I'd been back behind the bar of the Midtown Sheraton for about two weeks, after a six-month hiatus--the hiatus because my foot-dragging bartenders' union took that long to get my job back after the corporation fired me. The company and union both hoping, no doubt, I'd starve to death in the interval.
I was settling into, I thought, one of those quiet periods in life that folks with any sense clamor for after we've been exposed to too much excitement for too long. This particular afternoon, I was pondering the offerings in the Daily Racing Form's past performance charts for Belmont, hoping to get one more bet down for the afternoon race card, blissfully unaware that unresolved mysteries and ghosts of barrooms past were waiting just beyond the next race.
It was the lull between lunch and the cocktail hour on a Friday, and Alphonse, the manager, was huffily stomping through the lounge to let me know he didn't like that I was reading the paper. This was nothing new. He'd been hovering around me like a mosquito since I'd been back on the job, waiting for me to make a mistake so he could fire me again. At the moment, he was skulking around back by the service bar. But I didn't pay much attention, since I'd already done most of the prep and restocked the coolers for the night shift.
I worked mostly nights myself, despite the wear and tear on my psyche, because the money was better. And also because--even as I advanced into my forties--I was still afflicted with the delusion that Icould make it as an actor. Working nights meant I could catch a morning audition now and again. Not content to be insulted by pompous hotel managers day in and day out, I went out of my way to be demeaned by supercilious stage managers every couple of weeks. I worked the Friday day shift so I could spend an evening with my son. On the rare occasions I actually landed a part, I switched with the day bartenders, who were happy to pick up the extra bucks on the night shift.
"McNulty," said Alphonse, rubbing the surface of the service bar with his manicured fingers. "This bar is sticky."
"Wipe it off," I suggested.
"Are you refusing a direct order?" He snapped to attention, pulling himself up straight to his full five feet six inches, presumably extending the military metaphor.
"You didn't give an order, Alphonse." I pointed out. The company wanted him to build an ironclad case against me so the union couldn't get my job back this time when he fired me. Alphonse was trying, but he wasn't much of a strategist. "Besides," I said, "you can't fire me for not wiping the bar. It has to be something serious."
Alphonse glared at me a few seconds, wiped his fingers on a bar towel, flipped it disdainfully onto the bar, then strode briskly out of the room, as if he had something important to do.
The two customers nursing scotches at the bar snickered as he left, enjoying what they mistook for good-natured bantering. I didn't get paid enough to be good-natured. And while Alphonse was a pretty good showman, good fellowship on his part was as phony as his European accent.
I didn't take much pleasure in provoking Alphonse. His nerves were shot anyway. He worked sixteen hours a day, made less money than I did, and worried himself sick over what his superiors thought of him. On this afternoon, he was rattled because a new regional manager was coming in. Maybe he planned to impress the higher-up by firing me on the spot. Alphonse didn't have real animosity toward me, just ambition.
In the corporate world of food and beverages, one rises quickly and falls even faster. Alphonse, still on the ascent, had passed a number ofgraying and boozy hotel managers on the way down. I'd seen more of them than he had, but I wasn't ambitious; I'd never wanted to rise any further than the front bar on the good nights.
A few minutes later, Alphonse returned to the lounge, trotting alongside a man who stood head and shoulders taller than him, Alphonse's fawning and obsequious manner suggesting the regional manager had arrived. The manager ignored him, striding swiftly and determinedly toward the bar, reading one of the balance sheets Alphonse had given him. Not looking at me, he ordered a Campari and soda.
I said, "Let's see your money first."
The man turned and lunged toward the bar in the same motion, his outraged expression on full throttle. But the corners of his eyes quickly wrinkled into a smile and those deep dimples formed in his cheeks. Big John had always admired audacity.
He looked directly at me for just a second. "Jesus Christ," he bellowed. "Brian McNulty. Hey, bro! How are you?" We shook hands and laughed heartily. I went back a long way with John Wolinski. A dozen or so years before, we'd been young and foolish together, working the stick at the Dockside Lounge in Atlantic City.
Alphonse's jaw dropped to the bar. When he recovered, he couldn't make up his mind whether to join in the laughter or stand aside looking stern. He did a little of both and took on the aspect of the village idiot. I poured John's Campari and soda and asked if he'd like a check.
"Put it on my check," Alphonse said nobly.
"I don't want it on your check, Alphonse," John said.
"It isn't going on my check," I said.
"Swing it, bro," said Big John. We both laughed again. Alphonse's Adam's apple bobbed like he was swallowing goldfish.
John and I made plans to have a drink when I finished my shift. In the meanwhile, he sat down at the corner of the bar to go over the inventory sheets with the trembling Alphonse, and I finished the prep for the night shift and mixed a few drinks for the few early cocktail hour tipplers. At about 5:30, the bar phone rang.
"John Wolinski," a man stammered. The voice sounded familiar, yet so far in the past, I couldn't catch up with it.
"Mr. Wolinski is the regional manager and is expected there," the voice said when I didn't answer right away.
Then it connected to its proper circuit in my memory. "Greg," I said. "Is that you?"
"Who is this?" His tone was formal and cautious.
"It's me, Brian. Brian McNulty." I hadn't seen or spoken to Greg Phillips since he and John and I quit working together a decade before. "What the hell is going on? Is this old home week? John's right here."
"Brian." Greg's tone softened into a semblance of the warm, friendly voice I'd known years before. "I wish I'd known you were in the city, man." He sounded wistful. "Man, I wish I'd known you were here before all this came down."
"What came down?"
"You don't wanna know."
He was right. I'd always been better off not knowing what John and Greg were up to. "I'll get John."
"Yeh, get Big John. He'll know what to do. He always does." Greg's mocking tone was not something I was used to when he talked about John in the past--not something Big John would be used to, either.
John listened gravely to Greg, then said a couple of things I couldn't make out. He spoke softly and seemed to be reassuring Greg. John was good at that: He was the guy you looked to when things went bad. Greg's cynicism aside, John always did come up with something. The only thing I heard him say clearly was, "It ain't like that, bro." When John hung up, he looked troubled.
I cashed out, with the bar clean and stocked and the first wave of cocktail hour patrons tended to--everything set up for Nick, the night guy coming on behind me. For, however little I cared what Alphonse thought of me, I cared what the other bartenders thought. I left the bar the way I used to leave it for Big John at the Dockside before he had me moved to the night shift to be his partner.
After John finished up his business with Alphonse, we went for adrink at the 55 down in the Village. The 55 is off Sheridan Square, a couple of doors from the Lion's Head. I don't know if it ever had a name, but in the years I'd been going there, it was known only by the numbers of its street address: 55 Christopher Street.
John and I were on our second drinks, laughing and telling tales of the old days, when I spied Greg in the doorway, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, giving the joint the once-over. He didn't take a step farther in than he had to until he was sure. It wasn't hard to get one's bearings in the 55: You came down a couple of steps into the joint; a long bar stretched from the front of the place to the back wall; there were bar stools and, a few feet behind the bar stools, a wall. Dull dark wood and dim lights--people came there to drink, not for the ambience.
Greg wore a lightweight black leather coat. With his granny glasses, his blow-dried blond hair, slightly long in the back to compensate for its receding in the front, he looked like an accountant on his night off. Because of his slight frame, his nervousness, his glasses, and his neatness, he was not someone who stood out in a crowd.
He also hadn't gained a pound in fifteen years. His movements were still quick and jittery, too, so that he probably burned up a day's worth of calories just standing in the doorway, casing the joint. Greg never seemed quite real. He looked like a caricature of the eighties now, just as he had seemed a caricature of the sixties when he used to dress in leisure suits, like a record company executive. He'd dressed stylishly and impeccably, but without any character. He wore clothes like a mannequin might. Nothing about how he looked gave you an entry into what he might be like as a person.
After he'd sized up the place and spied us at the bar, he came over to stand next to John, so that John would be between us. We shook hands all around, and Greg, throwing a fifty on the bar, ordered a round of drinks. It was a kind of a ritual--the way a top-notch bartender entered another man's bar. Still, Greg's arrival put a damper on things. He cuffed me on the shoulder a couple of times and looked me in the eye. But the heartiness was hollow. John didn't even try. He waited, somber and expectant, watching Greg, keeping his peace.
Greg seemed to be running in place while he stood at the bar with his drink. But he'd always been like that; his speed and finesse as a bartender grew out of his nervous energy. He asked how I was and where I'd been, but I could see him drift off into his own thoughts before I had a chance to answer. So I didn't say much, and no one minded. The expression in Greg's blue eyes, magnified by his glasses, gave away nothing. When he finished his drink, he said he had to get to work. John walked out with him. No one invited me, so I stayed put.
Just before he left, Greg wrote a phone number on a bar napkin and told me to call him sometime. He looked at me steadily as he handed me the napkin, so I got the feeling he meant for me to call sooner rather than later. I tried to read him, to get some sense of what was going on. But right then, you wouldn't have known from looking at Greg if he was glad to see me or hated my guts. Still, we'd been friends once. You didn't have to wonder whether Greg would watch your back. So if he wanted me to call, I'd call.
John waited impatiently, a sour expression on his face, until Greg followed him out the door. I sipped my drink and waited, minding my p's and q's. That's how it was in the old days, too. John and Greg always had more business going on than I did.
John was angry when he came back a few minutes later. His mouth was set tight, his eyes were hard, and he didn't speak. He had another drink, which seemed to do a pretty good job of putting the problem with Greg out of his mind. By the time he drove me uptown in his Eldorado, he was laughing and joking again. He got a real charge when I told him I'd never known anyone who owned a Cadillac before. We ate German sausage and drank St. Pauli Girls together at a small restaurant called Wine and Apples on Fifty-seventh Street, and he was himself again. Seemingly, I was, too.
"You haven't changed," said Big John after dinner. His tone implied that I should have. "I thought you'd be in Hollywood by now." He caught himself. "Not Hollywood. Broadway."
"Right," I said, "not Hollywood. Broadway. I'm an out-of-work actor with a higher calling."
He looked at me, the white foam of the St. Pauli Girl clinging tohis bushy mustache, letting me know he knew about dashed dreams himself. I'd always liked his eyes, dark, lively, alert, kind, and tough, all this through his glasses. His hair was thinner on top than it had been, and he'd put on a few pounds around the middle, but not as much as I had. "I knew you were working at the Sheraton," he confessed, then laughed. "I'm supposed to fire you."
John looked embarrassed. When he laughed, the dimples in his cheeks flared, making him look boyish. I should have worried about getting fired, but I knew Big John. Like Alphonse, he was ambitious. But he was smarter and tougher than Alphonse.
"You remember what you said when I went out front from behind the bar?"
"You wanna be the boss, you gotta fuck over your friends."
"My father told me that."
"Still a goddamn Commie."
"Me or him?"
"Both of you."
I wasn't guarded with John. In those long-ago days, following in the footsteps of my father--who actually was a Communist--I'd joined with the generation of student radicals bent on overthrowing the system. Big John, on the other hand, took the system on--head-to-head--for reasons that were not political but personal, that I never did understand. The corporations screwed the customers, and they screwed the workers; Big John understood this. But they were dumb, too, said Big John, so he planned to con his way to the top--beat them at their own game.
So far, it looked like his game plan was working, while as for mine: The enthusiasms of the sixties had produced Ronald Reagan. Now, as a hotel union steward, I had my work cut out trying to instill the toiling chamber maids, dishwashers, and bellmen with revolutionary fervor.
John must have read my mind. "You and the fuckin' union," he said belligerently, leaning across the table. "You stepped on a long-term arrangement, you know."
"They were coming down to break your head."
"I told them I'd take care of you."
United Bartenders of America, Local 1101, didn't handle criticism well. The leadership was of the knee-break school of trade unionism, and for them I was a wise guy. Local 1101 hadn't let the membership ratify a contract since I'd belonged to it. So a group of us from the rank and file was pressuring them to do so, engaging in anti-American practices like holding shop meetings, publishing a newsletter, and running for office. I suppose my attempt to get elected to the local's executive committee and then filing a Landrum-Griffin charge when they stole the ballots violated the leadership's sense of propriety.
"How will you do that?" I asked John. "Are you going to fire me?"
Big John's eyes twinkled behind his glasses and the dimples returned to his cheeks. "I got a plan."
Watching Big John slip out from between his rock and his hard place, I remembered when he'd helped me organize the union at the Dockside, after it was taken over by a hotel corporation. We struck for two days. He was about to be promoted to his first management job, and the corporation managers threatened him, but he walked out anyway. I don't know how he explained things to the corporate bosses. But two weeks after we settled the contract, he got his promotion.
Charming, gregarious John could talk anyone into anything--even at times like this, when he was worried. "You're not even my biggest problem," he said significantly. His eyelids drooped over his eyes as they did when he got sentimental, especially when he might have to fuck over one of his friends. "Greg is."
Greg was neither ambitious nor charming, and John had been getting him out of scrapes since I'd first met them.
"What's the matter with Greg this time?"
"The company said he had to go." John looked to me for help. "He's on the sauce all the time."
Greg had always drunk too much. Forever, though, he was okay with me. When I'd shown up years ago, longhaired and shaggy, as a service bartender at the Dockside, it was Greg, not John, who took meunder his wing and then hooked me up with John. I'd worked a couple of beer joints and thought I was a bartender; they learned me otherwise. The first thing they impressed on me was that they ran the bar--not the manager, who thought he did. The manager, Aaron Adams, was another story. Seeing John and Greg now reminded me I'd been young once and was less so now, with not much to show for the intervening years. John paid for our dinner on his gold American Express card. A couple of months before, I'd had to cut my green one in half and send it back.
After dinner, we moved a couple of blocks to the Carnegie Tavern, where, sipping scotch and waters, we listened to Ellis Larkin play the piano. Big John made friends immediately with the bartender, introducing himself and me, shaking hands, making clear he was a big spender and an even bigger tipper, both of which were true. He dropped a fin in the cup on the piano, so Ellis Larkin stopped over at the bar to say hello at the end of his set. I sat in Big John's shadow, as I'd done so often in the past while he charmed the gathering at whatever bar or hotel we happened into. Big John was still an event, even at the sedate Carnegie Tavern.
"Listen," he said when Ellis Larkin went back to his piano, "I got a plan to take care of you and Greg both. I got to get him out of that club for a while."
"Maybe we can collect unemployment together after you fire us."
"My big chance to fuck over my friends," John announced to the empty tables between us and Ellis Larkin's piano. John had this way of talking in asides, as if an invisible someone out there would understand him. A wry look, a thrown-off line, most of the time the joke on him, he wanted the world to know he was wise to himself.
"This is what we'll do," Big John said. "You're going to take over his job as bar manager at the Ocean Club. It takes you out of the union for the time being, and I'll take Greg out of the club for a while to work for me."
I came abruptly to my senses. "Not me. I don't want to be a boss."
"That's why it works," John said eagerly. "You can hold down the job for Greg. Other people, they'd want to keep the job. You don'tmind it's temporary." He paused, checking on how his pitch was doing, judging if he needed to ratchet up the presentation or might be able to coast home.
"They wouldn't make me bar manager."
"It ain't up to them. I hire the bar managers."
"They wouldn't let you hire me."
That glimmer was back in his eye. "They already have. I told them everyone's for sale--even you."
Despite the vision I conjured up of Brian McNulty, bar manager, cavalierly whipping past the tuxedos clamoring at the bar to graciously step behind to give the overwhelmed barman a hand, I saw the pitfalls to this plan. I banged my fist on the bar. "No union, man. They can fire me whenever they want."
John didn't bat an eye. "You'd be working for me."
"They could fire you, too."
This stopped Big John for a moment. But he bounced right back. "I can get you a job if they fire you. You'll be an experienced bar manager."
"I couldn't handle the responsibility."
Big John looked at his drink. He then took a pad and a gold fountain pen from his inside pocket and began writing. When he was finished, he ripped off the page and handed it to me:
Mr. Brian McNulty will assume the duties of bar manager of the ocean Club effective immediately. He has the guaranteed option of returning to his position at the bar of the Midtown Sheraton at any time.
I handed it back. "Put in that I keep my seniority rights." We sat in silence for a minute or two. Then I ordered another drink and told John I'd sign on for the job at the Ocean Club.
In spite of my certain knowledge that it was all bullshit, I began putting on airs as soon as I realized I might now be a bar manager. Feeling a bit paternal toward the man making our drinks, who'd taken a moment too long to notice our glasses were empty, I thought, Perhaps I should remind him, in a kind but firm manner, to keep his head up.Fortunately, I realized Big John hadn't said anything, and I decided to take my lead from him.
After a few more minutes of conversation, John made ready to leave.
"Drive me uptown," I suggested. "I'll buy you a drink at my neighborhood bar."
My neighborhood bar was Oscar's. I worked there after the Sheraton fired me and, despite some painful memories, usually stopped in for a nightcap on the way home. It was the kind of joint John would like, but he said he had to get back to the Sheraton. "Besides," he told me, "you gotta meet me at eleven at the Ocean Club." He looked me over with some misgiving. "You better wear a suit."
"I don't have one."
Big John rolled his eyes. He prided himself on his designer suits, silk shirts, and Italian shoes. For that moment, I wondered what it was that we had in common. He was cynical, more honest than most people. He was daring also, never an ass-kisser. Despite his faintly disguised contempt for them, the businessmen at the bars always loved him, and so did the dishwashers, even the hotel managers. When I thought for a moment, I realized the real reason I liked John so much--maybe the reason everyone liked him--was that, despite his cynicism, his bombastic personality, and his unbridled ambition, he was kind. This was why he risked his own job now, first to save me, then to send me out to try to save Greg.
When he mentioned the suit, I noticed that my clothes--a white shirt and black pants from the Sheraton, with my black bow tie hanging from my shirt collar by its clip--seemed a bit shabby, although I hadn't really noticed until I was promoted.
"You have to have three or four suits," John said.
"Forget it. I don't want the job."
"Just wear a shirt and tie tomorrow." He looked at my worn and shiny black chino slacks. "You have any other pants?"
"Another pair like these." John looked disappointed, so I said, "There's a Gap near my street. I can get a new pair tomorrow if you want."
Big John shook his head sadly and raised his eyes to the ceiling. Pulling a wad of bills from his pocket, he peeled off three one-hundred-dollar bills. "Get a fucking suit tomorrow."
I couldn't imagine paying that much money for a suit. You can buy one off the rack at Fowad on Broadway for $39.95. Fortunately, on the way uptown I remembered that my friend Carl, a doorman on West End Avenue for the midnight to eight shift, had an in to a suit. He had borrowed suits for us from a guy in his building for a funeral a while back.
I stopped off at his building on the way home. Carl, who wrote poetry during the long night's watch, was reading Baudelaire in his little shack off the lobby. He looked me over when I told him my news.
"'The working class can kiss my ass; I've got the foreman's job at last,' eh?" he said.
"That's not exactly what I had in mind."
Carl said he'd borrow the suit before he left work in the morning and leave it with Harry, the day guy, so I could pick it up any time after 8:00.
At 11:00, sitting on the kitchen loading dock at the rear of the Ocean Club, drinking from a container of coffee I'd picked up on the way over, trying not to spill any on the borrowed suit, I watched a red tugboat push an oil barge down the East River. It had been a good hike from the Lexington Avenue subway stop, but I liked the walk because it was through a new neighborhood. Something interesting always turns up in a new neighborhood in New York--in this one, I found a store that sold Lionel trains and nothing else. In the window, the old orange engine pulled a coal car and some boxcars through hills and tunnels, past wooden railroad stations with ornate roofs overhanging the platform.
When I'd waited about twenty minutes, enjoying the sun and the peaceful lapping of the river and the gentle rolling of the barge or raft or whatever it was that the Ocean Club sat atop of, I realized once again I had a real talent for doing nothing. I was lulled into contentment by the gentle swaying and the warmth of the sun and the cool of the breeze.Despite the suit, I felt comfortable on the loading dock, smoking cigarettes with the Guatemalan and Ecuadorian kitchen workers in their American Linen Service whites, with their gentle manners and shy smiles, all of them illegals.
Across the valet parking lot on the uptown side of the restaurant, a couple of white gleaming yachts bumped against the floating piers. Two of the kitchen guys who'd walked over to look at the boats began shouting, pointing into the water. The others, beside me on the dock, lost their sweet smiles. A couple ran over to take a look; the others took off. They went swiftly, right past the restaurant, and disappeared under the raised concrete roadway of the FDR Drive. By the time I sauntered over to take a look in the river, the others had gotten the message and hit the road themselves. I wondered if maybe the INS was coming in by submarine.
Instead, at the base of the hull of the whitest and gleamingest of the yachts, directly beneath the name--Snug Harbor--floated a body dressed in a tuxedo.
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND. Copyright © 2005 by Con Lehane. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.