Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Real birthdays are not annual affairs. Real birthdays are the days when we have a new birth."
- Ralph Parlette

This time last year, I was probably on my tenth Ketel One and soda praying that my boobs would stay put in my fun, new party dress and that my fake eyelashes would last the night so I wouldn’t end up looking like some washed up old starlet whose good days were long since behind her.

No, I wasn’t living out a Carrie Bradshaw fantasy - It was my 40th birthday party.

The lead up to 40 was ridiculously stressful. Talk about reflection! Whoa. The last milestone birthday I’d had was 30 and that was a completely different time. I was grateful to be out of the drama and confusion of my twenties and ready to take my life by storm. Turning 40, however, loomed like a long put-off dentist appointment – I could no longer avoid it and hoped that it wouldn’t hurt too much.

My party was incredible; so many people showed up and I spent a large part of the night greeting people with my signature greeting - long arms up and outstretched and my mouth open wide with excitement..

It felt like my wedding and as each time someone arrived, we’d sing in unison, “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”

It was an odd night, however. Though I was thrilled to see so many people I knew and loved, I couldn’t help but cringe every time they gushed, “Happy Birthday!!” The truth was, I loved the party – I just wished we didn’t have to talk about the birthday.

In a few short hours, I’ll be 41. There is no party this year. No party dress. I’ll get back to you on whether there will be any vodka. Somehow, after 40, it seems silly to celebrate anything that follows. I’m not going all maudlin on you here, I’m just saying that 40 is a tough act to follow.

Still, it seems odd not to celebrate something.

This year, I’ve decided to celebrate my life and the people in it. Maybe that’s what aging is all about – getting away from the “me” and focusing on the people around me. It may sound corny, but who cares, it’s my birthday, right? Why focus on what’s bad about it when there’s so much good stuff to be had.

So, here’s to all of you – may we all have an incredible day.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Excerpt from my book, Memory Card Full

Today was to be my last day at Maxie’s, the bar I worked at for the last 3 1/2 years. With new ownership in place and too many changes afoot, I decided it was time to move on. Saying good-bye has been bittersweet as the relationships created and cultivated made my time there very special.

I dedicate this blog post to all of my “regulars” who were the bright spot of each and every shift. Thank you and don’t worry….none of you are “Creepy Guy.” =)

Here is an excerpt from my book, Memory Card Full. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 25
Memory Card Full

The following week, I was working my usual Wednesday night shift which was shaping up to be a pretty decent shift. The restaurant seemed to be getting consistently busier and I’d actually built up a small following of customers who came in on Wednesdays just to see me.

Creepy Guy, one of my regulars, had just arrived. I gave him a nod and placed a beverage napkin on the bar where he sat. Creepy Guy liked to settle in before being served so I hung back while he set himself up; Blackberry on the bar. Ipod and headphones neatly tucked into his bag and always a wipe of the napkin before he put is elbows up on the bar . Once he’d do the wipe, I knew he was ready. I saw this guy three times a week every week and he’d always start out with a draft beer and then move onto a Bombay Sapphire martini with olives in a chilled glass. And even though I knew it, I’d never assume. Not with Creepy Guy. I think the attention made him uncomfortable. Though he didn’t want to be ignored either. I’d dote on Creepy Guy just enough to make him feel good. .

I walked over, giving him a smile and another napkin. “Bass?” .

He nodded with a sheepish grin. I poured his beer, set it down and then left him alone.

He liked to watch, though I’d only been told this by the other bartenders. I wasn’t really one to assume people were looking at me and when you worked at a bar, you were pretty much fair game for looks and stares. But they were all convinced he had a crush on me because he only came in on my shifts. He’d steal glances at me the whole time and the drunker he got, the more loving the glances became. Hence the name, Creepy Guy.

The first time he came to Maxie’s, was on Valentine’s Day. He was pretty non-descript in terms of his looks – brown hair, pale skin, brown eyes- maybe in his early forties. He did his usual Bass draft and then moved onto martinis. It was hard to judge a person’s capacity for alcohol when you didn’t know them. Plus Creepy Guy wasn’t a rambunctious drunk. Nope, Creepy Guy liked to mutter to himself when he’d had too much. That first evening, I realized after his third martini, that I should probably limit him to two. He confirmed this as he rolled his head back a few times and burst out laughing – silently. He really hit it home when he signed the credit card slip at the very bottom way below the signature line.

He was a great tipper, though. Not always a redeeming quality, but it certainly helped. I usually charged him just for his martini’s. And if he ate, his bill is usually around $30. He left me $70 every single time. .

His name was Kevin, though he’d never actually introduced himself. He’d just leave his business card in random places every once in awhile. Sometimes, it was under his plate or in the check presenter. Once, he stuck it in between the row of pint glasses stacked up on the bar.

Tonight, he downed his Bass pretty quickly and gave me the nod to start his martini. As I was pouring Creepy Guy’s martini, Scott called me over to the service bar. Since Chris left, Scott had been covering Wednesday. It was actually been kind of nice working with him. I felt like we had more of an opportunity to get to know each other.

“What’s up?” I said, dumping the metal shaker, full of ice, into the sink closest to the service bar.

“Judy’s going to be joining you on Thursday nights from now on.”

Joining me? What the fuck? They’re adding another bartender again? I took a breath and tried not to show my anger. “So,” I said gingerly. “There’ll be three of us?”

Scott didn’t seem to notice my angst and simply said, “No. Just you two.” He paused for a moment and said casually, “Oh and I’m going try and go with just one bartender on Friday nights for the summer. We’ll see how that goes.”

Things were starting to become clear to me. Thursday and Friday nights were the shifts I worked with Amie.

“What happened to Rachel?” I asked, a lump forming in my throat.

“Rachel’s no longer with us,” Scott said with what seemed to be indifference. Though I guess you kinda had to be detached when you’re a manager.

“What?” I said, my mouth open and eyebrows up. “Why????” I breathed.

Just as Scott was about to answer, Danny, Freddie and Doc arrived.

“Lizzy-Liz!” Doc called out as they sidled up to the bar.

Damn. Now, I had to wait until later to find out about Rachel.

“Hey boys!” I called out, grabbing some beverage napkins and doing my best not to let on that Scott just dropped a small bomb.

“What’s up lady?” Danny said, placing his palms on the bar. “How you doin’?”

“I’m great!” I lied.

“Danny and Freddie are family,” Chris had told me when we first opened and all the regulars from the Steakhouse were coming over to our side to check us out. .

The “family” regular was in a whole other class. Those people didn’t just come in on an almost daily basis, they were part of the backdrop of the restaurant. I had had a few of these in past jobs. They were the ones I might see outside of the restaurant. When I was bartending in Midtown and singing each month, my regulars would come and show their support – always. The line between personal and professional with a family regular got a bit blurred and at times, I felt strange about taking their money.

Danny and Freddie came in a lot when I worked with Noora. I liked them just fine, but I got the sense that they liked Noora better so I didn’t interact with them as much. Now that she was only working during the day, I saw them a lot more. .

Danny was the “cool cat” of the bunch; always dressed in a suit with a perfectly coordinated tie to match his vibrantly colored shirt. When I first met Danny, I thought he was a player, but since he’d been coming in more often, I started to realize he was actually pretty shy. I used to think Freddie was just one of those good-looking guys – with his salt and pepper hair and smooth Latino skin – who didn’t say much, but the past few times he’d been in, I realized he was more reserved and a surprisingly deep guy.

Doc usually came in separately and was more gregarious than the other two. When I first met him, I thought it was a nickname, but when Lara got sick and needed some antibiotics, he took care of it.

Doc’s booming voice betrayed his physique and if my back was turned and I heard him talking, I’d spin around expecting to see a six feet tall, 300 pound dude instead of a 5’7”, bald black man. Doc liked to talk and tonight, I was grateful because in light of the news about Rachel, I could barely concentrate .

Once the guys were settled in with their drinks and happily talking amongst themselves, I scanned the restaurant looking to see if there was anyone who might have information about Rachel. I’d hoped Scott would fill me in later, but he was a man of few words, so perhaps, that was all I was going to get. The confusing part was that if Rachel got fired or even quit, why didn’t she tell me? We weren’t just co-workers – we were friends. Or at least, she was my friend.

I could’ve asked Jimmy, the chef, but I wasn’t the kind of person who got into gossip. When Chris first told me about his decision to leave Maxie’s, he asked me not to say anything. I secretly resented that thinking, “Oh sure, you feel better now ‘cuz you got it off your chest and dumped it onto me. Now I’ve gotta carry it around and suffer in silence?”

In the end, Chris told everyone. I should’ve known he would. Chris could never keep his mouth shut.

I decided to send Rachel a text. We weren’t even supposed to have our cell phones behind the bar, but all the bartenders kept them there anyway. I rarely sent texts from behind the bar because it was too easy to get caught. But reading texts was much easier and it gave me a sense of being connected to the outside world. Tonight, though, I was willing to take a chance and find out just exactly what had happened.

With my back to the main part of the bar, I stood at the register and slid out the mesh wire basket situated between the top of the refrigerator and the bottom of the shelf that held the computer. Pretending like I was looking for something in the basket, I quickly composed a text to Rachel that said, “WTF?”

A couple of hours later, she and said simply, “Long story. Will tell you when I see you.”

Confused and slightly annoyed by all the mystery, I stood there trying to decide whether to leave it alone or push for more information.

“Everything alright over there?” Jimmy called out, leaning his elbows on the service bar. “You look confused.”

I threw my phone back in the wire basket and walked towards him. “Nah….just trying to figure something out,” I said deciding to keep the whole Rachel thing to myself. “You wanna drink?” I asked, folding my arms and leaning against the refrigerators next to him.

Jimmy shook his head. “Naw, I’m good.” He tilted his chin towards Creepy Guy. “Looks like Creepy Guy’s on his third martini tonight.”

“No,” I said, “He’s only allowed to have two.” Jimmy snorted as I turned and saw Creepy Guy laughing and muttering to himself the way he did when he’d had way too much to drink. “Fuck!” I said under my breath.

“Yeah,” Jimmy laughed. “He’s gone.” .

We stood there watching Creepy Guy, who threw his head back so hard, laughing silently, I wondered if he would fall off the bar stool.

“You hear about Rachel?” Jimmy asked.

“Yeah, what the hell?” I said, pushing myself off the refrigerators and turning to face him. I was so relieved that someone else actually knew.

“Yeah, it’s fucked up. All I know is that she walked in, gave Scott her notice and walked out.”

“What?” I said tilting my head. “I don’t get it. That’s so unlike her to just up and quit like that.”

“I know, but that’s all Scott said. Maybe her husband doesn’t want her working here anymore, I don’t know. Alls I know is that she’s gone, man.”

Now, I was really confused. I knew Rachel pretty well and for her to basically just walk out, something major must have happened. I doubted Scott would tell me anything more, so I was going to have to wait until she told me.

Glancing back at Creepy Guy, I sighed, “I gotta cut this guy off.”

It was a challenge to cut anyone off really, but regulars were especially tricky. They thought they were beyond the rules as they’d ask the kitchen to make special stuff sometimes, or assume they could keep drinking even when the bartender had called last call.

There was always the risk that they’d get really pissed off and never come back and in Creepy Guy’s case that would be a shame considering he contributed $120 each week towards my income.

Still, had to go.

“Here ya go, hun,” I said, placing a pint glass of water on the bar and sliding it towards him.

Creepy Guy jerked his head upward and smiled at me. He knew he had enough. I saw it in his eyes. The one thing I liked about him was that he was a quiet drunk and that made it easier to cut him off gently.

He took the glass of water and mumbled, “Thanks.”

“Should I take this?” I asked, reaching for the half-full martini glass.

Creepy Guy nodded like a five-year old who just got caught doing something he shouldn’t.

“How are you guys doing over here?” I asked Doc and company as I put the dirty martini glass in the dishwasher at their end of the bar.

“We’re good, Lizzy-Liz!” Doc sang.

My assumptions about Scott not giving me any more information were right and at the end of the night, it was business as usual – me counting money, him running reports and my grabbing a cab home.

As I rode back to Brooklyn in a cab, my mind ran through all the possibilities that may have contributed to Rachel’s departure. And as I did, it really sunk in that she was gone. I couldn’t believe it. She’d really been my rock at Maxie’s – especially through all the Rufus stuff.

First Chris, now Rachel. It was hard to roll with the winds of change, when your own life was still very much the same. .

I leaned back in the cab and watched Broadway pass before my eyes. Broadway had changed since I first moved to Manhattan in 1990. My first apartment was on 8th Street and Mercer, when Unique Boutique was the place to get cheap, used jeans – now it was a Wendy’s. .

There’d been so much change lately, I felt like the Universe was calling out to me, gesturing with its hand, to join in. And I wanted to. But my feet were heavy and I didn’t have the strength to lift them up and step forward. Maybe this writing class would loosen my feet from the miserable foundation in which I felt so rooted.

Crossing the Manhattan Bridge, I rolled down the window in the back of the cab, and let the wind blow on my face, hoping that somehow, it would sweep me up and transport me into a new and better life.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In the days that followed September 11th, I remember seeing a picture of Osama Bin Laden on the front page of the Daily News with a caption that read, “America’s Most Wanted.” Displaced from my apartment in Battery Park City and still reeling from the shock of watching people jump out of buildings after planes flew into them, I joined the rest of the nation and perhaps the world in hating and blaming that man for taking so much from us.

Almost ten years later, I have moved away from the reminders – literally and figuratively. I now live in Brooklyn far from Ground Zero and each year on the anniversary of that day, I try to do something that will keep me looking forward not back.

For the past two days, the news has been flooded with accounts of Bin Laden’s “final hours” and photos of all the key White House players tensely observing what is said to be live video of the raid in Pakistan.

I thought I would be happy and share in the joy that so many others were feeling as loops of people rejoicing in the streets endlessly played on all the news channels.

But, I am not.

And while I feel satisfied that the United States prevailed in an incredibly important mission, I refuse to rejoice in death as it is the purest form of hatred imaginable to me. And isn’t hatred what got us here in the first place? I want to be the country that stands taller. I want to be the nation that takes the high road and rejoices in the dedication of our government to keep us safe and not in the demise of another.

As Martin Luther King so eloquently put it:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I’m not proposing love for Osama Bin Laden, but I am asking you to focus your energy on what you love and not what you hate. We could all use a little more love in our lives.