Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been plagued by radical doubt, always questioning what most understand to be true. The starving child in Africa; the mite-infested pigeons cooing on the city pavement; the exsanguinated phantoms on their way to work; the monolithic buildings busting with even more bodies; the soldier in a ditch with his face blown off; the expectant noose hanging from a basement steam pipe in Queens or Lyons or Lebanon; the wild-eyed hitchhiker on a mission of mercy; the lush jungle of the Amazon…does any of it even exist? Who knows, maybe it’s only a defense; by dismissing the world around me as mere illusion, it provides an excuse to weasel out of my obligations to partake, to let people in…to live.
It was a quiet Friday night by New York standards and I was stuck having to attend a party for a friend I had avoided for years; only the sound of my own footsteps and occasional bossy honk disturbed the heavy stillness that hung over the scattered shadows scuttling down blocks and across avenues with dogged resolve. Wrapping my scarf tight across my face, I struggled to keep moving. My flesh could not deny the cold, what I felt was no illusion; it was ruthless and tasted of iron filings mixed with used coffee grounds.
By the time I neared my destination, the rain had turned to a stinging sleet, whipping me in the face like the wet aglets of a thousand untied laces. Despite my reluctance to prolong the bitter hike, I ducked into a tiny liquor store on the corner of 57th and Broadway. There was no way I could show up empty-handed.
“Some weather out there,” commented the man behind the register, while I stole a quick moment to warm up my frozen extremities. “Even an Eskimo’d stay home on a night like this one here, am I right?”
“Even an Eskimo,” I agreed.
He must’ve been well into his seventies, with papery, liver-spotted skin – an absurd contrast to his bouffant hairdo, inexpertly dyed an odd shade of tangerine. He seemed tired as hell, but still managed to serve me up a friendly smile. This was no job for an old man, especially “…on a night like this one here.”
I figured everyone at the party would be drinking craft beer, or maybe an artisanal Bourbon; the perfect pairing to pork belly and ironic conversation. After a cursory glance at their scotch selection, I pulled down a fifth of 12-year-old Macallan. It was a stupid impulse and one I couldn’t afford. I guess, I kind of felt in the mood to blow some cash, who knows? Maybe I just wanted to look like a big shot, either way, it wasn’t as if an extra bottle of scotch was gonna break me or anything, not really anyway.
“Ah, the good stuff.” The old man chuckled as he rung me up. “That’ll be $62.50.”
I slipped him my card before I could think better of it.
“It’s a birthday present.”
“You’re a good friend,” he said, passing me my sack of booze.
“I hardly know him anymore, I haven’t seen him in forever.”
His crow’s feet crunching in approval, he handed me my receipt. “Well, then you’re a good fella, that there’s a generous gift for someone you hardly know.”
“A dumb sap would be more accurate, but thanks.” I sighed, collecting myself before heading back out into the rain.
“Buck up, young man. Every day above ground is a good day, you want to remember that. Go and have yourself a good time…drink the first toast to the Eskimos!”
“To the Eskimos!” I laughed, shutting the door behind me with a hasty tug – I didn’t want him to get a chill.