I remember him telling me a story about being at a bar in his 20s. He was there with his friend, Robert, whom later in life would only be referred to by the unfortunate name of El Dirtbag-o by Alex. (They had some vague falling out that he could never quite explain or dispel enough to make me understand how Robert earned that new moniker.) On this night, however, the two young men alternated turns in the bathroom snorting coke and then returning to the low-lit bar to suck down their drinks till there was only the tinkle of ice in the bottom of their glasses. The 2 men used the alcohol to steel themselves against the energetic mania caused by the white powder…A sort of chemical equation that their addict brains already understood. Late in the night, Alex swiveled on his Naugahyde bar stool to scan for any attractive women that might be congregating around the pool tables…someone ripe & already slightly loose. He was turning back to his drink again when he saw an ice pick slam deep into the neck of the man next to him. Like a comet with a tail of blood, the ice pick was pulled out and a spurt of blood followed its path. The man clutched his neck, blood pouring through his fingers…the violence staining his shirt. The bar began to tilt and careen with the panic of others. People screaming and evacuating…bar stools being felled in the process….a green and brown glass mosaic of broken beer bottles forming on the floor. Even Robert ran out. But Alex? Alex stayed. He watched as the man staggered away backwards from the bar stool and then fell onto his back. Alex waited with him, for the ambulance to arrive… He said, “I tried to tell him to hold on, but I watched him die. I knew the minute it happened. His eyes were open, but they just changed. He was just…gone.” The paramedics arrived and told Alex he had to leave. So Alex headed out to find Robert, a trail of red footprints stamped with the dead man’s blood following him out into the night.
It was a horrible tale, one he told me more than once…The first time he shared this memory with me, Alex asked me if I knew what “the real kicker” was about what had happened. I didn’t. He told me the murder was a case of mistaken identity. The man who had killed the other man thought the victim was having an affair with his wife, but he had the wrong guy. Back when he told me about witnessing the man’s murder, it was a horrific event flattened by time & space to make a story…But the fact that he repeatedly told a story about a death caused in one random, violent moment is, sadly, not so far off from how he died himself. That’s the real fucking kicker, Al….we just didn’t know it then. The weird part is, in a way, I think he’d approve. I’m not saying that he wanted to die the way he did, but he had a perverse sense of humor and could probably appreciate the irony.
Alex loved to turn his life into urban folklore—and living in NYC gave him a lot of material for this. He told me about living in the same apartment building in Soho as Patti Smith. He would try & catch her every morning as she toddled out to retrieve her morning paper off her doormat, squinting at the newborn day. He would entertain himself by gleefully shouting, “Hi, PATTI!” and waving enthusiastically at her from his doorway, even though he knew she would ignore him. I asked him why he did this, if she so clearly did not appreciate the attention and refused to acknowledge him. He looked at me like I was crazy & said matter-of-factly, as if he shouldn’t need to even explain, “Because it was fucking Patti Smith, that’s why.” I guess, maybe in a way, his answer makes sense.
There were other stories he told about that era in his life, the time before me…He would tell me stories about working as a host at Caroline’s & Dave Chappelle offered him a joint when he was getting off shift there one time. Because of his thievery, he was banned from several establishments in the city—namely Tower Records and a hardware store where he got caught trying to boost a pair of bolt cutters by slipping them up the sleeve of his jacket. He and Robert once found a metal light post, that had been knocked over due to an accident. They drove through the city to a junkyard with the post on the top of Alex’s car in the hopes of turning it in for scrap money. Somehow they navigated the city without it properly secured—and also with the post extending a few feet past the car in both the front & back—only to have the junkyard owner tell them he couldn’t take it because it was city property. He told them to take it back to where they found it. Not wanting to drive back through the city with the monstrosity, the left it and peeled out with the junkyard owner screaming & threatening to call the cops. Cop involvement was an occasional theme in Alex’s life story before he met me, possibly after as well…but in his re-tellings, it was always sold as harmless, comical. I preferred that narrative, too, I guess, so I suspended disbelief and just rolled with it.
There were only a few stories he told me about Jenn, the girl he never quite got over losing. She was an addict like him. While he didn’t talk much about her, there were enough stories inside of him about her that he wrote a book about her…I read it once. The book was about their relationship & breakup, as well as their substance abuse issues. In the book, he writes about how they tried to go to LA to get clean, but they ended spending their days just as high as they had been in NYC, but in a sunnier locale. By the end of their time on the west coast, they had pawned all their furniture. They sat in opposite corners of a dark room, in agony from withdrawal. All that was left in their apartment was a phone that they couldn’t get rid of because it was their tether to the families that occasionally sent them money & the drug dealers they gave all that money to. Finally, they made the decision to come back to the city I currently live in, so they could detox at Alex’s father’s home. They did a brief detour to NYC to say goodbye to the city they both loved. The night before they were supposed to leave his father’s house, she told him she wasn’t ready to get clean. He rode the train up and then writhed in his father’s bed, dope sick & detoxing, thinking hateful things about the girl he didn’t hate at all…the girl he still loved. And so, even though he didn’t tell me about these things that had hurt him so deeply, I knew these narratives from his life, too.
While he was a person who loved to tell stories, I was a person who desperately wanted to be a part of them. It was probably what allowed me to hang on as long as I did. No matter how bad things got, in my mind, it was all fodder & fairy tale. As writers, we spun the straw of chaos & shit & destruction into fantastical anecdotal gold…The circumstances of our lives that would be intolerable to others were rewritten by us into comical or exciting adventures. Even a trip to a sketchy dive bar with roaches & a cranky bartender became a sort of surreal experience because of this.
Early on in our relationship, Alex would drink gin & tonics together. He would close his eyelids over the green lawn of his eyes and fondly remember this bar he went to in his youth in NYC. He would tell me about his memories of hanging out at this hole in the wall, owned by this little old Polish man named Stefan. Stefan would be pickled on booze by the time he opened for the night and only get more soused as the night went on. His gin & tonics were always a bit heavy-handed on the pour. However, by closing time, it was pretty much straight gin with a kiss of tonic and just a peck of lime. There was so much alcohol, the ice cube would immediately dissolve. He would talk about going there with his friends. They would stay there all night, trying to stay as distant from reality as possible by maintaining an elevated state of drunkenness. When we went down to NYC, we decided we had to see if the bar still existed. We were elated to see it was still there. Unfortunately, the door was locked, resistant to our attempts to turn it. Closed. Disappointed but not surprised, we were turning to leave, when we heard the doorknob twist and click. Hunched over in the doorway was Stefan, both lovably curmudgeonly & extremely inebriated. He was immediately recognizable. He looked just as Alex had described him a thousand times. Even though I had never been there, I had already seen him in my head. Inside the bar, Stefan poured himself a drink. Alex asked me what I wanted. I looked at him like I couldn’t believe he would even have to ask, “Gin & Tonic. What else.” I knew what the drink would taste like before I even put the straw in my mouth. Too strong. Slightly piney. Tinge of sparkle on my tongue. Alex and I clinked glasses and drank down the cocktail of his youth.
After I finished my drink, Stefan asked what else I wanted to drink. “A Long Island Iced Tea?” I asked hopefully. Stefan scowled, “No. Too hard to make. You get a beer.” He slammed a bottle on the counter, just as a roach scurried across the bar right in front of me. I screeched. Between the high maintenance drink order misstep & my disgusted scream, my presence was apparently too much for Stefan. He addressed Alex instead of me, “Whatsa matter with your girl? She never seen a waterbug?” It was a roach. A roach. Alex shook his head, “No, no…not really a thing where we live. It probably just startled her.” Stefan softened a little and looked at me, “Next time, crush it. Crush it with your bottle.” Alex and I tried to hide our laughter at the repulsive suggestion. Failing at this, we went over to the jukebox which hadn’t been updated from the time Alex used to go there. Before I even looked, I knew Alex’s favorite song by his favorite band would be on there. I put my money in, pushed the buttons and then looked up at him & waited for him to smile. At the time, it felt magical watching everything he had told me about the bar come to life, and then braiding myself into the narrative. Now? I don’t know. That kind of magic is harder to come by these days & I can’t really afford to waste it on a memory from a roach infested dive bar I went to once with my now-dead husband…(And, of course, I write that last cold sentence—but in my head, even though I know it’s impossible, I am wondering if Stefan is still somehow standing behind his bar….I can picture him wavering very slightly with drunkenness, as he lets go of the bar top to pour a too stiff Gin & Tonic for someone in his dim, dirty bar that has been enchanted and is now permanently frozen in time.)
I write about this memory now, because Alex is gone, but I don’t want his life to be over. Retelling his mythology is the only thing I know to do for him, his memory. Maybe some day, someone will do the same for me.
And, if anyone ever asks you if you remember any stories about me, tell them this: I already knew the face of the bartender before he opened the door. I knew what the drink would taste like before it touched my tongue. And, before I even saw the jukebox, I knew what song I was going to play on it to make my lover smile…almost like magic.