D.T. Pennington

Writer – Photographer – Creative Coach

Notes on: The Lower East Side

It’s a three-cocktail kind of afternoon. The rain lets up as we wander through the NYU campus, which sneaks up on us as it looks like any other collection of blocks on the island. We’ve been walking for hours, but no one in our foursome seems to want to bring it up. Not like we had anywhere in particular to be.

That’s what tourists do here, I suppose. Walk. I didn’t notice when it happened, but at some point, I turned into the kind of person – or married the kind of person? – who vacations with other couples in the familiar yet platonic way. When you run out of things to talk about, any company is distraction enough. This company, the couple who is up from Texas, is distraction aplenty. She is my wife’s best friend from high school, and he, Barrett, is the husband I have been gently obligated to. I’m not allowed to lose him among the crowds of Manhattan.

If you ask – and why wouldn’t you? – Barret will tell you what it is to grow up on a cotton farm in West Texas. He’s the real one.

The sign said CODEX – of course I’m going to look. What I find is a small bookshop slipped in between a closed bar and a business hidden behind a steel shutter door. I go in, my wife follows, but Barrett and his wife wait on the sidewalk.

I can’t blame them, I did say I wanted to “pop in here real quick.” If they had known me better, they would know this meant an hour, at the least. As I write this, it baffles me that they opted to not go into a used bookstore. I let the situation get the best of me, grab three books without discrimination or consideration, and present them to the cashier. His register is a, well, register. Ledger? He writes down the titles of the books and their price by hand and runs off a total.

“Selling lots of erotica today,” he says.

The three books are volume three of the Subutex series, a pulpy paperback titled “Memoirs of A Whorehouse Madam,” and the Gary Indiana tome “Do Everything in the Dark.” I was curious about the Indiana book since I had randomly picked up a copy of “Rent Boy” while in Oxford.

“I guess it’s the weather,” I tell him. The cover of the Indiana book featured a black leather hood, meaning it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s inside. It is a fantastic read. Dirty, but far from erotic.

You want this to matter. You want to feel the magic flow from every surface, from every person, the moment you step off the plane. You want this to be worthwhile. On the average, this is a moment of spending. From one block to the next, one swipe to the next, one card to the next, you feel your savings burn away. How much does magic cost? What is the return?

How long does one need to be here, how much do you need to spend, to fill yourself with the experience that breeds the modern, breezy American novel? Which alleyway do I need to traverse to find the dumpster full of the kind of New York stories that fill decades of glossy print editions of magazines and paperbacks?

Tell me, please, that it is somewhere around here with the grand buildings the endless sea of people, each with their own story. Please, tell me it is here, and not in Iowa with its grand, internationally renown writer’s workshops. A ticket to LaGuardia is $97 bucks. Getting to Iowa City means I have to change planes. Twice.

Tell me it’s here. Tell me this will matter.

It’s like 10 in the morning and we’re at one of those places that goes out of its way to look like a traditional NY Jewish deli. Like it’s old school, but nothing in this building is more than a year old. It’s bagels and schmear and pickled everything – but you’ve got a hangover, and what the hell are you thinking? Why is a bagel ten bucks?

Barrett orders the Borscht.

It arrives and everyone at the table realizes he had no idea what borscht was. “It’s what that Swedish Chef guy is always making,” he says. He has kids at home, I can’t fault him too hard on this.

“Set yourself a reminder for tomorrow morning,” I tell him. “You’re not dying, it’s just beets.”

Barrett had the borscht. Later, he splits a cup of soup with his wife. We walk 20,000 steps in a day and when the sun goes down, he wants to go for a drink or two while the wives are off at the concert. We find a dive, and then another, working our way up Norfolk on a quiet Tuesday evening. It’s somewhere around drink #3 that I can see the bolts loosen. I trip over the first step up into Lucky Jacks where The Mets are losing on each of the four big screens. No one cares or seems to care as it is Tuesday which is the only day between morning the weekend past and not yet having the energy to find the convictions for this exact moment. Apathy, if you will.

I order a beer, take a swig, and send it back. I know what I’m doing. I think I know what I’m doing. Drink enough beer in Denver and you learn what a filthy, neglected tap line tastes like. The bartender takes a swig off the tap, “Tastes like a Pale to me, you got a problem with the beer?” he says to Barrett.

“No problem,” Barrett says. “It tastes like shit, but I don’t care.”

I order a nitro Irish coffee because they have it on the Tullamore tap. The bartender, who has had it up to here with me, says “It’s ten at night, the hell else you doing on a Tuesday?”

“I’ll have one of those, too,” Barrett says. He throws it back in two slugs and starts chewing on the ice. Cracking cubes in his back teeth he looks around the bar and says, a little too loud, “buncha fuckin’ grenades in here.”

He’s not wrong. But we are married men, we have a facade of honor and grace to maintain. I close our tab and help him up from his barstool.

By my estimation, he has consumed more booze than soup, and more soup than anything else. Since this morning’s borscht, the only solid food he talks about is “one from the corner store.” I’m imagining the week-old, packaged 7-11 sandwiches that are made, purchased, and eaten entirely on a dare. A few blocks on, he points through a doorway – “there, that’s what I want.”

This is when I realize there is no word in the Texan dialect for bodega. All along, he has been after a bodega sandwich.

Without a hitch he is at the counter, telling the guy on the grill exactly what he wants. He orders with perfect Spanish. At least, I think it’s perfect or as close as you can get when ordering a pastrami on pumpernickel with a bit of Swiss. The guy on the grill gives him a thumbs up and gets to work. By now Barrett has started a conversation with one of the two women waiting to place their order.

“What do you do with that tennis racquet?” he asks the brunette. She’s about our age and wearing a backpack with a racquet compartment.

“Play tennis,” she says, dryly at first. Then, “I also coach and teach classes at the rec center, just got done for the night.” Barrett engages as a Southern Gentleman would, saying how he’s not from around these parts and can’t believe there is a whole rec center hiding among all of these buildings.

“Can’t imagine where you’d park,” he says even though he’s been on the subway all damn day.

“Most people around here don’t have to walk too far to get what they need,” the woman says.

“Jesus,” Barrett says. “Look at her.” He points – all manners of a gentleman vanish in an instant. “That girl is high as fuck.”

He says this loud. Really loud. As though he wanted to let someone know that she was on fire or strangling a puppy.

“You said that out loud, dude,” I tell him. But, to his credit, the other woman did look beyond stoned. She was younger with a haircut that is only fashionable among very small circles of DIY barbers. She wore an oversized hoodie and had what must have been a pound of stainless steel pierced into her ears.

“Fuck off, man,” the stoner says. “I don’t need your little comments.”

Barrett puts up both of his hands, ok, I surrender.

The tennis instructor doesn’t cede. Instead, she champions. “You know, this is your generation’s problem, you take it all so seriously.”

“Order up!” the counter guy says, pushing a paper bag across to Barrett. We make our way to the exit.

“Whatever, I just don’t need his commentary.”

“Sure, but is he wrong? Are you not high as fuck?”

“Doesn’t matter, it’s not of his business,” we hear the stoner yell at the tennis instructor. By this point we’re out on the sidewalk and heading towards Bowery, towards the hotel, only guessing what became of the argument he started.