City Beats (Omnibus)

City Beats

It’s another night of black onyx and ivory, dirty pavements and taxi queues, stiletto pumps and heavy eyeliner. The skyscrapers above us look like the burnt-out husks of shattered giants, the sidewalk rendered dark gray by night after night of filth, the lights inside the diner on the corner are dim to the point of resembling a grinding inferno, and the waitress won’t take your order. The dark sky above seems to buckle and churn, the stars hiding their faces, lost in amber fog. This place is hell, you’re drunk, and you can’t imagine the sun ever rising again.

A Night at The Ivory

Keyshawn tapped a few keys on his laptop, fiddled with a few dials on the main console, and all of a sudden the hall was filled with the electro-screeching of that blond dreadlocked pop singer from San Diego with the symbol in her name, @isha, or something.  Her music sounded like a brain-damaged text message, somehow essential to her rebel sex kitten image.  So many contradictions had to be stirred into one celebrity to keep it interesting.  The club, however, went wild upon hearing the first few bars, and they subsequently started gyrating with new purpose.

How can you play this garbage?  I shouted over the din.

Naw, man, Keyshawn shouted back with his lopsided grin, White chicks love this shit, it’s a fucking honkydesiac.

I chuckled at his portmanteau, and went back to staring at the ceiling.

Qualifications: A Night in Adams Morgan

Lord Shiva stares from among the shelves of liquor in the color-changing bar.  Episode where Anthony Bourdain goes to Uruguay.  Twelve ounces of Kingfisher lager.  Dry Sack, Kentucky Gentleman, Drambuie.  Mango nectar, middling-quality vodka, ice.  Poison/life swirled into a chilled martini glass.  I let their nasal chatter fade away into the background, let them stare at me instead.  My eyes do not follow you, I let you instead ponder my mystery.  Or, the mystery of these plastic flowers in the sensuous, round vase beside me.  Anthony Bourdain sips red wine and Coca Cola in some forgotten concrete jungle of Montevideo.  No tengo ritmo, soybeans and puffed rice in chilis, what a Nepalese farmer eats for fortification before the day begins.  Here, my fortification is for blank conference rooms and sprinting up escalators.  I like fish and mango pickle.  Somewhere distant, they are giggling and laughing over real Nepalese food.  Here, I accept a facsimile and imagine I am somewhere else.  Ice cubes delicately tipped into a slender glass of mango nectar.  Elsewhere, death in the kitchen.

Casablanca 2010

We are seated in a tiny upstairs café in Casablanca, overlooking the five-way intersection.  It is only a few blocks from the Parc Mohammad V, but the din of the Saturday afternoon crowds is barely audible.  The waiter sets down our tiny espressos with a clatter, but I barely notice.  I am still quite distracted by the heart-shape her face takes when she gives that mystical little smile.

Quoi?  She asks me, eyebrows raised, and proceeds to mix the sugar cubes into the thick espresso.

Usually I never take sugar with my coffee, but today I stir in both cubes.  The next evening, when I kiss her in front of the cinema under glowing red neon, I faintly taste the smoke-tinged sugar on her lips.


Boys with expensive haircuts, girls in expensive dresses.  Girls talking about their summer in Germany, boys talking about a Swedish vampire film.  Medallions around their neck, skinny jeans tapering into pointed leather shoes.  Skinny, skinny everything, so skinny as to be untrustworthy.  A diner in Austin, a punk rock club in New York City, coy questions in French, conversation consumed with weary irony.  A whiskey and ginger ale, thin hands nervously caress the wrists of the tallest boy in the vintage football t-shirt.  Where to find cheap sushi, cilantro, and Tom Robbins.  Tear down these walls, wrench the mace from Satan’s fist, and confront hell with barbaric screams, eyes of fire and blood.

Bill Lang and Artichoke Ramekin

Back in the 1990s, artichoke ramekin and Bill Lang made the Loring Cafe famous.  The idea was to eat the fabulous artichoke ramekin in the outdoor alley dining area while listening to Bill Lang play be-bop up there on the roof.  Problem was, bats loved to dive at him up there in the  semi-dark, so Bill had to take up wearing a bicycle helmet.  In the winter, Bill moved inside to a small crows nest set up in the corner of the grotto-like dining room.  He had to climb up a ladder to reach it, and he’d sit up there like a scowling jazz demon in the dim light.  The Loring closed a long time ago, so all we have now are stories about Bill Lang and the artichoke ramekin.

The Blue Hour

She calls at three in the morning and dares me to come over.  It is cold outside, cold enough to carry every single noise into echoes of infinity.  All is silent except for my footsteps, which sound like the soundtrack for another movie entirely.  She told me that she is tired and cranky, but I still want to feel her ivory cheek against mine, even if only for a moment before we fall asleep.  The sidewalks and streets are so empty, there might as well be only the two of us existing in the entire universe.  I pass through amber pools of light thrown by towering streetlamps, measuring the distance and time before I arrive at the door of her apartment building.
Two long minutes.  Here is the door.  My choked voice breaks the silence of the night.

New York City Minutes

Lady GaGa is eyeing me from her perch above the permanently shuttered Virgin Megastore. The lights swirl into patterns that I swear I will remember forever, but of course I forget it all in the next dazzling second. The streets are wet and flecked with detritus, but you catch only glimpses through the humid humanity. Meg and I stop to take our picture with Lady GaGa; she is a silent sentinel over the hundreds that blink past her enormous sunglasses. Not a soul can read my face, I play with the cards close to my chest. We share a quiet moment together, Lady GaGa and myself, and then I am spliced into the mob once more. My black shirt is tight, and perspiration is gathering in an uncomfortable line on my collar. I imagine my forehead is shining in the deep crimson glow. She is standing on a bar somewhere in this city, slaking their thirst.

White linen, heavy. Everything in this miniscule Italian restaurant is heavy, from the velour chairs to the accent of the lacquered waiter. I order a glass of thick red wine to go with my prosciutto and spaghetti, the thick cream sauce playing tricks on my eyes in the hazy light. Extroverted roses sit in a vase beside the bar, while an extroverted rose of a different variety sits in the chair to my right. Neapolitan shrieks of burgundy and ivory, my mind settling into a wet stupor.

The Pakistani shopkeeper tilts his head back in laughter as I choose a sparkling, sequined piece of gauzy black material that is five sizes too small for me. I try to explain to him that is for someone else, not for me, and I nearly knock over a row of cheap plastic Statues of Liberty. I try not to let it slip that it is for a Maithali girl from Queens. Across the street the multistory monstrosity dedicated to M&M-related merchandise mocks me in its elegance inutile.

Twenty-four dollars twenty four hours a day open open open girls girls girls. There are dozens more shops with the same fluorescent lights illuminating the faces/histories of passing pedestrians. Their thoughts are on other things: the cast of “Wicked”, fish in Fulton Market, walking the dog in Central Park, 1800 in a silver bottle behind the bar, a carton of milk in the back of a narrow Bengali grocery, the sassy rhythm of a rooftop saxophone, dashikis in Harlem, sepia photos in a dusty ancestral album, Joe and Joe’s Pizza in distant Brooklyn. I am thinking about these things too…

I walk past three Mourides hawking fake Prada bags; I bark a greeting in Wolof and their dark faces crack broad smiles. Further down the street, there is a shawarma stand with a line stretching down the block, disappearing in the infinity of 6th Avenue. Just a few steps away are three more shawarma stands, empty of customers. Nobody can explain why everybody is waiting in line at this particular one. All those that sleep are high above our heads, the fires of hell burning below them. I am but a familiar spirit wading through the damp abyss. The subway rocks the joints in the asphalt, but I manage to keep in rhythm with the screeching WALK sign.

Black sport coat, black t-shirt, check to see if the mojito glass is empty, my hair stiff and bristling in the blast furnace heat. My head feels like it is two feet wide. A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck as an impish blond explains her obsession with the media, her life centered on NPR and the Daily Show. I appear interested, but the ache behind my eyes will not go away. The audience at Saturday Night Live tweets from Blackberries, too distracted by the universe inside their devices to extract any beauty from their memories. Fish tanks are stacked behind the bar, guarded by a male bartender in size zero women’s denim. I picked the wrong decade to visit New York City, or perhaps it is just the company that I keep.

Cafe Freedom/Citronelle November 2008

The lights are burning deep into my eyes.  Not that the lights are too bright; this room with the high ceiling is dim, but it feels as if all the demons of hell are burning into my eyes.  The turmoil began on Monday, the desire to start screaming at the top of my lungs.  I think I did, at least while I was alone where no one could hear me.  So, now I sit here in the frigid corner of a crumbling coffee shop.  The coffee is cold, the beer has gone flat, and the tea, well, the tea…
The tea reminds me of the taste of her mouth, a mix of sweet-sour burgundy stirrings that makes me lose my eyes.  Now my eyes just burn.  For some very odd reason, the unshaven barista of this hellishly dim coffee shop has propped open the front door, and now the cold air is pouring in like an invasion from Nunavut.  I always get angry at the irrational decisions of others, but I can never explain my own.  It is leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
What should I do?  Go outside, kick at the snow and rotting leaves, curse and light a cigarette.  I quickly decide against it; better to just crease the page over and try to make something jump out of this mangled paragraph.  In a few minutes, I think, the frustration will finally take effect and the burning in my eyes will quietly subside.

Minneapolis (Alisa)

A man stands at the intersection of West 43rd St. and Upton Avenue on a warm Sunday evening.  He proceeds to howl at the sky.  The traffic lights continue to mutely cycle red-yellow-green.

She says that there will always be a place for you, if only on the couch.  Instead, you may stumble into her apartment around one in the morning and throw up on her rug.  You might be mumbling something about wanting to take a swim in Cedar Lake.  In the morning, to apologize for your crude behavior, you might make her an omelet and an extra spicy Bloody Mary, just the way she likes it.  However, when you are finished you discover that she has already left to go to work.  You touch the extra plastic nametag lying on her nightstand, mixed in with the rings, bracelets, and old movie ticket stubs.  You let yourself out, making sure the cat she is cat-sitting does not escape.  It is somewhere around 10:30, and you catch the 18 bus to wherever you are supposed to go.

She didn’t know where he had been. Out with the City, catching up, exchanging stories, reacquainting himself with her dark corners, she guessed. She didn’t ask any questions, did her best to brush the cat hair off the couch cushions, dragged the extra blanket off her bed. She woke him up, groggy, absent, very early in the morning, asked him to kill the centipede in her bathroom. He did and she forgave him for the vomit on her rug, but not before he fell back asleep on the couch, the cat sniffing his forehead, pawing at his ear. She went to the kitchen and washed a bowl, in case he wanted cereal when he woke. Late for work already, she grabbed her purse, forgetting her nametag, shooed the cat away, who was licking his bare shoulder, and ran out the door. She didn’t need to lock it, knowing he would let himself out when the somber summer sun through her dusty blinds became too much.


TC Noir, Part I

It is always at some warehouse, the last building on the left, Gene thought to himself as he slowly turned the steering wheel of the minivan.  The tires crackled and crunched over the asphalt covered in cracks, weeds, and pebbles.  It looked like no one had been here in over a year, the warehouses needing a fresh coat of paint and the large cargo dock doors covered in rust and cobwebs.  What made the scene a bit ominous, Gene thought to himself, was the evidence of removed security equipment.  Brackets that used to hold cameras now hung empty at the corners of the buildings, faint traces of wire still evident.  Card readers and electronic locks on doors were now replaced with sturdier industrial strength locks requiring a thick key.  This place used to be watched, observed Gene, but now someone wants its history unwritten.  The minivan continued rolling past the buildings, alternating between shadow and deep gold afternoon sunshine.

After the 11th scarred warehouse, Gene realized that the building he was seeking was a small garage at the back of the property, almost swallowed by weeds encroaching on the cracked asphalt.  The fence back here was high, and he saw nothing but trees beyond.  Hidden in an extra layer of the obscure, he thought.  Gene chuckled silently as he directed the minivan to the front of the garage.  The garage could have been a miniature copy of the mammoth warehouse buildings that led to it, same scarred cream-painted exterior, same tall white doors with faded marks at the top where there used to be numbered signs.

Gene stopped the van about 20 feet from the building, his foot on the brake.  He scratched his beard absentmindedly and wondered what he was to do next.  Councilman Warrick had not given much instruction other than the address and a warning to be a bit more discreet than usual about the delivery.  Gene had taken his time preparing, getting the anonymous-looking van from Toby at Whittier Pizza, packing the cargo in the usual fish-smelling, dirty coolers that he always used.  He did a brass-check on his pistol before putting it in a zippered clutch in the dash.  Now he was wondering if he should have put it in the waistband of his jeans.  Too late now, he knew that someone was watching him, and he didn’t want to raise any unnecessary alarm from the clients.

Gene slammed the column shifter into park, took his numbed foot off of the brake pedal.  There was little to do but wait.  This was not the first time Gene had to wait, but this time made him feel a bit uneasy.  He rolled down the window a crack to listen to the ambient noise, see if he could pick anything out.  All he heard was the buzzing cicadas and the distant roar of 494.  He was confident something would happen, hopefully business as usual, but in the meanwhile he just needed to wait.

For the next 30 minutes, Gene inspected the sleeve tattoo on his left arm, contemplated planning a happy hour with friends from work, and pondered where to go furniture shopping with Jolene (her tastes ran a bit far into the realm of vintage, which limited choices).  The summer had been rolling along quite rapidly; there was still quite a bit to do before the new house could be considered “settled”.  Gene’s errands for the Councilman and his associates had increased as of late, he was seeing new people around the firm, receiving new instructions sending him farther into the bedroom communities, particularly into the humid basswood congregations of the southeast metro.  This meant more driving time, less time to unpack boxes and go to the farmer’s market.

The sun slid further and further towards the horizon, and the grim exterior of the garage darkened with twilight shadow.  Gene picked at his t-shirt collar, circled his finger around the Chevrolet logo in the center of the steering wheel, when suddenly he heard a mechanical noise that make him jerk his head up.  One of the doors on the garage was opening with a dinosaur hum, slowly ascending.   Two figures became visible as the door rose up and stopped.  When Gene saw who they were, and what they were holding in their gloved hands, he felt profound regret for not coming better prepared.



Winter Dreams

They met each other in a philosophy course, the first semester of their second year in college. They then shared a Portuguese class, then an English literature class, then a cultural studies course about Chicano literature and art. They never sat next to each other in class, but they often worked on homework together. Their last semester, they had a pottery class together. In the pottery studio, they often worked on their pieces at the same time. They would listen to music on the beat-up, clay-smeared CD player some grad student had left there. He would play Tom Waits, and she didn’t like it. She would play The Pixies, and he didn’t like it. He would play Prince or she would play Atmosphere, and they both enjoyed it.

They went to the same parties, some of the same concerts. They would sometimes run into each other at a campus bar or pizzeria, but they rarely talked to each other on these occasions. He was with a girl named Alexa, she was with a guy named Mark.

During their last year at college, they would sometimes go for coffee in the late afternoon. They argued about movies. She thought Jarmusch was worthless; Kurosawa didn’t connect with him. They discussed immigration policy, public funding for the arts, Camus vs. Sartre, public vs. private schools. They argued about whether Wisconsin or Vermont produced better cheese, about whether one could truly enjoy Mariah Carey while sober, about whether she had received a fair grade for her project in a course about immigration in America since the 1960s. She didn’t like Hemingway, he detested Chilean poetry. He thought Sebastian Joe’s had the best ice cream, she was a die-hard believer in Izzy’s.

After graduation, she broke up with Mark, he broke up with Alexa. They spent a summer canoeing and cycling on the weekends, between job interviews and apartment hunting and the general mayhem of post-college uncertainty. They both briefly considered sleeping with each other, but the thought created a storm of doubt and fear over what it might mean for their friendship. They never told each other that maybe there existed something more than just a platonic relationship. Instead, they would go grocery shopping at midnight, granola and peaches and soy milk loaded into the back of his ‘92 Accord wagon. Sometimes after grocery shopping they would drive for a few hours through the empty city streets, the windows down and 89.3 FM softly emanating from the radio speakers. They traded novels; he lent her Alice Munro, she lent him John Updike. Sometimes in the early evenings they would sit and read together on her porch, he on a lounge chair and she on the porch swing, listening to the buzz of summer cicadas and sipping on cold white wine.

They both found jobs that better suited their newly minted professional skills. He moved to Kansas City, she moved to Miami. They wrote letters to each other. In his letters, he complained about the Baptists, the monochromatic and uninteresting people, the disappointing arts scene, the lack of decent coffee shops. In her letters, she complained about the heat, the crime, the swarms of sweaty fratboys from Maryland, and the unrealistic body aesthetic standards. He was with a girl named Suzie, she was with a guy named Carlo.

She sent him postcards of Florida’s sunny beaches. He went on solo road trips through the Ozarks and sent her odd postcards from forgotten little towns in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Some weekends she drove to a beach near St. Petersburg to watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico, strumming her guitar while sitting in the sand.

After a few years, they both moved back to Minneapolis. They started going to trivia nights together, trying to reconnect with old friends they both had left behind. They complained together about the cold weather, the lack of Cuban sandwiches, the lack of good ribs.

One December night, they went to trivia with three other friends from college, but afterwards they didn’t want to go their separate ways. He was living in an apartment building in St. Louis Park, she was renting in a house a block away from MCAD. They walked together in the snow to another bar down the street. She thought about putting her hands inside the pockets of his thick winter coat. He thought about brushing the snowflakes from her light brown curly hair that peeked outside of her cap. She gripped his elbow, he turned his head so he could smell her shampoo, his nose and upper lip just barely touching the top of her head. They entered the bar, staring at the floor, and slid into a wooden booth. They ordered pints of Surly, but barely sipped at them. They talked about the snow, her new hairstyle, his new glasses. They reminisced about bad roommates, bad professors, kegs of beer gone bad, bad weekends working until close at the sandwich shop. They laughed about the time he fell out of a canoe during a weekend at Lake Independence. They laughed about the time she sang “Walking On Sunshine” during karaoke night and puked two lines into the chorus. In the hazy half-light of the bar, he concentrated on the cream-colored line of her cheek, just under the shadow of her eyes. He felt heat, he felt himself being dared to do something, and it was slowly being revealed all over his face. She felt much the same way, but was doing a much better job at concealing it, and looked on with amusement at his uncertainty.

At 12:54 AM, they left the bar, making vague statements about going their separate ways for the evening. Three steps outside the door, she hooked an arm around his waist. He wobbled slightly, then bent his head down to whisper something into her ear. She smiled. In the background, the distant roar of a city plow truck accompanied their padded bootsteps on the frosty sidewalk.