by JIM KNIPFEL
August 11, 2019
St. Nick in Soho
“Jim!” a gruff voice barked when I stepped through the glass door. It seemed I was in the right place, much to my surprise.
“Nick!” I barked back.
“Yeah,” he said. We’d never met before, and though I knew what he looked like twenty-five or thirty years ago, that did me no good now. So beforehand I’d told him to keep his eyes open for the blind guy with the red and white cane, hoping a bunch of cripples fitting that description didn’t descend on the bar that afternoon. They apparently hadn’t.
He was sitting against the wall, the last stool at the bar, and I felt my way to the stool next to him. After stashing the cane and the cap, I felt around the top of the bar to get my general bearings. My hand stopped when it touched something. It was small and glass and rectangular. The sides were angled and in the middle was a raised strip of glass with notches.
“Is this an actual ashtray?” I asked him.
“It is,” he replied.
“Meaning I can smoke.”
After a meaningful pause as this settled in, I whispered, “I have seen the promised land.”
“We’ve both been there,” he noted sagely.
We were on one of those crazy, tiny, tangled side streets in Soho, just north of Canal, in one of the very last bars in New York where smoking remained legal. We couldn’t have met in any more appropriate venue. He was smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of expensive port. I lit a cigarette and ordered a beer, which arrived in a wine glass. When the bartender returned with the change from the bill I’d laid down, I realized this wine glass of beer had cost me about twice as much as it would have in any other bar, and in those other bars it would have arrived in a pint glass. Well, I guess you have to pay in one way or another for the privilege of smoking in a civilized manner in this godforsaken town.
“I don’t drink beer anymore,” Nick said. “I’ve drunk enough beer in my time to turn a ship.”
Nick, I would soon learn, was drinking a bottle of rare forty-year-old port he’d brought from home. “Only three Bars in the city carry it,” he told me. “And if I bought it there it’d cost me eighty dollars a glass. So I buy it by the case. It’s still expensive, but I do enjoy it.” In other words he was sitting there with his own bottle and his own cigars, not giving the bar a dime. The bartender kept his distance and didn’t say a word, which told me Nick was cool and tough enough to get away with it.
“So how goes it?” I asked.
“It goes,” he replied solemnly. I got the sense he’d been there a spell before I arrived, even though I arrived on time. “So,” he asked after a moment. “Why is it we’re here, exactly, other than to enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company?”
I wasn’t certain of the answer. Over a year ago—fifteen months to be precise—I’d contacted Nick out of the blue hoping he might be amenable to an interview for a fancy magazine. He was notoriously reluctant to give interviews, though he made the occasional exception. After hearing nothing back for three or four days, I figured I’d write it off as the proverbial college try. Then he responded, wanting to know how the hell I’d gotten my hands on his private email address. I was able to dodge that one deftly enough, not wanting to rat out any of the people we knew in common. Then, amazingly enough, he agreed to an interview. He told me he preferred to do such things by email, but suggested we could get together for a drink when it was over. We even set up a tentative date for the coming week.
He was sixty-eight at the time, a writer I’d been reading since the late Seventies. He was a literary giant, a hero of mine, and someone who held a prime spot in my own personal Pantheon, right up there with Pynchon, Celine, Beckett and Dostoevsky. In my giddy anticipatory euphoria, I composed a list of questions. Way too many questions spanning a fifty-year career. Although I had all of his books on the shelf, they served me no purpose anymore. Instead, as preparation I began listening to what few titles I could find in eBook editions, just as a reminder of what I was approaching. I was quickly reminded that what I was approaching was more than a little intimidating.
At least my timing had been good, I thought. For years he’d been talking publicly, both in his books and in interviews, about retiring from the writing game at sixty-five. And sure enough, his last novel had been released a few years earlier, and there hadn’t been a peep since. I knew traditionally that when he was working on something he focused on that exclusively, and shut out everything else. That he responded at all meant I’d clearly caught him at a good time.
Then on the eve of the interview, he wrote to tell me he had to postpone, and he couldn’t say for how long, because he’d quite unexpectedly fallen into a new project. Looked like that retirement had been a brief one.
Well, fuck me. He’d been known to work on books for decades or longer. The only glimmer of hope was that he hadn’t specified if he was working on a book or a magazine article. If it was the latter, he might only be tied up for eight or nine months.
What was I gonna do? Insist he put his own project on hold so we could do a stupid interview? He’d beat the shit out of me if I tried to pull some upstart crap like that. Having no choice in the matter, I dropped him a polite and understanding note, because I did understand. If he was working on a new book, that was far more important in the long run than another interview. After that I let him be, occupying myself with other things.
A year passed. Not having forgotten about our initial plans, I sent him another tentative note about the interview. If I got no response, that would be my answer.
Well, he responded with a friendly note later that afternoon, asking me to give him three more months and try again. I ended up giving him five months instead, because I was tied up with other nonsense and malarkey. When I finally could write him a note to check in, I was afraid I might have missed some brief and critical window of opportunity. I hadn’t, and he still remembered who I was. This was early June, and we began negotiating when we might get together.
Every time we had a tentative date, however, he had to cancel at the last minute for one unstated reason or another. This went on for weeks, and I was growing increasingly convinced it was never going to happen. One day, I figured, I’d simply stop hearing from him, and that would be that.
At last we hit on something, a date that stuck—an early Friday afternoon in late July, at a bar of his unwavering and adamant choosing in Soho. I’d heard his name in connection with the place before, so assumed it was either his home bar or the place he chose to conduct all his business. That was cool with me. If he was comfortable there, it made everything that much easier.
Now the problem was, I had no idea if this was supposed to be the interview, or if we were just getting together to get together. He’d said he preferred to do things by email, but since we hadn’t spoken specifically about the interview thing in a while, I wasn’t certain. If I showed up and pulled out a recorder and he wasn’t planning on an interview, it could be mighty awkward, bordering on the disastrous. And if he was expecting to do an interview (if only to be done with it and get me out of his hair), and I wasn’t prepared, that could be mighty awkward too. (“So . . . um, where did you buy that shirt?”)
The next question was simple logistics. I always get lost fast and good in those parts of New York City where the streets were laid out by drunkards and the deranged. So knowing there was no way in hell I’d be able to find that Soho bar on my own amid that web of little criss-crossing streets, the morning of the interview I arranged to have a car pick me up about an hour before the scheduled time. It was an unwelcome expense, but better than never finding the place at all. Then just to be on the safe side, I tossed the recorder in the bag and reviewed my year-old questions. If it turned out he was expecting an interview I’d be set, and if not I’d just leave the fucking recorder in the bag and not say a word about it.
Well, although the interview did come up, the recorder stayed in the bag. That was kind of a relief, giving me the chance to get something out of the way, purge it from my head when the time came to get down to business.
I’ve been in this situation before. When I stepped through the bar’s glass door and heard him bark my name, I confess I was in no little awe, right? The same awe that grabs me every time I meet one of my heroes one-on-one for the first time, these rare characters I consider giants. But that awe tends to subside in time if they refuse to play the role of giants, and instead opt to talk to me in simple human terms about most anything except what’s made them giants in my eyes.
On the other hand, the awe also tends to subside if they do play the role of the cultural giant, insisting we talk about nothing but what made them a giant in my eyes. In that case, however, the awe fades into contempt and loathing, and these giants quickly begin to shrink.
When I first step into a room with them, I never know which way it’s going to go, and I prefer to find out before I turn the recorder on.
Nick and I ended up talking about pretty much everything except his books, from the sad decline and fall of New York City—or what used to be New York City—to the increasing stupidity of the young, to the evils and virtues of the digital age, to the collapse of publishing, to the deterioration of the language, to the aggravations of simply trying to navigate the streets of Manhattan when you’re stuck using a cane, as both of us were. Along the way I also learned that he didn’t know how to type, and had written all of his books—over twenty of them—pecking at the keys with a single index finger.
“There are three other people here sitting at the bar,” he said. You can see the shift in the hue. They’re all sitting there staring at screens. Two of them are together, but they haven’t spoken a word. They’re just staring at these machines of theirs. This is what’s become of humanity.”
Traffic outside the bar was at a dead standstill, and had been since I first arrived.
“All these people get in their cars and sit there for three hours,” Nick said. “Trying to get from one place they hate to another place they hate, and they can’t wait to get there.”
Three hours passed very quickly, even though it was hard to get that bartender’s attention. Probably for the best, considering how much each thimble of beer was costing me. It was a fine time, and I even drew a chuckle or two out of a notoriously misanthropic author.
When it came time for me to head back to Brooklyn, the issue then became one of how the fuck to find a cab in Soho on a late Friday afternoon when no cars were moving? Maybe I’d get lucky and stumble into a subway stop, but knew I couldn’t count on it. Nick remained on his stool against the wall at the end of the bar when I headed out, but he counseled me to take a left once I hit the sidewalk. That was my best bet. I didn’t even know what direction I was walking, but I took him at his word, turned left, and started walking. I’d get that interview later.
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