by Brian Kerstetter
TWO UNFORTUNATE CONVERSATIONS
In his best-selling book “Stumbling on Happiness,” the Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert catalogues the way people misjudge their own satisfactions. People think they’ll be happier with more variety. But the research shows, they get more pleasure from being offered the same thing over and over again. This was a revelation to me, but it confirmed what I’d already suspected: O. and I are the happiest characters I know. At least one night a week.
Each Friday evening, for nearly a decade, O. and I meet to do the same thing over and over again. That is, despite New York City being home to 20,000 bars and restaurants, with 1,000 new ones sprouting every year, we gather more or less at the same bar, at the same time – 8pm, not 8:15 – followed by dinner at the same restaurant. The routine actually gets under way that afternoon, when we phone each other to firm up plans. It’s an absurd ritual, this call, for there is nothing to firm up. After umpteen years, this phone conversation resembles vocal Morse Code, a series of monosyllabic clucks produced by two grunting aborigines: “Hey. All good? Bowery? Yep. Eight? ‘kay. Bye.” But we place the call nonetheless. Not because we fear a last minute change of course, but because it’s the routine. And because, according to Professor Gilbert, our happiness depends on it.
O. and I bumble into the restaurant for dinner – never before 10pm – and wedge ourselves in at the bar. We don’t eat in the dining room, you see, but always docked in front of the taps. To gastronomes, this penchant for the bar stool exhibits all the delicacy of eating with your fingers or drinking boxed wine. But a noodle tastes the same at the bar as it does at a table. To prove this, O. conducted a blind tasting in the spring of 2007 to evaluate the impact of location on the appetence of food. Blind-folded, he shovelled a forkful of Mac and Cheese in his mouth at the bar, cleansed his palate, and did the same in the dining hall, promptly declaring the macaroni to be equally overcooked in both locations. These conclusive results were never well-regarded by connoisseurs – they ridiculed the very premise of conducting a tasting with Mac and Cheese, claiming the dish belonged in a Midwestern family room, not in a restaurant. Nevertheless, O. won’t hesitate to reference this “study” whenever we’re treated as degenerates by the Michelin set.
We eat dinner, elbows propped on the bar, for another reason: we’d sooner eat looking straight ahead than at one another. It’s nothing personal. The evening just doesn’t feel like a date that way. Our friends, women especially, will often refer to our Friday nights with backhanded comments like, “Give my regards to your better half” or “I’d invite you to my birthday party but I know it’s date night.” O. and I don’t care for this terminology, but we don’t let on, so the digs don’t spill over to our male friends. Petty grievances aside, we’re ultimately drawn to the bar for its offhand camaraderie and its surplus of oddballs, striking up impromptu conversations that ignite like bursts of flame and inevitably die out at last call.
Some time ago, our wallets more amply padded than now, O. and I introduced a half-hour massage into the Friday routine, in the lull between Bombay Martinis at Savoy and Shrimp Moilee at our preferred Indian restaurant Tamarind. We became regulars at a basement massage parlor in Chinatown, called Hui Wo Peng, that eventually went out of business, word has it, due to a preponderance of happy endings. During our visits, many years over, we never, not once, perceived any hint of such activity. To this day, O. and I are relieved, and slightly miffed, that we were never at least appraised for that sort of therapy.
Yet, on one occasion, with all the massage tables engaged in the main room, the prettiest of the masseuses escorted me to the VIP room, which turned out to be the broom closet with a collapsible table. The Asian beauty proceeded to handle me like a day-old piece of sushi, with such a deficit of enthusiasm that, afterwards, when O. asked how it went with raised eyebrow, I clumsily prodded his forearm between my knuckles until he yanked it away in disgust. Not a month later, the NYPD bolted their doors for good, and that very cellar became O.’s studio space, where he shot a photograph – a personal favorite of mine – depicting a portly man in boxer shorts, lying on his back, balancing delicate stemware on his forehead, fingers and toes.
These days, we’re welcome patrons of Qi Gong Tui-Na, a den beneath Bleecker Street, where squat Chinese women with lumberjack hands knead us from drunkenness back into sobriety just in time for our weekly dinner of roasted Goffle Road chicken and seared Brussels sprouts at Freemans. The peculiarity of these masseuses, hailing from Shanxi Province near Inner Mongolia, are their extraordinary tensile feet, which they use to great effect, wending their way along our backs while clutching the corroded pre-war pipes that run the length of the ceiling for balance, like a troupe of tightrope walkers in an underground circus.
Last Friday, as is customary, O. and I began the evening with two Plymouth martinis at a hotel bar on the Bowery. Sequestered between one of the last Bowery Mission Shelters and the old music venue CBGB’s, the anterior bar resembles a cross between a hunter’s alpine lodge, replete with taxidermy of antelopes and pre-Civil War oil portraits, and my grandmother’s boudoir in Cincinnati. And I’m not the only one to think so. As we rehashed the week’s events, a leggy brunette guardedly approached O. and said, “Scott?”
O. improved his posture and replied, “Sure, yes, Scott.”
The lady in question, Sammie, turned out to be an escort that favored the hotel lounge for her encounters. It didn’t take long for her to catch on that we were nothing but a couple of random Barneys bogged down at the bar. Scott never showed and Sammie, charitably I thought, informed O. that for $300, plus hotel, her services were now his for the taking. O. didn’t waste any time adopting the overblown gestures of Buster Keaton and shoved his fist into his pocket and flung its contents on the bar – a ten, a five and a laundromat-sized ball of lint. With that, Sammie buttoned her coat and, gesturing in my direction, said to O., “Looks like you’re spending the night with Red.”
By the time our second Plymouth arrived, O. had made it clear by his glazed look and mistimed nodding that he wasn’t hanging on my every word, but on those of the couple behind me. As he eavesdropped, I got a whiff of the apples ripening in the woman’s Green Apple Martini and overheard the likes of “honeymoon this” and “Machu Picchu that.”
“Wasn’t it the most…I don’t know… mystical place ever?” the wife sighed. “So…so … tran-scen-den-tal.” The woman got her money’s worth from that last word, juicing it as only someone who’s freshly expanded her vocabulary can. I could practically feel the humid spirituality of the word dripping down the back of my neck.
O. had been methodically working himself into a lather snooping on the couple’s conversation, such that, no sooner had the individual syllables of the word “tran-scen-den-tal” wafted over my shoulder, O. thrust his paw past my face and tapped the lady on the shoulder.
“’Scuse me, did I hear you say “Tran-syl-van-ia”?
I won’t lie to you. I winced. I felt my buttocks contract on the barstool. My fight-or-flight response kicked in, and I opted to flee. As I pushed off, O. deposited a firm mitt on my shoulder, indicating this wasn’t to be. Thinking back, I can hardly jump all over him for what was to come. After enduring nearly a decade of my unvarying opinions, homogenous complaints, perpetual interrogations, uniform observations, and unending string of perceived injustices, week after week, year after year, I somehow felt he was entitled to a few moments of fresh antagonism.
“Tr-Transylvania?” the woman stammered, placing her hand on her husband’s leg.
“Sorry, my English,” O. said. “You said ‘it’s a mystical place…Tran-syl-van-ia.’”
Catching a whiff of O.’s Swiss German vowels, the woman adjusted her voice setting to “FOREIGNER,” which meant the remainder of the conversation would be conducted syllable-by-syllable, at near screaming decibel levels.
“No, no, I said tran-scen-dent-tal. Not Tran-syl-van-ia.”
The wife’s mouth manufactured these words with such application that her painted lips resembled a red rubber band being stretched around a gnarly summer squash.
“Transcendental? Where’s that?” O. asked.
“No, I didn’t say… Transcendental isn’t a… I said Machu Picchu is tran-scen-den…”
O. nodded his head with comprehension.
“Tran-scen-den-tal…I know… That’s Spanish for…?”
The wife turned to her husband and, more as a question than a statement, said, “Honey, Transylvania isn’t a realplace.”
“Dracula lives there,” O. clarified, taking long sips through his straw, as though he were draining the chocolate syrup from the bottom of a milkshake. “That, I’m sure about.”
The wife shifted on the barstool and, raising her glass to her lips, shaved off a quarter inch from her cocktail.
“We went to Maa-chu Pii-cchu,” she said, working her way around the Dracula comment. “For our honey…”
“They threw us out,” O. said flatly, poking two fingers in his martini and fishing out the lime twist.
The husband didn’t waste any time placing his left hand on his wife’s shoulder, reassuringly running his thumb north and south over her shoulder blade.
“Th-thrown out,” the wife said, one eye on the soggy lime dripping from O.’s fingers. “Thrown out of what?”
“Machu Pee…you know, those ruins up there. They dragged him out…so I left too,” O. said, throwing his chin in my direction.
The woman eyeballed me for the first time and didn’t waste any excess energy in generating her own opinion.
“Tore a hole right in his Incan poncho,” O. added, shaking his head.
“Incan pon…?” The husband tried to catch himself, but it was too late.
“Oh, he was dressed like a big Incan…with tassels, feathers, earrings, bracelets, sandals, and a headdress made of hum-ming-bird feathers.” O. leaned toward the woman and added, “Took four guards to carry him out. See how big he is?”
The woman’s eyes darted down at my legs, as she wondered aloud.
“Hummingbirds … aren’t they protected?”
“Bet you think they got him for dressin’ like an Incan,” O. suggested. “Nope. For chasin’ llaaa-mas.”
O. beefed up the first syllable of llamas, unsure whether the woman, like himself, actually knew what a llama was.
“Chasing what?” the wife asked, confirming O.’s suspicion.
“Llaaa-mas,” O. repeated. “He chased ‘em over a wall, through the ruins and into the BBC…you know, from England… they were filming…”
Out of nowhere, the wife threw her hand in the air, as though hailing a cab in a rainstorm, and scribbled in the air for the bill. Sensing the fish wriggling free, O. jerked the line one final time to reset the hook.
“Planet Green, you know it? It’s this BBC show about how terrible tourists are for the ruu-ins and all.”
The woman quickly signed the check, prompting O. to cut the line.
“Anyway, he chased those goddamn llaaa-mas over a wall … into the temple where they sacrificed virgins and…”
O. wasn’t permitted to punctuate this last sentence. No sooner had the woman visualized llamas tumbling over walls than she activated the swivel mechanism on her barstool, leaving O. with the hairdresser’s view of her blow-dried coiffure. The husband, eyes closed, was now vigorously massaging his wife’s neck and shoulders. I suddenly envisioned him throwing her to the floor and, like the Chinese women beneath Bleecker Street, strolling up and down her back to iron out the knots.
O., on the other hand, exhibited the serenity of a laborer after an honest day’s work. He tossed back the balance of his martini, including the slice of lime and, after a bit of maneuvering with his tongue, produced a mossy green smile with the lime covering his teeth. Then, in what he must have fancied an upper crust BBC accent, he poked me in the chest and said, “Ain’t that right? That’s what happened with them llaa-mas, or…?”