“Do you know–”
“Of any sports bars around here?” I interrupted.
The towering man paused, chapped lips parted in a bewildered grin revealing white teeth caulked with white material. “You looking for one too?”
“No,” I said, “you asked me that last week.”
We stood this December afternoon on 22nd off 6th. Last time, 19th and 5th. He smiled a smile of forced recognition–having probably leaned into the faces of a thousand Manhattan pedestrians–then thumped my chest with the back of his red hand. “Hey man. What are you doin’ around here?”
When I started to tell him I interned at a nearby publishing house, he swung his 6-foot frame so close that it cast me entirely in shadow. Sour exhalations engulfed my unfortunately unstuffed nose, and I changed the topic to keep his boozy eyes from wandering. “So did you ever find one?”
“Sports bar?” he said. “Sure, just came from one.”
Football, baseball, related social events–all my personal Martian terrain. I could recommend more Christian fiction and brands of pickled herring than sports bars, and I’m a herring-hating atheist. But sensing a slight drawl, I suggested Blue Smoke, figuring if it drew a truly down-home barbecue crowd, it might have a sports bar. Or one where well-dressed execs yelled at a TV.
“It’s not that good,” he said, then, with the rehearsed hyperbole of the publicist I worked for, described Duke’s, a Southern comfort food joint down the street.
“Sounds regal,” I said.
With this, he stared. His sapphire gin bottle eyes locked on mine, gaze a west Texas pumpjack probing past my cornea and into my cranium. Pedestrians streamed around us. He never uttered a word. Even the African man selling socks from the corner fold-up table looked concerned.
“So,” I said, taking two steps back from his smothering presence until my shoulders hit the Barnes and Noble wall. “Have you lived here awhile?”
He never answered, just said, “Duke’s passes my Southern taster.” He patted his chest like a vigilant primate, displaying fingers as puffed as pub sausages, tips chapped as his lips. “I checked Blue Smoke out,” he said. “See, we Southerners are nosey like that.”
“Oh yeah, where are you from?” This time he patted himself with his palm, gently, the way you might rouse a sleeping child, then threw back his head as if to tell all of Chelsea: “South Carolina.”
Layers of thin, mismatched clothing covered his chest: a white tee under a tattered gray V-neck sweater under a red and blue plaid flannel under a tan Dickies jacket. All sections framed the base of a startlingly hairy neck.
When I told him my girlfriend was from Alabama and that I loved barbecue, he poked his knotty sweet potato finger into my shoulder and said, “You know what you’d like then? Sylvia’s, at 328 Lenox in Harlem.”
Before I could mention that my girlfriend had suggested it, he belched and said, “I’ve been there lots. Soul food’s good for around here. It’s not as good as it used to be since her son took over and started franchising and publishing books with William Morrow, and not as good as joints in Greenville or Charleston.” I studied him as he lectured. The way his hands waved when he conjured surprisingly evocative descriptions of Sylvia’s dishes, the way he stiffened from a clumsy, forward-leaning tilt into a cocksure column, feet out, back straight, he assumed the worldly swagger of a sophisticated traveler. The encyclopedic pride he took in detailing the restaurant’s history and Sylvia’s heritage and recent health problems, mixed with the strength and depth of his personal opinions, he also resembled the carcass of a failed critic. A fallen Frank Bruni, Calvin Trillin’s miscarried cousin. Many renowned native Carolinians matured in the City, I thought: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Joseph Mitchell. I wondered what this guy’s story was. When he finally took a breath, I asked if Sylvia was from North Carolina too. His lips puckered, eyes locked in a Frankenstinian gaze. “Hey. I take that insultingly.” The words “It’s South Carolina” shot a single glob of spit from his lip to my chin. He ground his teeth. Time froze like ice crystals in dead Everest climbers’ blood. Spit was all I could think about: wiping it off; the chill of wind hitting it; the sort of vectors it contained. Can herpes invade you osmottically? My inner banshee howled. The fanged, green cartoon germs of my imagination cleared the inch gap from chin to lip and dove like frightened penguins into my mouth. Twitching did nothing to dislodge it, either the spit or the worry.
Finally, he looked away, and I wiped it with my sleeve. I don’t want to insult him again.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I sometimes get the two states confused.”
“Ugh,” he groaned. “Come on now. You’re killing me.”
I tried to change the subject by suggesting the only thing I know really well: reading material. “Know what you might enjoy?” I said. “The Oxford American magazine – once called the ‘New Yorker of the South.’ It’s based in Arkansas.”
His eyes dipped slightly behind the lids as he blurted, “Jezebel’s on 630 9th Avenue and 45th is shit!”
I tried to avoid another gustatory tirade with “What’s your name, man?”
“Jesse Lee,” he said, squeezing my hand in a sandpapery grip. So clichéd a name, I thought, so close to the General Lee in Dukes of Hazard, it had to be a lie. “See you around again,” he said, smiling, and stormed off.
I raced to wash up in the Barnes & Noble bathroom. It was closed.
Aaron Gilbreath is an Arizonan who drank lots of coffee while living in New York. His essays and articles have appeared or are slated for Poets & Writers, Men’s Journal, High Country News, Saranac Review and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.