A grey sky morning… Best I ever had (at B Flat)… Swimming my way through the night… Barfly makes a party foul… The ultimate New York curiosity: “What do you suppose the rent is at this place?”… The Doctor is a prestidigitator… A sprint to the start…
Friday, February 22
***For the full sensory experience, please put this on, then read on.***
It’s misting this morning, a fine drizzle flying at an angle outside the Doctor’s Walker Street window. In the grey noon light, last night is coming back to the Barfly in pieces as small as this sprinkle. These are watery memories, liquid memories, returning along some cerebral stream. Some of them may have washed into the gutter, lost forever to the sewers of New York. If the Barfly can retrieve the rest, he’ll hang them up to dry in this SoHo loft and put them to paper for you.
Let’s work backwards. We ended the night, the Doctor and S— and I, three abreast on the couch, giddy and glowing in the light of a Bertolucci film. Before that, B Flat, a tiny Tokyo-style jazz joint where the bartenders toiled over our drinks with deadly serious precision.
“The best cocktail I’ve had so far,” says the Doctor, as we reminisce this afternoon on the previous night’s endeavors that included B Flat. We both smile wide smiles, both glow with the warm memory of his “Autumn Leaves,” a spiced blend of dark rum, cinnamon syrup, lime juice and pineapple juice, and my “Enigma,” Hendrick’s gin, Elisir M.P. Roux liqueur, lime, orange, and cucumber puree. And let’s not forget S—, our friend who had rolled into town from Washington that evening and who had sipped a “Lush Life,” with jasmine tea flavored gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, rose water and fresh pear. After all, we wouldn’t have made it to B Flat if S— didn’t suggest it—and what a satisfying suggestion B Flat turned out to be.
Remembering what happened before B Flat is proving more difficult as time passes. It’s like fighting upstream in a rapidly flowing river of booze. Barfly puts his head down and strokes—freestyle, of course, his best stroke from swim team years—pulling furiously and kicking like hell.
I make some headway and remember that before B Flat was the Vault at Pfaff’s, a speakeasy-type establishment where the bar was down a long flight of steps and the cocktail waitresses wore short, short skirts. The Doctor and I had tried to break into the Vault on two prior occasions. The first, locked door. The second, last call. Third time was the charm.
S— and the Doctor and I settled into a cozy corner and picked up the paper, a clever menu on newsprint with a headline that touted the name of the joint. Our conversation careened from old times and past loves to points further afield (and not fit to print). That was when the unthinkable happened. The Barfly spilled a drink.
“Whoa, easy, buddy,” said the Doctor, grinning.
House-spiced rum, cognac, varnelli punch, and sour from the Doctor’s “High Thread Count” trickled off the table and pooled on the dark-grained floor.
“That’s the first of the entire trip,” I lamented with mock gravity, “Our track record has now been tarnished.”
Although clumsy, I still had (most of) my wits about me and quickly found our waitress Christina, who brought a replacement post haste. Life is quite tough when a spilled drink is the biggest of your worries. At least I hadn’t spilled my “Turf,” a really nice riff on a gin martini with Nolet’s gin, Bols Genever, dry vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino, absinthe, and orange bitters, for that would have been a tragedy. And S—’s “An Apple Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” with Laird’s Applejack, Rittenhouse rye, a house-made amaro, dry vermouth, and Luxardo Maraschino, was still intact.
Barfly’s earned a breather, he believes, from all this swimming up the boozy stream of memory. It’s exhausting—while time inexorably and effortlessly flows on, threatening to wash away all these memories, Barfly must struggle and flail to gain an inch of headway. He moves laterally to the shore and rolls over on the water-polished stones, gasping, spluttering, and cursing. Although just immersed in a thirst-quenching creek, his mouth is dry, lactic acid arid.
So, a digression while Barfly catches his breath: the great thing about many of these bars, at least the really serious ones, is the bartenders’ commitment to slaking this thirst. And let’s clarify—not with a cocktail, but with a consistent attentiveness to the water glass. It’s the ultimate drinker’s draught—a palate cleanser, a hangover hinderer—an always refreshing cocktail of two parts Hydrogen to one part Oxygen. But now, dehydration be damned, Barfly must press on.
Before the calamity at the Vault, the Doctor and I greeted S— at the Campbell Apartment, a revitalized vestige of the city’s golden age opulence. S—, fresh off the bus from D.C. and still looking fabulous in charcoal pinstripes, found the Doctor and I in a little nook, our backs to the wall to avoid any nasty surprises—S— is known for such antics. We asked if he’d been here before, and S— said yes, he’d spent a night drinking scotch and trying to convince a group of senior Japanese businessmen to bankroll an excursion to Flashdancers, one of Hell’s Kitchen’s most storied strip joints—where, I will admit to you in the strictest of confidences, the Barfly narrowly escaped a job as a men’s room attendant. Desperate times, folks.
The drinks were classic, but uninspiring. I sipped a Manhattan and then a Highlander, cousins from Kentucky and Scotland. S— and the Doctor tipped back gin martinis and rum and tonics. Here the drinks were secondary. It was the scenery—a palatial Florentine-style salon with here a hand-painted plaster ceiling, there a magnificent mahogany balcony, and everywhere a waitress wearing a black cocktail dress and pearls. S— shared that the space was once inhabited by John Campbell, an American financier. Nice digs, we thought.
Barfly is finally hitting his swimmer’s stride—he’s past the pain now and and stroke after stroke is becoming steady and stretched out. No time to stop now.
Before that happy reunion with S—, I sat sipping Suntory Hakushu 12 year among old and new friends at M—’s 12th floor pad on the Upper West. Hadn’t seen M— since college days—a complete pleasure to eat with him and enjoy his hospitality—M— had fixed up a simple bibimbap—cucumber, coconut rice, chili paste and an over easy egg. The Doctor was performing card tricks at the table; the rest of us were trying to trip him up.
“Oh, I know this one,” M— said. “This isn’t magic, it’s just math.”
“Math is magic,” the Doctor replied.
The English major had to chime in. “Well, at least to me it is,” I said.
“So are you magical?” prodded M—, teasing.
“I’m not magical, I’m mathical,” the Doctor retorted.
The end of this swim is in sight. Barfly digs in and recalls teammates cheers timed to the rhythm of his stroke as swimmers sprinted for the finish. Sprint! Go… go… go!
This narrative ends where the night began, at Anejo Tequileria in Hell’s Kitchen. The tequila counterpart to V’s bourbon obsession, I had to ask my bartender Crystal Lynn for a special tequila flight. Moments later, I had sitting in front of me three rarities: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, El Tesoro de Don Felipe Paradiso, and Tequila Ocho Rancho “El Carrizal.” Both the bar and I were just waking up as the first sip of the first drink of many that day (undoubtedly too many) passed my lips. The five-year-old Reserva had notes of honey and anise, with smoked peat not far behind. Paradiso, also five and finished in cognac barrels, had a silky smooth mouthfeel, with lots of vanilla in the nose and flowers on the tongue. And the single estate Carrizal, three-years-old and aged entirely in older bourbon barrels, had a nose of salted caramel and mint, with a mouth-filling butterscotch and coffee finish. By the time I had leisurely tasted my way through the three exquisite tequilas, the bar had transformed from groggy and empty to a hopping, high-spirited joint. The night was young, full of energy and possibility, and it was time to get started.
Barfly is panting, doubled over, dripping from head to toe. His head is a little light and his arms are burning. Completely spent and exertion endorphins flowing freely, Bluegrass Barfly thinks: Whew. Time for a drink.