Tuesday, April 07, 2009

I stood in the corner of the Yankee Tavern, where the locals sit; there was a spacious pocket of calm there, by the window. The drunks going to the game seem to know not to invade it. I decided I didn't know any better.

I put my beer on the counter and scrutinized the scene outside. An older man with dark hair and a mustache, well dressed, lighting a cigarette. Brylcreemed, Billy Martin-looking guy. Could be a livery driver. Could be the King of the Bronx. Most of the passersby were the game crowd: families, old timers, Manhattanites and Jersey guys. Mixed up with them were the locals trying to go about their business: harried Dominican women with their kids, odd-job guys and b-boys. I watched a tired black man in a lime-green suit, a matching fedora and two-tone shoes in beige and white. He carried a plastic bag of groceries. Everybody's gotta take the groceries home.

An older black man in glasses and a cap turned from the bar to interrupt my reverie.

"Lotta commotion today. Lotta fuss," he said, putting his red wine on the counter.

"It's a big day!" I said. It was the first game at the new stadium, an exhibition with the Cubs.

"Yeah," he said warily. He launched into an ornery rant about the team: Tickets are too expensive; families have been priced out. The new luxury boxes are half-empty because of the recession so now they're gouging regular people to make it back. The Steinbrenners are making one last, big push for a championship so they can sell the team in the next two years, "while the gettin's still good." That's why we have these great new players.

"But we always picked up great players. Clemens, Johnson," I pointed out.

"Those guys were at the end of their careers," he said. "We're picking these guys up at the peak of their careers. Teixeira."

"Sabathia," I added. He was a hard man to disagree with.

He was dressed middle class and seemed well on his feet but he was missing most of his bottom front teeth. His tongue wriggled behind his lone remaining incisor as he spoke and it was difficult to look elsewhere. I'll not soon forget that tooth.

He moved on to the neighborhood, the burrough and the city as a whole. This Metro North station they're putting in, what do you think that's about? The South Bronx is turning into Westchester, that's what.

"New York City is fucked," he said.

We looked out the window for a little while.

"Listen. My wife has an iPhone that has 10 times the computational power of the computer that sent Apollo to the moon."

Ten times seemed to me to be an underestimation but it was enough to serve his point.

"She can get her e-mail anywhere she goes. Do you think Wall Street matters now? You don't need Wall Street. You could be in Peoria, Illinois."

"Business can be done anywhere now," I added helpfully.

"New York City is fucked."

He digressed further: the economy, politics, the environment. He bemoaned the coal and oil lobbies.

"If we don't do something about global warming right now, we're gonna be fucked, and we might still be fucked."

"We won't really be fucked for a while, though, right? Forty, fifty years?"

"How long?"

"Forty years?"

"I'm 72 years old," he said. "Within my lifetime, we're gonna see disasters from this thing. I work in energy. I know. Flooding of coastal regions. Manhattan? Battery Park? Forget about it."


"Manhattan will be totally fucked."

"I'm still relieved that Obama is in office," I offered. "As bad as things are, he seems to be the right person to—"

The man made a faint grimace.

"Obama has a chance. As long as he picks the right people. His Energy Secretary is very good. His Agriculture Secretary is good. But why you would want Larry Summers and Tim Geithner in charge of anything I can't understand. They're the ones who caused these fucking problems in the first place."

I cited Obama's talent for promoting consensus, for accomodating differing points of view. Again, the man's face soured.

"Accomodation isn't good," he said.

I tried to backtrack. "That might be the wrong word. But he listens to all sides. He can compromise—"

"There's always a wrong side. You don't want to listen to the wrong side."

It occurred to me that I'd assumed he was an Obama supporter—not just because he was black, not just because we were in New York City, but because in the past year I'm not quite sure if I've so much as been in the presence of a single person who did not support Obama.

"Listen, I'm a patriot. I love my country. I think we should bring back mandatory service."

"Military service or some kind of national service?" I asked.

He winced. "Any kind of service would be OK, I guess," he allowed. "I graduated high school in 1955 and then I went into the Army. The Army's the only place in the world that teaches you to get along with people who are not like you. When you're in the Army, no matter who you are, you only want one thing. Do you know what that is?"

"What's that?"

"To go home. All you want to do is go home. And the people you're with are the only people who can help you do that, and you've gotta help them too. If your commanding officer tells you to carry this and that to somewhere by tomorrow morning, you're not going to be the asshole who doesn't do it. If you don't do it, everyone is fucked. You have to find a way to work with people to get it done."

We were interrupted as one of the regulars, an older black woman, creaked off her barstool to say her goodbyes. I stood deferentially apart, giving ample berth to her ceremonious exit. After she was gone I approached again, nonchalantly, not sure if the conversation would resume. The man acknowledged me with a nod.

"Now McCain, the only reason I didn't vote for him was nuclear power. He wants to build all these nuclear power plants. Where you gonna put the waste? Nuclear power is like asking people to store their garbage in their homes. We'd all be fucked."

It struck me that he felt more kinship with McCain as a military man than with Obama as a black man.

"The other thing about McCain," he added, "is that he was tortured for six years. You can't have an experience like that without your brain being addled."

Finally, he put his empty glass up on the bar and gave hugs and handshakes to those remaining in his circle. He shook my hand: Great talking to you. Great talking to you, too. He walked out the door and past the cops and smokers and crossed 161st Street and went on down Gerard Avenue, past the stadium.