Post-Hotdog, Sober, Mr. Lee
Between ages 20 and 30, many of us were artists, writers or musicians. We painted houses, tended bars, waited tables, but we also tried to get our poems published, painted or sculpted all night, or rehearsed with our bands, be they called Missing Foundation, Strapping Fieldhands or Baby Flamehead. With slim evidence, we believed we were special, and maybe we were, even if it has come to nothing.
I’m 47 now, and yesterday, I ran into Scott Lee, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. He hasn’t changed much, just a tad pudgier at 43. Still the same black, thick rimmed glasses, the grinning, easygoing manner. “Hey, let’s go for a beer,” I suggested. We were standing just outside a Hard Rock Café. “Want to go in there?” Scott asked.
“Hell, no, let’s go to a real place.”
“We can go to the beer garden?”
The beer garden is located inside Reading Terminal, an indoor market with many eateries, mostly ethnic, and stalls selling specialty foods. You can have scrapple served by an Amish lady under a bonnet, try some obscure cheese, take home a hunk of swordfish. Though not really a beer garden, this bar is not a bad place to sit. A bit touristy. Yuengling, a not too special, local beer, is treated like a micro brew here, and charged accordingly. No background music, which is nice. This afternoon, a quiet television showed Phillies vs. Mets.
For about 15 years, Scott and I were regulars at Dirty Frank’s, a low-life, vaguely artistic bar, with junk paintings and photographs, earnest and inept, sometimes funky, on its wall. The juke box was pretty good, though. I remember hearing Patsy Cline, and Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” with Gene Krupa’s joyously manic drumming.
I’ve written about Frank’s before. In a poem, I mentioned Skinny Dave, the trust funded junkie. He’s gone now. Hey, the next one’s on me, Skinny! Seeing me scrawl on a scrap of paper once, Skinny blurted, “You’re lucky you can do that. I have nothing to do.” I’ve likened Sheila, the bartender, to Sheila-na-Gig, whom she’d never heard of, though it’s her namesake. “It’s an Irish goddess stretching out her enormous vulva, like this,” and I made a motion with my hands, like Superman ripping open his shirt.
Before the internet, one had to leave one’s apartment to chatter, so the bar was the obvious destination, but even if there were other places to socialize, we probably wouldn’t have gone anyway, because we were truly fond of our liquid bread, sharpened, every now and then, with a shot of Jameson. Who are “we”? Me, Scott and so many others, hundreds of millions of others. In any case, there was nowhere else for us to loiter and gaze, so our boozy ways could be scientifically blamed on our alienating environment. We had no choice, man, we had to drink to be social.
Scott and I had both gone to art schools, he at the Academy, I at the University of the Arts. We were also the only Asians who frequented Dirty Frank’s. “Some people still think I’m you!” Scott chuckled. “Hey, aren’t you the poet who got that huge award?”
“That’s pretty funny.”
“You used to get seriously shitfaced,” I reminisced.
“Yes, but so did you.”
“Yeah, but you would be sitting on the sidewalk, not knowing where you were.”
“I did black out once or twice, though. I was bad too.”
“I also blacked out. People would say, You did this, you did that, and I had no idea what they were talking about.”
“We were never as bad as Jay.”
“Yeah, Jay would pick fights with the bouncer. When Jay gave Dago shit one time, Dago just bounced him with his belly.”
“Yes, he did, and one time, Jay and this guy were kicked out of the bar. They were both fucked up and jawing at each other. Jay had his dukes up, but this guy just loaded up and gave Jay a perfect roundhouse kick, right to the jaw.”
“Man, that’s not fair.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“If you could do that to a guy, you shouldn’t be doing it, especially when the guy’s fucked up.”
I was seldom an angry drunk, vehement, yes, even now, but never an in your face, I’m about to go berserk or incite-you-to-kill-me kind of drunken asshole. Being 5-6, I should add, that would not be wise. If I were 6-5 or even 5-7, I would live differently, I’m sure. If I were 6-5, I wouldn’t be sweating over linebreaks, assonances and caesuras.
It was a challenge to stay sober for more than a day. Three straight days and it was time for a celebration, by having more drinks. The bar exposed me to all types of people, but the conversations eventually became tedious, mostly, and repetitive. The loud music didn’t help. On any given night, however, one could hear something appalling or poignant, charming or abject. Never assume you really know how people talk. Each man is awed by his own scars and acuity, loves his own sweet voice, so everyone is constantly refining his own routine, adding a fresh phrase here and there, getting his timing down.
Alcohol released tucked away emotions, some frightful, some silly, but the distortions that it caused made each sensation or insight suspect by next morning. On top of a hangover, one also felt regret and embarrassment, usually, but evening came and it’s back to the bar again, because there was simply nowhere else to go. Drunk, people could be oddly beautiful, tragic and vulnerable, their faces softened by that red-tinted light. That’s something a drunk would say. Truth is, my thinking and writing improved after I had weaned myself from the frothy fermentation. I haven’t had a drink in two weeks, in fact. The maudlin self-pity and self-hatred also dissipated almost entirely. “There is so much violence here,” a friend sneered as he observed a full bar on a Saturday night. “I had to stop drinking,” another friend said, laughing, “because whenever I got really drunk, I just loved everybody,” as in making out to whomever she was next to.
Scott has spent much of his working life as a waiter, usually at upscale places like Suzanna Foo, Ciboulette and Anjou, joints I could only press my nose against. Last year, Scott was unemployed for 10 months, but his landlord never kicked him out, although he didn’t pay rent that whole time. “Greek guy. Old school. Really nice,” he said. “His mom and girlfriend were really giving him shit for letting me slide.”
“So did you finally pay him off?’
“Yeah, I got work and I sold a painting.”
“For how much?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
“Ten thousand bucks?! Shit, man, that’s great!”
“No, man, it was worth at least 20,000.”
“No way… Ten thousand dollars is excellent.”
The most I ever sold a painting for was $800. Scott continues to paint, though he has never shown in a gallery. Before I quit, even I had gallery exposure. Without a studio, Scott works in his small apartment. “Anyway, I was so broke, one time I lined up to get free food in front of the library.”
“I’ve seen those lines.”
“I was just standing there with all these people when this guy, a black guy, started to give me shit. He said, ‘Mr. Lee, you’re not supposed to be here. You don’t belong here.’”
“How did he know your name was Lee?”
“He didn’t. He just called me that because I was Asian.”
“That’s pretty funny.”
“He kept telling me to get out of line. I was dressed well, so that probably pissed him off. I had a job interview that day. I was dressed really well, but I was still hungry.”
“So what happened?”
“I told him to stop calling me Mr. Lee. He said, “So what is your name?’ ‘It is actually Lee,’ I said, ‘but stop calling me Mr. Lee, Tyronne!’ All these other black guys just cracked up and I stood there until I got my damn hotdog.”
Starving, Scott also went into Whole Foods to stuff his mouth with sample salami and cheese. He probably swallowed the toothpicks. Once, making one too many passes, he was browbeated into leaving. “I felt like shit.” He never shoplifted, though. “Remember Jeannie?” he continued.
“One time I was passed out in front of Sabra, that Middle Eastern place, and she carried me home.”
Scott is about 5-9, 170 pounds. “On her shoulder?”
“Yeah, she carried me home and put me in bed. I had a dream that all these dogs were biting me. They were all over me, man, then one of the dogs started to french kiss me. I opened my eyes and it was Jeannie.”
“I don’t remember this Jeannie at all.”
“Last I heard, she went down to Florida and became a porn star.”
One paints or writes because one must, even when one’s audience is negligible, the praises reciprocal bullshit, the attacks likely accurate and even mediocrity might be way out of reach. One writes or paints even when the dogs are biting.
Linh Dinh’s novel Love Like Hate
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