I met a man, once, in the dead of night, at a small unnamed bar on the lower east side of Manhattan. He wasn’t special in any way and certainly had little charm or charisma about him. He was short and absolutely forgettable, contrary to the fact that I will never forget him. His name was James Grey.
He drank J&B with ice piled atop to dilute the stale flavor. His weathered hands gripped the glass like every man around him might try to steal it. I hadn’t intended to sit next to anyone or strike up conversation that night. I had been exiled from my apartment on the other side of town. My girlfriend, whom I had just moved in with two weeks prior, was having her mother and sister over for dinner. I had not yet met them and wasn’t ready to do so.
James sat next to me after being asked to move down two seats so a group of women celebrating the prettiest one’s promotion could sit next to each other. He ordered a fresh drink as he moved and asked if I was expecting anyone. Since I was not, he hopped on the stool directly to my right. Initially, I was a bit put off by his choosing the open spot next to me, as there were at least four other bar-side openings he could’ve picked. But something about him allowed me to instantly open up to him. He asked me if I was a Mets fan. I was (and still am) not. He said that’s all he needed to know to like me.
His laugh was raspy and crackled like a clove cigarette, which he smoked on the weekends only. During the week, he stuck to blended cigarettes, which he claimed were a stepping-stone towards quitting. The bartender, Jenny, asked him how long he had been trying to quit and he responded by ordering another J&B with extra ice. He turned to me and asked that I not tell her he’d been trying to quit for nearly ten years.
James was a pool shark but sucked at darts. He said this was because his left leg was two inches shorter than his right, an imbalance that allowed him to form a perfect forty six degree angle with the pool table (the optimal angle for cue stick to cue ball alignment, according to him), yet when it came to darts, a level shoulder line is not just helpful, it’s required. I watched when he limped to the bathroom, and it was true. His left shoe had a two-inch lift attached to the soul. I wondered if it was removable, so on the off chance he got roped into a game of nine-ball, he could drop old lefty and line up just right.
I marveled at his familiarity with not just the staff but with the building and the regulars. The bar, which to this day, I can’t remember the name of, opened in Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three on a Tuesday. Prior to that, it had been a butcher shop owned by a Jewish family that had escaped Poland before the war. The building had a problem with hot water, as such when tenants desired a bath, they had to heat water on the stove and add it to the lukewarm water the pipes supplied. Amazingly, old Mr. Grey knew this having never lived in the renovated brownstone.
He asked why I wasn’t ready to meet Amanda’s mother and sister, pointing out that it was going to happen sooner or later now that we were living together. I didn’t have a good answer for it. I was just nervous. I never knew how to act in those situations, which parts of myself to reveal and which to hide. I had, previously, met two girlfriend’s families, and neither meeting went well. I was so anxious throughout the encounters I couldn’t say or do anything. My mind flooded with questions. Should I help with dinner? Should I shake her hand or hug her? Should I tell them how much I care about their daughter? Should I show them my tattoo? Tell them I smoke pot? Ask them about family medical history? Do I hold her hand during coffee? Do I have a second drink? If I get warm, do I take off my sweater? James seemed to have an answer for each question. He answered quickly and with no judgment.
He warned an old woman named Janet, who had just entered, that she should not sit in a certain velvet-covered barstool that had been open since I had arrived. He said a man named Joe always sat there and that he would be arriving in three minutes. He was that exact. Elsewise, it wouldn’t stand out as extraordinary, because three minutes later, a very large man wearing a Jets varsity jacket over a Knicks sweatshirt topped by a Mets hat walked in and took that seat as proudly as Karl Gustav takes his thrown. James leaned over and made a joke to who I assumed was Joe about the Rangers winning. Joe did not find it funny. James was apparently privy to the fact that the Rangers were the only New York sports team that Joe did not hold affiliation to.
James hated mashed potatoes and enjoyed tartar sauce on his French fries. He watched two episodes of Happy Days before bed every night – the one where Ritchie and the boys form a band to raise money, but Potsie loses it all in a poker game and Howard has to win it back, and the one where The Fonz refuses to accept a Christmas gift that had arrived from his estranged father. James had them taped on VHS and was concerned that the tape would soon wear out, and he would be forced to adjust his nightly ritual. He played the Lotto every other day but never on the weekends. He hadn’t been to church in years; he went to a Catholic high school and felt he met his quota then. He collected old AAA batteries and was sure that his collection would, one day, land him in Guinness. He repainted one room of his apartment every other month. By the end of each calendar year, the entire apartment had received a fresh coat. He had just painted his kitchen Rust Red. Joe made a joke about the color, but it wasn’t very funny, and James opted not to acknowledge it.
His opinion over the family reunion going on at my apartment was that I should go join them near the end of the evening. That it would mean a lot to Amanda (which it did). He had been married once and never divorced. He used to bring home one flower each night for twelve straight nights on the occasions he wanted to buy his wife flowers. He felt buying a dozen at once was wasteful. He thought I should try it. I thought it was a strange but great idea.
I spilled a bit of beer on my pants and went to the bathroom to dry them off. When I returned, James Grey was gone. He had ordered me another beer, paid our tab, finished his J&B, and snuck out as though he had never been there.
I met a man, once, in the dead of night, at a small unnamed bar on the lower east side of Manhattan. He wasn’t special in any way and certainly had little charm or charisma about him. But, James Grey, on that November night that was far warmer than it should’ve been, opened himself up to me, allowed me to see who he was, what he was, and how he was, without apology or concern. He was simply himself, for which I will always be grateful.