As he crossed Queens Boulevard and strolled up the wide sidewalk towards the Bar, Tommy McKillen checked his watch again, 8.45pm. His mate Jimmy had said he’d be there by 9.00pm. Tommy didn’t want to be late. He wondered had Jimmy changed much? He hadn’t seen him in five years now. They had grown up beside each other and were inseparable. Jimmy’s family had returned to the States when he was 14. Growing up in the North West there were several American born kids in school? There was the Harrington’s who were from New Jersey, who could ever forget Colleen Harrington playing basketball in the front courts at school. Tommy remembered how they had all gone to support the school team in the Connacht Finals but the truth was they had all gone to watch Colleen strut around the court. Tommy was shy back then and if she had spoken to him he knew he would have probably died there and then. Joe Burke and Jimmy were from Sunnyside, Brian O’Donnell was Chicago. Then there was that lad from Cashel who was from San Francisco, he was Moran, Tommy couldn’t recall his first name. He did remember him out at Annagh Lake one summer, at swimming lessons, bragging about little league baseball. Jimmy later punched his lights out at the back of the school gym. God knows what had ignited the row but he recalled afterwards that Moran and Jimmy shared a cigarette; Moran’s hands were trembling so much he could barely hold the match to light his smoke. Later he gave the entire pack to Jimmy, a sort of peace offering or reparations. We smoked some of the cigarettes under the Cryan’s Bridge until Tommy was dizzy and sick. Then we smoked some more that evening when Jimmy came with me to count the cattle over in Annagh. That’s when he told me they were going back.
Approaching the Bar the Elevated line roared overhead as the Number 7 braked for its stop at the 40th Street station. The old steel frames vibrated, the rails rattled all the way to Manhattan. The Citibank building in the distance stood there proud, alone defiant against the bigger skyline across the East River. Inside the bar was quiet. Tommy pulled in halfway down the bar and picked the middle of three vacant stools. Two older guys on his left were talking about a ball game. Slowly he got his bearings relishing the air-conditioning. There were two girls and a guy on his right who were shooting the breeze about some friend of theirs who had flunked in College. The girl looked nice, a lovely tan, blonde hair and white teeth. Frankie the barman nods as they make contact, Frankie the Greek/ Italian/ Irish barman. “Hey Tommy, What’s up?’ his right hand outstretched to shake mine as his left throws a fresh beermat on the counter. ‘I’m good Frankie’, a cold bottle of Bud is placed on the beermat. Jimmy threw down a few bills beside it. ‘Has Jimmy McHugh being in yet?’ ‘No haven’t seen Jimmy in months. He’s living up state now. Up around Tarrytown’. Tommy nodded and sipped the cold beer. He had telephoned Jimmy’s mother on Tuesday, or was it Wednesday. He wasn’t sure now but she told him shed she’d be speaking to Tommy. When he spoke to her again yesterday and she said Tommy would be here by 9.00pm. He sipped some more.
‘Jimmy’s a good guy. I like him. We went to the same High School’ utters Frankie as he passes by wiping the counter with a cloth, fastidious, clean cut Frankie. Tommy notes that there a baseball game on the television. He hates the isolation and sitting here listening to other people’s conversations, longing to join in. He checks his watch again, 9.10pm and wishes Jimmy would arrive and not leave him waiting like this.
Tommy’s contemplation is broken by one of the guys on his left, ‘give us two more here Frankie….. and two Irish Whiskies’ Tommy could see the moustachioed guy in the mirror behind the bar. ‘Here you go Roger, what type whiskey you want, I got Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Paddy?’ The Moustache thinks before replying ‘Two Jameson on the rocks and have one yourself my friend’. Tommy takes out his cigarettes and lights a Parliament before stopping to read the matchbox.
‘American Festival Café, Rockefeller Center, 600 5th Ave, New York, NY 10020’
He hates his job there, hates been out in the sun all day, hates the way he must play this phoney friendly waiter all day long. The match card has the famous statue as its centre piece. One of his colleagues Andy said he likes the statue at work, said he saw it in a movie, ‘You do know the Restaurant closes in winter and is turned into an ice rink’. Tommy nodded before telling Andy that the statue is of Prometheus. ‘Oh yeah’ shrugged Andy, ‘that’s cool’ before racing off to berate the two Bengali busboys again. A few days ago he argued with Tommy that the correct term was Bangladeshi when Tommy said you could also say Bengali. Tomato, Tomato, who cares, whatever, fini
Frankie comes back with the whiskies. ‘Hey aren’t you having one yourself? C’mon Frankie I’m buying, have a drink with us even if those Mets suck, at least the Knicks are flying’ the Moustache is well on it, looks like he’s been here all evening, getting slowly pissed and gradually louder. Frankie takes a shot glass and grabs a bottle of Tullamore Dew, he pours himself a drink. Tommy sucks on his Parliament watching the proceedings out of the side of my eye and through the mirror. Where the fuck is Jimmy, 9.21pm. ‘Here’s to those Knicks, going to do it this season, you heard it here first, and don’t forget it’ Yeah that’s a very loud moustache, muses Tommy, his mate doesn’t even respond, the glasses raised, clink and down the hatch. Tommy watches Frankie; the whiskey doesn’t knock a stir out of him. He recalled one of the Barmen telling him that sometimes Bartenders have their own favourite shot. ‘So it goes like this’ he explained, ‘Couple of guys want a Jaeger, you fill them a Jaeger and then they start putting pressure on you to have one, so you have your own bottle, let’s say it’s a whiskey, so you take out your bottle of Tullamore Dew and fill your glass, you do the shot with them, and the next one and so on. They think you’re a great guy, part of their night out, but they are getting wasted, you’re not because your Tullamore Dew is filled with Iced Tea, all you have to do is clean up the fucking tips’. Frankie has a bottle of Tullamore Dew which he returns under the counter not on the shelf, he’s in on it notes Tommy, determined some night to play him at his own game just to let him know, that he knows. It won’t happen tonight because Tommy is skint. He is hoping Jimmy has some contacts, anything, a phone number, Tommy needs work.
So Roger is the name of Moustache. Now he’s telling his mate about his little girl and what a smart kid she is. Tommy notices the girl to his right again, lovely long tanned legs, hint that she’s been out on the beach, it reminds me to call out to visit his Grandmothers cousins in Breezy Point. She looks about 21. She lazily drapes her arm over the shoulder of one of the guys with her. He is in the middle of some story too, stories being told all around him but what story am I in?wonders Tommy. Then it kicks off to his left ‘Get the fuck out of here, you fucking asshole’. Tommy turns just in time to see Roger the Moustache jumping up and over his mate who is now stretched on the ground with a right hook, his stool is lying beside him, he is gingerly getting to his feet, raising a hand as if to protect himself from any more punishment. Tommy didn’t see the punch clearly but the blood now trickling from the guy’s mouth suggests that it was a sweet connection. Frankie has jumped the counter and is holding the Moustache, ‘Easy Roger, not here man, take your quarrel outside, not here’, ‘You dirty bastard’ the moustache roars trying to kick his former mate, ‘douchebag’. The wounded friend is now on his feet backing away to the door, then he is gone, his shadow passing by the window heading towards Woodside. Frankie still has a bear hold of the Moustache who stretched out is a big unit, 6’2 or 6’3 at least; they go over to a corner by the pool table. Tommy sips his beer again. Move on, nothing to see here, move along.
The girl next to Tommy asks ‘What is that all about?’ ‘I have absolutely no idea’ gesturing with open arms to reinforce his view. They all laugh and shrug shoulders, bemused. The girl gets up and goes to the juke-box, she starts flicking through the lists. ‘You’re Irish’ says one of the guys. ‘Yes I can’t hide it can I?’ ‘My family are Irish, from County Cork; my Gran never lost her brogue even though she is here since the early 50’s’. ‘I’d imagine that it’s hard to keep your accent in a place like this’ I reply for the sake of replying. Tommy remembers a girl who went to work in Bundoran for a summer, seven weeks later and it was all ‘Ock aye’ and ‘wee’ this and ‘wee’ that. Frankie comes back behind the Bar. ‘Sorry about that folks, excitement over. The guys had a bit of a disagreement, Roger there was right though so I’m letting him stay of that’s okay. He’s a good guy, he’s from the neighbourhood’. A few minutes later Roger the Moustache comes back from the restrooms, he has on a Polo shirt, cream shorts, white socks and sneakers. He takes up again on his stool, gathering his money, folding the bills before placing them again on the counter in a neat pile.
Tommy lights another Parliament, the jukebox kicks into life, Ace of Base. The trio on his right start chatting again, he is on his own again, and he is going to kill McHugh, 10.04pm. ‘I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign…’ Frankie comes back with some bowls of pretzels, placing one in front of the Moustache and one in front of me. ‘Cheers man’ says the moustache ‘I’m sorry Frankie you know I’m not like that but fucking hell what an asshole’Frankie is working his way along the bar only half listening, so the Moustache starts talking to Tommy. ‘You just never know do you?’ he says. ‘Know what?’, ‘This guy, I was drinking with him for like two hours, seemed like a decent guy, he was Navy so was my Dad, ya’know, just having a beer. I was telling him how my father was chosen to be Neptune when they crossed the Equator, you know the tradition right, meant so much to my old man’ He stopped for a moment and threw his whiskey on his head and slammed the glass on the counter. ‘Son of a bitch! So I was telling him about my daughter and showed her photo like this’ he takes his wallet out and shows Tommy a photo of this young oriental looking girl, his daughter. Must have got a mail order wife assumes Tommy, Thai, Filipino somewhere like that. ‘So he says nice kid and asks me do I want to see his, I say yeah sure, I thought you weren’t married blah! Blah! and he takes out his wallet and shows me some pictures of young kids nude, disgusting man, young kids, fucking paedo, sick bastard!’Christ I think, he was right to box him so, ‘I’m sorry kid but this guy really got me, if Frankie wasn’t here I would have done some real harm, Frankie give is two beers and I’m gone’ Frankie places two fresh beers on the counter, ‘There on me’ The moustache is off again, ‘I was just telling your friend here about that creep, fucking hell’ Frankie winks at me without the Moustache seeing and heads back up along the bar. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get your name kid, I’m Roger by the way, Roger Wallstein’ his hand is out so I shake hands, ‘How are ya, I’m Tommy’. ‘Irish huh, this neighbourhood was all Irish once upon a time, when I was growing up it was all Irish, all the businesses too. I’m Catholic, German, family, Bavarian, yeah a good Catholic boy. So what’s your story Tommy?’
Tommy takes a drag out of his cigarette before answering, ‘Well I was supposed to meet a mate of mine but he’s stood me up. Irish guy I grew up with, well he was born here but family came back to Ireland and then back over here again. Frankie knows him. I’m looking for work to be honest, only been here six weeks. Have a job in a bar in midtown but the hours aren’t great’ ‘Midtown not great for tips either save Thursday and Friday afternoons’ says Roger. ‘There’s some temporary positions going in our place, easy work, money is okay’. This sounds good thinks Tommy, ‘Where bout’s that? Doing what?’ ‘It’s an apartment block on the Upper East Side, concierge, you know, Doorman, elevator cars that sort of thing. You might get a few months’ work, who knows’. ‘That would be great, really need something soon’. ‘Frankie give me a pen’ When the pen arrives Roger starts writing an address and number,
Empire House, 180 East 72nd St 3rd & Lex., Shaun Richards
‘You give them a call or call in and speak to Richards. Who knows he might give you a break’. The Moustache looks at his watch ‘Oh my god, I’m out of here! Nice talking to you ….’ ‘it’s Tommy’ , ‘yeah Tommy’ he throws his bottle on his head, picks up his Bills and throws a twenty back on the counter, ‘Thank you Frankie, I’m sorry about earlier buddy’. With that Roger the Moustache is gone. Tommy looks at the napkin, Upper East Side he thinks and places the napkin in his wallet. Frankie is over and picks up his tip and wipes the counter down, ‘Roger was in good form tonight eh Tommy?’ ‘Yeah, certainly was a bit of drama alright, I never met him before’. Frankie continues wiping the counter ‘I suppose he told you all about the wife leaving him, he really misses his daughter. He met this girl Chinese or something through some agency in the church, she comes over, they marry, have a kid, lovely little girl, then she ups stick and are now living in Manhattan with some other Chinese guy. Roger thinks he was set up, maybe he was but he certainly got her a green card and she’s here to stay but he’s left paying the bills. He’s drinking a good bit these days. I worry about him’. Frankie reaches into the under-counter fridge and pulls out another Bud for me ‘That guy surely ruffled his feathers earlier’ Frankie goes through the whole story about the porn pics in the wallet and the man claiming they were his kids. ‘Dirty bastard’ Tommy shakes his head and then asks ‘What does Roger do for a crust? ‘He works in some building in the city, security or something. Not sure Tommy’
Back in the Apartment Tommy tip toes by their Ecuadoran room-mate. There is no sign of Andy in the bedroom, out on the town again. With the stifling heat, Tommy can’t wait to turn on the fan for some relief. There is no air conditioning in the apartment and they struggle to sleep. The noise of the city wakes him up and he looks at his watch; it’s just after 7.30am and he is covered in a lather of sweat. The pillow is soaked through and the sheets also. He even kicked off his boxer shorts during the night. Not able to sleep any more he takes a shower, relief, relief god that water is good he thinks but then he can’t dry himself with the towel, as he starts sweating again. He hates this heat, he hates this apartment, but most of all he hates being broke in this city. In a few minutes he is gone down the stairs out into the bright, blinding white of day. He wants to go home but he can’t. In the Diner he has some breakfast Canadian bacon, eggs and coffee. He can feel a slight thud in his forehead. Jimmy never showed. He takes several refills of coffee and read the The Post.
Two hours later and he comes up out of the subway station. He takes a few seconds to orientate when he does he continues over East 72nd Street and into a shady atrium. Tommy walks to the front door and is met by a man in a smart uniform and white gloves. ‘Can I help sir?’ he asks, stretching his arms across to ensure Tommy doesn’t consider entering the building. ‘Can you show where the reception is?’ ‘Reception’ he looks curiously ‘this is an apartment building not a hotel. This is the main entrance and is for tenants only sir; you’re going to have to move on sir’. Tommy turns to walk away but then shouts after the Doorman, ‘I’m looking for the manager Mr. Richards, Shaun Richards?’ ‘Go back to the service entrance on the corner of 71st and 3rd, you better go now’.
The building is huge, Tommy looks up at the sky and it seems to cover an entire city block, a central tower with two substantial wings with probably several hundred apartments in total. He walks around the block and thinks about abandoning his mission. He stands at the entrance for a few seconds. This is not near as glamorous as the entrance on the other side of the building where he’s just been. A couple of men point me towards the office and he enters the bowels of the building, down a ramp and into furnace like heat and the deafening noise of a rubbish compactor. Men in overalls push overflowing garbage bins up the ramp to waiting trucks. At the bottom of the ramp a corridor leads on and he sees a sign for the office. There is a glass window and he can see a number of men inside deep in conversation. There is a time clock on the wall and a large board with dozens of employee’s time cards in neat rows. Tommy pauses before knocking on the door but when nobody answers he just opens it. A man is sitting at a desk; he is on the phone but momentarily puts the mouthpiece to his chest and says ‘What you want?’ ‘I’m looking for Mr. Shaun Richards’. He points towards another door, returns to his call and I go on further, knock on the door,
‘Come in’ is the reply so Tommy opens the door, ‘C’mon, c’mon I don’t fucking bite, what can I do for you?’ says a Burt Lancasteresque figure in a sharp suit. ‘I’m here to meet Mr. Richards’ ‘Oh yeah well I’m Richards, Shaun Richards, who are you?’ he roars, why is he roaring? ‘Tommy McKillen, here about the job, Roger sent me’ He gleams with big white teeth showing and a powerful stare. ‘Roger? Roger who?’ ‘Roger Wallstein’ I reply. ‘I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about son, Saunders! Saunders get in here!’ the man on the phone rushes in., ‘Saunders are we hiring? Summer relief? You know anything?’ ‘Well yes sir we do need some cover yep’, ‘Listen this kid looks the part, and he’s got balls to walk in on me like this’ says Richards as he reverts his gaze back on Tommy‘ look son we have a few weeks work that’s all but there may be something more permanent come out of it. Be on time, always be on fucking time and be polite to the tenants, if you’re not, you’ll have me to deal with, now get the fuck out of here’.
Saunders leads Tommy out of the office and down the corridor where he takes out a bunch of keys and opens the door. When the lights flicker on Tommy can see rack upon rack of uniforms, some still in dry-cleaning covers. ‘What size waist?’ asks Saunders ‘34”’ ‘Here try these’ the trousers don’t fit so Tommy tries another. With trial and error he gets fully kitted out and is then given a locker in the changing rooms to keep his stuff in. ‘Get a lock, get 3 or 4 white shirts, always come in clean and tidy. No bad breath or BO, you start tonight at 11.00pm, you be here by 10.30pm and relieve the man at Elevator 6 at 10.45. You give good relief you get a good relief. In the morning your replacement will try and be in for 6.45am. Where are you living?’ ‘Oh Elmhurst, just off Broadway’ replies Tommy. ‘Okay, if you haven’t shirts there is a Sears out at the Queens Center, it’s just another couple stops on your train, get some’
At 10.44pm that night Tommy takes the service elevator up to the lobby. It is a beautiful hall of mirrors with a water feature behind the main entrance where he had initially been this afternoon. Two door men look towards him and he can sense they are checking him out. Tommy has a piece of paper with instructions about polishing brass and cleaning mirrors, on the other side is his Roster for the next 3 weeks. He walks towards where I’ve been told Elevator 6 is. A uniformed man with a moustache stands outside the car, looking in the mirror, fixing his collar, ‘Hi Roger I got the job’ Tommy announces excitedly, ‘Hey kid, thanks for the relief’ he looks peculiarly at Tommy, ‘We met in the Blackthorn last night, remember?’ but Roger just frowns, ‘The Blackthorn?’ he looks at Tommy vacantly. ‘Yes remember the old guy with the kid’s photos?’ Roger opens the door to the service elevator, grabs his bag and says ‘I’m sorry kid I think you must be mixing me up with someone else, have a good one’