In an adapted vignette from the author's new book, Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle, a surreal afternoon at a Wall Street lunch spot.
Image courtesy of Justin Nobel
By Justin Nobel
A man rises from golden dreams, flings aside gold sheets, crosses gold floors to a gold bathroom, gold toilet, gold smile, gold teeth. A new day lies ahead, like an unhatched egg. But somewhere in the Midwest a cold front has irritated the atmosphere, swollen clouds gob up, and a dark worm takes shape on the horizon.
On Gold Street it is lunch hour, I grab a stool at Harry’s Italian Pizza Bar. The Heat have just won the title and watching all about it on SportsCenter are khaki-clad hooligans drinking beer. I focus on an older man to my right eating spaghetti and red sauce with a fork and spoon. He has a paper napkin bib and skin the color of Elmer’s glue. His wife has big dry hair and droopy eyes;—reminds me of an Airedale. She is wearing a bracelet with trapezoid pieces that look like Monopoly hotels and speaking to him urgently. He chews his spaghetti and listens, nods, drains an amber draft.
To my left, an opposite couple. They’re in a celebratory mood, getting drunk and eating grilled eggplant. “We got to get back to work,” says the man. It’s his wife’s birthday. “We’re leaving for the Caribbean in the morning,” she says. The bartender makes a puppy face. The kitchen is an army of Mexicans. Inside the pizza oven, a great fire. On TV, a scandal over one of LeBron James’ tweets.
James was born on December 30, 1984 in Akron, Ohio, to a 16-year-old mother, Gloria Marie. His biological father was an ex-convict who left Gloria to raise LeBron by herself. The two moved around frequently as Gloria was never able to land steady work. Her taste in men was often questionable, with one of them, Eddie Jackson, going to prison in 1990 for aggravated cocaine trafficking. Embarrassed by his home life, James didn’t make friends easily at school and had all but dropped out by the fourth grade. He used sports as an outlet to take out his frustrations.
I have new neighbors, a pair of bankers in slacks and pinstriped shirts. They seem German but have no accents. One orders an iced tea, the other a glass of white wine. “I don’t want pizza, I had a lot of pizza in California,” says the younger looking one, then applies ChapStick. “We got this new analyst,” says the elder, “Taiwanese guy, spent his life in boarding school, he’s a rising star.”
A commercial about Sherwin-Williams paint. The men talk about mortgages. The bartender takes their order, chicken marsala and veal casserole. Food arrives quickly, glistening like mall Chinese. The older one digs in, the younger continues working on his phone. Suddenly, he attacks his veal viciously for two minutes, food dripping all over his face. I order the most disgusting thing I can think of, baked clams.
A man with sweat beads on his forehead enters with two women. One has a hot pink skirt, the other wears her hair in a ponytail and has a very thin headband, like a cord or rope. I get the feeling they are all on coke and have just shot a porno. The drunk birthday couple stands to leave, I notice they are practically midgets. A talking fox on TV is selling gym memberships. Two middle-aged men take the spot on my left, one a worse for wear version of Ed Harris. He has blue pinstripes and what I would describe as a Wall Street Italian accent. “I beat the shit out of you!” he happens to be saying when I lean in for a listen.
And yet he sees perfectly, walking through the deserted streets, picking up the pieces, putting them in his eye, which is his mouth, and there they twinkle, like gold bits.
My clams arrive, looking like human ears smothered in oil and breadcrumbs. I eat them with a tiny fork, the meat is chewy and snaps like a rubber band. The bartender offers me bread and I take it. A fly buzzes about. The man with two women makes a phone call but no one is in. They order pizza. On TV, a busty woman in a NASCAR racing suit opens the fridge. In the condiment rack is a waiter with a black bow tie offering her a Smirnoff Ice. A twenty-something with a hiking pack comes in to use the bathroom, looks like an Occupier.
“Excuse me, can you squeeze a little seltzer on this?” A man in a button-down with a pretty blonde passes a napkin to the bartender, he has dropped pizza on his pants. Shaking salt on the napkin he cleans the stain, discussing how he learned the trick. “We all got this horrible stomach virus, everyone was vomiting red wine, my sister used club soda and salt.”
A granny with hair sticking straight up like from static electricity takes a seat at the bar. Skies have become shiny and green, the weather is starting to scare people. Outsiders file in, mostly tourists. An Asian woman pushing a baby stroller, a Midwestern looking black family. The Ed Harris lookalike is talking aggressively about weather forecasters. “We should go get those guys,” he says. “Hey, you call this 30 percent!?”
“One story is good only till another is told,” wrote Henry James, who after more than 20 years abroad returned to New York in the summer of 1904. He hated it. “Sky-scrapers are the last word of economic ingenuity only till another word be written,” continued James. “This shall be possibly a word of still uglier meaning, but the vocabulary of thrift at any price shows boundless resources, and the consciousness of that truth, the consciousness of the finite, the menaced, the essentially invented state, twinkles ever, to my perception, in the thousand glassy eyes of these giants of the mere market.”
The rain has come, water funnels from the clouds, thunder rolls about the sky, gets lost in the maze of steel, lightning streaks, streets are subsumed, a flier for the Statue of Liberty floats by in the torrent. Rain soaked bankers huddle under awnings. It’s a hot rain. And up in the canyons between buildings an eerie fog has settled, roofs are gone, light has been reduced, water gushing down concrete metal gullies. Cars come floating through the deluge, seeming out of place, rain splashing furiously off their windshields, headlights are beacons. Somewhere dogs and children are being washed away.
A Mexican delivery man comes out of Harry’s laughing at it all—to him it is just a storm. He has seen worse. He puts on rain pants and a raincoat, hollers to the guy at the hardware store across the street, yelling through droplets thick as New Year’s confetti. Lightning now flashes from within the skyscrapers. The storm has gone inside. It has become a micro storm, a building storm, an office storm. The clouds are empty, the sky is vapor-less, it contains nothing, the energy has been transferred.
From the fading drops emerges a man in a dark suit. He is enormous, with a shiny head and no umbrella though somehow dry. His eyes twinkle in a strange and important way, his mouth opens into a smile. Inside this dark vault, a row of gleaming gold teeth. He has a glass eye, then I realize he has two. And yet he sees perfectly, walking through the deserted streets, picking up the pieces, putting them in his eye, which is his mouth, and there they twinkle, like gold bits.
“One has the sense that the monster grows and grows,” observed James. “The future complexity of the web, all under the sky and over the sea, becoming thus that of some colossal set of clockworks, some steel-souled machine-room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws…”
The wind whistles to a stop, just another afternoon thunderstorm.
Justin Nobel writes for magazines and pens a blog about death for a funeral information website. He’s presently at work on the second book in his Places trilogy, a collection of stories about the South.