Strange symbols… Easy eyes and hot spice at Little Branch… Using Michigan’s insider’s secret… Turning Japanese with Taka and Yuichi… Vectors lead to and from V… Gathering outside a gay bar… Vonnegut gets the last laugh at Employees Only
Monday, February 25
Barfly is trying to read the signs. There are hieroglyphics on the wall across the street, glowing gold light on concrete. A happy accident put them there—a glass-walled building, a mirrored reflection, an ephemeral moment of meaning. The signs were perceptible the previous night, too—a chance meeting, a few (too many) bartender’s handshakes, the stars aligning to spell out—what? That much remains to be seen.
It all started with a straw. Four inches long, aluminum, a quarter-sized disc soldered to one end as a stirrer. I’d seen one of these before—at Milk & Honey. But this was Little Branch, far from the Flatiron, a basement speakeasy hidden in a tagged-up beige brick corner building, innocuous and ugly—and the straw was in a rum swizzle to my right. I was sipping a “Torch Light” from Nevada, my bartender, who responded to my request for something spicy—“Chili pepper spicy, not pumpkin pie spicy,” I clarified—by mixing light rum, lime, honey, Cholula hot sauce, and a cayenne sprinkle into this tasty tipple.
I was talking with three girls from outside Detroit—only with Michiganders does pointing to your right hand give you immediate street cred across the world—Chelsea, Kate, and Casey, and the latter of this (almost) alliterative trio was commenting on the jazz trio playing in the space beneath the stairs (how’d they fit the double bass under there?).
It’s a good thing Casey mentioned the music—I was so fixated on my bartender’s beautiful eyes as she deftly wielded a bar spoon, the cleavage of her ice perfect and precise, that I hadn’t heard the soft swish of the drummer’s brush on the snare. Suddenly my attention snapped to the tunes of the trio.
Good thing, too, for later that night—and I’m not sure how she knew—I would be too late to hear B Flat’s own jazz ensemble playing in the basement (like Little Branch, coincidentally) of this Japanese joint, a favorite of mine.
This Monday night was full of Tralfamadorian time—a Vonnegutian vision of the perception of time not as passing, linear-like, but as a paradigm where all moments exist concurrently. So as I was flirting with the girls from the Great Lakes State, I was also learning Japanese from Yuichi and Taka at B Flat.
“Arigato, arigato,” I was saying to these two, thanking them for being open and obliging even as my sorry ass was the only customer in the place. I had already taken “Giant Steps” thanks to T. and Y. an incomparable infusion of wasabi in vodka with Sawanotsuru Zuicho junmai daiginjo sake—simple, with only a slight cucumber garnish. The wasabi packed a wallop, but was moderated by the magnificent sake, a delicate flower in the midst of this wildly overgrown green field.
“Do you like it?” Taka asked.
“Hai, hai, very much,” I said.
Somewhere outside of Tokyo, a toji was toiling away in his brewery, the master brewer burnishing the already-tiny grains of shuzo kotekimai, sake rice, into something half their size.
And in an eclectic little wine bar called V (of all the names of all the java joints in all the world…), I was being told a bad Asian joke by the self-styled Mayor of Sullivan Street, Tracey (something about Japanese yen and “fluctuations,” don’t ask). She snuck outside on her walker for a cigarette when I heard my name called from across the coffee house. It was Ittai, a fraternity brother from college. I brought over my Zin (St. Amant Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, ripe and chewy with big berries) and my shot (of espresso, thank you very much) and was promptly propositioned.
“You’re looking an awful lot like a politician,” Ittai said, but coming from him, that was a compliment. I was wearing a sport coat and trousers, but no tie. “Aren’t you going to run for office in the South?”
I said I hadn’t thought of it past mulling over a mayoral run in 2014 (for the town of Danville, not the street of Sullivan; Tracey held a lifetime term). He was convinced a wave of anti-abortion Democrats would sweep the South in the near future and was ready to sign on as my campaign manager.
“That’s fine,” I said. “But one problem. I’m not a Democrat.”
He looked aghast, as if everything I had ever told him had been a terrible lie. I let his disbelief blossom for a beat.
“I’m kidding,” I said. He blushed.
I should have been doing the same when I walked into Henrietta Hudson that night. Wanting to compliment the staff on their placement of a superlative space heater on the sidewalk outside (my hands were quite cold, and as Grandma Alice says, ‘cold hands, warm heart’), I was oblivious to the importance of the bar’s logo, an inverted black triangle.
It wasn’t the first thing out of Kara’s mouth, but it wasn’t far off. “You know this is a lesbian bar, right?”
“Oh, it is?” It’s not that I’m unconcerned with people’s identities in this most international, inclusive of cities—it’s just that their orientations, opinions, and occupations are secondary to my manifest desire to meet and mingle with all of them. There’s only eight million, after all, in Manhattan.
Kara was getting a call from a neighbor—he was coming around the corner with Taco and Tequila, his Bull Terriers. We went outside to snag a couple of treats for the two pups. Across the street strolled a Yellow Lab, leashless and leisurely. Her name was Glory. I thought back on my family’s own Buster, who, approaching his fourteenth year, now wandered through the house at will, breaking his training, and furtively peed once in the corner (by the Persian rug). Not too different from my own experience behind the big backhoe in Brooklyn. Again, a sign that we’re all in this together—the Tralfamadorians would be thrilled.
Taco and Tequila were hungry—they probably always were—begging for another treat from the towering Kara. I was a bit peckish, now that I thought about it.
And suddenly I was sitting with a towering salad filling my field of view—arugula, shaved Brussels sprouts, Parmesan, and hazelnuts—at Employees Only. Swinging Sam Cooke was singing in the background, and Uros was making me a “Lazy Lover”: cachaça, jalapeño-infused Green Chartreuse, Benedictine, lime juice, and agave. Uros, although from Belgrade, had played basketball at, of all places, Western Kentucky.
“Do you happen to know Kevin Smiley, my buddy from high school? He was student body president at Western a few years ago,” I said. Uros did
Not long after, Kimberle, the manager at EO dressed all in black lace with a feather in her flapper headband, was pushing a “Provençal” my way. “This was one of the first drinks we created here,” she said. “You’ve got to try it. Tell me what’s in it,” she dared, an eyebrow cocked. I guessed gin—and after a second sip, Cointreau.
“Not bad,” she said, and filled out the recipe—Lavender-infused Plymouth Gin, Herbs de Provence-infused dry vermouth, and Cointreau. We shared the cocktail in the middle of a crowded bar and shared our dreams for the future. “I so want to be a writer,” she said, “for Garden & Gun.” I told her about this little chronicle of my time in the city and the endless cocktails I’d consumed.
“So you’re already a writer,” she said. I thought for a moment, and realized she was on to something. If we took it according to the Tralfamadorians, and their atypical attitude towards time, she was absolutely accurate.