Sunday happened. I reorganized my room for the winter, putting my bed farther away from the window, which still leaks air with the outer storm window down and the inner sill covered in that shrink-wrap plastic that you can get at the hardware store. Barry invited me to come to a meeting he was going to with Gina, some club that gets together every two weeks at a software company down in Kendall Square to play a team hack-and-slash game against another crew in California. Some guy who had paid Barry’s cable modem bill for six months was the IT support manager at the office, and part of his negotiated deal was letting Barry and whatever freaky friends he had into the place regularly. It was a pretty sweet deal, really, but not my bag. I tend to identify too much with computer games; when I’m playing I get tense and sweaty. Gina’s presence was definitely an inducement, but I really suck at most networking games, and I have that peculiar problem that most guys have about being showed up by a girl. Especially at things that guys are supposed to be better at: games, sports, lifting heavy weights, fixing stuff. I’m horrible at all four of those things. I spent a good two hours thinking about that, trying to decide whether or not I was societally conditioned by our misogynistic, testosterone-fueled society to feel like less of a man if I wasn’t able to fix my radiator.
I’m lying, naturally. I’d like to say that I came up with some great theories about how we’re taught as guys, but I was too worried about what Brianna had said. I was worried about losing my job, and I didn’t like that feeling at all.
Monday morning was strange; I woke up at six, like I always do, put on clothes, like I always do (“Don’t dress up on Monday,” was Brianna’s parting shot on Saturday night) and walked over to Jon’s Place to open up. The shift was with Jason, who ambled in about twenty minutes after I had started turning things on. He was dressed completely Jason: short-sleeve button shirt over a t-shirt with “Z’s Keedz” printed on the front in bubble lettering, cargo jeans, and something on his feet, I think. I wasn’t sure because his jeans obscured whatever might have been there. Jason didn’t buy clothes that were designed to be overly baggy; instead he shopped at Rochester Big & Tall, bought pants with sixty-inch waists and cinched the hell out of them. He saw himself as dedicated to his craft; most everyone else just thought he looked weird.
“No, man, you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t say ‘sup. Say ‘suup.”
“What’s the difference at six-thirty in the morning? It’s not like I’m embarrassing you.”
“Not now, but what if I run into you on the street and I’m with some of my boys, and you give me a wrong sounding ‘sup? I look bad then ‘cause I know you.”
Three hours alone with Jason is kind of like watching television. The guy is a TV addict and a B-list celebrity watcher, People magazine’s vocal gateway to the world. He could tell you current whereabouts of the entire cast of Welcome Back, Kotter and give you a detailed history of the many loves of Jennifer Lopez. He spent the morning pawing through a fanzine.
“Jay,” I said.
“You hear that Soleil Moon Frye had a breast reduction two years ago?”
I paused in the middle of filling up the raw sugar container. “Who is she and why do I care?”
“Punky Brewster, man! I saw her on the late show last night and she was hotter than half the chicks you see on TV these days. Her and Conan got to talking and it came up that her boobs were too big so she had ‘em taken down. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Hey, I heard that too,” said a glasses-and-white-T-shirt guy who was sitting on one of the counter stools. He was reading a book of Pauline Kael’s collected essays and drinking an americano (espresso mixed with hot water in a normal coffee mug).
“Isn’t that crazy?” Jason said again.
“Yeah,” said the glasses guy. “I wonder how big they were.”
“Oh, she said,” said Jason. “38D”
The glasses guy nearly choked on his americano. “Holy shit.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Now I wonder…” said Jason. “If you’re the guy doing that surgery, and you know, you know that you’ve got Punky Brewster lying out on that table, getting ready to have her kickass bustline reduced to something less, what do you do?” He gave me a piercing look.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do the surgery, maybe?” I re-opened my bag of Sugar in the Raw and started to fill the little glass cylinder.
“No, man. I bet the guy was a pervert. I bet he saved it.”
I stopped pouring again. “What?”
“Yeah, I bet he was just sitting there with his scalpel for a good five minutes or so trying to decide what to do. Then he figured it out, he had it all together. He removed the….stuff…and put it in his pockets or a plastic bag or something and took ‘em home and put ‘em in a glass jar in the fridge. Every day he opens that fridge up to get his milk for his Crispix and he sees that jar and he thinks ‘man, I’ve got Punky Brewster’s tits lying around in my fridge. That kicks ass.”
I finished up the sugar and wrapped the brown bag with a rubber band. “Jay, do you have any idea how sick that is?”
“I know, man, it’ s sick. It’s wicked. I wish I had thought of it before that guy.”
“Jay, you’re disturbed, you know that?”
“Well, maybe,” he said. “But don’t you wish you were that guy?”
And that was what the whole three hours were like. Jason’s energy was contagious; I found myself spouting off to customers more than usual, bouncing around like the little rubber balls that light up when you throw them on the ground hard enough. I worked fast and talked faster, and he went faster than that, whipping up coffee in a cloud of beans and dust, dropping filters and spilling syrup all over the floor, and cleaning it all up faster than that. He multitasks like nobody I’ve ever seen, holding court with fascinated customers on the supposedly animal-centric sex life of Richard Roundtree or convincing you that Ione Skye never really married that guy from the Beastie Boys but is actually living down in Peru learning all the deep secrets of South American ayurvedic medicine; never mind that “ayurvedic” is a Hindu word. He doesn’t care. He went on and on while foaming with one hand, wiping the counter with the other, and holding the mop between his legs, cleaning the floor with a sexual thrusting motion that made more than one customer peek over the counters to see if he was really getting it on.
“Jesus, Jason, can you cool it?” I couldn’t look at him anymore.
“Sure, man. What’s up your ass, anyway?”
OK, I wasn’t the guy performing autoerotic activities on a glass counter, and there was something stuck in my nether regions?
“I’ve got this wedding to go to in New York in a couple of weeks, and I waited too long so now I can’t fly, and the trains are too expensive and will probably go bankrupt anyway, and Greyhound costs almost as much as a train. I’m not sure how I’m going to get down there and back without nuking my ability to eat for a few days. ”
“Man,” he said. “It’s easy. Take the Chinatown bus.”
“What’s the Chinatown bus?”
Jason raised one eyebrow and looked at me, looking like he was trying to look like that guy who wrestles on TV. “Dude, you’ve lived here for how many years?”
“And you’ve never heard of the Chinatown bus?”
I shook my head. Jason flipped the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and minced his way over to me. He looked like he was trying to navigate a minefield.
“The Chinatown bus is the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “There are four of them, competing bus companies that shuttle between Chinatown and New York every hour for virtually nothing. It’s somewhere between ten and twenty bucks each way.”
“Ten dollars?” I said. “How do they afford it.”
“I dunno,” he said. “I’ve never actually taken one. This guy who I used to hang with down on Lansdowne, he was a dealer, but not really competitive…he’d taken one, and said they were all tied up with the Tongs who came over from Hong Kong. They run drugs and hookers between the two cities in the luggage compartments. Passengers are just a cover.”
“But it’s only ten bucks?”
“That’s what I hear. Wait…” He walked over to his backpack, took out a manila folder and started to rummage around. “I think the guy gave me a schedule for one of them. Yeah, here it is.” He handed me a scrunched piece of paper that was headlined Wang Fah Nice Deluxe Bus Company. Boston -> New York $15!!! 115 Beach St. Boston MA. 69 Canal St., New York, NY.
“This is serious?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Jason. “You should check it out.”
“While you’re doing that, could I get an everything bagel with cream cheese, toasted?” asked the guy on the other side of the counter. The button fly on his oversized jeans was open, so I gave him the standard “flyin’ low” gesture along with his bagel. He turned red under his Vandyke mustache and paused to do it up before taking his food.
I left Jon’s Place at noon with my own everything bagel, toasted with cream cheese, and a large iced coffee with cream and hazelnut syrup in my eco-mug. We sell the mugs at Jon’s place, and you get ten cents off of a cup of coffee if you use one. We actually lose a bit of money on that deal, because cardboard cups are only seven cents, but Jon thinks it’s important to get our customers to think environmentally.
Brianna had given me a business card as I’d left on Saturday night, and had invited me to come by her office for a chat. I wasn’t sure if that was a date or not but I stopped in at the Super Mart and bought a pack of gum, just in case. In order to get to Brianna’s office I had to take the Red Line downtown and transfer over to the Orange for the ride down to Jamaica Plain. Her office is right on Centre Street, maybe a ten or fifteen minute walk from the subway. It was a nice walk through a good neighborhood. Not good in the realtor sense, I mean good in the real sense: a couple of obviously lesbian-oriented coffee shop/bookstore places, a Mexican cafe, a couple of pubs, a small restaurant where people were still digging into omelets and pancakes at half past twelve. I passed a guy welding an unrecognizable mass of metal in his side yard, with the obvious intent of turning that mass into Art. Little things like that make an area breathe. I liked it.
Brianna’s office didn’t look like an office. It was located in the first floor of a three-story house. Three mailboxes hung on the front porch. Two had names on them, and one read “Brianna—lawyer. First floor.” I rang the doorbell
“Peter! Come on in! The door’s open.” Brianna’s voice rang out from behind the door. I walked in.
She was dressed in an outfit that I can only describe as “businessy sexpot,” a suit with black slacks, black shoes and a black jacket over a white shirt. That shirt made all the difference—it was unbuttoned to about her solar plexus, revealing a large swath of pale skin in that area which is the most interesting place in the world: That Place Where Cleavage Comes From. I blinked, and immediately got really nervous because she was in a suit and I still had my old Chuck Taylors on my feet.
“Hi, Brianna.” I remembered why I was here—she had smiled at me and even though there was no way in hell that anything could ever happen between us, because high-powered lawyers don’t go after coffeehouse people except in adult films (although those movies usually seem to suggest that pizza delivery guys get the best business), I was still hoping somewhere that I could use the conversation we were going to have this afternoon as a springboard to something else. What’s hotter than an imminent corporate takeover?
Brianna’s office looked exactly like it should look, which was everything that a lawyer’s office is not. Two computers sat on two desks, a printer on a milk crate in between. A short guy was sitting at one of the desks, typing away at a machine-gun pace.
“John, this is Peter. He works at Jon’s Place, that coffee shop in Central Square.”
He stopped his typing with a flourish and turned around. On seeing his face, I hated him. I knew I wasn’t going to like John, and it wasn’t just because he was wearing a blue button-down shirt with one of those white collars, or his suspenders, his too-large round glasses or the Birkenstocks on his feet, although those were all certainly factors. I didn’t like the way he looked at me. John obviously thought that the only thing I could possibly be good for in life was He looked like a juice-bar guy, one of those former hippies who cut their hair and trade in the devil-sticks for a couple of ties and pretend that working in an office fits perfectly with the idealistic stuff that crunchy types preach about all the time. I’m willing to bet that the first thought that came into his mind on seeing me was something like Great, an indie-snob bastard.
That’s fine, because my first thought was Great, a two-shower-a-week patchouli shitheap.
This whole exchange took about a second, after which John got up from his chair and shook my hand—lots of speed but very little power in that shake. “Good to meet you,” he said.
“You guys are fucked. They’ve already started doing the groundwork to hang you out to dry.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice to know.”
“Play nice, John,” said Brianna. She led me through a door to a small side room with a desk, an ancient Compaq and thousands of manila folders piled everywhere.
“Have a seat,” she said, clearing a pile of folders from an off-brown easy chair.
“So this is the office,” said Brianna.
“What do you do with corporate clients? They can’t possibly see this.”
“I rent another space near Government Center,” she said. “It’s one of those rent-a cube places—the secretary directs them to a conference room, I meet them there, and then I come back here to do actual work.”
“Well, what do you want to talk about?” I said. I wasn’t exactly clear on why she’d invited me down here; she had yet to touch me on the arm or smile or even give me a warm handshake. If this was a date, I wanted no part of it.
“Duh,” she said. “We’re going to figure out how to get Starbucks to leave you guys alone.”
“Oh,” I said. I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d spent a good portion of the previous evening agonizing about my choice of shoes and pants for the day, trying to come across with the perfect combination of hipster cool and unstated class. A business meeting was the furthest thing from my mind.
“Have they contacted you?” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “This jerk named Quentin Donnelly showed up a little while ago, wanting to talk to Jon.”
“Jon owns the place?”
“Sure,” I said. “Jon’s Place.”
“Where is he?”
I shrugged. “He’s not around much; right now he’s learning to dive in Thailand or Malaysia, somewhere like that.”
“That’s good,” she said. “It’ll take them a while to track him down. Don’t let Donnelly know exactly where he is, under any circumstances.”
“They have resources,” she said.
I was getting pretty freaked out. Brianna was stunning, and was talking like she was the lead character in a Tom Clancy novel. It all seemed pretty simple to me: Starbucks wanted to buy us out, none of us wanted to work for them, and the owner, who had the ability to do the actual selling, wouldn’t have any part of it, if he could even be found, which he couldn’t. What could be the problem?
“They’ll probably try to eminent domain you,” she said. “Send in a raft of inspectors and try to prove that your business isn’t sanitary, is breaking one law or the other in some way.”
“That’s no problem,” I said. “We keep it pretty clean.”
“You’re really not listening,” she said. “You’re in violation of something. Everyone is. Normally, they don’t bother to inspect your certifications for proper re-notarization. They probably aren’t monitoring all of your coffee storage space. There’s very little chance that they’re checking the supply chain on all of your baked goods to make sure that there’s no possibility of in-transit contamination. Nobody does this because it really doesn’t matter, except if Starbucks wants to come in and take over, in which case these guys start showing up out of the woodwork. Do you like your job?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “There are some days when it’s not so hot. I mean, sixteen MIT frat guys coming in after football completely wrecks the place, and Jason’s kind of a pain in the ass sometimes, and it’s really annoying when Adrian, who’s gay in case you didn’t know, sits around playing cards with the phone numbers he’s been given by women on a particular week. But it’s a lot better than my last cubicle job, and I like some of the customers.”
“That’s more than most people will say about what they do,” she said. “Congratulations, I’m going to try to help you stop them.” She grinned. “They beat me once before. I don’t want that to happen again.”
“What do I do?”
“Go back and clean the place. Make it sparkle. Keep it that way. I’ll come by in a week and let you know what’s going on.”
I let myself out, energized. Maybe we had a chance with someone like her on our side. I felt good until I realized that I’d forgotten my real goal; I still had no idea whether or not Brianna was gay.
“Pete, what do guys do?”
I was sitting in my room listening to Elvis and pretending to organize the six pairs of shoes in my closet on a shoe rack that I’d bought at the Salvation Army a few days before because I was sick of having my shoes end up in the hamper when I threw them at the closet. I looked up at Barry, who was leaning against the door, blocking any view of the living room.
“I’m trying to figure out what real guys do.”
“Barry, you have to give me a little more to work with here.”
“Well, the other night I was over at Sensodyne playing some network games, you know, and most of us got to talking because the team we were playing was so bad. James started complaining about his girlfriend and how they didn’t ever really seem to get along, and she was always complaining about him always doing ‘guy stuff.’ I asked what that kind of stuff was, and he laughed and said ‘Oh, you know.’ So I nodded and laughed because I didn’t want to seem out of it, but I really had no idea what he was talking about. I think it’d be good to know if I’m going to be hanging around and talking more with people. What do guys do when they’re talking to each other?”
I looked at him. Now that I thought about it, I’d never seen Barry doing much guy stuff—he’d never watched SportsCenter–although that may have had something to do with us not having any TV input other than the VCR—but he’d never gone out to a bar to catch a game, never even gone to Fenway to see the Red Sox. I’d never watched a movie with him, or seen the way he acted around people. He seemed to like pizza. I didn’t know a thing about Barry, other than that he was unlike any guys I’d ever seen.
I’m a firm believer that there are certain inalienable traits to guys. I’m into arty films, but I really dug Aliens and Commando. I like to go to art openings and plays and things like that, but I’m kind of sad that I missed seeing it live when they detonated the Seattle Kingdome. When I was a kid I was really into professional wrestling. I’ve been to see the Red Sox at Fenway three times, and I chanted “Yankees suck!” until my voice went, just like everyone else.
“Barry, have you ever seen Terminator 2?”
“Well, yeah, a while ago.”
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?”
Barry also hadn’t seen Die Hard, Risky Business, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, or anything starring John Wayne. By themselves, each is excusable. Missing all of those is a sign of something seriously wrong.
“Hang on a sec, Barry.” I dug into my closet for a box of CDs that I rarely listen to these days, and threw on the first track off of Appetite for Destruction. “You recognize this song?”
“How about this?” I put on “You Shook me All Night Long” by AC/DC. He hadn’t heard that, either.
“Barry,” I said. “You have to know this sort of thing.”
His eyes grew big. “How do you learn?”
I sighed. “I dunno. You just know it.”
“Do you think you could teach me?
I thought for a moment, visualizing the man that Barry could become. He was going to become a more than just a normal guy. I’d build his taste impeccably. He’d be able to sit down with a bunch of guys and bug out about the final guns-pointing-everywhere scenes in Reservoir Dogs, but in the ensuing conversation he’d be the guy who’d say “You know, you should really check out John Woo’s The Killer.” Give him AC/DC and he’d hit you back with Iggy and the Stooges. I had a blank slate to work with, and I wasn’t going to screw it up. Somehow, I was going to pull Barry into the cultural elite.
Doubtful, but possible. Hell, I needed a side project.
I finished up the morning shift at Jon’s Place on Thursday morning, gave a nod to Gerald, who was wedded to the Globe in his usual spot, and got ready to take the subway out to the airport for a quick flight to New York. Adrian sold me a nearly-expired certificate for a free one-way shuttle flight for twenty-five bucks. I’d take the bus on the way back.
I checked in at the gate for a two o’clock flight, shouldered my secondhand garment bag, and wandered around the shuttle area. I was moderately shocked when I saw the free magazines and newspapers lying everywhere around the gate area. Real magazines like Time and Golf Digest and The Wall Street Journal and other things that I never read but see people reading. I picked up Time and Business 2.0, and plowed through both of them in about ten minutes. That sounds fast; it’s not. There’s never anything of any real substance in Time, and Business 2.0 is kind of like Cosmopolitan for new-school business people, except with centerfold-style pictures of CEOs; I guess MBA students have to masturbate to something. I left the magazines on a chair and settled into the flight with a Daniel Pinkwater collection.
I took the bus from LaGuardia to Harlem and then hopped the subway down to where Ross lived: a fourteenth-floor one-bedroom on the Upper East Side with a view of the city and enough floor space for one or two people to stretch out comfortably. He and his fiancé Rose (the obvious weirdness of the name matchup didn’t faze either of them in the slightest) were a power couple—went right into investment banking after college, worked their way through the maze of raises and insider politics to the point where they were each able to afford their own Manhattan-style closets to live in. Ross was nice enough to offer me his floor because of all his friends I’m the least able to afford a hotel room. He buzzed me up from the street.
“Pete! How you be?” He gave me a big guy hug, almost violent in its affection. He’s bigger than I am, which made it a little harder to catch my breath.
“Good, Ross. You know.”
“What’s new? You still dating that Janie?”
“Jenny. And no.”
He grimaced. “She sucked, anyway. How’s work? You looking for a real job? I could probably get you one down here at the company.”
I shook my head. “Not for me, man. It’s kind of interesting, actually. We’re kind of facing a hostile takeover.”
He brightened. I was speaking his native tongue.
“Really? How? You guys don’t have any stock to underprice or…” he looked at me quizzically.
“Nothing too major. Starbucks is apparently looking to buy the place out.”
He shrugged. “You’re fucked. They’re bigger than God.”
Great. If I was so fucked, why was I so sexually frustrated? I dumped my bag on Ross’s floor, and we headed out.
This was my first bachelor party, and I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d seen the movie with Tom Hanks and once when I was sick in college I’d caught an episode of Jerry Springer where they re-enacted a bachelor party on stage, and it seemed to me that they were all about whipped cream and strippers and such. Ross’s didn’t start out that way. We met up with some of his friends from work, other investment bankers with gold credit cards and tucked-in collared shirts and names like Steve and Terry and David (assuredly not “Dave”). I was the only one of Ross’s college friends to make the bachelor party; everyone else was coming in from California or Atlanta and had jobs where getting away wasn’t as simple as asking Adrian to double a shift.
It started up at Giacomo’s, a family-style Italian joint a few blocks from Ross’s place. “Family style” apparently means that they could feed your entire extended family, plus a few homeless guys and half the population of Des Moines. The waitresses brought over four plates piled high with pasta (angel hair, ziti, and the twisty stuff), bread and salad. And a few bottles of wine. We went from there to another midtown bar that was virtually empty at six o’clock in the evening. Steve ordered a round of malt Scotch, Terry ordered vodka, I put in for five Budweisers.
“Way to bust out the blue-collar, man!” shouted David, who had managed to muss the gel in his hair enough to give him a vaguely punk look.
After the midtown joint things got a little fuzzy. I remember heading downtown to Le Maison De Sade in the 20s, where we threw down fifteen bucks apiece to watch Ross get spanked by a fat guy in assless leather chaps. I remember heading for Scores, the strip club that Howard Stern apparently always talks about. The guy wanted to charge us to come in, but Terry knew the manager and we slipped in for free. I was pretty happy that Scores was to be the final stop of the evening, and I spent most of my time there smoking cigarettes even though I don’t smoke, because a Miller Light was fucking eight dollars. God, sometimes I hate New York. I was fairly drunk; whenever I got up from my seat to bum a light from one of the waitresses my brain would do a somersault. I figured I didn’t need another beer. We bought a couple of lap dances for Ross, and he sat on a couch while a blonde woman with fake breasts cavorted above him, never meeting his eyes. The rest of the night was a blur of taxi rides and cheap late-night Lebanese food. I vaguely remember thinking that I felt like I was an extra in one of those New York movies that always have empty streets and steaming manholes lit by the sidesplash of lighting from all-night bodegas and delis.
Ross woke up the next day and stepped on me on his way to the bathroom to throw up. He mumbled an apology, I fell back asleep and woke up again at three in the afternoon, one hour before Ross was due to get hitched. The other three guys were in the wedding and had already gone. I whipped through my morning routine, threw on my suit and took a cab to the ceremony, which was at 84th and Park, in an old church. It still amazes me that places like that church still exist in Manhattan, where closets rent for over a thousand a month. This church was half a block on each side with a Gothic-style spire. The building stone was weathered and impressive. It breathed old.
Naturally, there was a Starbucks next door; they’re hard to escape in the grid of Manhattan. The ceremony wasn’t due to start for a good half an hour, and I was running on three hours of fitful alcohol sleep. Ordinarily, I’d try to find something else to satisfy my need for a jolt, but in uptown New York you’re pretty much up the creek. I hadn’t been to a Starbucks in years, and if they were going to take over my life, I might as well give them a taste. That’s how I justified it to myself, anyway.
It looked like the Starbucks down the street from Jon’s Place in Central Square, or the one in Harvard Square, or the one in downtown Boston. Soft lighting, lots of faux wood, furniture, well-dressed customers pecking away on laptops while sipping on five-dollar frappucinos. The line was three people long, and it only took a minute or so to get to the counter.
“Can I help you?” The girl behind the counter was eighteen or so, and pleasantly plump-faced.
“Can I have a latte?” I said. “With some vanilla, please.” I leaned on the counter as I said this. My stomach turned over, protesting what it was about to be forced to digest.
“Sure,” she said. “What size?”
“Big,” I said.
“Um…venti? Or grande?”
I sighed. “The one in the middle. Sixteen ounces.”
“Sixteen ounces….” She paused, running her finger down on the other side of the counter, looking her way through a list I couldn’t see. “That would be venti. Remember that, and next time I won’t take so much of your time, okay?” She smiled when she said that, flashing perfect teeth. “That’ll be $4.10.”
That’s theft. It’s a dollar fifty less for the same thing at Jon’s Place, and we make a healthy profit; I shudder to think what Starbucks makes, even given that everything in New York costs more than it does anywhere else.
“Would you like anything else with that? Maybe a travel mug or a CD?”
I shook my head. I’m willing to die before I profane my stereo with a smooth-jazz mix approved by the corporate masters in Seattle.
“Okay, what’s your name?”
“What do you need that for?”
“Oh, we have to take it; when it’s crowded, that way people don’t steal orders.”
We do that at Jon’s Place. I looked around; nobody else was in line.
“But it’s not crowded,” I said.
“We have to,” she said. “It’s policy; if my manager saw a cup without a name on it, I’d get in trouble.”
“Pete,” I said. “My name is Pete.”
“Thanks, Pete!” she said, smiling again. “Your drink will be ready in a moment. Have a wonderful day!”
I groaned. The latte wasn’t bad, though; the girl knew her stuff, and Starbucks burns their coffee, not espresso. But there was no way in hell I’d ever sell anyone a venti Latte. I was going to fight this thing until Jon’s Place was twitching in a shallow, frozen New England grave.
The church probably had space for at least two thousand people in the pews, and unless you’re a president or a celebrity or someone else with an intrinsic need to impress you don’t know enough people to fill that kind of space. I sat in the third row of pews next to a guy who had been in my freshman composition class. It was like every wedding you’ve ever been to, and it was just like the one wedding that I’d been to. Nice, but just sort of there. I hope it’s not weird to be this cynical after only going to one ceremony in my life, but it seems to me that everyone’s looking forward to the reception and the free booze, anyway…if I ever get married I might just skip the ceremony and throw a party. People would probably thank me.
The cynical part of me was saying all that stuff, noting that the church was mostly empty and thinking that it was probably pretty depressing for the couple to think that they couldn’t have enough people to warm up the cold in that place.. Ross was standing at the front with his brother and a five-year old cousin as ring boy, and Rose walked up the aisle with her dad on her arm, and suddenly there was something that was inescapably right about that exact moment. I’d seen weddings on television and in the movies a dozen times, and they never get it right because you can’t act that moment or the look on Rose’s face, a just-crying but not bad tears kind of look, almost a serenity. She looked at Ross the whole way up the aisle and he looked right back at her, as if puppeteers were pulling up the sides of his mouth and he was trying to force his lips back down to avoid breaking his whole face apart with a smile.
The whole thing was over quickly. The minister was nondenominational, and he mentioned God only once. The service could have existed easily without God, which made me think that they put him in there just to placate some older relatives who would have been shocked at a non-Christian wedding. The old priest had a combover and talked about love and life commitment, and I felt terrible because I was by myself, and there’s nothing worse than being by yourself when other people are together. It’s like wandering around on Valentine’s Day and seeing all the happy people, but even worse because this is much more than a pot of flowers and a nice dinner, this was life. Happy for Ross? Yep. Unhappier about myself? Yep.
The reception was right down the street at the Mansion L’Espalier a was a three-story brownstone-style house much wider than anything you usually see in the city. With everyone all suited and gowned up, the whole place felt like it had arrived directly from sometime earlier in the century, when people like Sinatra had big throwdowns and God help you if your suit wasn’t right, baby. I felt a little bit out of place; I knew quite a few of the people there from college, but they weren’t close friends of mine—Ross had been in a fraternity, I wasn’t, but we stayed friends because we shared a common love of old country music and each needed someone to see Merle Haggard with when he swung through town—so I was on my own. My placard was at a round table with six other people, not nearest to where the bride and groom were sitting, but not in the back of the room with the family members who nobody really knows but who would be insulted if not invited.
The conversation went like this:
Girl to the left: So who are you?
Me: Pete. I know Ross from school.
Girl to the right: Really? What kind of work are you doing now?
Me: I work in a coffee shop in Boston.
Girl to the left: (visible pause) Really? That’s cool. (To guy across the table) What do you do?
Guy Across the Table: I work for Merrill Lynch in Atlanta.
Girl to the left: Wow! I know someone who works for Merrill Lynch here. Do you know George Freebor?
Guy Across the Table: Uh…no, I don’t think so.
(Girl’s face falls)
Guy Across the Table: But the name is kind of familiar. Is he in investments?
Girl (brightening): No, he does estate planning.
Other Girl: Isn’t she beautiful? I hope that I can look that good when I get married.
Girl: Yeah. Where’d they meet?
Me: Work, I heard.
Girl: That’s where everybody meets these days.
This kind of talk kept on around me, as I ate my chicken (juicy, but without any real kick) entrée and made multiple trips to the bar cart. I participated when I could, but these weren’t really the kind of people who I had much to say to, the kind of folks with real jobs. They talked about their investments and their 401(k) plans and vacations that they took—skiing in Vail, wine tasting in the south of France or out in California. They were nice people, and they tried to make sure that I didn’t sit there and say nothing, but none of them really had any interest in the day-to-day running of a coffee shop. I would have talked about something other than work, but nobody else did and they seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I didn’t bring anything up.
I left the table before dessert and started to walk around the grounds. The mansion was a hell of a place; it had no views to speak of, but it did have bidets in the bathroom, which actually made me sad that I had emptied my bowels before leaving Ross’s place. After a few minutes I headed back to the reception and started to walk around with my drink as the dancing started up—Ross and Rose took the opportunity to tour the tables and greet everyone. The DJ played most of the songs that you hear at a wedding: slow stuff, fast stuff, retro-fad participatory dance songs like the Electric Slide or the Macarena. I don’t really like to dance that much, so I kept myself on the sidelines. Then a slow song came up that I really liked: “Three Times a Lady,” by Lionel Ritchie.
What the hell. I walked over to a table where one of the bridesmaids sat, alone. She was as pretty as a woman in an old black and white movie, with all the bridesmaid makeup and perfect clothes that come with being in the wedding party. Her hair was brown and short, cut in a pageboy? I’m not up on my hairdo names, so I’ll call it that.
“Hey,” I said. “Would you like to dance?” I felt very junior high, not least because my stomach turned a flip-flop.
She looked at me. “Uh, okay.”
We danced, my left hand on her hip, her right hand on my shoulder, our other hands entwined.
“How do you know Rose?” I asked.
“Oh, I work with her,” she answered. “She introduced me to my husband.” I gave her left hand a glance—no ring visible, and no metal feeling on my hand. That’s a jailable offense right there. I’m not always on the scope, but there is something less enjoyable about slow dancing with a married woman.
“He had some important work to do that he couldn’t get away from. You know how that is.”
I nodded. What on earth could I have to do at Jon’s that couldn’t wait or be rescheduled?
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I work at a coffee house up in Boston,” I said.
“Oh.” She paused. “Then how do you know Ross?” I could practically see the thoughts running through her head: Great, I got stuck talking with the groom’s loser high school friend who dropped out of community college and is stuck reliving his glory years. He’ll probably try to seduce me by talking about his monster truck.
“College,” I said. “Freshman dorm.”
So when she asked where I went to college, I told her. She was taken aback. Literally, she took a step backwards. I went to one of those schools with one name before the word “University” that costs a lot of money, a place where the student body collectively morphs in their last year into a crowd of business-suit-clad lemmings plunging over cliffs into the gaping jaws of Management Consulting, Investment Banking, and Law School. Bitter? Yep. Resentful? Right on. Why? Not because I live in a walk-up apartment with a roommate who never leaves his room and a clawfooted tub with a malfunctioning drain that always leaves your feet in two inches of tepid water in the winter when you’re showering, and I work harder than any of those guys. What gets me is the look, the same look that this girl was giving me now. The look that says Hey, aren’t you wasting your life and your education and everything that you’ve done by doing what you’re doing?
Not really. If I was twenty-four and working at Smith Barney Robertson Stevens Morgan Goldman or whatever they’re calling themselves these days, my life wouldn’t be much different. The only real gap between me and an I-banker is that I use a two-wand espresso unit and fresh-ground Arabica, while the IB guy is stuck using a shiny Braun home unit with the Yuban that the company has bought at a bulk discount from Staples. We’re both making the morning coffee for people with more money than us; I’m just honest about what I’m getting paid for.
But I’m not supposed to be doing what I’m doing, my background didn’t program me for this lifestyle, and this girls look said exactly that. She punctuated it with a disappointed “oh” coupled with a wild-animal fear look, the kind that our cat used to get when she knew it was time for a flea bath. I could read her mind: My God, what are we going to talk about? We were surrounded by bankers talking about mergers and law students talking about summer placement and management consultants vying for the largest buzzword. What could such a consultant have to talk about with me?
“So…you manage this place?” she said.
“Sort of, yeah,” I said, wanting out of the conversation about as badly as she did.
“So what management techniques do you use?”
I’ll end this episode here, because the conversation that followed was so boring as to nearly cause me to fall asleep while dancing.
After the dance, I wandered over to the bar line. I had just finished my fourth gin and tonic. My head had that mid-drinking feeling; a lightness that makes you feel like your ears have just popped.
“Just curious,” I said to the girl who was pouring drinks, “How do you get to be a wedding bartender, anyway?”
“You take a class,” she said, pushing her hair out of her eyes as she mixed my bourbon and Coke. “If you’re me, you put up with drunken idiots every weekend so you can save up for school.”
“What kind of school?”
She squeezed a lime and dropped it into the glass, and handed the drink to me.
“I’m studying to be a nun.”
After a while, the DJ put a wine glass up to the microphone and banged on it to get everyone’s attention.
“Hey everyone, put your eyes over here, because it’s time for Ross and Rose to have their first dance as a married couple!”
Everyone clapped, and the two of them walked out into the middle of the circle. Ross had shucked his tuxedo jacket, Rose had ditched the veil, and they both looked great. Not just physically, but it was almost as if the great feeling was seeping through their skin and coming out of their eyes. It was neat the way they looked at each other; I had the feeling that if asked, they wouldn’t have known if anyone was watching them or not. The DJ started up “All I want is You” by U2. Sure, the song is old and kind of overdone, but it’s a pretty good song, and at least they weren’t dancing to a tuneless Mariah Carey number, and they were pretty good; they’d choreographed some moves to the opening verse. About halfway through the song, the DJ asked all of Ross’s friends to join the happy couple out on the dance floor, and a bunch of people went out there and danced. I went over to my table and watched everyone, sucking on the bourbon-flavored ice at the bottom of my glass, thinking about how fun it would have been to have Jenny there for this dance, one hand on her hip and one in her hand, swinging around like two seventeen-year-olds at the high school prom.
Ross came over to me after the dance.
“You having a good time?”
I nodded, sipping my drink through the stir-straw.
“Thanks for coming, Pete.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s no problem.”
“No,” he said. “I know it’s kind of a pain for you to come down here and keep up with all of these guys; I know that.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this,” I said.
Ross grinned at me and clapped my shoulder. “You’re the best,” he said. Rose grabbed him right then in a swirl of white, pulling my friend over to meet yet another guest couple. Ross turned around and made a shrugging gesture; I motioned a toast and drained my glass.
I left the reception before it ended, getting back to Ross’s apartment before anyone else. Some of the other guys came back pretty drunk and loud; they woke me up for a few minutes but passed out quickly enough for me to go to sleep without too much trouble. I woke up before they did, packed my stuff and took the subway down to Canal street to catch the bus back to Boston. It was early enough that the masses of guys selling knockoff watches, batteries, obscure Japanese toys and other detritus were just setting up as I walked past their stalls.
New York is the latest-getting-up city I’ve ever seen. People in the city will sleep as late as they can on weekends—I’ve had a three o’clock brunch there where everyone else in the restaurant was still in pajamas. The place is still alive at five in the morning, but the hours between six and noon on a weekend are almost quiet enough to give it a mellow feel. As I walked through the trash-strewn streets of Chinatown, the main drags were about as noisy as Massachusetts Avenue in Boston during rush hour. A garbage truck turned onto Canal too fast and spilled a bunch of bags from its back onto the sidewalk five feet behind me. The bags exploded with astonishing force, enough to spray the nearest watch-and-knockoff stall with rotten food, old clothing, and what could only have been some kind of chastity belt. The stall owner ran out into the street and started screaming in Chinese, shaking both of his fists after the departing truck.
The Wang Fah bus was waiting on Canal Street right where the street rises up to become the main road of the Manhattan Bridge. There’s a huge Buddhist temple there with lions outside the doors, a bright red vaulted roof with spires and braided faux-golden tip, and no space to either side. It’s hemmed in by an auto parts store and a nondescript three-story apartment building that the my brochure said was the Wang Fah sales office. It’s really not that weird—Jason said the office in Boston is a table in a Cantonese bakery.
The bus wasn’t really a bus; it was the kind of van that picks you up when you fly into a city and have to pick up a rental car. I bought my fifteen-dollar ticket from the woman at the counter, which was a remarkably easy transaction considering that I conducted my side of the conversation in English and she only spoke Cantonese, and waited in line. The passengers were about half scrubby white kids like myself, half crumpled old Chinese people, some clutching mysterious-looking parcels wrapped in brown paper. As we waited in line, the sky grew darker second by second. The driver showed up, a gaunt Chinese guy about my age with Velvet Underground hair and a foul-smelling clove cigarette. He whipped out a cell phone and started yelling into it as he motioned for the crowd to board the van. I was the second-to-last boarder, and found a seat in the back row.
The driver smoked and yelled into his phone while we waited, and large rain drops started to glop against he windows. He jumped on board just as the skies opened up, not bothering to check anybody’s ticket before closing the doors and starting up. We drove over the Manhattan bridge to the Brooklyn side and hit a nasty traffic jam; I would have reclined my seat and tried to sleep but the rental-car style van seats don’t do that. The pouring rain syncopated awfully with the incessant blaring of horns from all of the other cards on the freeway. I laughed, I couldn’t help it. I was still hung over from the bachelor party, the heat on the bus wasn’t strong enough, and the driver was yelling into his cell phone again. It was going to be a long trip.
Another hour went by, and we finally cleared the Bronx. As we crossed into Connecticut, the driver floored it. The van jounced over the potholes, and I kept getting slammed into the girl next to me whenever he changed lanes.
“Do you have any idea how much longer it’s going to be?” asked the girl, who I assumed was a high school student on her way back from a weekend trip; she was holding a transparent plastic backpack and wore black-rimmed indie rock glasses over an acne-free face.
“I doubt we’ll get there before two ,” I said.
“Oh shit,” said the other guy in the back row, a ladly dude with hair done in an Elvisish pompadour. He whipped out a cell phone.
“Hey,” he said into the phone, “We’re caught in traffic, and it looks like we’re not going to be quite on time. Yeah, maybe noon.” The two of us signaled to him, shaking our heads and flashing nines, and he waved us off, finishing the call with a good-bye.
“I’m supposed to be recording starting at eleven,” he said, “They’d be pissed at me if I told them I’d be three hours late. This way…” he turned off his cell phone, “No stress.” We all laughed.
The bus trip took seven hours. We stopped off at a service plaza in mid-Connecticut halfway through; I bought a Snickers from a vending machine and ate it. I hadn’t had one in several years and was pleased to find that I liked it. It would have been better to get something from the McDonald’s or a slice of pizza, but I was clean broke; the bachelor party had hit my wallet pretty hard, and the bus ticket had left me with a dollar fifty to run with until the bank opened on Monday and I could deposit my latest paycheck. The ride was jerky and rough the whole way, and I didn’t sleep at all, instead just watching the road go by.
We pulled into Boston’s Chinatown at a little after two in the afternoon. The bus drove slowly under the bright red arch that guards the entrance to the neighborhood and pulled into an empty spot in front of a bakery. I was the last passenger to step out; the rain had stopped, replaced by a bitter wind under shifting gray skies. I had forgotten my warm coat, and was shivering by the time I got to the South Station subway stop. Of course, the train was delayed due to flooding near Park Street, so it was nearly four by the time I walked into my apartment.
The light on my answering machine was blinking. I hit the button, and the robot voice told me that the message had come in yesterday. That wasn’t surprising; Barry’s computer pals only used instant messengers.
“Hey, Pete,” said Jason’s voice. “It’s been a crazy fucking weekend, man. The ratcatcher showed up yesterday, and made us shut the whole place down because they had gotten a complaint about a rat on the floor. We got no Saturday night take, but I paid the two kids for their shifts. I figured it’d be okay. There weren’t any rats. What the hell?”
I dumped my garment bag on the floor in the living room and pitched into the couch. Before I could take my shoes off, I fell dead asleep.