by Ian Swalwell
It was too early for the cacophony, too early for the anxiety, too early for the shame, but it was there anyway. It wasn’t late enough to grab someone by the shirt and throw them, either, so I was in limbo as I walked down the dark splashing streets. The wrought iron and the glimmer of pale yellow lights reminded me that I was someplace unique, or at least appearing as such.
I had known on the walk to work that this was going to be a more frustrating night than normal. It seems to have little to do with the environment and more to do with how you approach it, when it comes to this one. In almost a year – might as well be a decade in this business – this had been the best of the opportunities available. But the clientele are not ideal, mainly because of the neighboring institution – which had the audacity to call itself a men’s club. The words UTOPIC burn such a bright purple that our humble “Bar” sign seems ridiculous. Besides the men that walked in and out, there was also quite a bit of Xanax that threatened to spill into my pseudo-classy establishment.
I got to work early, went back to the room behind the kitchen and put on my accoutrements. A few breathing exercises help get the cobwebs out of my mind. I don’t care about smelling alcohol anymore, since it serves as a nice reminder of how much I don’t need it. With a lip full of nicotine lozenges and a determination not to go home wishing I had done better at work, I made my way out to the front door at 9:00. It’s always slow until 11:00, but really gets going at about 2:00, which is when the “go get laid” and the “pay for a dance” crowds begin to intertwine.
Freddy is on shift with me tonight, which helps. He knows how to talk, though he struggles with how to stop. Pros outweigh the cons, especially surrounded by the types of things you hear at this place. The guy next door, wearing a white suit and a no-nonsense expression, yells it’s titty o’clock at packs of college boys as they walk past giggling. For people who actually look like they belong, he just nods, curtly and apologetically. Every time he says titty o’clock, Freddy leans towards me and, doing a foghorn leghorn, mutters, “I say, I say, it was the best of times, it-it-it was the worst of times…”
“You don’t look crippled by yesterday tonight,” I say.
“Nothing but La Croix and a more genuine attempt at sex than normal for me, my good man,” he says. “Wish I felt as good as I look.”
He does look good. Tall and broad, with strength but without the boulder-like appearance I seem unable to shake. He is dark and handsome and clean, and he adopts different voices to make drunks happy or uncomfortable, depending on how they treat staff, who inform him via headset. For example: “Freddy, we got a cokehead in a purple button-down calling servers cunts. I’ll give you a heads up when he’s on his way out – do you copy?” And Freddy, looking serious, would nod to nobody and touch the little button on the wire by his shirt collar. “This is double-oh seven, roger that. I’ll have this little bastard back at Ole Miss by the time your coffee’s done in the morning.”
I get called to the back exit nobody is allowed to use. There’s apparently something shady happening out there. I tell Freddy he can stay and I walk with purpose towards the back, through the low lighting, heavy wooden furniture, and small groups sitting around tables listening to the band. The night wind is cool and unobtrusive, napkins are fluttering but not flying, and people seem to be okay.
Curtis, a manager, gives me the lowdown. Young-looking guys out back, probably nothing too bad. But maybe. Would I like backup? Backup? No. I’m Brando. No need for backup. I walk through the back door, through the little decrepit patio with its unused bathroom, unused grill, unused chairs, and the distinct possibility of dystopian-looking rats. Down the stairs and to the left, in a gravelly-grass alley, are two groups of men. Five young guys talking to three older ones. An agreement is being met. Goods have been or are about to be exchanged.
“Get the fuck out of here, motherfuckers,” I yell, uncreatively.
The young guys are gone before I can even see them well, running off to the street, their shoes crunching the gravel awkwardly. The older guys just sigh at me and walk away at a calm speed, back further into the alley. They know.
“Goddammit, McNulty,” Freddy says when I get back. “You’ve really done it this time. We lost the wire!”
When the chaos starts it’s almost two, though I suppose it’s not chaos if you know it’s coming. Anxious, but controlled, I redouble my efforts to keep an eye on hands, pockets, and the rims of eyes. I listen. It’s a normal Thursday night. Nothing much. Next door, the worst crowd comes leaking out of UTOPIC like juice down a chin – Freddy gives me a nod and goes around the back to check for keys, pockets, etc. They’re not big guys. Their callous grins barely hide the tears that would stream if they had to face accountability for anything, and I write them off as serious threats of any kind. But still. Focused.
The lights from UTOPIC mingle with the swinging strands of bulbs to create an effect on the wet ground – it sparkles. Or glistens, I suppose, depending on one’s mood. The pack of wolves approaches, and I gird myself. I can never tell, when I get enraged at men like this, how much of it is as a result of my own baggage. The ringleader, an admittedly handsome man with a light beard and sharp features, approaches me first.
“What kinda place you got here?”
He grins at me like we’ve been friends for years.
“Bar, huh? Are we, uh…are we presentable for this bar?”
Technically, yes. More than presentable. Button downs, blazers, a few khakis, dark jeans, hair product, big jaws, white teeth, wide shoulders…good money, probably.
“Yes indeed,” I say, and I feel Freddy’s glare through my right arm. “Just behave yourselves, we got live music here and people come to hear it.”
“Oh, fuck, dude,” one of them says. “Nah, too early to throw in the towel, man, come on man, you heard the guy next door…it’s not too late to make it count.”
The young men begin fighting with each other. The ringleader loses control, the army is made up entirely of infantrymen. They at least have the decency to move, like a rat-king, several paces to the side to make way for some other customers coming in. The whole bar wall is basically a window, which is open, so their noise turns some heads from inside. As I decide whether to intervene and risk alienating these guys, I see someone standing across the street, mouth agape.
He’s silently laughing at the group. He stands alone, with a bulky, awkward messenger bag type thing dangling off one shoulder. He’s wearing tight jeans and a long, loose white t-shirt. He’s shaking with laughter, looking directly at the group. I can’t tell if he’s American, since his hair and complexion are so dark and his face is so hilariously perplexed.
He reaches into his bulky bag and pulls out a camera, an old-looking one that appears heavy and mechanical. He adjusts some of the knobs before even putting it up to his eye and then he aims for the young men arguing. He keeps rotating the machine from sideways to right side up like he’s trying a key in a door. He’s still shaking with mirth when one of the guys notices him.
“Yo, what the fuck?”
The rest turn, shoulders back and jaws out. The man with the camera waves, laughing, and the ringleader, spotting his opportunity to reassert himself, starts walking towards the street. Before I even know what I’ve done, I’m in front of him with my arm across his chest.
“Hey, he’s just taking pictures man. Cool it.”
“Cool it? Listen, you fucking monkey, I’m crossing the goddamned street.”
“Monkey?” I hear Freddy mutter. “Monkey?”
I put my arm against his upper chest and throat and, in a very unprofessional move, tell him to go jump in a river. I’m bigger than him and Freddy looks ready to put his knee in someone’s skinny back, so the situation deflates pretty quickly. Once someone makes a real threat, they often do this. As they leave, Freddy pushes his button on his ear piece.
“Bastards are away, blue leader. Repeat…bastards are away.”
Cheers from the piece of plastic in my ear. As I breathe deeply, wondering why that asshole, of all the assholes, was the one to make me lose it, I look back over my shoulder. The man with the camera is waving and laughing. He gives me a thumbs up and then yells, “Hey, stand still!”
Freddy moves to stand beside me and the man shakes his head amicably.
“No no my man, just your Polack friend there.”
“Guess he likes you, Ron.”
I turn to face the man with the camera and before I can process it, he’s taken my picture, backlit by the BAR sign, and probably the glow of UTOPIC in the rain of the street. He laughs more as he walks off.
After my shift is over, I have a few tonics while Freddy slams sours and regails a few other employees of my exploits. After a few retellings, it has nothing to do with what happened. He refers to camera man as my “gentleman caller,” much to the joy of the group. I smile through it, since Freddy is the best storyteller I know, except maybe me when nobody is around.
I walk home around four in the morning, up Toulouse street. Normally I avoid the more dystopian elements of NOLA, but I felt like looking. All of a sudden. I wanted to see piss hitting walls, I wanted to see midwestern boys buying baking soda in little bundles from hustlers pretending to be homeless. The one thing I really can’t get over is the effect of the light on the street. Maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention. It’s lovely. But this only lasts about two minutes. The glow, imagined or real, fades. Then it’s just far away sirens and the shuffled sounds of my own feet as I walk up to my apartment.
Second floor, small house, lots of square footage but no walls except for the bathroom, of course. Clean. It’s very clean. I pop on Streetcar Named Desire and stuff my gums with nicotine lozenges, really letting the significance of the story hit me. The windows are open and the volume is loud and I’m not nervous. I wonder if that guy’s camera was black and white.
Early in the week there aren’t as many touristy types at du Monde, especially not at three in the morning. I actually got out of bed and put clothes on around 2:00, just accepting that I was going to be up, alert, and anxious for some time. Might as well caffeinate that. Two days after the incident at work and I’m clueless as to what to do with myself. I’ve been all turned around. I can’t settle on a worldview with regards to anything at all – this is an unpleasant and exhausting way to live. Though not uncommon. It’s hard to sleep.
It hasn’t rained in the past couple days but it still feels rainy out. Everything still seems slippery and I can’t help but walk tentatively. I’m alone at a small table and there’s only a few other groups here, under the green canopy. I made sure not to bring headphones, so I could pay attention and I’m totally lost in my own thoughts, which are preoccupied with this city and what I am doing in it. I’m thirty, it’s not too late. But I feel no pressure, and I don’t think it’s denial. I just feel like I’ll be fine for a while. I’ve come to really like the term “service industry.” And speaking of service industry, here come some of the girls. Three women, looking between twenty and forty years old, come walking up to the three counters. They look pleasantly exhausted, but that might be a result of practice. As they order, one of them very loudly and jovially, I turn back away from them and look out towards Jefferson park. The statue looks like something out of a movie at this hour, stripped of cultural significance, just eerie and huge.
“Well, I’m glad to run into you.”
I turn, assuming the voice wasn’t directed at me, but it was. Camera man is grinning, standing above me with his awkward bag dangling. Before I can respond, he extends his hand.
“Name’s Reggie. You remember me?”
“Yeah, of course. Hi.”
I shake his hand, and it feels cold and sick. But he sits down before I can put a normal face on.
“I’m gonna get you a coffee, what kind of coffee you drink? How do you have it? I bet you’re just straight black, huh? Aren’t you? Oh, nevermind – cute little cups – you an espresso man? Can you handle another one?”
“Um, yeah. Sure…wait, no you don’t have to…”
But he’s gone, leaving his bag with me but taking his camera. Feeling like an asshole, I wait. As he gets coffees, he strikes up a conversation with the women – who seem to like him, no real surprise there. He says something to them and two of the three stand and pose for a photo, the other standing aside, but not looking too pissed. He keeps swirling around, looking for a good background. He nods thanks to them and they laugh and he comes over and sits down, smiling. He sets down our coffees and sighs, rubbing his face. It’s upsetting.
“You know,” I say, slowly, “you shouldn’t be taking photos here…now…of them.”
He looks concerned, eyebrows up and wiggling.
“There’s such better things to keep a record of.”
He relaxes and smiles at me like he just figured me out, which is even more upsetting. I double down.
“If you come back at sundown, the statues and the water look amazing, I would imagine that shows up on camera too.”
“You never take pictures?”
“On my phone sometimes. I delete them, though.”
“Always felt silly.”
“Ah, don’t do that! And yeah, I took some of those more stylish ones when I got here…been looking for the other stuff for a few days though. That photo of you ought to turn out great.”
“So you really took it?”
“Yeah, of course,” he says, like I’m dumb. He takes a pint of bourbon out of his awkward bag and pours a few dollops into his coffee. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“It just seems…average. There’s…there’s better things to keep a record of.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“I meant it.”
“So…what should I shoot?”
“Ripples in water…or statues. Buildings. Architecture. You know. Maybe it would…I think New Orleans would look good in black and white.”
“Yeah, it does. Sure thing it does. But the people are more interesting, you’re more likely to find something weird and permanent that way. I mean, you work with people, right?”
“With is a stretch.”
He smiles knowingly again. I don’t know why I’m talking this way. Sleep deprivation maybe. He’s refilling his cup with booze again, which isn’t bothering me, which freaks me out a bit once I become aware of it. I remember…I remember sitting on the couch staring at movies, black and white, I remember refilling cup after cup, pissing and puking and staring at the television in black and white. Bogart. Bacall. Matches and long cigarettes.
“I actually have a question for you…I didn’t have it until just now, but your bar and those women and those idiots last night…”
Embarrassingly, I get a little excited at being in a position to help. I wait expectantly.
“I was, uh…do you think that titty bar next door to you would let me take pictures? I would assume not, but I dunno, I kinda want to…not of the women, per se, but you know…there’s something about that place.”
“What could there be about that place? What…possibly…could be interesting about that place?”
“None of the clientele think they’re going to get their pictures taken,” he says, grinning and then taking a painful-looking gulp of booze coffee.
“How does that help?”
“Come on. I’m not trying to get, like, inside. I just want to, like, interview the girls and take their photos. Or the door guys. I’ll stay away from the clients, I think.”
“Who wants a stranger with a camera showing up in the middle of a meltdown?”
He laughs, and I’m disheartened by how much it means to me. It hits me suddenly: I don’t talk to people much at all, and that can’t be good.
“Alright…here’s the deal. I’ll stop by your place on your next shift, I’ll spend too much money, I’ll ask some questions…then I’ll give it a try? It’s close to Bourbon, I could always call an audible and go there.”
“That street’s gotta be out of good photos by now.”
“Like…tonight? It’s three thirty in the morning.”
“No, like tomorrow night. Like 24 hours. Like maybe get some sleep.”
He stands up and lifts the camera, but I give him the finger. He laughs, then takes a photo anyway. I don’t know why I hold the pose.
It’s not much of a night when Reggie returns. But he’s too early. I made the mistake of telling Freddy, who immediately repeated the info through his microphone. Now I’ve had a night of getting shit talked through an earpiece too small to notice. Reggie makes a subtle entrance, except for the messenger bag. But nobody gives him trouble for that. He sits and orders double whiskey Cokes and drinks them quickly but with a certain dignity. The band is good, even though their playlist is lazy. Summer of 69, etc. Makes me cringe. A new group will take over around 2:00. The crowd is decent. A few problems, none of them violent. I feel very nervous. He’s going to try to go around back to poke around UTOPIC.
I focus on my duties. Freddy is in a charming mood. Around 1:00 the crowd gets rowdier, it being the weekend and all. The lights bounce off of the street and chatter mixes naturally with music from several establishments; the exception, of course, is the chest-rattling pounding of speakers from next door. I’m occupied at the front for a few minutes while someone drunkenly tried to pass off his weed pen for a tobacco vape, and I’m mean to him just out of anxiety. He wanders off, feet slapping the ground, swaying and unafraid of being alone. When I turn around Reggie is gone, just a few twenties thrown on the bar. I realize I don’t know how he has the budget for this shit.
I find Curtis towards the end of the bar and ask him if he’s seen Reggie.
“Oh, your boyfriend?”
“Where this fuck is he?”
“He went out back. And I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just talk to me that way.”
I don’t care, there’s nothing at stake there, right now. I run out the back, nearly tripping on the deep wet wood. I look left and right, seeing nothing. Disheartened, I wait anxiously. To my left, back down the alley, I see a sudden white light illuminating everything and then disappearing. Then I see it again. Camera.
I head that way, trying to be quiet on the gravel grass, hearing voices. They sound irritated. I keep going through the dark, crunching and crouching. And then, I hear yelling, and decide to go for it; picturing Reggie alone is upsetting in a way I didn’t anticipate.
It took me a few seconds to get through the flora and garbage, so when I arrive there’s two dancers and another guy standing there lighting cigarettes.
“Where’d he go?”
One of the strippers gestures behind her, past some trash and towards the back of UTOPIC, which is unsurprisingly gross looking. The light from the building points only at the street, so the little alley has a purple blue glow as I run through it. I hear a commotion. My earpiece becomes cacophonic with voices and then goes static. I hear honking and then a screech.
He’s laying in the street, his awkward bag a few paces away. People stand around talking to each other but looking at him over their shoulders. A car is ten yards away, turned off, with a terrified-looking young man behind the wheel and his friends trying to drift into the crowd, away from the car they were all in. The front right headlight is out and the windshield is cracked, bouncing lights all over the place off its reflection. The red and blues are on their way, adding their sirens and lights to the mess. I don’t remember moving towards him, but now I’m kneeling next to him and softly touching his forehead. His beautiful dark face looks asleep. His camera is broken and his facial wounds seem like they happened before the car. His hands are scraped with defensive wounds, too. Maybe a knife. I look behind me and don’t see the strippers or the men who were smoking cigarettes out back. Everyone is just leaving.
A month later I still haven’t visited him. I know where he is, too. Took a few days off, maybe a week. I think it’s morning but it might be late afternoon. I refill my large water glass, the transcuscent ones you get at restaurants. Another pint of vodka and a little Sprite ought to do it. There are bottles in a trash bag I need to take out, the bottles separated with socks I never wore anyway. No need for clanging. I’m on the couch, too exhausted to move, staring at the television. Vivien Leigh is running from the light. Black and white. I’m smoking again, but it’s not fun. She’s crouching in the dark, on the television – I’m in the television. My chest swells as I watch her. She looks up, eyes glistening, and moans “I want magic.”
About the Author:
Ian Swalwell is a writer from Kansas City. He completed an MFA at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and teaches high school English.