For my first few years at the liquor store, I worked mostly evening shifts, usually with a guy named Dave who’d been at the store since his undergraduate days at NYU in the mid-1970s. By the time of my arrival in the early ’90s he was also an adjunct philosophy professor in the city college system. On Friday nights Dave gave me a twenty from the register and I went around the corner to get us some Italian takeout. We ate in the back, on Morty’s desk, shoving his adding machine to the side for the food and for a couple chipped coffee cups and a bottle of wine off the rack. Customers weren’t much of an issue, even though it was a Friday night in Greenwich Village in the City That Never Sleeps. If one happened to come in, either Dave or I would walk up front to the register, depending on whose turn it was.
The store had been successful for most of Dave’s tenure, but since two large warehouse-style liquor stores had opened nearby business had been waning. Sometimes people stuck their head in the door just to smugly tell us that we were selling something for considerably more than one or the other of the big warehouses. Sometimes just for something to do we took empty individual-sized boxes of Absolut and used them to cover up large gaps in our shelves. This practice of covering up the empty shelves increased as the years went by, until eventually most of the store was empty boxes.
“Wow, you guys really have a lot of Absolut,” a customer sometimes observed.
When we weren’t filling in empty spaces, we were filling up empty time. I did a lot of reading. I also watched baseball games on the television up front behind the counter. Both New York teams were out of the running in those years, the games usually meaningless. For the Yankees it was something of a return to the days when I’d first followed baseball, their roster full of latter day versions of Rudy May, Cecil Upshaw, and Alex Johnson, guys who were just passin’ through. Fittingly enough, the defining figure of their previous extended pennantless drought, Bobby Murcer, was often the broadcasting voice bringing me the soothing news of the Yankees’ irrelevance.
Anyway, with the general downturn in business, Dave and I didn’t have to get up very often from our Italian food and red wine. Conversation during the first half of the bottle was generally confined to two subjects, either the wine itself (Dave was a connoisseur) or sports. Dave did most of the talking, and he also took care of the refilling of our chipped coffee cups. Once the bottle passed its halfway point, the conversation turned to memory lane, to Dave’s memories, that is, or to be even more specific to the difference between Dave’s girl-glutted past and my gnawingly lonely present.
Dave spun great expansive tales of romantic adventure and seduction that always seemed to begin with him leaving the liquor store with a bottle of wine in his satchel and always seemed to end with him smoking a joint with some beautiful sensuous she-beatnick on a rooftop below the gentle caress of the 3 A.M. night. I wish I could offer more than a general notion about these stories, because I don’t at all want to sound like I’m mocking them, but I can’t really remember any specifics. But the fact is I loved the stories, loved how he told them, loved feeling a little drunk at work on the free wine, loved the way the whole ritual seemed to beckon for a wider world than the one I was experiencing in most of my waking hours. Later, before we locked up the gates for the night, I dutifully tried to follow Dave’s lead, jamming a bottle of wine into my backpack next to the Dostoevsky and the Meade Wireless notebook filled with my rantings. But my nights, instead of ending on a rooftop with a girl, always seemed to end while waiting alone or with my brother in a stink cloud of homelessness urine for the F Train to Brooklyn after last call at the International.
Eventually I tried to believe that I had merely arrived in the world too late. Times were different in Dave’s day, I told myself. It was easy enough to believe in this scenario, since even the store itself seemed to support the theory that everything was humming along on all cylinders right up until the time I showed up. Throughout the 1980s business had been booming, girls were constantly sauntering down 8th Street with love in their eyes (Dave had met his future wife while standing in the doorway and enjoying the voluptuous parade), rich guys with mousse in their hair tipped you on liquor deliveries with lines of coke and with the rolled-up fifty through which you snorted the coke. To hear the tales, it was practically the carry-the-table-through-the-Copa scene of Goodfellas just before I’d gotten there. But now the championship days were over. Now came the meaningless years. Now the schedule of late-season games droned like a dusty conveyer belt in a factory about to be closed. Charlie O’Brien grounded out weakly to second. Mel Hall stared off into space.
This seemed about right. After all, I had always related to, or at least heaped inordinate sympathy upon, baseball players who arrived one year too late.
With that in mind, here is Dale Murray, looking in his 1978 card as if he is about to be blamed for something. He came to the Reds in 1977, just after they’d staked their claim as one of the best teams of all time with a dominating two-year reign as World Champions. That reign came to an end when Dale Murray climbed on board. I can sympathize. I mean, I often wonder: Is it me? Am I the reason that the winning is always being done just over the horizon, out of reach?