When we arrived at the bar, we ordered our drinks and took a seat outside. The sky had cleared on our trip back to campus and, surprisingly, most of the water had evaporated from the tables. A quick brush of the hand cleared off most of the stubborn drops that clung on for dear life. At the table next to us, a couple of Chinese students chattered away in Mandarin and one of them looked at The Drunkard with a look that I might call coy.
The Drunkard gave her a winning grin and said, “Howdy ma’am, fine day today, isn’t it?”
She responded in English, but with such a thick accent I could not understand what she said.
The Drunkard gave it a couple seconds’ thought, tipped his cap that wasn’t there, and said, “Have a good one,” and turned back to me. “You get what she said?”
He shrugged. “Oh well.”
“You know,” I said, “I haven’t heard about your French flatmates for a while. What’s been going on with them?”
The Drunkard sighed and shook his head. “Well, a couple of them went back to Paris to attend a rally—they were striking about something, probably for a raise of a couple of cents. The girl—Julie, who, when she’s not dressed up like some fucking existentialist nightmare, is pretty hot—hung around the flat for the weekend and acted like a normal human being.”
“You hook up?”
“Well I’m going to have to try now, aren’t I? Anyway, they all got back in-country on Monday and the flat returned to normal. Woke up this morning to find forty used copies of Camus’s The Plague stacked in front of my door.”
“Fucked up, yeah. I don’t get it, man,” he said, taking a drink from his beer. “The U.S. is supposed to be the country that sends a giant ‘fuck you!’ to everyone else in the world, isn’t it?”
“Then why is it that anyone in Europe with half a brain starts implying that we’re responsible for the global recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corruption in the third world, and automatically assumes that we want Israel to scalp all the Palestinians—all right when they find out we’re Americans?”
The thought had crossed my mind a few times. There were a few of my British colleagues who sure as hell acted like we were responsible for all of that, and they were all, otherwise, extremely sane and intelligent people. God forbid they found out I was Jewish, or they might start refusing to take out money in my presence for fear that I’d lunge at it. Now, granted, most of the Brits were people like anyone else who were just happy that there was a new perspective on the table—and could tell the distinction between a government’s actions and the beliefs of the people—but there were a few (shall we call them the rotten apples?) who seemed hell-bent on taking America down a peg, starting from the individual level.
The thing I really liked about the Greeks—and, to my initial surprise, all of the Middle Eastern people I’d met so far… and Indians, to add to the list—was that they really didn’t care. Booze was the common unifier with the Greeks, and I could get on board with that.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The Traveler might know.”
The Drunkard nodded. “I’ll have to ask him when we next meet up.”
At this point, I noticed that, out of the corner of my eye, five slim and tall figures dressed in black sweaters, trousers, and berets filed through the door to the patio. They spoke in rapid, animated French, and a couple of them held copies of books. I tried to glimpse the titles, and, though my French was rusty, I thought I could see that they were clutching copies of Endgame and Waiting for Godot. “Oh Christ,” I said. “French existentialists gripping Beckett.”
As they made their way closer to where we sat, they spotted The Drunkard and I and fell silent. They filed into a straight line and we stared at each other. I looked over at The Drunkard and saw an expression of exasperation and fatigue. I looked at the French man in the center and saw basically the same look. Suddenly, I knew what had to be done. I could patch this bridge, but it would take a masterstroke of planning and execution—one that I was probably incapable of delivering. However, I knew what was at stake. I’d lived in a situation where no one got along with each other, and it was no way to spend one’s life. After all, with all of the problems one has to deal with in life, why should we spend our leisure feeling miserable at home?
I got off my stool, walked inside and to the bartender at one end of the bar, who was chatting up a beautiful blonde girl. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but—”
“Fuck off,” said the bartender.
I could see flashes of Brooklyn pass through my vision, but I kept it down. Now was not the time to Hulk out. “Excuse me,” I said, putting a two-pound coin on the bar. That got his attention. “You can keep that,” I said, pointing to the coin, “if you listen to me and help me with a volatile situation.
“Outside,” I said, “there is a group of French Existentialists squaring off like a band of banditos against my fellow American. They don’t get along in politics, cleanliness, or literature. The way I see it, the only option left to exercise is music. Do you have any Bob Dylan that you can play?”
The bartender snorted. “Course we fuckin do. What do you think this is, some chav bar? Want Blood on the Tracks? Highway 51 Revisited?”
I scratched my head. Blood on the Tracks was typically seen as one of Dylan’s best works, but I wasn’t sure about it. It was accepted in the mainstream, and the Existentialists might just turn up their noses while The Drunkard and I howled along with “Tangled Up In Blue.” Highway 51 Revisited was equally thin ice. Being the album in which Dylan switched to electric guitar, it was exactly the sort of fodder the Existentialists might use to try and point out the Americans’ lack of taste in music.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Play a few tracks from Freewhelin’ if you have it, then go with the big ones from Blood on the Tracks.”
The bartender nodded. “Anything I can do to ease international tensions.”
The music stopped playing as I walked back to the table, and “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” took its place. I sat. The Existentialists looked up at the speakers, exchanged looks, and, just for a second, smiled. Just then, I knew it was going to be all right. I waved them over to our table with a gregarious grin on my face. “Bonjour, mes amies,” I said. “Comment-allez vous? Bien?”
They nodded, looking me up and down.
I leaned to The Drunkard and said in a whisper, “I’m going to get them to sit down, and then I’m going to go get a couple bottles of red wine.”
“Because you’re living with these people for a full year, and you cannot spend that time dangling them out of your windows. While I’m gone, you are to discuss music and music only. They seem to like Bob Dylan, so that’s a start. I’d guess that since they’re here, they’re not averse to rock.” I patted The Drunkard on his shoulder. “Tread lightly, my friend.”
I turned back to the French. “Sorry, but I’ve exhausted my French for the moment—haven’t practiced in a while, you see. Please, have a seat. I shall return momentarily.”
A slight breeze passed by, and we could hear ducks quacking on the other side of the building. The Existentialists looked at each other and made their way to the table. Now was my time to go and get the wine.
At first, the bartender didn’t believe me when I said that the bar had a stock of wine. “This is a rock bar, mate. Not some sort of fancy wine bar where you can get a spaghetti a la Bolognese.” The girl he had previously been chatting up giggled, and I realized that my task would be made infinitely harder.
“Sir,” I said, “there is some sort of miscommunication between us. I hold in my hand a menu that—”
“The only miscommunication,” he said, “is that, apparently, when the bouncer was told to keep the prats out, he mistook Americans for human beings.”
The title song to Welcome Back Kotter played through my head, complete with shots of alleys and streets. I saw roving gangs in leather jackets speaking in thick accents. I twisted my head to the side, cracked my knuckles. “There is no bouncer. Now, listen, friend,” I said, “this is a drinks menu. On this menu there is, clearly, a listing for red wine. I just want—”
“You can stop talking is what you want.”
I leapt over the counter before I could stop myself. I took the bartender by his neck at the collarbone and dragged him to the ground. I moved in real close to his ear and said, “Listen motherfucker, don’t go fucking around with shit that you can’t handle, capiche? Now I know good God-damn well that you freaks got some wine down here, and, lookie here,” I said, moving his now red face to looking at the wine stocked underneath the till, “here it is. Six bottles. Well holy shit, I think that’ll about do it. So here’s what we’re gonna do—you listening?”
I forced him to nod. He gurgled in response.
“Good. I’m gonna buy these six bottles and give you a nice fuckin tip, cause I like your face this color—really accents your eyes. Now you’re gonna stop being all high-and-fuckin mighty, shit-for-brains. I ain’t one of your Brits who just takes shit with a stiff upper lip.” I released my grip on his throat, and he sucked in air and started coughing. I smacked his cheek and said, “I’ll be waiting to pay you for the wine, buddy.”
This time I walked around the corner to the other side of the counter. The girl was staring at me open-mouthed, eyes wide, and sputtering in trying to utter a response. I cleared my throat and got control of my anger. “That’s why you shouldn’t date assholes, ma’am. It rarely, rarely ends well with them outside of the movies.”
“We’s not datin,” she said in the most hideous accent I believe I’ve ever heard. “We’s just havin a little fun on the side, then. You’s didn’t need ta go almost killin him.”
“Please, for the good of humanity, never procreate.”
The bartender managed to haul himself up and put the six bottles of wine on the counter. He tapped a few buttons on the register, and I paid. “Thanks a bunch, man,” I said. I took the wine bottles out to the outdoor area and saw The Drunkard slapping the back of one of the Existentialists, swept up in a fit of laughter. Indeed, everyone at the table was roaring in glee.
I put the bottles on the table, went back for the glasses, put them on the table, and said, “What’s up?”
The Drunkard turned to me and said, “Man, Mattiheu has the best—and I mean the fuckin best—Bush joke I’ve heard in the last nine years. Tell him, Matthieu.”
One of the Existentialists—the one with a big black bush of hair and James Joyce glasses—stopped laughing for a bit and told me the joke. It was in French, which was a pity, because my French was limited to “Je voudrais un espresso,” and none of those words happened to be in the joke. Still, he finished, the table burst into laughter again, and I joined in.
Most of the remaining hour and a half was spent drinking wine and trying to follow the completely-in-French conversation. It turned out that The Drunkard had a really good grasp on the language, for, though he stumbled from time to time on words and syntax, he followed them much better than I would ever have been able to do. Despite that, I had fun drinking wine, getting drunker, and chipping bits of the wooden table off with my fingernails.
After a while, we got up to leave, made our way back to the college—The Drunkard whispering into Julie’s ear, and she having a look of mixed terror and bemusement on her face (The Drunkard was quite drunk at this point, and probably not in complete control of what he was saying or even thinking)—and went our separate ways. I went back to my block and played Risk with Jay and Zaf and a few other people who surprised me by knowing not only the rules to the game, but the territories by heart.
The Drunkard’s night, though, got much more interesting than mine.