Born Under A Bad Neon Sign

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12/28/2012

Neighborhood: Hell's Kitchen

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The doors opened out onto the corner of 42nd street and 8th avenue and I was thrust out onto the neon lit streets buzzing with people. Like many before me, The Port Authority birthed my first New York experience. Unlike many, I’d never dreamt of coming to Manhattan. I’d never really dreamt of anything besides playing point guard for the Celtics and growing a beard. And even now, with a girlfriend who lived here, it had taken a change of seasons and her asshole boss denying her the right to go home for Thanksgiving to bring me here.

“Who leaves Cape Cod in the summer?” I had said to Corinne. “Especially for a place like New York.” But now, after five hours on a bus, here I was. Blown into town by a harsh winter’s guilt.

With a big duffle bag slung over my shoulder, there was no easy way to merge into the never-ending stream of bodies. Each time I tried someone shoved, angrily passed, cursing my clumsiness, or my mother. It was like angry, multicultural Plinko. I took a deep breath and stepped forward, allowing the crowd to propel me forward.

Corinne lived between 8th and 9th Avenues, in Hell’s Kitchen. Sandwiched in between two parking lots, the apartment was on the third floor of a walk-up building. According to Corinne the apartment was a decent size, plenty of room to make Thanksgiving dinner, though she qualified it with “by New York standards”.

I stood outside, staring up at a window I thought was hers. But really, it could have belonged to anyone. “Hey there.” Corinne had finally answered on the third try.

“Hey baby. Soooo sorry. Stuck at work. But I’ll be there as soon as I can.” She sounded out of breath. “Should go grab a drink at The Rogue.”

“Ok.” I looked down the block as she gave quick directions. “Call me when you get out.”

The Rogue was a large, Irish-themed sports bar located on west 44th just east of 9th avenue. It was Corinne’s local, she explained, and the staff was friendly. After five hours on a bus the sales pitch was unnecessary. I ducked off the cold windy street, pulling my hood back from my head as I entered.

I took a seat at the end of the bar and looked around. Even though it was just a bar, everything fascinated me. Including the bartender.

She was about five foot four with shoulder-length brown hair tucked under a Mets hat and a black tank top clinging to her pale skin.

“Something to drink?” She spoke with a slight trace of an Irish accent, like it had been polluted with too many years in New York and now sounded like an American person faking a brogue.

“Bottle of Bud and a Jameson please.” I watched her bounce back down the bar. She had an amazing ass. She returned a few seconds later and placed an ice-cold bottle of beer on a black Guinness coaster. I grabbed it immediately and had nearly finished by the time she poured half a glass of whiskey. She bent over and retrieved another.

“I like your hat,” she said, “Are you from Boston?"

I tugged at my faded Red Sox hat.

“Yea. Well, Cape Cod actually. I’m in town for Thanksgiving. My friend lives on this block.” The subconscious omission of the word girl from Corinne’s title wasn’t necessarily a lie. We were after all, friends as well.

“That’s nice. Is it your first time here?” I shook my head no and downed the last of the whiskey. No one likes a virgin, I thought. Better to lie. She held up the bottle of Jameson and after I nodded, refilled my glass. We were already communicating without words.

“I’m Sinead, what’s your name?”

“Corey. Nice to meet you.” I extended my hand across the bar. Her skin was soft and smooth. It made my face burn. As she made her way down the bar to serve other customers, I went out into the cold to smoke a cigarette.

I leaned up against the side door to the bar and lit a Camel Light. The Italian restaurant next door was overflowing with people and their hungry breath fogged the windows. As I reminded myself not to make eye contact with strangers, something Corinne had explained, that was viewed as a sign of weakness, two men joined me. The first, a short Chinese man shuffling back and forth from one foot to the other, asked if he could borrow my lighter.

I handed it over without looking up.

“Thanks. I’m Harold, this is Jason.” I shook both men’s hand, unsure what I had done to rouse the interest of the welcoming committee. “You new to the neighborhood?”»

“Nope. Just in town visiting my girlfriend.” I tried to sound unfriendly, tough even. “She lives on this block. You guys work here or something?”

“No. We’re just regulars. Here four or five times a week.” This was the first time Jason had spoken up. He looked to be about thirty-five years old. There were signs of impending baldness as his hair was beginning to thin and retreat from his face. He wore a red, white, and black flannel shirt that seemed to betray his lack of a real career. It was five in the afternoon and he looked like he was heading to a Pearl Jam concert. “I work for Clear Channel.” He said, filling in the blank for me.

It made sense. He had a shifty, worm-like demeanor, moving around without ever taking any steps then all of a sudden ending up right next to you. “Nice to meet you.” I looked down at his hand and reluctantly accepted it. It felt slimy but I didn’t want to offend the herd.

Thankfully my cigarette had burned down to the filter. I held it up as providing my excuse for going back inside.

“Nice to meet you guys. I guess I’ll see you inside.” I hoped they wouldn’t view politeness as an invitation to join me at the end of the bar. Corinne would be there within the hour, and I wanted to spend that time talking to Sinead.

My beer remained half full but the rocks glass of whiskey had somehow doubled in size. I looked over at Sinead, who was pouring a pint of Guinness. She smiled before turning her attention back to the taps. I drank with a greater sense of urgency. The bar began to get busier, filling up with the suit and tie crowd, and I cursed them for taking up her time.

Four beers and three shots later I noticed my phone blinking on the bar. Corinne was walking out of work and asked where I was. “At The Rogue.”

I tossed the phone back on the bar without even saying goodbye. John, a tall Irishman with a faux-hawk and lumbering stride had climbed underneath the bar. He stood next to Sinead at the register as she explained the checks. They both looked over at me and then back at the computer.

A moment later, Sinead came over to say goodbye. A good bartender always makes sure you know they are leaving. A good customer knows why. I dropped a couple of twenties on the bar.

“Thanks. It was nice to meet you.” She smiled at me, her blue eyes sparkling under the brim of her hat. No sooner had she walked away with my check then I felt a shove to the back of my left shoulder.

“Told you I don’t like being hung up on.” Corinne stood behind my stool and was putting her coat on the back of the free seat to my right. I stood up and tried to appear sober. She gave me a look that adequately conveyed her displeasure before leaning in and kissing me softly on the neck. We kissed passionately for a few seconds like two people do when they haven’t seen each other in a few months and one of them is full of whiskey. I noticed Sinead had looked over her shoulder as she was cashing out. I convinced myself she looked disappointed.

“You been here long?” Corinne asked.

“Not long maybe an hour or so. Was going to walk over and meet you at work to surprise you. Didn’t know you would be out so early.” The look in her light brown eyes assured me she had bought it. I had learned that intending to be a good boyfriend got you almost as many points as undertaking all the arduous effort involved in actually being a good boyfriend. John came over quickly, a flirtatious smile spreading across his face.

“Alright my dear?” He muttered.

“I’ll take a Stella please, John.” As he hurried off to pour her beer, I caught her glancing at my cigarettes. At times I found it charming, how she asked without asking. Not this time though, as I was still bitter my imaginary courtship had been interrupted.

“You wanna go have a cigarette?” I said sarcastically. She snatched the pack off the bar and we headed outside. As we opened the door I leaned into her. “Watch this. I think I‘ve developed a fan club.”

Right on cue Harold and Jason came shuffling outside.

Corinne snorted as she pressed herself against me, burying her laughter in my chest. New York didn’t seem so bad, at least from where I was standing. And as we walked back into the crowded bar, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time The Port Authority squeezed me out of her urine-covered womb.

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