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.


Samuel Yudrutskyy

There was once a man named Samuel Yudrutskyy, who lived in a small village in Poland back in 1872.  He grew up with his parents and two sisters in a house beside a linden thicket, growing potatoes and rye in fields underneath gray skies.  He had a small chestnut horse named Leniwy, and a sweetheart named Marta, who lived in town.  One cold spring day, the day before his 20th birthday, the Russian army descended on his town like the plague, raiding storehouses and indiscriminately killing the people.  Samuel was walking his horse back from the fields when he saw his house on fire, the Russian soldiers milling about like ants in shako hats.  Samuel swung his legs onto his horse and rode towards the horizon, towards the west.  He did not stop until a long time after the sun set, bypassing other villages in the night.  After that, he kept a furtive routing of riding during the night and hiding in the woods during the day.  After five days, Leniwy the horse collapsed and died of exhaustion.  Samuel Yudrutskyy continued on, walking for miles and miles until he wore out his shoes.  He convinced the odd farmer on his way to let him work for a crust of bread and a cup of weak soup, the hollows under his eyes growing bigger and his clothes becoming more threadbare.  After a month of steady movement, he managed find a steady job at a brewery in Silesia, rolling barrels in exchange for food and for being able to sleep in a humid barn.  His only company was the cat that chased mice all over the brewery, and he spent his few free moments roaming the angular woods surrounding the brewery.  After several more months, the owner of the brewery sent him to ride with a large wagon pulled by a team of horses all the way to Salzburg.

Salzburg was the biggest city Samuel had ever seen, with paving stones in the streets and gas lights.  He heard the Russian soldiers’ guns in his head, and decided he needed to keep moving farther away from Poland.  He unloaded the barrels from the wagon, shook hands with the teamster who drove the wagon, and then set off to find a coal cellar to sleep in.  Samuel found lodging and employment at a brothel, where he was given a bed in the basement and instructed to keep the coal furnace running, with strict orders never to go upstairs or be seen on the street where the front entrance of the brothel greeted its visitors.  One late night, Samuel was aroused from his bed by the madam and brought upstairs to a dimly-lit room, where the body of an old man with extravagant whiskers lay, dead and naked.  The dead man’s right side was punctured with dark stab wounds.  The madam coldly told Samuel to dispose of the body by whatever means necessary.  Once Samuel had done so, the madam gave him a train ticket to Brussels and told him never to be seen in Salzburg again, or else the same fate would await him.  After a day and a night in transit to Brussels, Samuel noticed that a man in a pinstripe waistcoat and silver watch chain was following him from the train station through the unfamiliar, noisy streets of Brussels.  Knowing instinctively that he was to be disposed of, Samuel sought a way to get out of the city as quickly as possible, so he returned immediately to the train station.  Using his expired ticket, he bluffed his way into a train carriage car and into a small compartment where an old woman sat across from him sleeping.  As the train pulled away from the station, Samuel looked out the window just in time to see the man in the pinstriped waistcoat pull a revolver out of his pocket and fire at him.  The bullet shattered the train window and lodged itself in the roof.  Samuel suffered cuts on his face from flying glass, and then noticed that the gunshot had failed to wake the old woman.  In fact, she had died in her sleep even before Samuel had even entered into the train car.  As Samuel checked her for any signs of life, he noticed a wad of banknotes peeking out of her handbag.  Further investigation revealed a large amount of francs.  Samuel took the money, lay the old woman’s body down on the bench, and furtively left the compartment in search of another.  He also took the old woman’s kerchief to staunch the cuts on his face.

The train eventually arrived in Antwerp, after a long night of playing cat-and-mouse with the conductor.  Samuel knew he had to keep going, so he sought out a berth on the next ship that would take him as far away as possible.  Eventually, he found one, and spent all the francs he had on a large ship (the SS Leopold) destined for America.  Cowboy, he thought to himself.  The hold of the ship was filled with people from all over Europe, but among the babel of tongues Samuel found three Polish families also immigrating to America, the Zlobykies, the Mankiewiczes, and the Sikorskis.  Each were destined for places where they had relatives already: Brooklyn, New York; Cicero, Illinois; and Malinsburg, Oklahoma, respectively.  Samuel found fellowship with these families, and spent the voyage with them, discussing farming techniques with the men and looking after the children with the women.  The oldest Sikorski daughter, Natka, had dark eyes and hair like a raven’s whisper, and strong, unspoken feelings developed between Natka and Samuel over the month-long voyage.  The night before the ship set into port, Natka appeared before Samuel’s berth, took his hand, and led him underneath the tarpaulin of a lifeboat.  Samuel fell asleep breathing in the frosted scent of Natka’s hair.

When the boat unloaded in New York City on Ellis Island, it was discovered that three (mother and the two youngest children) out of the seven members of the Sikorski family had tuberculosis, and they were spirited away to a sanitarium.  Samuel never saw Natka again, but he merely had to close his eyes to imagine her soft lips on his.  Samuel contemplated traveling with the other two families, but decided that the fire in his blood required him to go further.  The dank, filthy streets of New York did not please him, and he wanted to find a place with green fields and a brook so he could farm again.  Besides, his time in the Czech brewery had taught him a few secrets, and he wanted to try his hand at making pilsner.  Samuel quickly found employment at a Polish slaughterhouse in Manhattan, worked for several months, then climbed into a boxcar heading west.  His first stop was Cleveland, where the streets were even thicker with mud than New York.  On his journey, Samuel struggled with his poor understanding of English, dysentery, and the occasional confrontation with thieves who tried to rob him.

In Cleveland, he met a short, stocky Hungarian named Arpad, where the two men worked loading barrels of beer onto ships traveling Lake Erie.  The two men talked as best they could (neither spoke the other’s language particularly well), and they eventually became friends enough to share a small room above a stable near the docks.  Arpad described a land of plenty to Samuel, an unspoiled haven where the lakes teemed with fish and the soil pushed up wheat and barley so fast that a farmer could harvest twice in one year.  There were forests full of timber and game.  Samuel and Arpad began pooling their money together for train tickets further west, but one morning Samuel awoke to find that Arpad had absconded with the total sum they had been saving, leaving behind a note that begged forgiveness.  Arpad had wanted to move farther west before the spring had ended, and needed the other half of the funds in order to realize his dream of owning a saloon.  Arpad would indeed realize that dream, in a small town just west of Carson City, where he became a criminal kingpin known as The Magyar.  He died many, many years later, shot in the head by a young woman with auburn curls, at the ripe old age of 85.

Samuel, devastated, decided his only recourse was to hitch a ride on a boxcar to find the mythical land farther west, and decided to seek out a town called “New Prague”, told to him by a beer baron visiting the stockyard where he worked.  This place sounded like the paradise he sought, the one described to him by Arpad.  In his mind, it resembled the tranquil, sylvan beauty of the Czech brewery where he had worked, crossed with the familiar green fields of his youth in Poland.  It had been almost 3 years since Samuel had fled Poland, and he was desperate to find a foundation and a place to till the soil once again.  Samuel gathered up his meager possessions in a blanket and snuck into the rail yard to find an empty boxcar on a train he knew would pass through Milwaukee for destinations farther west.  As he tried to gain entrance to the boxcar, a security guard jumped out of nowhere and began running towards Samuel, his nail-studded nightstick raised.  Samuel could not open the door to the boxcar, and the train was starting to move out of the station in a cloud of steam.  In desperation he climbed to the top of the boxcar, the security guard’s nightstick just missing his ankle as he heaved himself up on the roof.  The train picked up speed, and Samuel saw that he would be trapped on top for the duration of the voyage.

Samuel wrapped himself in a blanket to ward off the night chills and the rushing wind as the train bore west.  He tried to sleep, and had quick, aggressive dreams about his home village, about Marta, about Natka, about barrels of pilsner, about the dead body he had to dispose of, about carcasses of cows hanging from chains.  2 days went by; when the train stopped, Samuel was unable to climb off because he knew he would be seen and beaten or arrested.  In Milwaukee, he was able to sneak off and found water in a rain barrel, but then sprinted back to the train before it left again.  He did not want to stop, he could not stop now; Milwaukee was another rotten city full of rust and bones.

After Milwaukee, Samuel observed that the flat, open lands had ample space for farming, and the farmhouses looked freshly painted.  The silos he saw, he imagined them full of grain.  The barns, full of fat cows that gave gallons and gallons of milk.  The train crossed trestles over broad rivers and shiny streams, full of clean, clear water.  He knew he had arrived in the place he wanted to stay.  In his head, he pictured his white farmhouse next to a bubbling spring, where he would draw water to brew his pilsner in a stone building with three cats.  He would have children with dark hair and dark eyes, just like their mother.

As Samuel sat daydreaming in the hazy spring heat on top of the train, he heard a sound that competed with the train’s engine to catch his attention.  He looked up, and saw a twisting gray funnel just on the horizon, stemming from a cloud and reaching towards the ground.  He could see it churning up soil and trees as it wound its way through the pastoral countryside, towards the train where he sat.  He shook in terror as he saw cows and fence posts disappear into the tornado’s malevolent maw.  Samuel Yudrustskyy stood and howled at the sky as the funnel collided with the front of the train, picking up the engine like it was a toy.  The boxcar beneath him began to tremble violently.