I was going through a cycle of uneven haircuts and interesting colors that summer; Franco, my stylist, gave me a discount because I was always underfoot, always fetching him beer, always up for a change in color or fringe. When Allie moved in upstairs from his salon, the three of us spent hours sipping beer and coffee on the metal bench in front of the salon. Franco was flamboyantly gay and Allie was flamboyantly neurotic: always talking, picking her nails, flipping her hoop earrings up over the tops of her ears. We cat-called the trannies that lived upstairs, fixed our lipstick in the smooth glass paneling of the salon’s front window. The glass was imperfect; it caused our reflections to bubble and weave.
“It’s like a fishtank,” Franco once said, laughing. He was almost too stoned to cut hair.
Whenever Franco was busy with a client, Allie and I would linger around the apartment, drinking cheap wine, sprinkling lemon juice on plates of lettuce. We were both unemployed, constantly in limbo between printing the resume and handing it in. The weather was just too hot to move; we kept the lights off for the psychological effect of the shade.
One day Allie and I had a change of heart. “We need to find a way of eating good food without paying for it,” I said. After considering the options – “stealing and whoring,” Allie laughed – we decided that working tables would be our best and only option. We decided to apply for waitressing jobs at Caffe Della Pace, mainly because we were starving and in the mood for one of their omelettes and a mixed-berry tart. I loved the way they topped the fresh berries and cream with powered confectioner’s sugar.
We were antsy and school-girlish at the counter. All the waitresses looked like out-of-season print models and disgruntled Swedes. They glared at our lopped-off angular red hair and one even rolled her eyes. We cringed and slunk outside. Before I even had a chance to start feeling sorry for myself, Allie grabbed my shoulder. “Jobs are stupid,” she declared. She pulled me back through that door and we both ordered berry tarts with the last of our spending money. We stiffed the snotty waitress her tip.
The summer of 1997 was probably the hottest summer I’d ever felt. This was the summer before Wally’s became Niagara, before the cops actually cared if you were drinking in front of Coney Island High, before Coney Island High was closed and abandoned. Granted, the neighborhood had long been gentrified; there were renovations and rising rents everywhere. But there was still something dirty, something unclean about the streets. It smelled funny in the gutters. People still begged for change, hung their laundry on the fire escapes. Allie and I stayed up past dawn, put on our sunglasses, and walked around Tompkins Square Park. The benches were filled with homeless men, red and wrinkled as overripe fruit.
I took to borrowing Allie’s pink sundress. Since she was nearly two inches taller, what would have been an obscenely short micro-mini on her was a perfectly acceptable mini-skirt on me. We stole her roommate’s boxer shorts, pulled them on under our dresses, and brought our beer out on the fire escape. Anton, the superintendent, was always out on the sidewalk, fixing his bikes. He was a full-fledged Harley man with the beard and the beer-gut to prove it. Sometimes, when we were downstairs hanging out with Franco, Anton would let us squeeze his biceps but his beard was off-limits. Allie bought him a 6-pack of Grolsch every Friday and he’d turn a deaf ear to the noise complaints we’d cause on the weekends.
“Nice panties, ladies!” Aton waved. Allie and I cackled.
“You can’t see nuttin, loser!” she screamed.
“Damn straight I can!”
Allie gave me a look, then poured the entire contents of her beer straight down onto Anton’s sunburned head. He spun around like circus on wheels, cursing and laughing.
“I know where you girls live!” he yelled, then looked up, smiling. “There’d better be one of those beers in store for me!”
“Oh, there’s more where that came from!” Allie yelled, sticking her bony arm through the iron rods of the fire escape, tipping her empty bottle of Bud. Anton stormed into the building.
“Oh shit, he’s coming upstairs!” Allie and I jumped to our feet, fumbling through the window. We dashed for the front door, slipping on papers and dirty clothes, but Anton had already let himself in with the master key. I tripped on a chair, drunk out of my mind, and Allie follwed me onto the floor. Anton just watched as we laughed.
“So you girls gonna get me drunk, too?” he said.
Allie handed him a Bud and we followed each other down the narrow, winding staircase and into the daylight. Anton’s bike gleamed in the midday sun. We waved to Franco, who was busy primping a lithe, blonde gentleman behind the glass front of the salon.
“Let’s get a falafel,” I said. Allie and I said goodbye to Anton, who lazily sucked his beer on the metal bench in front of the building. When we left he was in a daze, gazing at his motorcycle.
Allie and I followed our shadows into Tompkins Square Park. A punk band was playing loud music to crowd of teenagers and old men as young mothers maneuvered baby carriages along the cobblestone paths. I watched a couple embrace, their colorful spikes meshing like fronds of tropical plumage. There was a breeze. Somewhere in the air I smelled grenadine, apple whiskey, and coconut lip balm. The trees trembled with excitement. I breathed deeply. This is what summer is, I thought, this is what summer is meant to be.