November 5, 2006

The Noblest Roman of Them All

Not too long ago, I began corresponding with a Canadian blindo by the name of Ryan Knighton. Ryan had just released a sharp and funny memoir called Cockeyed, which concerned growing up in the ‘80s with both retinitis pigmentosa (same eye disease that I have) and a punk rock attitude. We’re of the same generation, we have similar backgrounds, we’ve been through a number of similar situations, so it was little surprise to find that we share a lot of the same attitudes and tastes—as well as the same ornery sense of humor.

      Well, the publicity bandwagon for his book was still chugging along, and one day I received a note from—can you imagine?—another Canadian. This one wasn’t blind, though. He was a producer for the Canadian branch of the Bravo! Channel (called, oddly enough, “Bravo! Canada”). He was putting together a piece on Ryan for a magazine show, and was wondering if I might be willing to offer up a few profound insights on camera. One blind writer talking about another—what a ratings bonanza that would be!

      I’m no fan of cameras of any sort, so my initial reflex was to dismiss him with a brusque wave of the hand. I’d had an Italian fellow with a video camera in my apartment  a few weeks earlier, asking all sorts of questions and looking at things, but nice as he was, I’d vowed never to let another video camera in my apartment again.

      Then I reconsidered and agreed to be on the show. Ryan was one of the good ones, he’d written a swell book I was happy to promote, and most important of all, I had nothing else to do.

      I called Mike, the manager of the bar Morgan and I began calling home over the summer, and asked if he would mind a small camera crew in there for an hour or two. It was a quiet place, it was comfortable, there was room enough that we wouldn’t bother anyone, and I’d have ready access to beer without having to worry about the crew swiping stuff. Plus, these were Canadians for godsakes—how much harm could they do?

      Mike was cool with the idea, so I arranged to meet the Bravo! guy at the bar early on a Saturday afternoon. When the day arrived, I headed over to the bar early, just to get a calmative in me before they showed. (I really, really hate cameras.) They were coming straight from the airport to the bar, so lord knew how long it would take them.

      The place was quiet, as I expected, but not so quiet that someone hadn’t taken my usual seat. With a mild grumble, I felt my way three stools down and sat. The bartender—a big, robust guy with a twist of cynicism and no patience for bullshit—set my beer in front of me.

      “So those guy are comin’ huh?”

      “So they say.”

      “And they’re from Bravo!?”

      “Well, they’re from Bravo! Canada.”

      The bartender was quiet for just a moment.

      “Who could’ve guessed?” he said. Then he went away.

      After he left, there was no escaping the conversation at the end of the bar, where I should’ve been sitting. I thought at first it was two friends gabbing merrily away, but upon more careful scrutiny, it turned out to be just one woman on her cell phone, talking enough for two. I decided to concentrate on the beer in front of me instead. Some forms of brain damage are better than others.

      A few minutes later she was standing next to me.

      “Do you know where I could get some cigarettes around here?” she asked. “Is there anything down that way?”

      “I’m really sorry ma’am,” I said. “But I can’t tell which way you’re pointing.” By way of explanation, I reached down and slid the cane part way out of my bag.

      “Oh—” she said. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t—”

      “Yes, yes, fine—just go two blocks down this way,” I said, pointing myself. “There’s a bodega across the street.”

      “Great...and um, if the bartender comes back? Could you tell him I’m just going out for cigarettes? And that I’ll be right back? He has my card.”

      Card? I never fully trusted people who used credit cards in a bar, for some reason. Especially when they were in my seat.


      Moments after she left and after I turned back to my beer, I felt a hand touch my arm. “Jim?’ a voice asked.

      Jesus, I thought, can’t a man drink in peace?

      “Ahhh...yeah?” I said.

      The two-man crew had arrived much earlier than expected. They’d caught me off guard.

      The producer was a small bald man with a heavy French-Canadian accent. He was wearing a leather jacket. The cameraman, a burly sort, sounded like he could’ve come from Kansas. At least up until he first uttered the word “out.”

      (“I’ll go check the place oot,” he said, after I told him we’d be shooting in the back.)

      It would take him a while to set up, so the producer slid into the stool next to me. The bartender returned.

      “What can I get you?” he asked.

      “Oh,” the producer said with that French accent of his, “do you suppose I could get a Caesar?”

      I winced, and briefly considered moving one seat down.

      There was a long silence before the bartender finally said “No...I’m sorry, but we don’t serve food here.”

      “Oh, no no no—” the producer said. “It’s a drink. It’s like a Bloody Mary, but with gin instead of vodka, and clamato juice instead of tomato juice.”

      There was an even longer silence before the bartender said, “No, I’m not doing that.”

      “Excuse me?”

      “We, uhh, we don’t keep clamato juice on hand.”

      “Oh, I see.”

      I knew better. Well, not about the clamato juice—I had no doubts they didn’t have it on hand—I mean, why would they? But I got the impression that even if they did, he wouldn’t have made a foofy drink like that. It’s against his character.

      Weeks earlier, Morgan had seen another bartender in this same bar simply flat out refuse to make someone a mojito on sheer principle. I could appreciate that.

      “Howabout,” the bartender offered, “I make you a Bloody Mary instead?”

      “Yes, I guess that would be fine,” the producer said. “But could I get it with gin instead of vodka? And could you make it Bombay Sapphire?”

      I winced again. They seemed like nice fellows, they really did. But he was going to get himself killed if he kept this up.

      Now, as for the Bloody Mary, Morgan had gotten one from this bartender once, and it’s quite a feat. There’s more food stuffed into the glass than liquid. Celery, olives, pickles, hot peppers, lord knows what else. It’s like a damp salad. I kept my mouth shut.

      The producer and I discussed his flight, New York, the show he worked on, the other interviews he would be doing while he was in town, The piece he was doing on Ryan, he said, would clock in at a full seven minutes, which meant that my contribution would likely be, oh, about fifteen seconds tops. It seemed an awful lot of effort to go through—coming to a bar in Brooklyn, setting up—for fifteen seconds of video. But what the hell? Like I said, I had no other plans. My only hope was that I would say something semi-coherent enough to use.

      To guard against this possibility, I asked the bartender for another pint after he’d hauled the Bloody Mary over.

      “My god,” the producer said as he contemplated the glass in front of him. Then he stopped talking, and started eating.

      The woman at the end of the bar returned with her cigarettes, and got on her cell phone again.

      A few minutes later, I felt something sprinkling on me from above. A light mist on my hands and forearms and head. I instinctively covered my beer. I thought for a moment there was a leak in the ceiling and looked up, pointlessly.

      “Ooooh!—did that hit you?” the producer slurred with a giggle. “I was just pulling this pepper apart.”

      His drink was starting to kick in awfully fast. I wondered if a Caesar would’ve gone to his head in quite the same way. Maybe it was the peppers.

      He took another sip. He was becoming loquacious and happy-go-lucky. I began thinking that it might turn out to be an interesting interview after all, if he didn’t pass out first.

      I had another pint, glad that he’d stopped spraying me with juice for the moment. We’d see what happened when he reached the pickle.

      “This is really quite a...quite a drink,” he said.

      “I should’ve warned you.”

      “I think...” he said, “I think I may ask you some questions about happiness, too—I’m doing another piece on a psychologist who just wrote a book about...happiness.”


      The woman on the cell phone waved the bartender over.

      “Do you know the number for the police?” she asked.

      My ears pricked up. Uh-oh, I thought.

      “What precinct?” the bartender asked.

      “I’m not sure—I live in Queens and—”

      The whole story came out of her quickly. It turns out that during that obnoxious chirpy cell phone conversation, she’d learned that her ex-boyfriend had broken into her apartment, and was trashing the place as we were all sitting there. At that very moment, he was knocking things over and pulling things out of drawers. She seemed awfully—and oddly—calm about the whole thing. I mean, there she sat.

      “I really love this bar,” the producer leaned over and whispered.

      Just as the bartender suggested, simply enough, that the woman call 911, the cameraman returned to let us know he was all set. The producer drained his glass, I grabbed mine to take with me, and we all made our slow, wobbly way to the back room, where the cameras were waiting.


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