Thunder peels down the canyons of cement, echoing from the edifices above, stern with the cold sunlight of another March afternoon. The Leathernecks were out in force today, or as Pointman, our dreadlocked Rastafarian warrior-poet would say, ‘on patrol’, as if lower Manhattan secretly harbored a hidden rice paddy or two, freshly remembered from his youth. Ironically, it was indeed Vietnam that drew us out of our toasty living rooms and into the crisp early spring day, although an observance ceremony at Veterans Plaza, and not some somnambulant Tet Offensive sprung from our leader’s teenage memories.
Perhaps it was the solemn nature of the occasion, or reading the letters home, carved in the Wall, from long dead boys stranded on the other side of the world, but we were all more jazzed up than usual afterwards, ready to drown those secondhand nightmares in bourbon and beer and overpriced cheeseburgers. We descended upon the Village like Khan and his Mongol hordes, albeit wreathed in motorcycle exhaust instead of the frozen breath of steppe-raised warhorses.
The afternoon slipped by like a child’s top, spinning faster, a blur of shots and irish car bombs and the sound of raw engines, the freeze frame image of tourists photographing us as we roared through Soho and Tribeca, hopping from one dive bar to another, slowly working our way down until nothing was left but rock bottom and the Brooklyn Bridge, welcoming us home. It was sometime just before that final call, nestled down in the Lower East Side, that I found myself bellied up to another darkwood polished bar, awash with Jack Daniels and perma-grin and the camaraderie of my brothers, and that was when she walked through the door.
In my favorite film noir movies, black and white and sophisticated shadows, that moment would have been frozen, the music stopping suddenly, the camera panning and moving in for that sudden close-up, the blur focusing on her angelic face, transfixed. Perfect. That never happens in real life, of course, but there I was, mesmerized, the shot glass mid-air, forgotten.
She stood perfectly upright, poised, graceful, her delicately sculpted lips moving as she ordered a drink, her voice unheard by my dumbstruck ears, lost in the background music of the darkened bar. And then she smiled, and it was as if sunlight burst into that murky room, real sunlight, not that cruel echo of early spring that clothed the city like tarnished steel, but summer borne, full of life and hope, heavy with the smell of clover and the drone of drowsy bees, rich with the laughter of distant children. It was the kind of smile that makes you smile back, reflexively, even if you are not the subject of her conversation, the corner of your eyes crinkling helplessly, charmed.
I watched her the rest of the time we were there, between the jokes and the war stories with my brothers, stealing glances, amazed, hypnotized each time. Her hair was resplendent in the light from the window, and it was somehow perfect that the only patch of sunlight in the gloom would grace her thin, elfin face.
And then it was time to go. I had to say something, so I stumbled over and asked her name, and I think I smiled as she told me. I have no idea what I said in return, I can only hope it was something appropriate and gracious—hell, I may not have said anything at all, but only careened out of the door after the other Leathernecks.
But as we rode out across the bridge, the wind sharp now, cutting, as the sun dipped into the East River and the Saturday afternoon odyssey slipped into night, one thing kept repeating itself in my mind.
That, and the memory of that incredible smile, and the way it lit up that small dark room, somewhere in the back streets of the Lower East Side.
“Hey, ya wan’ somethin’ ta eat?”
Magic words for bikers and former Marines, and all the more potent when uttered by a woman. I turned to look at her, beer bottle poised halfway to my mouth, my ears perking up like those of an emaciated Doberman.
She asked me again, and flashed a brilliant smile at the end of the question, a sudden white expanse that lit up the small dingy bar so brightly that it was almost alarming. She had the kind of face that made you think you must have known her for a long time, but just had never gotten around to talking to before. Pretty, friendly, in a suburban kind of way. Nice, but with a sense of toughness just below the surface, in that wary way that women over forty seem to have always developed around themselves. One of the guys, y’know, or ,more likely, one of the guy’s wives.
“Uh, sure…” I answered.
She turned in a swirl of brunette, seventies curled hair, and disappeared into the next room, swallowed up by some magic show/kid’s birthday party/low level riot that was playing out somewhere in the back of the building. I went back to my beer and Jack Daniels, and playing the role of the day.
I was at the Marine Corps League on Staten Island, and the role of the day was the Big Bad Biker. The Marine Corps League doubles as the clubhouse of my motorcycle club, the Leathernecks—a small, motley group of characters whose only common denominator is that we are all former Marines.
I was there for a meeting or something; hell, I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter, since what we mostly do at the League is drink. The liquor is cheap, there are automatic weapons bolted to the wall, and a good amount of camaraderie floating around the old men hunched within the small, smoke choked room. The place fairly reeks of gun oil and tough love. To me, it feels something like home.
She reappeared a few minutes later, sliding a overloaded plate of party food to me between the Rastafarian warrior-poet on my left (Pointman, the Vice President of my MC), and the pudgy blonde chick on my right, the one I had been sort of listlessly flirting with a moment before. I turned to thank her, but she had already disappeared, those Farrah Fawcett curls fading into the grey smoke of the bar.
One of the things that always fascinates me is the way in which people meet. Oh, not for a business meeting or a school class, or even, necessarily, for a one night stand. No, I mean romantically, when that kernel grows into something meaningful and longer, when that woman who smiles upon you in the dark turns into the one person that rules your nights.
I mean, seriously, think about it for a minute. You might well not exist at all, if your mom had not happened to imbibe one too many beers while sitting next to your dad in that smoke filled rathskeller in Germany in 1962. And if he didn’t happen to make that one really funny joke, the one that made him laugh and look, just for a moment, like Sterling Moss—then it never would have happened. You, and all your brothers and sisters, would never have been. I guess that’s why I always like hearing about how people meet, of those fumbling words and hesitant trading of information, all with no inkling of the possible futures hanging in the balance of that first tentative smile
Some people talk about the banality of evil, I think about the banality of romance.
I saw her next two weeks later, at the League, in the middle of a riotous biker party, sponsored, of course, by my own MC. She pulled up a bar stool with a flip of her Charlie’s Angels hair, determinedly unfazed by the jostling biomass of testosterone around us.
“So, whatcha doin’?” She had this outrageous Brooklyn accent, as thick and delicious as a Rueben from some Crown Heights deli. It was both comfortingly familiar and intriguingly alien at the same time, as if all the New York movies of my childhood had fused together and somehow deposited this amiable gangster moll in my leather clad lap.
I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to batten down that accent, to learn it’s hidden rules and regulations, to copy the way that it slips and ducks around my teeth and tongue, clipped and abbreviated and with long elongated vowels at strange junctions, but all to no avail. I’m acutely aware that I’m way off in any attempt to copy it, the same way Air Force kids used to make fun of my British accent as a child, so I won’t even try here. Ironically, in those B-movies and TV shows, I hated the Brooklyn accent, but here, in person and with green/brown eyes behind the brogue, it was captivating. It also turned out that she worked for the NYPD, a fact that matched perfectly with her demeanour and that Robert De Niro accent.
We sat there most of the afternoon and into the early evening doldrums of that June evening, making easy small talk. The biker party raged and crashed around us, thick with June humidity and blaring sunshine through the swinging bar door, AC/DC cover songs swelling and fading in rhythmn, until the day finally retreated into the sunset amid the last few blatting exhausts. She was easy to talk to, in an aloof and slightly disconnected sort of way, so much so that I wasn’t sure if she was interested in me, or just happened to have an inordinately large amount of time to kill that day. That is, at least until Pointman suggested that we take a run to Coney Island.
Pointman, as I mentioned before, is the Vice President of my Motorcycle Club (MC). He, naturally, is a Marine–but unlike any Marine you have ever met. Pointman is Black–a notable oddity within diehard Biker clubs–with a massive wreath of braided dreadlocks streaming down around his shoulders. He always wears a red bandanna with his leather biker vest, which is filthy dirty, veritably screaming of long miles on the road and nights spent in dubious locales. The bandanna goes with the massive gold belt buckle that he always wears, and cowboy boots, and, upon occasion, battered cowboy hat. He is, in fact, a key member of the Federation of Black Cowboys–and even more improbably, is both a licensed social worker and a college professor.
He is the one man I know who channels Renaissance Man and schizophrenia better than I.
Anyway, Pointman ended up sitting with us, sucking on VSOP cognac and his everpresent Cuban cigar, its grey choking smoke wreathing around his beard, making him look like some post-apocalyptic african Gandalf.
“Cha-cha’s.” He grunted. “Margaritas.”
A splendid idea! Cha-chas is our hang-out on Coney Island, just a short walk down the boardwalk from the iconic parachute drop tower. It’s a delicous dive bar of a place, it’s walls strewn with signed portfolio pictures of unknown stars, dilapidated starfish, torn fishing nets, and the occasional bra and panties. It’s the only bar on the entire island where you can actually sit on the boardwalk, and so is a perfect place to people watch. Point and I had claimed it a couple of summers ago, and are in the process of slowly turning it into a biker bar, with the help of a couple of other local MCs.
She said she had never been on the back of a bike before; those sharp green/brown eyes direct and wide. She’d give it a try, though, and a few minutes later we were roaring across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, coasting down into the wide arms of Brooklyn. I love the Verrazano, as it has one of the best views in the entire City, and indeed, it was here that I got my first view of my new home. The bridge towers above the Hudson, linking Staten Island and Brooklyn, and from its apex it is possible to see everything from Coney Island, to the Statue of Liberty, to the Empire State Building. At night, particularly, that gently curving expanse feels like a glidepath, flying gracefully down into the scattered constellations below. Her arms were tight around me, and yet she moved perfectly in synch with the movement of the motorcycle and I. Pointman led the way, keeping within the rank structure of the MC, his dreadlocks flowing back from underneath his German war helmet, stogie chomped determinedly between his teeth. The City, wide and ripe and free in the early Summer evening, opened beneath us, and I had that delicious sense of not knowing where the night would lead.
………………..to be continued.