SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 5, 2020

A Good Night in Manhattan, circa 2000

 

If the novels and movies were to be believed, it was what a night in Manhattan was supposed to be if you were young, affluent, sophisticated and well-connected. In the late Nineties I was none of those things, so for Morgan and me it was as atypical a night as we could imagine. It was fun for a few hours to pretend we were all those things we weren’t. It was fun to find ourselves, if just for a night, tossed into a Jay McInerney or Brett Easton Ellis novel. To be fair, I’d never actually read a Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis novel, but I kinda had the gist of what they were all about—namely well-connected young, affluent sophisticated urbane types having a time of it on the town.

            When I lived in Philly, my future ex-wife was fairly desperate to be affluent and sophisticated, so once or twice a week we found ourselves going to gallery openings and museum galas, longhair concerts and the theater. Some highbrow windbag crap or another. As a gentleman of the Fourth Escape I not only got us into these things for free, I was often invited to come to these things in hopes I might give them a little press. Sometimes I did, but it was rarely what they expected. I have never been comfortable in the presence of Upper Crusties, and so inevitably embarrassed my future ex-wife horribly at these events. Nevertheless, a few nights later we’d find ourselves at some other sophisticated happening. She also insisted on eating at fancy restaurants and staying in fancy hotels, which I could not afford. Even the bars we went to (when she deigned to go to a bar) tended to be the brass and glass and fern variety, unless we were going to see one of our musician friends play the Khyber or North Star or J.C. Dobb’s. I usually embarrassed her horribly at those places too, but at least we, in her eyes, weren’t surrounded by rich, tight-assed sophisticated mongrels as I did so.

            In the late Nineties Morgan and I still went to a lot of events—something that was necessary for my job at the New York Press—but it had a completely different vibe. We drank at dives, ate at diners and went to weird shit. Instead of museum galas and the opera, we went to alien abductee conventions and off-kilter evangelical revivals. It was a lot more fun, and I was far more comfortable.

            In July of 2000, our friend Bill Monahan invited us to the private book release party for his first novel, Light House. For the record, I fucking hate book parties. Sad and dreary affairs, most of them. When my own first book came out a year earlier, I insisted to my publicist that there be nothing even vaguely resembling a book party, telling him that if he held such a thing, I wouldn’t be there. But we adored Bill, loved the book, and wanted to show our support.

            Most New York book release parties are held in drab and generic rented halls, indie bookshops or bars with a literary bent, like Rocky Sullivan’s. Bill’s, in contrast, was at the high-zoot Carnegie Club on West 56th Street, about a block away from Carnegie Hall. Given the fancy digs, Morgan and I decided we’d be a bit more fancy-pants about it ourselves, so I put on a jacket and she wore a nice dress.

            We decided it might be best to eat something before heading over to the eight o’clock party. Wanting to get as much mileage as we could out of that jacket and dress—I mean, if we were going to make a fancy night out of it, might as well go whole fucking hog, right?—we decided on a cozy little French joint a few blocks away from the Carnegie Club. What could be fancier than a cozy little French joint before a swanky-ass literary event? Best of all, the restaurant in question (whose name I forget now) specialized in crepes, which would offer me a wholly justified opportunity to loudly repeat the story of the first death threat I ever received, the one in which my semi-literate would-be assassin called me “a foul-mouthed crepe.”

            It was a warm and mildly humid summer evening, so Morgan and I got off the train at 47th Street, choosing to walk the rest of the way. I no longer remember what day of the week it was, but it struck me how eerily quiet and empty the sidewalks were. In that part of Manhattan especially, it was almost unheard of. Then, of course, in typical New York fashion, one of the very few people we did pass turned out to be Bill Bryk, a friend of ours who also wrote for the Press. It’s a cliché, but very true: big as this stinking town is, you spend enough time wandering the sidewalks, you’re going to run into someone you know at least once a week, no matter where you are. We chatted with Bill for a few minutes about this and that, and continued on our way.

            The restaurant, whatever it was called, was as fancy as promised—cozy, quiet, dark and candlelit, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths covering the small tables. At that hour, we may have been the only customers there. Maybe it just felt that way. We had the crepes, split two bottles of wine, and I told that shopworn death threat story yet again. I may have told it twice. It was a splendid (and splendidly fancy) meal, and we lingered a bit. After paying the exorbitant check without giving it a second thought (fancy night, remember), we headed back out to the hazy, strangely vacant sidewalk to try and find the Carnegie Club.

            Neither Morgan nor I had ever been there before. It wasn’t exactly our scene. To prove this, we committed the nearly unforgivable New York sin of showing up early. And by “early,” I mean about eight-fifteen which, to my Midwestern German sensibilities, was horrendously late. Bill was there, as were a few marketing and publicity people from his publisher, but only a smattering of equally gauche invited guests. That at least gave us a chance to pay our respects to Bill, grab a booth in a far corner, and snag a couple of fancy beers from the open bar. It occurred to me I should’ve probably worn a tie, a thought I quickly dismissed. There is no reason to wear a tie anywhere for anything.

            I couldn’t see the interior, but Morgan described it to me. Damn, “high-zoot” barely covers it. It was a huge place, full of velvet and brass and mirrors and attitude. I was amazed Bill’s publisher (or someone) would shell out to rent the whole damn place, open bar and all, for a dumb book party, but that was my typically Neanderthal way of thinking. Should’ve worn a tie. Those hip young sophisticates in Jay McInerney novels were always wearing ties. Or at least I imagined they were. Skinny ones.

            Before long, as we hunkered in that velvet-lined booth and drank, the place began to fill up. Neither Morgan nor I do very well in crowds generally, so we were at least happy to be tucked away in a back corner for safety. From the murmurings around us, I was starting to get a sense of all the luminaries on-hand. A lot of magazine and publishing people, the entire New York Post Page Six crew, it seemed, the ubiquitous Anthony Haden-Guest, Jay McInerney (see?), models, members of The Unband and other celebrities and young sophisticates.

            “Jesus,” I said. “I mean, I know Bill used to be an editor at SPY, but who could’ve guessed all this?” We were used to dealing with Bill one-on-one within the frumpy, scrappy, drunken context of the Press, and had no idea he moved in these kinds of circles. If there had been any kind of book release party for my own first book, it likely would’ve been held at Milano’s and been attended by freaks, drunks and junkies exclusively. I would have preferred that, too. This wasn’t our world, though it was certainly interesting to pay a brief visit.

            As the hum of voices and clinking glasses around us grew louder, we were joined in the booth by Jane, a small blond woman in her twenties. She was another friend of Bill’s, we’d met her a few times, and so we were both happy and relieved to see her. A few minutes after she sat down, however, two young assholes materialized at the table, both wearing skinny ties and designer jackets, and both in their mid-to-late twenties. I knew they were assholes not only from the designer clothes, but because they were drinking martinis. Anyone in his or her twenties who drinks martinis is, by nature, an asshole. I could also sense immediately they were party crashers.

            Now, I have absolutely nothing against the practice if all you’re hoping is to cadge a couple of free drinks. I sustained myself that way for a very long time. These two, however, broke the first rule of being a successful crasher—namely, do not call attention to yourself.

            They turned their attention to Jane and began hitting on her in the crassest, stupidest terms imaginable.

            “You have every attribute I’m looking for in a woman,” one of them told her. “And by that I mean sexually.”

            That was only the first of several sure-fire pickup lines. He just wouldn’t stop, and it wasn’t long before Jane stood and left in disgust. That’s when these two made their second fatal error, and it was an even bigger one. The moment Jane left, they sat down in the booth with us. No, no, no, no, no, you don’t want to do that.

            “Please go away,” I said. “We don’t want you here. You just forced our friend to leave. We were talking to her. We don’t want to talk to you.”

            “No,” the first one said. “I’m just sitting here enjoying my drink. I like it here.”

            Oh, the smugness oozing out of him, that infuriating sense of entitlement, made me want to smash a bottle across his face before using the jagged end to rip open his throat.

            “So,” Morgan said. “Where are you from?” To outsiders, it might have seemed she was taking an unexpectedly conciliatory tack, but I knew better. I recognized the tone in her voice, and knew what she was up to. I kept my mouth shut, sat back, and waited.

            “Woodstock,” the smug one replied. His friend, so far as I could tell, had yet to say a word.

            “Uh-huh,” Morgan went on. “And what do you do?”

            “I’m in a writers’ group. And he’s in media,” he said, referring to his friend.

            A writers’ group? My god, could it get any worse? And “in media”? What the fuck does that even mean? Did he have a paper route? Again, however, I held my tongue for the moment. She knew what she was doing.

            “Uh huh,” Morgan pressed a little further. “And what are you doing here? Are you friends of the author?”

            “Sure,” the smug one said. That was my cue to step in.

            “What’s his name?”

            Morgan and I had a copy of Bill’s book on the table between us, it having been handed to her when we first came in. She strategically placed her hand over Bill’s name on the cover.

            Both of the interloping assholes were silent for a moment. Then the smug one said, “Ummmm . . . ”

            “Ah, very good!” I cheered. “Listen son, this is a private party. This is our booth. So why don’t you just take your little friend here and dangle?”

            “I’m just sitting here enjoying my drink.” He leaned back in his seat and sighed before taking a dainty sip of his martini. Oh, but the smugness was dripping out of him like oily sweat.

            “But we don’t want you here. I’m politely, amazingly enough, asking you to get the fuck out and leave us alone.”

            “I’m just sitting here enjoying my drink,” he repeated.

            Those visions of a bottle ripping open his smarmy throat were edging closer to becoming a reality with every word out of his prissy little mouth. This had gone on way too long.

            “C’mon, Chumley,” I gestured toward where I thought the front door might be. “Leave.”

            This time he said nothing, merely crossing his legs, taking another drink, and smirking. Now, Grinch and I used to behave boorishly in public, too, just to see how far we could push people. Turns out you can push most people pretty goddamn far. Well, if that was the aim of this young suckling of privilege, he was about to find out how far certain non-affluent unhip unsophisticates could be pushed.

            Morgan had had enough. Have I mentioned she’s Italian? The moment that smirk appeared on his face, she rose from her seat and, without a word, smacked the free martini out of the fucker’s hand. I heard the splash and tinkle of thin glass hitting the floor.

            When he took a swing at her in response, I found myself on top of him on the floor, having knocked him clear of the booth. I was kneeling on his chest, my hands wrapped around his throat, squeezing hard. I hadn’t stopped to think that we were at a fancy club at a fancy party full of fancy people, and that murdering someone, no matter how justifiably, might not be appropriate. I also didn’t stop to think of how lucky I was I didn’t start strangling a seat cushion instead of my target. That would’ve looked pretty stupid. I just listened to where his voice was coming from, and lunged about two inches below that. At the time I remember thinking how soft and pliable his neck was, that if I kept squeezing my fingers would meet in the middle, like squeezing a half-inflated balloon.

            A moment later someone yanked me off him and I found myself seated back in the booth next to Morgan. Not sure how that happened. It had all exploded so immediately and so instinctively I wasn’t even certain it had really happened at all, but I guess it did.

            The entitled little pansy was standing on the other side of the table, collar and skinny tie askew, screaming, “ I’m gonna go get the police and charge you with assault! That was assault!”

            “Go ahead,” Morgan said calmly.

            “I will!”

            “Okay, go ahead. Go get them.”

            “I will!”

            For a second I thought of tapping her on the arm, quietly suggesting that maybe she shouldn’t be encouraging him that way. Then I had a vision of how all that would play out with one of New York’s Finest. The cop would look him up and down with some mild disgust before asking, matter-of-factly, “Now I just want to make sure I’m getting this straight. So you were crashing the party, where you took a swing at a woman before you were beaten up by a blind man?”

            I refrained from tapping Morgan on the arm. I was almost looking forward to it now. But the kid never went to get a cop. I didn’t think he would.

            Aristotle was onto something with all his “violence and catharsis” claptrap. As I sat there, beer in hand, I felt completely calm, even cleansed. A small crowd had gathered around the remnants of the scene, this pathetic smear of a human being began shrieking to each of them that he’d just been sitting there, minding his own business and enjoying his drink when I suddenly attacked him for no reason at all. Just jumped on him and started strangling him. Little did he know all those people who had gathered were friends of Morgan and mine, and they knew better.

            He was again encouraged to vacate the premises, this time by people other than myself, but he apparently had no intention of leaving until everyone in the Carnegie Club had heard his tale of innocent victimhood at least six or seven times.

            “And then this guy assaulted me for no reason!”

            I wondered if he crashed the party that night with dreams of earning himself a little street cred as a literary bad boy, like Martin Amis or Norman Mailer. Collect a few stories about his wicked behavior to share with his buddies in the writers’ group. Well, guess he’s back to square one on that little quest.

            Eventually Mike, The Unband’s lead singer, and Sam Sifton, former New York Press associate editor, took him and his friend by their arms and marched them out the front door.

            Morgan got a couple more beers and a few more folks sat down with us. Those people we liked.

            “He was asking for it,” Morgan said. “He was dressed provocatively.”

            I felt vaguely bad about creating a ruckus at Bill’s book party. It was his party after all, and the last thing I wanted to do was call attention to myself. Still, having not been in any kind of a physical altercation since my early twenties, I was feeling good, and in the days that followed was assured that the fight was not only not a problem—it was quite likely the best thing that could have happened at a typically dreary book party.

            An hour or two later, Morgan and I left the Carnegie Club with Sam. Deciding the night wasn’t quite over with yet, not after something like that, we headed over to Gino, the storied Upper West Side bar and restaurant that was a favorite of both mid-level gangsters and Yoko Ono.

            Sam was an old friend. We’d done a lot of drinking with him over the years. We not only knew his wife and kids, we knew his parents as well. We’d been to barbecues in his backyard and spent a weekend at his place on Long Island. He’d left the Press a few months earlier to take a job at the highly publicized Tina Brown start-up, Talk magazine.

            It was about two in the morning. The only other people at the bar were a group of four haggard and sodden mob wives. They sat at the far end, while we took the end by the door. The three of us had a few more rounds, and spoke of many things, it was comfortable and pleasant. When we left at closing time, we paused for a moment on that Upper West Side sidewalk where we had to admit that yes, it had been a very good night. I’d had my one night as a minor side character in a slick, hip Eighties novel, and that was enough. It was fun, but it was enough.

            Shortly after Light House was released, Bill Monahan moved to LA and became an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director. When Talk magazine went belly-up, Sam moved on to the New York Times, where he’s been an editor ever since. And I, meanwhile, continue to write this silly column.

 

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