It’s that time of the afternoon when the lunch crowed has already melted away and the early diners, elderly people like myself, haven’t yet gathered for their early dinners.
He asks Pete, the bartender, for a Guinness and watches him build it. When it comes, he drinks a bit off the top, sets it down, and looks at the rest of it lugubriously.
Pete comes over to me; in a low voice he says, “I hope he doesn’t get tanked up here. He looks like the kind who’ll go all weepy, and that’s bad for business.”
I nod though I’m not sure I agree with him. But Pete’s experience in those matters goes far beyond mine. He has been behind the same bar for more than fifty years, except for the two years during the nineteen-fifties, when he was drafted into the army and served in Korea; something we discovered we have in common, only I was there at the beginning of the war while he was there at the end.
A long drawn out sigh comes from the man: that elicits another comment from Pete. “This used to be a nice respectable bar without wannabe drunks,” he says dolefully and moves down to the end of the bar, where, on a stool, he reads the Times in splendid isolation.
Pete’s definition of “nice” and “respectable” have completely different meanings from those found in a dictionary; they are embedded in the local history of downtown New York. Carmine’s, whose formal name is Carmine’s Seafood Restaurant, is a block north of the South Street Sea Port and a block west of the Fulton Fish Market. The Sea Port is a restoration of the city’s waterfront as it was in the nineteenth century, while the fish market was there for at least a hundred years; though recently it moved to Hunt’s Point in the far away Bronx.
Carmine’s has been part of the scene since nineteen hundred and three when it first opened its oak wood door for business. It has character that age gives a place when it is cared for.
Pete recalls the days when men off the fishing boats and those who worked in the fish market to gathered to drink, eat and brawl; when there was a free lunch counter off to one side with cold cuts, raw clams, potato salad and four or five other foods. All of that has passed, but then Carmine’s was “nice” and “respectable.”
The man continues to sigh and stare at his drink.
He is so obviously weighted down with an almost unbearable grief, that even without knowing him, I begin to feel the stirring of pity. Perhaps the loss of beloved spouse is the cause or child? What could be more devastating than losing either of those two?
Because I have a wife, two sons and grandchildren such morbid thoughts depress me. Usually I find the atmosphere in Carmine’s melds well with the mellowness brought on by an ice cold Stoli. Besides, over the time that I have been coming to Carmine’s, I have developed a friendship with Pete and a couple of the older men who, like myself, visit the place for the companionship and tranquility it offers. None of my friends, with exception of Pet, are here, and I give serious thought to cutting my stay short; but that would mean drinking my drink faster than I’d want to, lessening the delight that comes from savoring it.
The man utters one of his now familiar sighs, and in a shift of mood driven by pique, I feel like saying, I second that. But I don’t. Though I may harbor thoughts about doing it, I do not behave that way toward other people. If I’m annoyed by someone, I leave their presence; if I can’t do that, I adopt a silence so impenetrable the offending individual soon leaves or becomes as silent as I.
Suddenly he says, “For the life of me, I’ll never understand how a woman thinks.”
It takes me a moment to realize he’s not speaking to the unfinished drink in front of him or to himself; he is, in fact, speaking to me.
I turn slightly towards him; he has already turned toward me.
“Not easy for any man to do,” I say, thinking if he’s a forlorn lover I might become privy to a septuagenarian soap opera, or perhaps an interesting take on the eternal triangle. Though, at our age, there’s a considerable distance between the desire and the performance.
“For years, she badgered me to sell the house and move here, to Manhattan,” he says.
I nod, knowing that it will be a soap opera, considerably less juicy and squarer than eternal triangle.
“After thirty years I agreed.”
“Well, that was a considerable amount of time to have considered the matter; maybe she became bored, psychologically restive?” My prurient sensibility springs to the fore; for my sake I’m hoping he’ll tell me his wife ran off with the gardener or some such person. An insurance agent; I never met one I liked or trusted.
“Bored?” he asks, his brow furrowing as if the possibility couldn’t have validity and I was an idiot for having mentioned it.
With as much solemnity as I can muster, I say, “I realize selling a house requires careful consideration; but I think, you’d have to admit, that thirty years is a long time.”
“It was more like ten,” he says defensively, after another long drawn out sigh.
“That’s certainly less than thirty; but it’s still a long time to wait.”
He sips a bit of his Guinness; he’s definitely not a drinking man. Not that that I am one now, but when I was younger I had reputation for having a hollow leg.
“In the end, it all happened very quickly,” he says. “My wife suggested we go to a local real estate agency to find out how much the house was worth and we were told around four hundred thousand; and I told the realtor not a cent less than a half a million, a number I snatched out of the air, hoping at that price it wouldn’t sell.”
“You were wrong, right?”
“Oh was I wrong,” he says. “We put the house up for sale on Thursday and it sold the following Tuesday.”
“That’s fast,” I comment.
“I got exactly what I asked for it,” he says. “I even had neighbors offering more and complaining that I wasn’t fair to them.”
“And your wife was happy?”
“And you, were you happy?”
This time he doesn’t sip his drink; he takes a swallow before he says, “When the wife is happy, the husband is happy.” He must sense my doubt because he adds, “We moved into a two bedroom apartment.”
“From a house?”
“A six room house,” he says.
“I can’t imagine what that must be like,” I respond; an image springs into my mind of a house being squeezed with all manner of things popping out of it.
He nods. “If you’ve never done, you can’t come close to it.”
“But obviously you did downsize.”
“I had to give up my Sinatra, Elvis and Mario Lanza collections; all the records were the old thirty-three and a third. And with them went my turntable and tuner and speakers.”
There’s sadness in his voice and more than a hint of anger; I don’t want to touch either. A man who has given up that much has a right to his emotions.
But then he says, “She won’t unpack; I mean we sold the house, moved into the apartment and she won’t unpack. We’re living out of boxes, and I don’t like living out of boxes.”
I whistle with disbelief. I expected some kind of an ending, happy or otherwise. But he’s placed me in his limbo.
He lifts his glass and before he drinks, he says, “And she blames me.”
“For the move, for the damned move,” he says, putting his glass down.
I whistle again.
“She blames me for doing what she wanted me to do.”
“No!” I lift my glass and take a second swallow; after all, what I heard is astounding.
“And what’s more infuriating, she wants me to buy back the house.”
That calls for my draining the glass. The man is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
“Claims she fell in love with the house once my junk was out of it.”
“Did you reminde her that the move was her idea?” I ask.
“Certainly. But she said I should have seen the signs; and I told her I’m not an indian tracker nor am I an Indian mystic; I don’t read signs, never did. To which she replied, ‘You never pay attention to me, to my subtile self.’ God’s truth, I never knew she had a ‘subtile self.’ ” He stares morosely at his drink before adding, “I don’t like living out of boxes; I haven’t any idea where any thing is.”
A long silence follows, leaving me to decide whether I want another drink or whether I should leave him and go out into the sunshine of a splendiferous October day and walk around the Seaport, perhaps all the way to where I live, to clear my head of his problem?
“It’s going to cost me fifty thousand dollars more to buy it back,” he says breaking the silence.
“It’s a seller’s market,” I say, which gives little comfort to him.
“I know; I know,” he answers.
“Over time she might consider moving things out of the boxes,” I offer.
He shakes his head vigorously. “I would need a couple of millennia, and I don’t have that kind of time.”
“None of us do.”
“Short of divorcing or strangling her.”
“Neither one is a good idea.”
“Yeah, there’d be consequences; she’d haunt me until I brought back the house,” he says.
He’s pushing reality’s envelope, but I’m sympathetic; there were times when I did the same.
“As the saying goes,” he says, “I’ll just have to bite the bullet.”
“Makes sense, especially if you don’t want to live out of boxes for the rest of your life.”
He nods and puts a ten-dollar bill under his glass.
“Thanks; you’ve been a great help,” he says.
I’m not sure how I helped him; but because he thinks I did, I feel obligated to accept his thanks with a gracious wave of my hand and I have the satisfactory feeling we are indeed our brother’s keeper, even if it’s to listen to him.
After the man leaves, Pete stops reading the Times and asks, “What was that all about?”
“He walked in with a problem and walked out with it solved.”
“In the old days when this place was nice and respectable it happened all the time, even if it meant a brawl to get it done.”
I haven’t an answer; in the old days I wasn’t there.
I am 83 years old. I was born in Brooklyn. I and my wife, Anita, live in Manhattan. Several novels and short stories have been published. Both my sons write professionally. My idea of good day is a day when I can spend time at the computer and have something to show for it, a page will do the trick.