Big Eric

by

01/13/2023

Neighborhood: Greenpoint

Big Eric is an alcoholic. I know this because he talks to me about his life when we work together. He’s 40-years old, and he tells me he’s feeling stressed and alone, and that the only time he feels peace is when he drinks. He lives around the corner from the café and sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll let himself in and clean. It clears his head.

We’ve coined him Big Eric, despite the fact that he is not particularly large; he’s quite slim actually and maybe only 5’8”. The ‘store leader’, Theresa, has an eighteen-year-old son who is also named Eric. Little Eric recently started picking up shifts at the café as a busser, though he’s taken on other jobs too, despite repeatedly being told not to touch the espresso machine or register system.

Many of the staff don’t like Little Eric. He often doesn’t do what he’s told and responds to requests with comments like, “Fine, but this is the last thing I’m doing.” This is Little Eric’s first job. A few times, when he’s gotten angry with co-workers, he’s complained to Theresa, and threatened them, saying “I can get rid of you.”

Little Eric wears expensive sneakers and has a snarky attitude. He reminds me of my younger brother. They speak with the same cadence, putting on a much deeper voice than their true pubescent ones. Common greetings for them include “yo” and “sup,” though more often than not, they won’t greet you at all.

Big Eric comes into work every day wearing a suit and expensive looking brown loafers, despite the fact that his bank account is drained by Thursday, before being refilled on Friday, payday. His hair is long enough that it falls on his forehead in an endearing and effortless way. When he greets customers, they melt into his welcoming dog-like brown eyes and find excuses to put their hand on his tan arm. They compliment him on his latte art and are impressed by the thoughtful questions he asks about their lives. Most of the customers that come in know him, and if I’m taking their order they ask, “Where’s Eric?”

Sometimes I catch him doodling on napkins, and the results look like they belong in a gallery. Big Eric studied art at UCLA. I often wonder why he’s here with me in a café with no AC and broken chairs. The place where we work is in Greenpoint, which used to be a working-class neighborhood filled with Polish immigrants. It’s where my great-grandparents might have moved if they had settled on the east coast. On my walk to work from where I get off the bus, I pass a Polish bank and grocery store. The neighborhood though is becoming more and more gentrified. Most of our customers are wealthy young professionals with young children.

“I’m going to take a walk,” Eric tells me. He comes back with smoke sticking onto his clothes and his hair on end. The phone rings.

“This is Eric, how can I help you?”

His eyes narrow and he picks at his perfectly manicured nails like they’ve betrayed him. “Yes, I totally understand. Of course I – I’m so sorry ma’am.“ Big Eric is on the brink of tears. He packed the wrong quiche, the one with the bacon and onions instead of just onions. The woman on the other side of the phone has been crying. She is a vegetarian and ate half the quiche before realizing what it was.

He goes on another smoke break – walk, I mean. This time he’s gone for thirty minutes.

_________________

When Big Eric entered the bar that night, he wasn’t sure he’d stay longer than a half hour. He had hardly made it there in the first place; it is quite the trek to Manhattan after all, he tells me one quiet afternoon at the café. That night he had closed the café which meant he didn’t even leave Greenpoint before 8:30 pm, despite clocking out two hours earlier.

The reason why Big Eric clocks out at 6:30, even though he’s cleaning until at least 8:30, is because he’s afraid the owner of the café will be angry at him for taking too long to close. When I try to explain to him how ridiculous this is, he nods his head slowly and repeats, “I know,” and I see something going on in his head, as if he’s reprimanding himself.

As I watch him speak, his thin lips enunciating every syllable, he is carefully picking croissant flakes up off the counter. He says, “Something actually … quite exciting and lovely happened to me that night.” My first thought when he tells me this is that I’m angry for not having been there. Our head chef Jenny had organized the night get together for the whole staff.

Usually Big Eric drinks at The Bees, the small but hip bar around the corner from the café. Hours go by as beer dribbles down his throat. He talks to the same men night after night.

Big Eric’s skin looks tan, even in the iciest months in the depths of winter. It’s a pigment I’ve never quite seen. Caramel, peanut butter, the sand’s reflection of a fiery sunset. None of these quite seem to capture it.

If I had to describe what I believe his closet looks like, I would guess it likely has the same collared white shirts he wears every day. His clothes are never wrinkled, though I can’t picture him ironing. I imagine he owns a dozen of the same blue blazer and black slacks, though he has only one pair of the brown dress shoes that he wears every day.

“Those shoes can’t be comfortable for you to stand in all day,” I say to him.

“Ah, they’re not bad. I like how they look,” he says. I suggest Chelsea boots to him and the next time we work together, he asks me to feel how soft the suede on his new boots are.

Big Eric describes to me the bar that the café’s staff went to that night as double-decker. He traveled to the second floor alone within the first ten minutes. I imagine he felt uncomfortable around coworkers in this unfamiliar setting. When he tells me what happened on the second floor of the bar, I can’t help from laughing. He was ordering his first drink when he locked eyes with a girl, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. “A perfect ten, in my eyes. She was blonde, petite, and just a smidge shorter than me. Too many girls are too tall or too short. Not her.” Something inside me stirs, a disgust of sorts. I’m 5’10”.

“Then, she attacked me with her lips, like an animal,” he tells me, steaming oat milk for a customer’s decaf oat vanilla cappuccino. I write DOVC on the cup. Big Eric speaks with bubbles in his voice, a sort of carbonated excitement. The customer smirks.

The café is long and narrow, like a bowling alley. The floors are supposed to look rustic, like the floors of a barn, although they really just look dirty despite our efforts to clean throughout the day. Near the barista counter are the stairs that lead to the commissary, where our pastry chef Pierre commands a staff of five. The dishwashers are also on the second floor, next to the industrial ice machine that breaks every two weeks. Whenever it breaks, I have to go down the street in my apron and hat (everyone looks at me) and buy ice from the deli. I put the bags of ice in the same reusable bags that I bring with me every time and waddle back to the café, where I put half the bags behind the counter and the other half in the upstairs freezer. In the upstairs freezer there are usually multiple bags of ice that I’ve forgotten I put there from last time.

Big Eric looks to me for a response to his eventful evening. “That’s great, Eric,” I settle on.

“It is. I felt really special that night. I was floating for like three days. The past few months have been hard,” he says.

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

“Just with loneliness, and all that. I’ve been so isolated. Just work, home, drink alone at the bar, and repeat.” He looks to the dirty floor, shuffling his feet. Big Eric talks about loneliness a lot.

“Well, what about this girl from the bar? Did you get her number? Are you going to see her again?” I ask him.

“I didn’t finish the story…” he says, finally looking back up at me, like a dog that just peed on your carpet. “We were making out for like ten minutes. It was great. But I started thinking that there was an age gap. I figured I should maybe tell her.”

“How young?”

“Maybe … twenty-one.”

“Oh boy, Eric.”

“Well, I did tell her. I pulled away and said, ‘You know, I should tell you I think I’m a lot older than you.’ And she said, ‘How old?’ And I told her.” To fully visualize Big Eric, you can’t picture a 40-year-old; he looks much much younger, maybe about 25. When I first started working at the café, I thought about setting one of my friends up with Big Eric. I didn’t find out he was 40 until a month later.

Apparently, the girl got a “horrified look on her face,” and walked away, never to be seen again. I tell him I’m sorry, but that he shouldn’t be especially surprised by this.

He nods a sad nod. Then comes what I’ve really been waiting to hear about for months – Big Eric’s relationship history. He’s had one serious girlfriend, he tells me. He was thirty-four, and she was twenty-three. They dated for a year. That’s all he will say. He typically injects all his stories with bizarre details, but despite my probing he will only divulge the bare bones of the relationship

A few weeks later, Big Eric comes into the café when I am working, even though it is his day off. He looks different than he usually does – quadrants of his hair are going in different directions; he is wearing jeans and a t-shirt and sunglasses. When he takes the sunglasses off, I can tell he is drunk. Rather than just his under-eye bags looking swollen, like they usually do, his actual eyes seem swollen and red. Beads of sweat are rolling off his forehead down the crevices of his face. I wave to him as he approached the counter. “Dani!” he bellows, causing every customer to turn around and look at him.

My other manager Theresa comes up to us. “What are you doing here, Eric? Dani, go get ice.”

“Is the ice machine working?” I ask. Eric has slumped onto the counter. Customers have returned to their conversations.

“No, go to deli,” she says without looking at me. Theresa says all her sentences like they are one word. “Thank you, mami.” When I first started working at the café, Theresa called Jenny ‘mami’ and called me ‘Dani.’ After a few months, I became ‘mami,’ too. It makes me smile, even when she’s being difficult. I don’t want to go to the deli. I feel like the child of divorced parents being sent away so the grown-ups could talk.

As I start on my way out, reusable bags in hand, Big Eric suddenly straightens and shouts across the café, “Bye Dani! I love you!”

I make my ice trip as quickly as I can, slinging the overflowing bags over my shoulder like a traveler. Big Eric is an enigma that I tell myself I will crack. With each step the strap of the bag digs deeper into my skin, and makes me walk faster.

(all names have been changed for anonymity)

***

Dani Leshgold is a student at Columbia University getting her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She is currently working on a collection of essays centered around the body. Dani was born and raised in Los Angeles, and now resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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