It had been years since Pete Parson had moved south and they’d turned Pooty’s Bar and the space above into money sponges in the shape of lofts. Tribeca, once a bohemian refuge, had long since been declared an artist-free zone by the City of New York, the last starving painter tarred, feathered, and exiled to Williamsburg during the end days of the last millennium. The neighborhood was scrubbed and bleached of real character so that now it was sprayed on the streets in the dark and chipped into the bricks by Mexican day laborers for a hundred bucks cash and lunch.
But still I came to look at where Pooty’s had been. I’d walked over from the Brooklyn store, across the bridge, down Chambers Street and up Hudson. The whole time with the book in my hand. Book indeed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read a book or even held one that didn’t have something to do with wine or the business. I tried counting back the years to when Sarah was a little girl and Katy and I would read her to bed. Sarah, a woman now, self-contained, moved away, a veterinarian, her curls gone to light brown with only traces of little girl red peeking out at her dad at Hanukkah.
So here I was, bent paperback in hand, standing outside a building that had since forgotten me or what itself had been. I tried seeing it, superimposing my memory of it over what stood in its place. Failed at it. Works better in movies than in a man’s life, that. Things gone are gone. There’s a deep truth there. Fuck me if I could find it. I made to step away.
“Grow up here?”
“Jaysus, the way you were staring at the place … You looked like a man thought he saw his lost love.”
Definitely Irish, I thought. He was thin as a wire, but not erect. There was a sway to him, more a blade of grass than a man, a weary blade of grass. No, a twisted root, I think. You see them at craft fairs sometimes, bush roots shaped remotely like a man that the artist has cajoled into a more striking resemblance. The summer breeze off the Hudson whipped his hair into a gray swirl. He had a hollow, lined face that had once been a calling card. There are all sorts of lines on all sorts of faces, but these were hard lines, etched lines, sharp under a microscope. These were not lines of slow, smooth erosion. Life had used a knife on him.
“Smoke?” He offered up a green pack of cigarettes the likes of which I’d never seen.
I waved him off. He put the pack close to his crooked lips and the unfiltered nail seemed almost to jump into his mouth. Next out of his pocket was a heavy silver lighter, the kind my dad used when I was a kid.
“Ya mind, fella?” He positioned me to block the wind.
Christ, the damned cigarette emitted more pungent fumes than a city bus. He slipped the lighter back into his suit pocket. It was a cheap blue suit, someone else’s cheap blue suit, a quick pick off the discount rack at a retro store. Salvation Army more likely. Still, ill-fitting as it was, it seemed right on him, even as it clashed with his highly polished and expensive brown shoes.
“Well …” he seemed impatient. About what, I wasn’t sure. He got tired of me trying to figure it out. “Were ya raised here?”
“Nah. Brooklyn. Coney Island. There was a bar here once, Pooty’s. Friend of mine had a share in it. The grout in the tile was dirtier than my mechanic’s fingernails, but it had the best jukebox in New York City.”
He was skeptical. “The fuck, you say. In the whole city?”
“Duke Ellington, the Dead Kennedys, John Lee Hooker, the Beatles, the Clash, Howlin Wolf, the Ramones … Fell in love with my wife here. Took an actress here once when I was on the job.”
He smiled wryly. “A copper, ya say.”
“In a manner of speaking, back in Ireland.”
I was curious, but there was something in his demeanor that warned me not to ask, that I wouldn’t like the answer and he wouldn’t like giving it.
“What is it you do now other than stand and stare longingly at buildings that housed old pubs?”
I own wine stores with my older brother. “Private investigator.”
“Fuck on a bike.”
“In a manner of speaking. They don’t have a name for it.”
I took him at his word, glad he hadn’t asked to see my license. I still kept it in my sock drawer.
“You investigating an author?” He pointed at the nearly forgotten paperback. “Love books. Only thing’s kept me above the dirt this long. Balances out the drink and these.” He waved the cigarette at me, then flicked it in the gutter. Lit another. “The book,” he prodded.
“Some novel a friend recommended.” I held the cover up for him.
“Bollix. What a load a shite. Author’s a real wanker.”
“You know him?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He was nothing if not consistent. “Don’t waste your time with that crap. Read McBain.”
“Can I buy you a drink?”
“Lovely offer, but I’m waiting on someone.”
I held my right hand out to him. “Moe Prager.”
He took my hand, his grip deceptively strong for such a bony bastard.
“A pleasure,” he said, letting go of my hand. “Ah, here she comes now.”
I looked over my shoulder to see a very little girl sort of waddling her way toward us. I was never good with age, but she seemed far too young to be walking alone down even the safest of streets in the smallest of towns. There was something odd about her gait, a bouncy sort of looseness in her small strides. It was only when she got closer that I noticed she had Down Syndrome. She looked right past me and raised her small hand up to the root man.
“There you are,” he said to her and softly cradled her hand in his. “Mind yerself, Moe.”
I watched them disappear around the corner. Even after they disappeared, I could not get them out of my head. Maybe it was that the smell of his cigarettes lingered in my clothes or maybe it was my shock about the girl. But gone they were. Like things, when people are gone, they’re gone.
I found a pub a few blocks away, put the paperback down on the bar, ordered a pint of Blue Point Toasted. I had hoped the barman would be an old-timer, someone I could shoot the shit with about how the neighborhood was back in the day. But the barman was a woman no older than my Sarah and her
As I was about to leave, she asked, “What you reading?”
“Nothing,” I said, sliding the paperback her way, tucking a five spot in as a bookmark.
“Yeah, well, if you see a guy in the neighborhood in a cheap blue suit, keep that opinion to yourself.”
The walk back to Montague Street seemed much easier without the weight of the book.