The other day Richie and I met for lunch in the city. He trained in from Bay Ridge; I, from New Jersey. A slightly longer journey for me.
We’d settled on a downtown mainstay of ours, an East Village coffee shop popular with students and known for its blintzes and Old World soups. Richie seems happy enough with the place and makes no objection whenever I suggest it. If we never tried another establishment, he’d keep returning without batting an eye.
“Food is food,” he likes to say with heavy-lidded boredom. “It’s either good”—he chops the air once on his right—“or bad”—the same hand chops the air on his left.
He found me waiting when he toddled in with a folded Daily News under his arm. He was wearing his trusty hat, of course—a battered old cap that was once dark blue but now inclines to a sooty black. A cap with character, especially the bill, which Richie has molded with the loving care of a potter at his wheel. The resulting shape is a curl so exquisite the corners practically encircle his eyes. A curl like this doesn’t form overnight but like good wine is years in the making. Richie’s eyes, set deep in their sockets, appear all the more so, like a raccoon’s, when staring out from under this curl. He often wears the cap while eating and right on through to the end of the meal. On such occasions I have a chance to study the famous bill up close and follow its sculpted curving line from end to end and back again. It never fails to fascinate me, like the wing of a plane.
That’s not to say I love or even like Richie’s hat, which may well fly on his home turf in Bay Ridge but seems all wrong for our East Village haunt. The men with hats on who walk in the door here tend to favor three main styles: the knitted beanie, the natty fedora, and the Yankees cap with flat-dish brim. Richie’s hat, alone of this bunch, symbolizes Trump’s America, drawing all eyes to him, and to me along with him. The few times he’s taken it off on entering, I’ve quietly breathed a huge sigh of relief.
But it’s more than the hat that sets us apart.
We were shown to the only available table; we’d arrived at the height of the lunch-hour rush. As Richie eased himself down, after a brief look around, he tossed out a grinning comment he’s made many times.
“We’re the oldest two people in here, Howie.”
This is a joke, a joke on us, a couple of guys in their early 60s. But behind the joke is something else: self-congratulation. After all this time, here we are still kicking, surrounded by diners still in their 20s, the noisy and frolicking Young of Manhattan.
When reading the menu, we broke out our glasses with a fussy clicking and clacking of stems. While the waiter stood by cooling his heels, we repeated the action when placing our order. We chose the plainer, sensible fare, leaving to vibrant younger stomachs the fried pierogi and other such goodies.
When the waiter finally hurried off and Richie and I were alone again, he pulled out the old-fashioned flip-phone he uses and held it dramatically before my eyes.
“You see this phone, Howie? It’s on right now, but I’m turning it off. There, you see? It’s powering off. I don’t need to have it on 24/7, like these fucking Millennials. It’s a sickness, Howie. When I see people coming down the street toward me looking at their phones, I put my shoulder down and walk right into them on purpose. Men or women, I don’t fucking give a shit. You walk down the street, you better watch where you’re going. In restaurants or at the movies I see couples sitting together but not talking to each other. He’s looking at his phone and she’s looking at her phone. Whatever happened to conversation? To the exchange of ideas? It’s a shame, a fucking shame.
“Yes, I have a cell phone, but I’m not addicted to it. Friends of mine say to me, ‘Is that your phone?’ They’re smirking, right? I say to them real quiet and slow, ‘Have you got a problem with my phone? I can make calls with it, I can text with it. Do you know how much I pay for my plan? Fifteen dollars a month. How much do you pay for your phone?’ They don’t know how to take me. ‘Hey, Richie, I’m just saying.’ ‘What, what are you saying?’ Anyway, they don’t make cracks about my phone after that.”
There was something I wanted to broach at lunch having to do with this phone in his hand. In the course of any given week, my own cheap flip-phone will sound off numerous times with text messages from Richie. Some take the form of a trivia quiz. “In what year was the Nobel Prize for literature first awarded, and who was the recipient?” was one recent question. Another was: “Who is the only Major League player to have two 50-or-more home-run seasons 10 years apart?” Sometimes he’ll try to stump me with a word. (“What is a wastrel? Don’t cheat.”) He’s also keen on passing along the titles of old foreign films. (“You must see Ozu’s Tokyo Story. One of the all-time greats!”)
If these kinds of text message account for half his output, the other half is given over to screeds against the Left. To give an example from February 1: “The Dems are going to ‘resist’ the Dreamers right out of the country… I really can’t watch the news, especially CNN.” And then there was this from February 9: “The Dems are against a military parade. What’s wrong with them? They just go against everything, even if it’s good.”
I almost never respond to the screeds, and both these cases were no exception. But then came this on February 12: “This ‘me too’ b.s. is getting out of control and has turned into McCarthyism. Shame, ruining men’s careers and staining their reps and lives. You see how things are swinging too far the other way? The other day I told this middle-aged woman she had a great ass. She said, ‘Thank you. You made my day. Glad there are still men like you walking around.’”
I immediately sent a text in reply: “When we meet for lunch on Friday, pal, I want to hear more about you and this middle-aged woman.”
For the rest of the day and the days that followed, I marveled over Richie’s temerity. Even in my younger days, long before the current terror, I never told a strange woman she had a nice ass. What would my life be like, I wondered, if I, like Richie, had grown up the son of a small-time Brooklyn gangster known as Nutsy? Whenever I make the trek out to Bay Ridge at Richie’s friendly invitation, it’s as if I’m stepping back in time into a vanished world. We’re constantly told by those in the media that the Mafia is a “casualty of changing times,” a thing dead and gone. But here in The World That Time Forgot, the last stop on the R line, the old ways endure as if the calendar never changed. As I stroll down 4th Ave. alongside Richie, the hushed word “connected” drops from his mouth as we tiptoe past certain restaurants and bars. It’s surprising how often the word tumbles out in the space of only a few short blocks.
And over here is the barbershop where Richie gets his haircut, and past whose window he recently paraded in the company of a traveler visiting from Spain, a young mujer he’d met in the city and brought with him back to Bay Ridge for the night. She was almost 40 years his junior and had never heard of Bay Ridge, and now here she was with her new-found friend, the two of them promenading along. When he walked in the following day for a haircut, well before his expected return, he was instantly hailed as a conquering hero by Rocco the owner and his two assistants.
And over there is the recently-opened, Korean-run massage parlor where Richie went for a rub and tug on a neighbor’s recommendation. His young masseuse had limited English. Upon completing her back massage as Richie lay prone, with only a bathrobe to cover his nakedness, she ever so gently inserted her hand in the narrow gap between his thighs. “Yokay?” she asked as he felt her hand; to which he answered, “Yes, OK.” And so began a little duet of high and low voices. With every assent, her hand crept forward, followed by a lilting “Yokay?” She must’ve said it 20 times before it was all over. He gave her $60 plus a $20 tip. And not one to forget his manners, he thanked his neighbor when he saw him next.
Richie put his phone away, stuffing it back in his hip pocket, and a short time later our food came out. I let him get started on his hot turkey sandwich, a good-sized portion cut in two, with a scoop of mashed potatoes on the side. It wasn’t until he’d polished off the first half-sandwich and appeared to be resting before round two that I saw my opening and seized the moment.
“So tell me about this woman you saw with the great ass.”
Richie grinned across the table and repositioned his cap, raising it above his matted hair and settling it into place again. He flicked a side-glance over each shoulder, then leaned forward, elbows on table.
“I met this black woman. Early 50s maybe. She was flirting with me.”
“Where was this?”
“This was in the city. At a place.”
“And all this time I thought it was in Bay Ridge. I thought it was only still possible in Bay Ridge to tell a woman she has a great ass. And what do you mean by a ‘place’? You mean like a restaurant or bar?”
“Yeah, yeah. It was in a bar.”
“I thought you didn’t drink.”
“I don’t. I was having a club soda.”
“You were alone?”
“Yeah, I was alone. I was waiting for somebody.”
“You’re being very mysterious.”
“You sound like you’re being very mysterious.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“You don’t want to talk about why you were at the bar.”
“Right, right, right. So she came in, sat down, ordered. What the fuck did she order? She ordered some fucking drink I never heard of. I don’t remember. If I were a bartender now like I was in the old days I wouldn’t know what it is. I’d say, ‘Excuse me, I only know what a screwdriver is, and a Harvey Wallbanger and a grasshopper and a stinger.’ I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. So anyway, she was attractive, sexy, whatever. So we were talking, whatever. I said, ‘What do you think about this “Me too” situation? I mean it’s justifiable these men pay for what they did. But don’t you think like, for example’—I mentioned that one comedian that it was hearsay that he said something or did something or whatever, and nothing proved. I forget his name. I said, ‘I think it’s a shame that some men—their names are being dropped and they’re automatically included like they did it, they did it, they did it. I think that’s a shame, that’s not right.’
“You know, Howard, the Right and Left in politics, everything swings one way, and then it gets so far over that way—boom, it springs back. Right? You know what I mean. It’s like fashion. One day, bell bottoms, right? And all of a sudden it springs so far—goodbye, bell bottoms. But then it springs back to bell bottoms. It’s all bullshit. So I said, ‘Where do you live?’ I go, ‘You’re a very, very, very attractive lady.’—‘Oh, thank you.’ Buh buh buh buh buh. Now I knew I could throw it in.”
“What?” I couldn’t tell if he said “throw” or “tow.”
“Now I knew I could say what I was about to say. You understand? She opened the door with her sense of humor and with her whatever. I go, ‘Let’s keep this low, OK? Between you and me. I gotta tell you—you got a great ass.’ And she went, ‘Ohhh. It’s good to hear that every once in a while.”
I caught myself laughing just like Billy Bush. Richie went on: “We didn’t hook up. She wasn’t showing me signs, like, Hey, why don’t we… That type of thing. Anyway, I’m no longer in it for the sex, man. It’s not worth the hassle and the travel and all that other shit. I’m done with that. The rest of my time is for myself. Listen, I’ve gotten laid all over the world, in different languages, different colors. Sex is nothing new for me. I know what an orgasm is. Now the other side of it—like the companionship and the genuine love and concern—that’s a different story. You know what I mean? I don’t know why men would want to be with women just for the sexual companionship when they don’t get along, they argue, but they fuck good in bed. I mean, is it worth it?
“Like you and your wife, right? I guarantee you, when you guys met, you didn’t jump in bed the next day. You got to know each other and you realized you liked each other, became friends and buh buh buh. Which is the way it should be. I mean, if it went that way, wouldn’t this be a better world? Wouldn’t there be kids brought into the world only out of love, with a plan? As opposed to two people meeting on a Monday, fucking on a Tuesday; the sex was hot so they think they love each other; they get married and have kids and then they go the other way. You know what I mean?”
By now the grin had left my face. I could only agree with my friend from Bay Ridge. Wasn’t he himself the product of just such a union? “My mother was a whore,” he’d told me once. Was the memory of that woman too close to him again?
“So what’d you think of the Super Bowl?” he asked.