I’m walking down Eighth Avenue. Its freezing out. I should get a cab but I feel like walking. I’ve been preoccupied lately. Cold weather always clears my mind. I pull the black watch cap I’m wearing down over my ears and push towards my destination.
The sun is setting. I watch the shadows creep up the sides of the city’s tall buildings and stain them black. The concrete tip of an old skyscraper, reluctant to surrender her crown to darkness, gleams like a ferocious diadem of golden light.
I put my eyes back on the sidewalk and jam my hands into my pockets. As I walk down the avenue I feel strangely disconnected from everything. Faces float before my eyes like reflections caught in the shards of a broken mirror. A homeless man in a t-shirt shivers in a doorway, mumbling to himself about things gone horribly wrong. As I start to imagine what its like to be him I realize the only difference between us is a warm coat.
I pass by a French bistro. Through the plate glass window I see the waiters sitting around a large table folding napkins. It looks warm inside. Everyone has a smile on their face. Without thinking I push open the heavy doors.
“Bonsoir,” the hostess says.
“Hello,” I say. “Just one.”
“Very good sir,” the girl says, grabbing a menu. “Right this way.”
I follow the girl into the dining room. She seats me near the waiters. As I settle into my chair I hear them quietly discuss who will wait on me. I smile to myself. I always hated the first customer of the day.
One of the older servers gets up. Pasting on a customer service smile he slides up to my table.
“Good evening sir,” he says. “And how are you tonight?”
“I’m well,” I lie. “Thank you.”
“Can I get you anything from the bar?”
“I’ll have a bottle of Fischer beer.”
“Would you like the twelve ounce or the twenty-two ounce?” the waiter asks.
I do some psychiatric arithmetic in my head. I can handle one beer, not two.
“Just the twelve ounce. Thanks.”
“I’ll be right back sir,” the waiter says, sounding mildly disappointed.
I pull a book out of my coat and start reading. I don’t need to look at the menu. I already know what I want.
The waiter returns with the beer and pours some into a pilsner glass.
“Do you know what you’d like to order sir?” he asks.
“I’ll have the steak sandwich please. Medium. “All good French bistros have steak sandwiches.
“Would you like fries or a salad?”
“I would like fries with that. Thank you.”
The waiter glances at my book. “What are you reading?”
“The Goodbye Look.”
“Who wrote it?”
“Guy named Ross Macdonald,” I say. “Its a detective story.”
The name doesn’t register with the waiter. “Its an old book,” I add quickly.
“Enjoy your book sir,” the waiter says, smiling beatifically. “Your food will be out in a few minutes.”
I sip my beer and read my book. I listen to the staff talking as they fold napkins. They talk about their schedules, school, significant others and where to find a good gym around 36th Street. Somehow listening to the cadence of their voices is reassuring. Listening to them I don’t feel disconnected.
After a while my sandwich comes out. The steak’s perfectly cooked. I hold the sandwich in one hand and my book in the other. The food and beer does more than just warm my insides, it plugs me back into the human race. I watch people come in off the street and line up at the zinc bar for an after work drink. The office girls and the office guys begin to dance their dance. Amidst the laughter and bonhomie a man in ratty green sweater sleeps face down on the end of the bar. Behind him is a small shopping cart filled with clothes. He must be a homeless guy who scraped together a few dollars for a beer. Maybe he’s this restaurant’s version of Claude. They’ll have to wake him up soon. Its nice they let him sit there. Most places wouldn’t.
I finish eating and signal for the check. The waiter brings it over. I examine the bill and open my wallet. I have enough cash to cover the bill but not to leave a tip. I call the waiter over and hand him a credit card and a twenty dollar bill.
“Please put the bill on my card.” I say. “I also need some change.”
“Yes sir,” the waiter says, taking the check holder. “Back in a minute.”
After several minutes the waiter comes back with my change.
“I’m terribly sorry sir,” he says. “But our credit card machine is down. The managers trying to fix it.”
“That’s OK,” I say. “These things happen.”
“Don’t they always,” the waiter laughs.
“When I was a waiter,” I say.” The credit card machine always seemed to crash on Saturday night.”
“Oh, thats happened here,” the waiter says, looking at me with renewed interest. “Where did you work?”
“Upstate,” I fib automatically.
“Do it a long time?”
The waiter looks at me. A silent acknowledgment passes between us.
“Well,” the waiter says, “Let me see if I can get your bill. Ill be right back.”
I watch as the manager struggles with the credit card terminal. He unplugs cables, reboots computers, and makes a dozen phone calls but no progress. I look at my watch. I have to be going. I get up, put on my coat, and walk over to the waiter.
“Listen,” I say, “I have to run. Give me my card back and Ill pay you in cash.”
“I’m so sorry about this sir,” the waiter says, handing back my credit card.
“Is there an ATM machine around here?”
“Yes sir. Theres a machine inside the bank around the corner.”
“I’ll be right back,” I say. “I’ve got to pull out some money to cover your tip.”
“Oh sir,” the waiter says smiling, “Don’t worry about it. Get me next time.”
“No way, ” I say. “You deserve your tip.”
“Its OK sir.”
“I’ll be back,” I say. “I promise.”
I go to the ATM. Theres a line. It takes several minutes to get my money. I walk back to the restaurant and exchange a twenty for two fives and a ten at the bar. I look for my waiter. He’s still sitting down folding napkins. I walk over and hand him a five.
“Thanks,” I say.
“You didn’t have to do that sir,” he exclaims, looking very surprised.
“Oh yes I did.” I say. “More than you know.”
“Thank you sir,” the waiter says, executing a small bow with his head.
“Have a busy shift,” I say.
I push the heavy glass doors open and walk onto the street. The air is colder than before. The sun is gone. Light leaks out of skyscraper windows and falls to the streets like rain. I look up at the old concrete building that lost her crown. Her Art Deco roof is shrouded in darkness. Thats all right.
Shell get her diadem back tomorrow.