“Okay,” I told James as he flooded the engine of his Triumph Spitfire which, despite years of neglect, was in remarkably reliable condition. Somewhat. He beat his head on the steering wheel and screamed. I continued. “We do have a purpose today.”
“What purpose?” he muttered, head against the wheel, hands on the cracked dashboard.
“We have to mention that I have an Amazon Wishlist to everyone we meet, and tell them my pitiful sob story so they’ll buy me stuff.”
“Oh my god.”
I pulled out a wax bag, because I inherited 5000 boxes from my grandmother, and handed him one of the cards I had inside. “I had cards made up with the link to the wishlist on one side, and the link to my sob story on the other.”
James took the card, sat up straight with a sigh, then squinted at the cursive, “’Nacho Sasha: Man About Town’?”
“You have to help me hand them out to everyone we meet.”
May 10th. My 37th May 10th. Or was it the start of my 37th May 10th? How’s the counting work? I’m a year ahead if I’m Chinese, right? But, in the west, we’re all zeroes when we’re born. And then we rise through the ranks and seek fortune and glory on the battlefield! Ev’ry man a king!
Every year – even when I was in school – I take the day off. When I was a kid, I had to fake illness. High school was easier because I was a latchkey kid and mom worked 14 hours a day. The day off would be me time. I’d sit around and watch TV, or run around in the woods, or, in college, get drunk on the roof of the dorms and stare into the sun or, in my adulthood, get drunk on the roof and stare into the sun. It was always a good day. And, recently, it’s become a day of reflection. What the fuck am I fucking doing? Holy fuck.
Today, my old college buddy James took off work as well – though, to be honest, I’m not 100% sure what he does these days – and said he’d take me out on a pubcrawl. It was his present to me – we’d drink all day and drive a very dangerous British car around and then I could go to bed and build a horrible hangover for a Wednesday workday. That’s the way you turn 37 in Nacho’s world.
For old time’s sake, James had ferreted out some bizarre back alley bar somewhere in Fort Totten. He wouldn’t tell me anything about it, just that it started serving at 9am – per my long ago lament – and we could start there and slowly work our way back to Silver Spring where annoying, half-drunk, pretentious white guys approaching middle age and driving in POS British collectibles were welcome.
He raised his hand, exhaled, then slammed down clutch and gas and got the car going.
“Nice.” I said.
“I wonder if we’ll have to keep it running all day.” He muttered.
“Nothing! To the bar!” He backed up at top speed, took off with squealing tires, and we screamed down my road, onto Washington Avenue, and then came to an abrupt stop and crawled helplessly down East West highway in the tailings of morning rush hour.
At Fort Totten, I got turned around as James weaved through the neighborhoods. As far as I could tell, his “bar” was the basement apartment of a rowhouse behind the library on South Dakota St. We puttered down an alleyway, parked with several other cars on a gravel verge, and then James reluctantly shut off the Triumph and got out.
“This is a house.”
“A public house, old bean!” he said in a horrible British accent. Then he opened the gate to reveal a somewhat cozy beer garden.
Two locals stopped talking and stared at us, fight or flight playing across their faces, until James raised his hands as if surrendering and said, “Mitosis!”
They cheered, then went back to drinking.
“Where the fuck are we, James?”
He stuck a white Totes umbrella in the air and walked briskly towards the basement entrance, “With me! With me!” he chanted.
The basement bar was a combination of every bar in DC and the bar from The Shining, at least in terms of the bartender who looked like he had just stepped out of a 1920’s photo and grinned malevolently at us.
“What’ll be, sirs?”
“Hair of the dog that bit me, Lloyd!” I said in my best Nicholson.
His smile faded, “Seriously?”
“Sorry. I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
“Grouper Parasite.” James muttered. I glanced curiously at him while the bartender rushed off and started working. My gin and tonic came within minutes, but the drink James ordered took some time. We both stared in mixed awe and trepidation as the bartender poured several liquors into a blender, ground bright purple ice cubes in a food processor, threw handfuls of rosemary and mint in, brewed a cup of herbal tea and, somehow, combined all the ingredients into a grainy, grey liquid served in a ludicrously large martini glass.
“House specialty,” James said, taking a sip.
Stunned, I took a sip of my g&t, then sputtered. “Dude, this is just gin.”
The bartender glared at me, “I have a heavy hand. If you don’t like it, maybe I could make you a Shirley Temple, sir. Or get you a Sprite, no ice, and a copy of a Spanish newspaper for you to read in the corner like a fucking queer.”
“No, no. It’s great.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Frankly,” James said, his lips stained an odd pinkish-brown and rosemary stuck in his teeth, “I find it odd that you start your birthday with a gin and tonic. A bit fey, if you ask me.”
“Your birthday today, sir?” the bartender asked.
“And how old are you, sir?”
“Ever closer, sir. Ever closer.”
He glared at me, then turned away.
I leaned in close to James, who was licking his glass clean, “We’re going to move on after this, right?”
Between Fort Totten and Silver Spring, there’s not much open for AM drinking. I had harbored hopes that Cedar Crossing had changed their hours, but no luck there. There’s something generally soulless about Takoma Park, anyway. At least the soullessness of Silver Spring has certain panache. The former warehouse district hell has taken a desperate, sick pleasure at being urbanized, pasteurized, and homogenized. If you can’t beat them, I suppose, you simply must join them. But, even then, AM drinks are hard, so we decided to dawdle in the dreaded wasteland of upper Silver Spring, a small café in a White Oak strip mall that was open early and served beer and wine. We sat at a table and drank a steady stream of Miller High Life, waiting for AM to turn to PM so we could return to Silver Spring proper and cruise for lunchtime booze.
The waitress was a gentle soul. We were her only customers, so she hung out for a bit each time she brought us a refill, which was fairly often because James and I decided to see if we could drink each Miller in one swallow.
“You all from out of town?” she asked with an out of town accent.
“On the contrary, dear waitress,” James replied, “My friend Nacho here is the man about town.”
I grinned and pressed my business card into her hands. “There’s a link to my Amazon wishlist on…this side.” I slurred.
“Um…” She looked confused.
“Nacho’s incomplete unless he can look at Jon Pertwee once a day.” James explained. He raised an eyebrow, “Are you aware of Jon Pertwee’s oeuvre?”
“She’s a Tom Baker girl!” I said. “Nice place you got here!”
She snapped to attention as if I’d struck her, “It is indeed! We’re all very proud of it! It’s the Bronze Award Winner on the Barfly blog!”
James and I exchanged a glance, then I looked away and took a long, slow drink from my beer.
“Bronze Award?” James asked.
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
The waitress blinked. “It…it is. It’s an honor.”
“Is it? Because when you say ‘bronze award,’ do you know what I think? My first reaction?”
“I think to myself, ‘Gosh, Mortimer’ – that’s my name, Mortimer Richlund – ‘why aren’t you going to the gold or the silver awarded bars?”
James raised his finger for silence and took out his phone, “In fact, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna get online and look up Barfly’s gold and silver ranked bars. Unless you want to save me the trouble?”
“Okay. We’ll go ahead and cash out, then.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m just about as serious as the blood clot that killed my father.” James looked into middle space wistfully, “Oh, if I could only meet that blood clot someday.”
* * * *
3pm. McGinty’s upper bar. We were pretty bad off after hitting about five other spots for quick drinks and quicker exits. I was on KIlkenny and James had switched to vodka tonics. He didn’t seem to mind the famously light hands of the McGinty’s bartenders. The barest whisper of vodka gave the tonic a certain edgy flavor. The bartenders took his moody silence as a victory and secretly congratulated themselves on the bad pours, but James had other things on his mind.
“Bitches.” He said, raising his glass. “Let’s find you one for tonight. How about a redhead?”
“No. Broken pussies and bad attitudes.”
He looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Um… A blonde?”
“Untrustworthy. Too well armed.”
“Nacho…we’re talking about girls.”
“Okay.” He downed his drink and slammed the glass on the table. The bartender came over, face smug.
James leaned in close and whispered, “I know what you’re doing. I’m letting you get away with it because it’s a day of peace. A day of rest. One day, out of the whole fucking, terrible year where I try – “ he wrung his hands together and ground his teeth, then sobbed, “ – oh, I try to do no harm.”
His next drink had plenty of vodka.
“So, no redheads or blondes for Nacho. Back to basics? Back to the bottom of the fucking food chain? A brunette? Plain and hungry? The wounded gazelle that tries and tries but fails to escape the lions?”
I nodded, “I like brunettes.”
“That’s because you’re a broken, sad, simple man.”
A few moments of silence passed, which I broke first. “So…are you going to find me one?”
James shrugged. “Nah. I give up. And I suddenly lost vision in my left eye.”
“No, no. Just give me a moment. Change the subject. Talk about something else.”
“My Amazon wishlist?”
“No. Talk about your favorite tree.”
“Of course. You have one.”
I told James all about redbuds and showed him some pictures I’d taken from a few weeks ago of particularly beautiful examples and, slowly, his vision returned. We stayed till 5pm then, because middle age and bank accounts are limiting forces, we returned to my apartment and cracked open the Johnny Walker I’d stolen from my weekend job.
James raised his glass. “May 10th!”
I clinked mine to his and downed the whiskey.
“So, man about town, what’s next? What will happen between this May 10th and its opposite in 2012?”
“I’m gonna move!”
“No you’re not.”
“Well, I’m gonna move towards moving.”
“There we go.”
“Pay off the debt.”
“And acquire wealth from my Amazon wishlist!”
“Oh my god.”