My career as a bartender began with a cautionary tale.
Even for a drizzly night in winter my first shift had been slow. I’d expected some vague excitement. Not including the pints of Stella that José, the foodrunner, kept coming back for, I’d served fewer than ten drinks all night. There were exactly two people seated at the bar. At the one end was this guy with a ponytail, who kept telling me the details of his marathon training and showing me all the neat things his iPhone did. Benoit, the semi-literate floor manager who kept sneaking off to smoke joints, sat down at the service end with the remote for the TV. Hillary Clinton was on the Daily Show, but the closed-captions were on a fifteen-second delay, so he tuned to the Food Network, before which he sat riveted for the rest of the night.
This was early in 2008. Finley came in after midnight. Prior to scoring Mondays behind the bar—a huge break, as I saw it—I’d been working at Le Kiosque for six months as a waiter, and had never seen him. But I’d learned to spot the regulars by their body language and by the proprietary way their eyes took in the room. He found a hook for his soggy Perfecto and hopped up on a barstool; when I made last call the last sad bastards began to drain their glasses and file out the door, but Finley made no move. Benoit hadn’t said hello, but he didn’t try to chase him out—I gathered that Finley, like certain select regulars, was in the habit of staying on after the gates were down and the lights were up to drink for free and shoot the shit while we closed the shift out. In a kind of sideways fashion when he’d introduced himself he’d made it known he was in the industry, a coded promise, essentially, that if I gave him some special attention he would make it worth my so-called while. Because of his tall hair and sideburns, I was disinclined to trust him. On the other hand, he was short, even compared to me, and despite his John Varvatos boots. I’d heard it said more than once that short men left good tips.
I helped Arturo bring the foosball table inside, and got to work counting the drawer. That was when Finley announced that he’d been fired. I watched him in the mirror behind the bar. I was impressed by his equanimity.
“Equanimity,” he said. “I was raised by women. I suppose that might be it.”
There was a quality to Finley’s self-presentation that was common to most of the men I’d go on to meet in New York in the years ahead, and a great many of the women as well. Lucia, seated behind him at table fifty-one where she was counting the tip pool, looked up and made a face. Finley asked if I knew Brooklyn Stable, down Smith Street, across from Carroll Park—that was where he worked. At the end of his shift the night before, he’d invited two friends of his to keep him company while he closed up. Harriet and Ariel. He meant for me to be impressed by this association, which strikes me now as strange, given how the story turned out. He’d been raised by two women, he said, and he liked to have lesbians around, it made him feel acceptable, as a man.
“With lesbians,” he said, “I feel like my truest self.”
He attributed this to a lack of sexual tension. But actually, he said, the night in question was not such a night. Harriet and Ariel had brought a lot of coke. They weren’t exactly friends, he knew them from around the neighborhood—they had a lot of money and were always throwing it around. Ariel was an art person of some sort, she bought and sold. More than once, when Finley offered them a round or two of drinks, they’d left him a hundred dollars in excess of their bill.
The cigarette smoke that hung in thick whorls around us stung my eyes, but we were all sorting cash into stacks that the ceiling fans would have blown away. I didn’t know Finley but I knew these two women by reputation. Among the neighborhood’s barflies there were a handful of Black Cards and in the service community it was common knowledge to whom they belonged. One belonged to Ariel. She was older, closer to Finley’s age, forty-plus. I’d seen her in the deli once, Ziad’s, speaking Hebrew on her phone. At the counter she’d refused a plastic bag and dropped her sandwich, her cigarettes, her Gatorade, and a box of cookies into the pockets of her enormous coat. Harriet meanwhile was just a few years older than me, twenty-five or twenty-six. When I first started at Kiosque working lunches, she came in by herself sometimes after the rush, and camped out at a table in the back with the New Yorker or the Paris Review and a sweating glass of ginger ale. She’d grown up in Brighton Beach, half Russian and half black. I had no idea how to start a conversation with her, but I thought about it all the time.
“They wanted to be doing lines right off the bar,” Finley said. “I said fuck off, the cameras, we could do it off the terlet like everyone else.” I could see that Finley was accustomed to being surpassingly drunk. He carried it well. His beer kept spilling over the edge of his glass as he spoke to me, and he kept wiping his palms on his chest. He told me that, because he paused so frequently to take shots of Jameson with his guests, and because he kept making trips to the terlet with one or the other or both, the closing had dragged on quite a lot longer than it should have. The numbers didn’t add up and he kept having to recount. He wiped all the bottles on the rail down, but then Harriet, whom at a certain point he’d sprayed with soda water from the gun, had sprayed him back with Sprite, which got everywhere, so that he had to wipe everything again. A spent lime rind clogged the bar sink, and with the basin full of greywater it had taken him twenty minutes to dig it out. Harriet had stripped out of her wet shirt and was sitting around in her brassiere, which at least as much as the booze, made it difficult for him to keep anything straight.
“I’m sorry to have missed that,” I said. At the other end of the bar, Arturo was on his knees in rubber gloves, having fished a dead rat from a trap behind the wall panel. It was enormous. He held it up by the tail for us to see and for a moment we all admired it in silence.
“Have you seen the neck on this girl?” Finley continued, turning back to his drink. Having read the great literature of the 20th century, I understood that this was his way of saying that, because he was incapable of reconciling the violence of male desire with a sense of his moral self, he chose to feel ennobled by the experience of female beauty in the same way he felt ennobled by the experience of beauty in art: “She has this beautiful, delicate neck,” he went on. “Like a gazelle. You just want to paint it.”
“Well, and the cans on her,” I said, playing Roth to his Updike, but also because that was how I really felt. I’d yet to learn the lesson that no one likes a sarcastic barman. “Nice big cans on a skinny frame like that? Mon dieu.”
Benoit, without taking his eyes off the muted Food Network, made an incomprehensible series of vowel sounds, which meant he agreed.
Finley said nothing on the subject of Harriet’s cans or frame. But he did say that all night, he’d been “getting serious vibes off her.” Spraying her with soda water had only upped the ante on the flirtation she’d initiated early in the night, while the bar had still been open, when she watched him open a jar of cocktail onions, and commented that he had strong hands.
“I always assume women are making fun of me when they say that kind of thing,” I said.
“That’s the kind of attitude that’ll get you exactly no tail at all,” he replied.
In the years after I met Finley, I visited the bathroom at Brooklyn Stable many times, and although I didn’t use cocaine, I had to admit it was an elegant setting for it, the kind of Brooklyn restroom where Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day hand soap was de rigueur. Finley had finished counting the register and bricked up the drop—more than three grand, which was pretty strong for a Sunday night—and had only to restock the bar from the dry-locker downstairs, when Harriet leapt off her stool and announced her need of a final line. Ariel passed. Harriet dragged Finley by the hand.
Lucia’s phone rang and for a minute we listened to her end of a brief, tense conversation in Spanish with her mother in Houston. “I hope you’re not waiting for me,” she said when she’d hung up.
Finley ignored her. “So at her insistence I go first—fine, not that I needed another. And then it’s her turn and she’s leaned over the tank with one knee up on the lid, with her skirt hiking up. And the long, arching cleft of her spine, her exquisite mocha skin glistening with sweat, it all just drove me wild. And well, she straightens up but before she even turns around I grab her and sort of pull her head back and start kissing that gorgeous neck. Wouldn’t you know it—she tastes like Sprite! And then she’s really leaning into it, before I know it she flips around and we’re going at it against the wall and it was just”—he stopped and showed me his palms—“I’m just at a loss for words.”
“Hot and heavy,” I suggested.
“Correct,” Finley said. He drank. “No details, I’m a gentleman. PG-13, let’s say—remember dry-humping?”
“I’m 23,” I said. “I remember like it was yesterday.”
“But so then after maybe a few minutes she very gently she puts a single finger against my chest, to signal it’s time to disengage, and then steps back and raises the same finger to my lips, like, ‘ssh, let me go get rid of Ariel.’ Or maybe even, god help me, ‘let me see if Ariel wants in . . .’”
As if to heighten the suspense—which would it be?!—Finley chose this point in his story to pause, and to stare abstractedly into his glass. Arturo, who had disposed of the rat and collected his share of the tips, took the opportunity to shake my hand, Benoit’s, and Finley’s, and then finally to exchange cheek kisses with Lucia, and let himself out onto Dean Street through the big metal door in the back.
“You’re on the corner here,” Finley observed. “You’ve got egress out the wazoo. Brooklyn Stable has a backdoor onto a garden but it shuts with a key from the inside, which per code has to remain in the lock at all times. So that was infraction number one.”
The train passed beneath the bar and the bottles rattled faintly on the shelves. I hoped it was the Queens-bound F train, and that Arturo had caught it, he had a long way home.
“So I tuck my woodrow and we come out of the bathroom and I grab the bar list, and I say ladies you wait right here, I’ll restock the bar. I wanted to give her some space to see about Ariel. Plus there’s no cameras in the basement, and I was thinking, here, I’ll flatten out some cardboard boxes and voila.
“I don’t know how long I waited, filling milk crates with Ketel and Jameson et cetera. I was thinking about how beautiful and elegant booze bottles are, how good and clean a feeling to behold the shelves of a well-stocked bar. And all along the image burned into my mind: the cleft of Harriet’s spine and the way her shoulder blades were framed by the straps of her bra, and the long slender neck you could practically wrap a single hand all the way around.” He made a circle with his thumb and middle finger to demonstrate this proposition. “There’s something about black girls,” he said. “I have a powerful aesthetic sensibility.”
Lucia got up from her seat and came to the bar to hand over my tips from the floor, and stashed the roll-ups she’d made for the rest of the shift. She kissed my cheeks and Benoit’s, and said goodnight to Finley from a safe distance. “I hope things work out for you and your woodrow,” she said, buttoning her coat. “You’ll find another job in a jiff, fret not.” And off she went.
Finley paused, as if he were weighing in his mind what sort of comment about Lucia’s appearance would be appropriate. “She seems nice,” he decided to say. “Petite.” Then he picked up where he’d left off.
He’d waited in the dank Brooklyn Stable basement, lying on a soft bed of flattened cardboard, for how long he didn’t know. When the anticipation became unbearable, he hoisted himself off the floor and ascended the stairs.
“The music was blaring but the room was empty, they were fucking gone. They didn’t even finish their drinks.” By now it had reached three in the morning. He took it upon himself to drain their glasses at a swallow each, and then ducked under the riot gate, sealed it with the high-test padlock, and fell asleep in the back of a cab.
“I’d have slept until it was dark again if my phone hadn’t started blowing up around noon.” It was Derek, the owner, who had arrived to do the books and found his bar in an advanced state of devastation. “The furniture was thrown everywhere. The mirror against the back wall was smashed and shards were strewn far and wide. The taps were all open and the kegs were emptied all over the floor. Mangled lemons were to be found in every corner of the room. Ditto globs of horseradish.” The potted ivy was tangled in the ceiling fan, which was still spinning in lazy circles when Derek arrived. The three-thousand-dollar cash brick, which Finley had forgotten to drop, had been used to clog the toilet, which had overrun. Using maraschino syrup, in huge letters on the pool felt, someone had spelled out turd. And so on. In the little office at the bottom of the basement stairs, the computer on which the security tapes were recorded had been methodically smashed to bits. In short, the place was trashed, and only Finley knew who was to blame.
“The worst part is I left my jacket, I had to go by there this afternoon. Derek had scarcely calmed down at all. I’ve known him since we were kids, I knew he wasn’t going to call the cops. Honor among thieves. But I was worried he’d kick my teeth in. He might have if he didn’t have so much else to do.”
Benoit had fallen asleep on his arms. Finley lit a final cigarette—soon it would be time to go.
“What I figure is they were in the bathroom when I came upstairs, or sitting quietly in the back room, having a private talk. Likely related to yours truly and Harriet’s intention to make it with me on the basement floor. In effect, when I left I locked them inside, and at just the moment they were working themselves into a violent, hysterical fury. Women have fought over lesser men. Plus all that coke—that was serious coke and not everyone handles it so well. I kept waiting for Derek to say that he found them huddled on the pile of boxes I left downstairs. That’s the part I can’t make out: by the time Derek arrived, Harriet and Ariel were gone.”
In the rain I walked back to the apartment I shared with my younger brother, above the Chip Shop on Atlantic Avenue I stayed up until nearly dawn, setting down in print everything I could remember about my first night at the bar. Without quite knowing why, I felt certain that the story Finley had told had some special significance in my life, that the vague excitement I’d hoped for had begun. In the period that followed, the entire affair became a first-order scandal in the neighborhood and dominated the gossip network for weeks on end.
For a while, Ariel and Harriet laid low. Of course, everyone knew it was they who’d trashed Brooklyn Stable. Intense speculation was devoted to why. Finley’s idea that the damage to the bar was a secondary result of violence Harriet and Ariel had inflicted upon each other was plainly false; the nature of the damage made it clear that the violence was directed at the bar itself. Finley must have realized this as well, because he refined his theory in successive tellings such that Ariel alone was responsible for the damage, which she’d exacted in a fit of jealous rage as Harriet stood by helpless to intervene. But no one took this proposition seriously, either, because no one believed Finley could inspire jealous rage. Some said it was an act of wanton hedonism, like musicians in a hotel. This was supported by the fact that Harriet and Ariel both wore heavy boots. I remember one night after work I was out with Arturo at Boat, and a guy by the jukebox was saying, “There is something kind of punk rock about the pair of them.” This sentiment circulated briefly but never took hold, they weren’t quite the type. They lived in a blurry margin between the so-called creative class and so-called polite society, and had always comported themselves accordingly: they partied hard, and brought a certain élan to the observation of rules and norms. The fact was that Finley’s version of the events was the only version we had, to which, as the weeks went on, he introduced the caveat that his memory of the whole thing was hazy at best; this was likely true, but it was also a naked attempt to insulate himself from blame, which had the unintended effect of spawning a theory that he’d trashed the bar himself, although that idea didn’t get far either; no one thought he had the “stones.”
Finally the narrative that made the most sense to the most people was that they’d trashed the bar out of simple anger at being locked inside. “Possibly even a stress reaction,” I heard it said. But none of this solved the question of how they’d finally escaped. Speculation in that regard ranged from the mundane (Finley had in fact forgotten to lock the bar) to the conspiratorial (an insurance scam Derek had orchestrated himself) to the fabulist (they were witches). Eventually Ariel and Harriet reemerged on the scene, but, I think because of their money, nobody dared ask them for their side. Their habits changed. They became regulars of mine at Kiosque, on what basis I couldn’t guess, we never really spoke. The rumor circulated that through an intermediary, Ariel had quietly reimbursed Derek for the repairs, and had generously compensated him for the inconvenience as well, so that the only real victim in the whole affair was poor little Finley, who despite Lucia’s encouragement, had yet to find another job.
“Is that what you think,” Lucia said to me on a Monday night in late spring, when it was all a few months in the past. “You think those ladies wrote turd on the pool table and tried to flush three thousand dollars down the toilet because they were mad they got locked in? You heard the same story he told all of Smith Street: what he described is open-and-shut assault. This sick fuck probably locked them in on purpose. They went apeshit because they had fury and adrenalin pumping in their veins after this pervy gargoyle grabbed Harriet by her hair and started licking her neck.”
It disturbed me that she felt that way. I wasn’t at all certain that she was correct.
“Finley’s version of events,” I repeated, “is the only version we have. Based on which it sounds to me like a brief, consensual encounter that ended the moment one party said it should.”
Summer came and went, more scandalous scandals with each week that passed. That fall was the crash, and for a while the mood turned serious. Then Obama was elected, and though it seemed like bad news for Jon Stewart we all relaxed. Eventually, Harriet and Ariel left New York, for reasons unknown. For reasons unknown Benoit moved to Uruguay, then back to France. Lucia got a job in Manhattan as a cocktail waitress in the Standard Hotel. Finley quit the business and trained as a barber. Hurricane Sandy came and we celebrated Halloween by candlelight. Then in what felt like the space of a few months, dozens of new restaurants opened on Smith Street, and the community of service types and their regulars became impossibly diffuse. Seven years had passed, it was the middle of Obama’s second term, when I myself left New York. I had gotten impossibly diffuse as well.
But this past fall I spent a few nights in Brooklyn to see my brother. On one of those nights I visited Kiosque. I wanted to see Arturo, and José, and whoever else might still be around. It was uncanny, like visiting your old high school, as if a space I’d created inside my brain had been made manifest in the world. Speaking to the bartender, who wasn’t much older than I’d once been, I felt myself falling back into that New York habit of self-presentation; that is, presenting details of my life according to their proximity to the founts of social capital in which New Yorkers were most eager to soak their skins. I was staying with my brother and his husband, who was a member of a well-known band. I’d finished grad school and lived in Paris; my wife worked in the French film industry and that very week was in Cannes with an expense account. I had an agent for my book, which I hoped to finish that fall. I didn’t mention that I’d returned to the US to settle a bankruptcy claim I’d filed before I left, or that, for years, my wife and I had been trying and failing to conceive a child, or that to make ends meet I ghostwrote term papers for Saudi undergrads and application essays for the spawn of the aristocracy in the sixteenth arrondissement. And point being I didn’t recognize that this instinct had taken hold of me until a familiar face took the empty seat next to mine.
It was Harriet, of the beautiful neck. To my astonishment, she recognized me, and even remembered my name. She had straightened her hair, and was dressed for business. I asked what had become of her Doc Martens. “Work thing tonight,” she explained. After a few years bouncing around towns like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Marfa, Texas, she’d moved to Chicago for an MFA in studio art. It was a job at Christie’s that brought her back to New York, though she’d have preferred to go just about anyplace else. “The rent here is breathtaking, and every single one of the studios on my floor is occupied by a paralegal who showed up at the open house with their mom and dad. Plus every morning I take the train and it’s like de Blasio himself is sitting on my face.” She paused while I recovered from this image. “But that’s not even it,” she said. She was looking up at the TV, which was tuned to CNN. North Korea had detonated a hydrogen bomb. “I’m not unhappy,” she said. “But life is so unpleasant. Nothing is what I thought.”
I agreed that this was true. She told me about her job, and a vacation she’d taken to Tel Aviv—the first time, at 36, that she had traveled abroad alone.
“Ariel?” I asked.
As far as she knew, Ariel was in LA, though that information was years out of date.
“You’re married,” she observed, touching her own ring finger. “What else? Bring me up to speed.”
I laughed. “How much did you know about me to begin with?” I was trying to think of a convincing way to mention or intimate that my wife was also a mixed-race black woman, because I thought it would raise me in her esteem. But in fact it seemed that just acknowledging that I was married and not acting like a creep was enough. Such a lovely, natural conversation was possible between us, as it turned out, of the sort I hadn’t had for a long time.
“I remember you wanted to be a writer,” she said, grinning. “Is that what you’ve become?” I had no idea how she’d come by that fact, or how she’d held onto it for so long.
“Not quite,” I said. I was grinning too. I told her about the college essays, about which I was deeply ashamed, though on the other hand, I admitted, it gave me a bit of a thrill, to manufacture ingenuous, life-affirming insights in artless, juvenile prose. “That probably doesn’t count,” I said. Then I remembered her reading in the back room when I first started at Kiosque. “But this summer I had a story in the Paris Review.”
She said she’d make sure to find a copy. As we spoke, our eyes were fixed on the TV. “What else? No kids?”
That was a touchy topic, I said. “It’s the subject of my novel. I’m not sure you want to hear about that.” On the TV, much of Houston, Lucia’s hometown, was still underwater, and a chemical plant had exploded, as meanwhile out over the ocean Hurricane Maria was building steam on its way west.
“Please say not one word to me about your novel,” Harriet agreed. She put her elbows on the bar and used both hands to hold her straw. “I’m beginning to think I’d make a great single mom,” she said.
I didn’t doubt it. Through three rounds of drinks, our talk continued to meander in this way, as news about DACA, Facebook, and the Rohingya appeared on the screen to which we’d both affixed our eyes. The bartender hovered always nearby. I could tell he was impressed I’d kept Harriet’s attention this long. He seemed to think we might go home together, and held it as his duty to facilitate that outcome however he could: he kept our glasses full, and kept the bar beneath them clean and dry, and brought us a round of shots. It felt good to be drunk, Harriet said, coming back from the restroom. That was when I finally asked her about Brooklyn Stable. She sucked her teeth.
“Not my proudest moment,” she said.
I told her all the theories and she listened attentively, I told her the original story exactly as Finley had told it to me. She wore a look of mild distaste, as if she’d been served lukewarm soup. I told her Lucia’s assessment: that the real crime in the entire ordeal was the assault Finley had so proudly described.
“I think I remember Lucia,” Harriet said. “Real pretty girl, Hispanic maybe?”
Lucia’s account had always troubled me, I said, because the older I got and the more time I spent behind the bar, the more possible it seemed to me that she was right.
“I mean,” Harriet said. “There’s no question that what he described was assault.” Her glass was empty and she was collecting herself to be on her way. “But that wasn’t why we destroyed the bar. Because in actual fact Finley never laid a finger on me.”
“Finley never laid a finger,” I repeated.
“He definitely had it in mind but I made it explicit that if he did I’d punch his nose into his brain. Then he went downstairs and fell asleep.”
She got a kick out of how deeply and genuinely shocked I was. In my days as a bartender I’d often heard men exaggerate and embellish their sexual encounters, often even outright lie. But to have invented an encounter that got only as far as dry-humping before ending in frustration struck me as deeply weird.
“It always made sense to me,” Harriet said. “As a kind of sympathetic way to explain a catastrophic fuckup. People could appreciate a guy like Finley throwing his life away for a chance with a babe who was out of his class. For a possible threesome with some bona fide lezzers, what’s more. A lot of men would do worse. People felt for him.”
“The Wayne’s World Defense,” I said. She stood up to go, and seemed to be waiting for me to do the same. “But so why then did you trash the bar?”
Brooklyn Stable was still in business, she said. She hadn’t actually been back there since that night, but she was a bit drunk now and she promised that if I went for a last drink she would tell me everything exactly as it had been.
We paid our respective bills, and made our way down Smith Street, which we agreed was unrecognizable in spite or even because of the many familiar landmarks that remained. Brooklyn Stable was exactly as it had been: antique register, a big clock, vintage photos framed on the brick walls. A faint smile appeared on Harriet’s face as she looked around the room. Derek himself was behind the bar. Whether our faces said anything to him wasn’t clear. We took a table in the back corner, and, because she was slightly nervous about being recognized, I went to the bar for our drinks.
Now that we were sitting face-to-face, the improbability of the evening we’d spent together struck me with full force. As promised, Harriet began her tale.
“For starters,” she began, “if I’d been afraid of him, I’d never have dragged him into the toilet like that. He was hitting on me all night, but it was like a teenager, I kept waiting for him to snap my bra. So now I’m bent over doing this line, and I can feel his eyes on me. Which, sure. But he started kind of panting? So I spun around and grabbed little Finley by the collar and pinned him to the wall, the better to warn him to fuck off and keep his hands to himself.
“Back in the bar I gave Ariel this look—she understood what had happened, she’d already been a bit on edge since he sprayed me with Sprite, but she laughed it off. A moment later Finley comes tumbling out and grabs some notebook, and heads downstairs. We sat and listened for a second, because it didn’t seem likely that he could navigate the steps. Then we put the music up loud and got a bottle of the good stuff down from the top shelf. Might well have been that very same bottle of forty-year Armagnac. For a while Ariel tried to roll a joint, without success. I don’t remember what we had on the stereo, but I remember Ariel applauding when I got up on a table and started to do this squat thing like a Cossack. And shrieking when the table tipped and I went over on my ass.
“Once I’d caught my breath, I put the joint she’d been rolling in order and we got high. To enjoy the full effects of which without nodding off, I suggested just a bump. Maybe half an hour had passed, since Finley went downstairs. In the bathroom we became fixated on all the elegant bathroom products, such as the faux-pourri and the basil-scented Mrs. Meyers soap. We lit the scented candle and fooled around a little bit, and then we went back out.
“Everything was the same, we had no reason to think anything was amiss, until we noticed—our snifters were empty, where we’d left them freshly poured. Ariel turned the stereo down and we started calling out, the way you call for your dog at the back door in the dead of night: Finley? Fiiinleeey? Neither of us had his cell. We go downstairs and see the little nest he set up for himself, but no. We checked everywhere. He’d left his ridiculous biker jacket on the hook, but he was gone.
“‘Probably he went for some fresh air,’ was Ariel’s thought, so we decided to check out front. That was how we discovered that we were motherfucking locked inside.
“I’m not sure why we decided to check the tapes. I think we just wanted to confirm our predicament. The cameras fed to a computer in the basement. It was a large screen, divided into four parts: two angles on the main bar, an angle on the pool room, another on the street. The trouble began because we backed the footage up too far.
“I don’t know how to explain it. A sudden sense of panic seized me and rooted me to the spot. Likewise Ariel. We were looking at the earliest stage of the night, just before we’d arrived. Nothing special was happening, it was just a crowded bar, a lot of people standing and sitting around on their way to being drunk. Have you ever had this, where you catch your image on a security monitor on the way into the pharmacy, and for an instant your entire life feels so pathetic and small? They were talking and throwing their heads back in laughter. They were waving their empty glasses at poor Finley, and counting out their dollar bills. There was a guy who made a paper flower out of a bar napkin to wear behind his ear, and he went around that way for the rest of the night. I think it was the silence. As we watched, my feeling of horror and panic turned to despair. It was the silence and the overhead angle, I think, and the simultaneous perspectives. At a certain point, Ariel and I arrived: we came in, shook hands with a few people we knew, let some lady buy us a drink, let her stand too close to us and shout in our faces. We stood too close to other people and shouted in their faces. Men sidled up to women, including us, and spoke directly in their ears, ran fingertips over their backs or chucked their chins. There was a lady who kept scratching the back of her heel, and watching her, I remembered she kept asking me about my hair. In the back, these willowy white ladies watched men shooting pool. The self-seriousness with which the men were shooting pool was monumental. They really believed that shooting pool might result in sex. Elsewhere women were kind of halfway dancing, like they were afraid to embarrass themselves. A man was watching them from the corner: he was peeling the soggy label off his beer and he kept absentmindedly lifting the scraps to his mouth, and then launching them off his tongue at the crowd.
“It was all too horrible to watch, but we couldn’t look away. Everyone’s had the experience where you look around yourself and realize that you’re miserable and so is everyone else. But onscreen, from four angles high above, and without the distraction of music or voices, it was much more than that. We watched for over an hour. I felt, we both did, that nothing good would ever come from humankind. Every living soul we saw on screen, including us, was just this sinkhole of mediocrity and anonymity and need. This one guy who was addressing a group of people, including us, spilled his entire drink because his phone rang, and then just kind of stood there helplessly in the puddle he’d made while he took the call. This is what we call joy, I thought. We’re all going to die one day and this is how we spend our time.
“Maybe it was the drugs and the liquor and the late hour of the night. But actually the tapes made me feel sober and clear. And I thought, I should have let Finley make his move. Because punching his nose into his brain was the only thing that would have felt really good. After, it became difficult for me to take pleasure in things I’d ordinarily enjoy. Obama got elected and I danced in the streets like everyone else, but even then I was aware of this low frequency contempt for the whole thing. A few years later I saw Man with a Movie Camera with no music at the Film Forum, and ended up feeling that way about Vertov himself. Once at the Whitney I came across this three-channel video installation by Michel Auder, where he just films out the window in three directions from his apartment in Manhattan. I watched it for hours—it’s mostly just the sad pointless private lives of the people in the apartment tower across the street. Now here’s a guy who gets it, I thought.
“Anyway. When we’d finally seen enough we went back upstairs. As you might imagine, we started small. There was a jar of fancy matchbooks by the door, which on an impulse I filled to the brim with vermouth. It gave me an almost sexual feeling. Ariel, who has a chaotic nature, kicked over a stool. I kicked over all the chairs. We set the ceiling fans to high and tossed bar fruit up at the blades. With some quarters from behind the bar she bought a rack of pool balls and we launched them one-by-one at the enormous mirror. You know the rest—once glass started breaking things got out of hand.
“If you’d asked me at the time whether this was an act of protest, or subversion, I would have said it was more personally existential than that. But this was the problem all along. When the Muslim ban came down this summer, I went out to Kennedy to see the demonstrations up close. And I think now that subversion and protest are personally existential. The only beautiful or worthwhile thing you can do as a human is lay your body on the gears. Hopefully if they ever fix the apparatus they don’t just put it back the way it was before.”
I’ve always said to myself that it’s only since I left New York that my life has gone sideways; I’d always thought of my twenties as a straightforward good time. But each night since I ran into Harriet, I’ve made an inventory of memories from my tenure behind the bar, in the hope of finding something to redeem the years I spent there. Even as she spoke, my mind raced for moments of fineness to controvert her theory of the case. It’s true that a handful have come to me. But on the balance, I’ve decided that every word she said was true, and that those years were lost.
Meantime, Harriet’s voice had gotten Derek’s attention, and all the while as she spoke he watched her across the room. It wasn’t clear whether he recognized her, or whether he was just admiring her neck. Indifferently now, she sat back and finished her drink in one. Having reached the end of her remarkable monologue she looked around her at the room to which she’d once laid waste. I was still processing all she’d said. At the time, I wondered whether it was to be believed. Finley’s story was more convincing, in a way. It was easier to imagine her as a victim.
“Maybe you think I’m overdoing it,” she said, as if she could read my thoughts. She had her iPhone out, searching for something. “Maybe you think Finley’s story is more convincing, that he did assault me, that it was worse even than he described—maybe you think I’m trying to protect my dignity or reclaim the narrative or some dumb thing.”
Derek was making his way to our table now, maybe just to collect our empty glasses and offer us a final round. I laced my fingers and hid my face. “Well, no,” I said. “It’s just you didn’t say how you finally got out.”
She laughed. “I’ve had too much to drink, I should get some sleep.” She asked for my email and I gave it to her. She punched it in. After their rampage, but before Ariel destroyed the computer, she explained, she’d copied the footage from the whole evening onto a thumb drive she found in the drawer. Since then, she had watched it many times.
Derek in his apron was standing over our table now, waiting for someone to acknowledge him so he could speak.
Harriet ignored him and so did I. “I’m sending you a Dropbox link,” she said to me. She rose and shouldered her bag, and addressed her final remarks to me over her shoulder on her way out the door.
“Watch it yourself,” she said. “Then write it up any which way you please.”