She claimed it made it easier
to grab without looking, and that it fit comfortably into her shoulder, freeing
both hands as she made Kamikaze gimlets.
Rita lived on the Lower East
Side, sharing an apartment with Victor, a very distinguished looking gay black
man studying to be a dancer. At her suggestion, we'd hired him to bus tables and
wash dishes. The trouble started in Rita's apartment on the Lower East Side when
in the course of a weekend she and Victor swapped boy friends. God knows the
circumstances or how long the exchange had been in the making. In the cramped
tenement rooms of that part of town, you get as intimate with your neighbors as
you can with a Siamese twin.
It had not been an amiable
trade, and the drama of the weekend spilled over into Monday afternoon. It began
as muttered words on betrayal, slippery seduction, and unnatural penetration. It
quickly degenerated into a cross fire of dirty dishes from one direction and
dirty glasses from the other. Caught in the middle was the table of ladies from
across the street. As the accuracy diminished it was clear the two of them were
venting more than their frustration with each other. It was bedlam. The feminist
art ladies from across the street switched their afternoon club house to the
Greek diner down the street.
Rita and her roommate made
peace, but made a point of not working the same hours. Victor quit about two
months after the end of the club house to become a window dresser. I gathered
too that he and Rita were no longer sharing an apartment. The swapped boy
friends didn't last long, and after a while Rita finally picked a favorite from
her fans on the afternoon shift. She approached romance with exuberance of a
large puppy. Kurt, a dispatcher for a taxi company, was round-faced with a mop
of black hair, dark eyes and the recipient of her affections. He was met every
time he opened the bar room door with her flying body and loud wet kisses. She
nicknamed him Baby, and most of us forgot his real name.
Baby was a hollow leg drinker.
A fifth of vodka would do no more than put a spot of color in his cheek. Thank
god he was a taxi dispatcher rather than a driver. He took his role as the
darling of the daytime queen with good grace, not taking advantage of his
position to become a free loader as often happens with the girl and boy friends
of people who work in bars. The crew from the taxi company also became a group
of regulars, and Baby policed their language and manners with an iron fist.
Through this period Rita begun
to grow out of her California flakiness. Some of the change I attribute to the
other members of our staff. Between the poets washing dishes and the classically
trained actors and actresses waiting tables, we had enough doctorates and
masters degrees on the floor to open a liberal arts college. One of the dish
washers gave two weeks notice and said he'd been named to the American Academy
in Rome. Another bartender quit after having accepted a screen writer's job in
L.A. She specialized in horror movies, and at this writing has a couple major
screen credits under her belt. While I was barely making a living, I was proud
and touched by the extended family of characters dependent on the gin mill for
their rent money. For Rita the atmosphere was conducive to change. One sleepy
afternoon I walked in to find her sprawled out on her elbows across the empty
bar with a dictionary and Plato's Dialogues. She'd taken to wearing her bushy
hair in a pony tail on the left side of her head.
Rita switched over to working
nights and picked a up a part time job painting door frames on Wall Street with
a contracting firm. She'd come to work with a delicate spattering of paint
across her face.
Rita's quitting was traumatic.
Baby left the bar one evening with one of his buddies, neither of them feeling
any pain. Outside the bar they found a man sitting on the hood of their car
reading a newspaper. Baby in good jocular humor asked the man to remove himself,
and a fight broke out. Windows were broken and Rita called the cops. I walked in
minutes after to find Rita in tears. Loyalty towards the bar and concern for our
windows had made her bring the police down on her Baby. I took over and finished
her shift as she chased after her boyfriend.
I didn't see her again for
some months. The trauma of having abdicated her throne obviously took time to
work out. At last meeting she was working in fashion, looking wonderful, but I
detected under her perfume the faint smell of garlic.