Now, to make amends I’m supposed to sound literary; naming lots of writers who have influenced me throughout my career, make references to people whom I admire, tell you how without reading the early works of Alistair Pidgeonly-Ruffingham I wouldn’t be the travel writer I am today. But the truth of the matter is this: yes I did read a lot when I was younger, still do in fact, but the problem with that is I suffer from a very rare condition called literary-chameleonoly.
Literary-Chameleonoly affects me in the following manner: I’m rushing out the door to catch a plane somewhere and pick up the first book I find on the pile. The book I later discover somewhere six miles above the earth, is one of those square-jawed detective novels where the hero says things like ‘Alright already, ya big Schmuck, can’t you see I’m walkin’ here…’, but nonetheless I carry on reading. Twenty-four hours later I’m attempting to pen a piece about my first day in Manhattan and you’ve guessed it, it reads like a square-jawed detective novel (see below).
That’s why I’m especially pleased to make my first visit to the Listowel Writers Week, so that I can soak up some of the real stuff from some serious writers who know their trade inside out, and who knows, I may just end up writing like you guys and gals some day and not like I did in Manhattan.
“Hey man I know you, don’t I?” the guy said.
I’d seen him earlier in the day; somewhere on 3rd Avenue leaning at a bus stop reciting poetry that nobody wanted to hear. A tall black man dressed all wrong; he wore a woman’s fur coat over trousers that stopped being trousers about half-way down his shins. On his head he had a blue hard-hat, but you could tell this guy was no construction worker.
“Sheeee-it! I know you man, you’s the guy I saw lookin’ at me today. How you beeeeen maaaan?” I kept on walking.
It was 11pm in central Manhattan and a conversation with a crazy wasn’t what I needed. You see, I’d been in Midtown bars all day – up 3rd and back down 2nd slugging back weak beers and trying to get a feel for the city. Keeping my ears open and my mouth shut looking for an angle that hadn’t been written before. Once or twice I thought I’d even come close.
“You wanna make a quick million,” the drunk said across the bar on the corner of 47th, “I swear there ain’t nothin’ illegal involved.” He made a vague sign of the cross in the air. I shrugged. The drunk was small with a pointed oily face making him look like he’d just squeezed his way up through a grating from the sewer. But I could tell by his finger nails that he didn’t always look like this.
“I used to be in banking so I know what I’m talkin’ about.” He offered me his limp white hand. When I didn’t take it he used it to wipe the drip hanging like an icicle from the end of his ratty nose. “I’ll show you,” he said leaning closer, “but don’t go tellin’ no-one.” He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his coat pocket and attempted to flatten it on the counter. “It’s all here,” he said snapping his fingers like Dean Martin keeping rhythm to a Bosa Nova.
The barman, looking like Felix Unger from the Odd-Couple, threw his eyes up towards the nicotine-stained ceiling. “Jesus Christ Mooney, can’t you leave the payin’ customers alone. Can’t you see the guy just wants to be left alone.” It was a perfect scene I’d watched a million times on TV.
The drunk held his hands up. “I’m not doin’ no harm, am I buddy?” he said. I felt sorry for him and nodded for the barman to give him a drink. “Your funeral Mack,” the barman said and poured him a shot of whiskey.
Mooney held the piece of paper up for me to inspect; it was littered with eight-digit figures. At the bottom of the dilapidated page a figure had been underlined so many times the pen had bitten a hole through the paper. $2,000,000! He pointed to the figure, “What ya think of that then?”
“Looks good to me,” I said finishing my beer.
The drunk slammed the counter with his palm shattering the quietness. “You see Kaminski! You see!” he shouted, waving the paper under the barman’s nose. “My buddy knows what I’m talking about,” he took a little bow, “and you said I was talkin’ through my ass.”
The barman steadied himself with two meaty hands on the counter’s edge. “You shout at me again Mooney and they’ll be feedin’ you through your ass. Now get the hell outta here. Come back when you’re sober.”
Mooney gulped the drink from the glass and staggered, head-down towards the door. If he had a tail it would have been wedged firmly between his legs. With the door half open he turned back, “Fuck you Kaminski,” he hissed, “when I’m ridin’ high again you’ll be knockin on my door beggin’ for crumbs.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Kaminski waved him away. “And when I’m screwin’ Madonna you’ll be still be an asshole!”
When the door slammed I ordered another beer. “Who’s your friend?” I asked.
“Who, Mooney?” he answered as if nothing had just happened. “Him? He used to be a big shot in Chemical Bank, until he fell in love.” Kaminski lifted his hand pretending to drink from a bottle. “Son of a bitch married my late sister…”
A couple of bars later at the corner of 2nd and 52nd, I heard a piano. Four or five couples waited outside in the freezing January night, a cloud of breath hung on the air illuminated by red neon. ‘MIMI’S PIANO BAR’ the sign announced. When I rubbed the fogged window pane the wet glass made the scene inside look like a smudged Picasso cartoon.
“You lookin’ for a table sir?” A doorman appeared from somewhere looking like he’d just been chiseled from granite.
“Not really,” I said, “just a beer and some reasonably sane company.”
The son of Hercules opened the door, “well then,” he said, “it’s your lucky night sir, you’ve come to the right place.”
“…at the Copa, Copa Cabana, the hottest spot South of Havana…” wheezed the piano player; a sixty-something-year-old man wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit-bowl head-dress and a pink feather boa.
Standing at the busy bar everyone was getting served but me.
“Hey guy,” the bar-maid finally shouted, “you wanna drink or did you just come here to stare at my tits?”
“Can I do both?” I asked.
A fat white-man with thick black curls slapped the bar and laughed. He turned and held out his hand to me. “Let me shake your hand buddy,” he said, “she’s had that comin’ for a long time.”
He told me his name was Lou and bought me a beer. Then he told me his life story; but he made it quick so I didn’t mind too much. Lou had been a hat-maker all his life.
That must have been interesting I lied.
“Interesting?” he looked sideways at me. “Interesting? Are you shittin’ me? Forty-one God-damn years making hats for sons-of-bitches who wouldn’t know a Homburg from a hyena’s ass… The only INTERESTING part was two years ago when I sold the whole damn thing. Now THAT was interesting. Hey Sweetie,” he shouted, another couple of beers over here.”
In the background the piano player warbled the first lines of “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”; he’d changed the fruit head-dress for a peroxide-blonde wig and a pout as big as Central Park. Draped across the baby grand he looked like a cat on a hot window-sill.
“Who’s the piano player?” I asked Lou.
“That’s Chicken, Chicken Delicious, but his real name’s Hunter. Say, where you from buddy, Mars?”
“Ireland,” I said.
“Hey Chicken,” Lou shouted, “We got a Mick over here who wants to sing.”
Chicken swapped the wig for a green bowler with an over-sized shamrock on the front. I sang Danny Boy. The crowd cheered and Lou bought me another beer.
When I’d finished singing the bar-maid took me to one side. I thought I’d done something wrong.
“Not bad Irish,” she said with a smile, “your first time in the City?”
“That’s just fine,” she said taking me in from head to toe. “Why don’t you stick around for a while,” she winked, “this place could always do with one more crazy!”