Home > Sweetbitter(2)

Sweetbitter(2)
Stephanie Danler

There was a bartender leaning heavily against the back counter with his boots up on the bar in front of him. He wore a patched and studded denim vest with no shirt underneath. Two women sat in front of him in yellow print dresses, twirling straws in big drinks. No one said anything to me.

“Keys, keys, keys,” he said when I asked. In addition to his body odor, which hit me in the face on my approach, this man was covered in terrifying—demonic—tattoos. The skin of his ribs seemed glued on. A mustache as defined as pigtails. He pulled out the register, threw it on the bar, and rummaged through the drawer underneath. Stacks of credit cards, foreign change, envelopes, receipts. The bills fluttered against the clamps.

“You Jesse’s girl?”

“Ha,” one of the women said from down the bar. She pressed her drink onto her forehead and rolled it back and forth. “That was funny.”

“It’s South Second and Roebling,” I said.

“Am I a fucking real estate agent?” He threw a handful of keys with plastic colored tags at me.

“Aw, don’t scare her,” the second woman said. They didn’t look like sisters exactly, but they were both fleshy, rising out of their halter necklines like figureheads on the prow of a ship. One was blond, the other brunette—and now that I was looking, their dresses were definitely identical. They murmured inside jokes to each other.

How am I going to live here? I wondered. Someone is going to have to change, them or me. I found the keys marked 220 Roebling. The bartender ducked down.

“Thank you very much, sir,” I said to the air.

“Oh, no problem, madame,” he said, popping up and batting his eyes at me. He opened a can of beer, pushed his mustache up, and ran his tongue around it while looking at me.

“Okay,” I said, backing away. “Well, maybe I’ll come in again. For like…a drink.”

“I’ll be here with bells on,” he said, turning his back on me. His stench lingered.

Just before I stepped out into the heat I heard one of the women say, “Oh god,” and then from that bartender: “There goes the fucking neighborhood.”

SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.

I DON’T REMEMBER why I went to that restaurant first.

I do remember—in perfect detail—that stretch of Sixteenth Street that gave away so little: the impersonal, midcentury teal of Coffee Shop, the battalion of dumpsters between us and Blue Water Grill, the bodega with two small card tables where they let you drink beer. Always uniformed servers buying Altoids and energy drinks.

The alley where the cooks lined up to smoke cigarettes between services, the recesses of the alley where they smoked pot and kicked at the rats tearing through the trash. And just beyond our line of vision we could sense the outlines of the scrawny park.

What did the Owner gaze at when he built it? The future.

When I got there they told me a lot of stories. Nobody went to Union Square in the eighties, they said. Only a few of the publishing houses had moved down there. That city has been replaced by another city. The Whole Foods, the Barnes & Noble, the Best Buy—they got stacked right on top of it. In Rome, they dig for a subway and find whole civilizations. With all the artists, the politicians, the tailors, the hairdressers, the bartenders. If you dug right here on Sixteenth Street you’d find us, younger, and all the stale haunts, and all the old bums in the park younger too.

What did those original servers see when they went to the first interviews in 1985? A tavern, a grill, a bistro? A mess of Italy, France, and some burgeoning American cuisine that nobody really believed in yet? A hodgepodge that shouldn’t have worked? When I asked them what they saw, they said he’d built a kind of restaurant that hadn’t been there before. They all said that when they walked in, it felt like coming home.

BITTER: always a bit unanticipated. Coffee, chocolate, rosemary, citrus rinds, wine. Once, when we were wild, it told us about poison. The mouth still hesitates at each new encounter. We urge it forward, say, Adapt. Now, enjoy it.

I SMILED too much. At the end of the interview the corners of my mouth ached like stakes in a tent. I wore a black sundress and a pilled cardigan, which was the most conservative and professional thing I owned. I had a handful of résumés folded up in my purse, and my loose plan—if that’s even the right word for the hesitant brand of instinct I forced myself to follow with a sense of doom—was to walk into restaurants until I got hired. When I asked my roommate where I should look for a job, he said the best restaurant in New York City was in Union Square. Within a minute of getting off the train I developed giant wet half-moons of sweat in the cardigan, but the top of my dress was too revealing to remove it.

“Why did you choose New York?” asked Howard, the general manager.

“I thought you were going to ask me why I chose this restaurant,” I said.

“Let’s start with New York.”

I knew from books, movies, and Sex and the City how I was supposed to answer. I’ve always dreamed of living here, they say. They stress the word dreamed, lengthen it, to make it sound true.

I knew so many said: I came here to be a singer/dancer/actress/photographer/painter. In finance/fashion/publishing. I came here to be powerful/beautiful/wealthy. This always seemed to mean: I’m stopping here to become someone else.

I said, “It really didn’t feel like a choice. Where else is there to go?”

“Ah,” he said. “It’s a bit of a calling, isn’t it?”

That’s all. Ah. And I felt like he understood that I didn’t have endless options, that there was only one place large enough to hold so much unbridled, unfocused desire. Ah. Maybe he knew how I fantasized about living a twenty-four-hour life. Maybe he knew how bored I had been up until now.

Howard was in his late forties with a cultivated, square face. His hair receded finely, emphasizing bulging eyes that told me he didn’t need much sleep. He stood squarely on athletic legs, balancing a prominent belly. Judicious eyes, I thought, as he tapped his fingers on the white tablecloth and assessed me.

“You have nice nails,” I said, looking at his hands.

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