with the blonde. She came over, assuming I wanted her to clean up after my caviar. I shook my head and motioned to the older gentleman at the other end of the bar. I knew who he was, but I played dumb.
I hate name dropping. I sucked it up and introduced myself. I told The Tsar that Anton wanted me to relay a message. He was running late, but he was on his way.
The Tsar looked at me funny – trying to connect my face to the name – but after an awkward moment he smiled and poured me a shot of peach vodka on the house.
Delicious peach vodka . . .
The Tsar asked if I was enjoying myself. There were empty vodka glasses, carafes, and messy caviar plates arrayed in front of me. I extended my sincere gratitude.
An hour later, as I sipped vodka and water alternately, I realized that I had crammed five hours of drinking into three. Anton was a no-show. It was only 10:30, and I was not going to make midnight at this pace.
I needed some air.
I paid my bill, promising to return, and stepped outside. What a relief . . . The New York air hit me and I felt instantly revived. I wandered down 9th Ave. Bar neons filled my peripheral. Yellow cabs streaked down the avenue.
I’m not sure how far I walked.
Pausing at a corner, waiting to cross, I heard the distinct sound of a British accent behind me. I don’t remember what I said, but suddenly I had new friends. Two were British ex-pats, a brunette and a poof. The other was a blonde American girl.
After some idle chatter the Poof turned to the Brunette.
“I fancy him,” he cooed. He turned to me. “Does that bother you?”
“Not really,” I sneered.
I was walking arm in arm with the Brunette. He wrapped his arm around my free arm. Apparently angry looks don’t translate into the King’s English. I warned him that I would break his arm if he got free with his hands.
He decided to respect my personal space. I flashed a Cheshire grin.
“You’re not very smart, are you?” he asked me. “Don’t take offense . . . “
“I have an I.Q. of a hundred and forty,” I deadpanned.
He looked incredulous. I flexed a Triple Word Score vocabulary to insult his sexuality.
“I liked you better when you didn’t talk,” he said, frowning.
I grinned and we stepped across another street. I peered through the windows of a bar as we passed.
“Drinks. Blue warrior needs booze badly . . . “
I doubted they would get the reference, but I’m sure they got the point. The girls told me they were going to a party down in the West Village. They insisted I come with them. Open bar, they told me.
The sexiest words I’d ever heard.
Not long after we were climbing out of a cab. We wandered the lower west side as the ex-pats drunkenly failed to navigate us to the bar. By the time we arrived my buzz was fading and my bladder threatened to burst. Gritting my teeth, I stood by idle while the ex-pats schmoozed the door guy.
The good news was, we got in free. The bad news? The open bar was over.
Motherfucker . . .
Suddenly, any thoughts of pushing the poof one-side and hooking up a threesome with the girls vanished. As if by fate, I felt my pocket vibrate. I checked my voicemail.
I’m here. You’re not here! Why aren’t you here!? Get your ass back here!
I had to get out.
Prioritizing, I had the Brunette show me to the bathroom. After some much needed relief, I slipped out of the bar. I called Anton as soon as I was outside, jogging down the street before anyone noticed I was gone. I made a dash for the Express train and hustled through Times Square, back to the bar.
I haven’t seen Anton in almost ten years. Less than a month before 9/11.
He waved me over to the Tsar’s table, and we spent the evening catching up. We chased San Pelligrino with vodka. The Russians were playing music three feet from where we were sitting. Fast piano. Sawing at the violin.
People were dancing.
Anton tried to talk me out of the Army. Start reading scripts! You have the face for it. I just smiled. We ordered more vodka, toasting health and happiness.
The musicians finally called it a night, well into the small hours of the morning. A couple had come into the bar, and the gentleman took up the mic and slid seamlessly into Sinatra. It was impressive.
I looked at Anton, stunned.
“We’re in the theater district,” he pointed at the couple. “Opera singers.”
“No shit . . . ” I muttered, awestruck.
It was a long, blurry, boozy night. My face hurt from smiling. My ribs hurt from laughing. Somewhere toward 4 AM I realized I had a long walk back to the hotel. I pulled a wad of wrinkled bills from my pocket and Anton threw it back at me.
“Your money’s no good here.”
“Come on . . . “
“No . . . “
We shook hands and hugged. It was a strange moment. Sincere.
I staggered back to the hotel, weaving haphazardly along the sidewalk. I caught a look at myself in the mirror in my room and was reminded of why I avoid mirrors when I drink . . . What a fucking mess.