Rita of El Rito

Is that just a mirage?

Is that just a mirage?

“God has a very big heart, but there is one sin he will not forgive! If a woman calls a man to his bed, and he will not go.”

Alexis Zorba

The whole drive up I was sweating the liquor store situation.  Did they have them in El Rito?  Would they all be closed by the time we got there?  That would be a severe drag.  I would be stuck up there with this woman I hardly know, in a place I’d never been, and not have beer to make sure everything was going to be okay.

If I had beer, I could deal with anything.  Without it, it seemed like I couldn’t.  I know.  Nutty.

This situation was made for beer.

I had agreed to spend the night with a woman I hardly knew, which was hardly new, but she was friends with my boss.  So I could see shock-waves if this whole deal got ugly.  It’s not like I could leave her at some Travel Lodge with nothing but a fake name and number.

She used to come into the photography bookstore I worked at.  I was a shipping clerk who packed boxes all day for the mail order part of the business.  She was a photographer and would drive down to Santa Fe to show the owner her latest work.  We never really talked.  I’d smile and say hello, and basically try to keep my distance so she wouldn’t smell the beer coming out of me.

She was cute enough, a curly-haired, skinny little brunette, but she seemed a little prissy–a little too wholesome for my taste.

One day, she just came up and asked me drive up and spend the week-end with her.  Wow.  What do you say?  Yes, of course.  Always.  That’s the Zorba law.  And my law.  Look, if you didn’t like her before, finding out that she likes you, makes you like her now.

Enough for sex?  Cross that Rubicon when it’s time to get the ankles wet.

She picked me up after work to save the wear-and-tear on my Olds Omega.  She told me on the ride up that she had inquired about me to the owner of the bookstore, and that he tried to dissuade her from pursuing anything.

“He said you were a nice guy, but that you were a little… wild.”

I wasn’t too thrilled when I heard this.  I knew what he was trying to telegraph to her.  That whole italicized “wild” shit.  Drunk, he meant.

“Oh did he?  Huh.  Well, that really hurts.”

“Are you?  Too wild?”

“That depends on for what .”

I looked down at my watch.  I’ll tell you what, if there’s no open place to buy beer in this one-horse town you live in, you will see some wild.  Wild desperation.  I should’ve brought a backpack full of beer.  It  just seemed like bad form on a first date sleepover.  What was I thinking?  This is exactly the kind of date you can bring a backpack full of beer to.

It’s a slumber party.

Everybody brings treats.  You get the popcorn and the movie, and I’ll bring eighteen tall-boy cans of Guinness.

Major fuck-up.

Now I had to play Coy Boy and coax out some hard facts.

“So will any stores be open in El Rito?  You know, so we can stop at to get like potato chips and snacks.”

“Oh don’t worry, I have plenty of snacks for us.”

“Great.  That’s great.  Well that’s a load off.”

We drove in silence for a while.

Telephone pole.  Telephone pole.  Telephone pole.

“So do they have…like a convenience store there, or some sort of mom and pop type place?”

“There’s a little family-owned place.  They have some groceries.”

“Groceries and…soda?”

“Yes, and some beer and wine.”

Oh sweet fucking glory!  Holly-Rolly thank you, Mother of All Good Things, for being so merciful to your wretched children!

“That’s cool.”

I took a deep breath.  Wait.  Wait.  Wait.  Look at the passing scenery.  Wait.

“What time do they usually roll up the welcome mat?”

“I’m not sure, around eight or nine, I think.”

It was now 7:30.  There could be a big difference between eight and nine.  I don’t get people like this.  If I lived out in the sticks, I would know what time the place opened and what time it closed–every single day of the year.  I’d know which holidays they observed.  What shift the grandma-who-closes-the-place-whenever-she-needs-a-nap works.  I would have her schedule, and plan accordingly.

All I could do now was will the car forward, faster.  Before the little abuelita’s eyelids get too heavy.  I stared out the window.  What the fuck was I doing here?

The fall sky can make certain parts of Northern New Mexico look extra bleak.   Slate blue with smeared chalky clouds.  Long shadows.  High altitude light illuminating a coyote fence, a crumbling adobe wall, some tires stacked by some siding, a cluster of trailers.  No wonder heroin is so big up here.  If I lived in Truchas or Chupadero, I’d probably pick up a habit.  On top of everything else.

Something to make staring at water dripping into a bucket more fun.

I love New Mexico.  I think it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.  But there are parts of it that suck.  Not just Albuquerque and the State Penitentiary, either.  Some of the smaller, sadder towns.  They seem to suffer from a crushingly depressive malady.  Big sky fever, is what I call it.  I don’t care if it’s the Russian steppes or Kansas, anytime you have a really wide expanse of sky, melancholy is going to oppress it.  The sheer vastness dwarfs all human activity, and relegates it to the junk pile of eternity.

Telephone pole.  Billboard for Indian Casino.  A dirt field.  Orange filter making everything look extra sad.

Think about death.  Think about it for everyone, especially the people you love.  All dead.  We are all going to be dead.

“You’re awful quiet.”

“Just thinking about death.”


We rolled into town just in time.  The little mom and pop store that sold beer was still open.  Thank you, my sweet Lord.  Once again, you have delivered me from my own evil.  I got two six packs, hesitated, then got two more.  I didn’t care how it looked.  Fuck bad form.  Good form just leaves you dying of thirst.

When we went back out to the car, I could see her trying to fight down the eyebrow that was trying to raise itself.  Not to fear, darlin’, there’s a new fiesta in the making…as we speak.

All that oppressive melancholy and dread I was experiencing earlier, seemed to have lifted.  Maybe it was the sun finally going down that did it.  Certainly, having two dozen loyal troops, standing by to bodyguard me, made me more intrepid.

Let’s see what kind of weirdness we can cook up with this situation.  New chick.  Always weird.   But you can always make it more weird than that.  That’s kind of your specialty–taking an already weird situation and making that look normal in comparison.

Okay, so maybe at first I was apprehensive that maybe this chick was not my type.  But she obviously likes me.  Isn’t that my type?

Interesting change of attitude.  A radical pivoting of point-of-view.  And I hadn’t fired down a single beer yet.  It’s all about morale.

Regardless of my new-found positive attitude, the date went the way in was supposed to.  It was a disaster.

Not at first, but let’s not forget who was piloting this barge.

We ate cheese and crackers while looking at photos she had taken.  They were pretty good.  At one point we had moved to the couch.  That’s when she told me about the guy that broke her heart.  How she mourned over him for years.  All the pain.  The self-doubt.  The loneliness.  The bitter tears.  The savage loss.

The major boner-kill.

Forget it.  This mission just got scrubbed.  Condition No-Go!  Condition No-Go!  Yes, I was younger then, but old enough to already be haunted by plenty of ghosts.  I wasn’t exactly eager to pig-pile on top of all that pain.  I also didn’t want Rixon’s warning to be right.  I may be a drunk, but I’m not wild. 

Now I had to evade capture.  Duck and dodge.  Play the clock.  Play the gentleman.

What is it about that, that makes women act more horny and wildly available (definitely my type) than they ever would if you had given yourself the green light?  It’s an amazing thing.  Except you can’t fake it.  Playing hard-to-get doesn’t work.  You have to really have sincerely decided not to sleep with them.  Cosmic Irony knows if you’re pretending.  So do the women.

But, decide to do the right thing, and every form of succubus that ever crawled into a bed, seems to take possession.  It’s strange.  I don’t always try to do the right thing, but when I do, everything in Creation will try to get me to stop.  I wound up fooling around a little, then stopped short.  You’ve gone far enough.  Time to balk and back up.  I put it in reverse.

Well, all my back-pedaling started to hurt her feelings.  I could tell when she said, “All you’re back-pedaling is hurting my feelings.”

How do you explain a sudden outbreak of conscience?  I was pounding the pups, just shot-gunning them down, hoping I could impair my judgement long enough to excuse any transgression from my previous vow.  But I couldn’t seem to get there.

I kept seeing a very lonely person.  Someone needing somebody, and knowing that I was the last fucking somebody they needed.  She was getting all hurt that I wasn’t engaging more, and I couldn’t seem to pull away fast enough.  For both our sake’s.

I kicked myself for not buying two more six packs.

She went to bed that night while I stayed up looking through her monographs.

That next morning we had an uncomfortable breakfast at El Farolito.   After that we walked around an empty field for a while.  We came across a dead crow and she took a picture of it.

“Our love,” I said, trying to make a joke, but it fell like doom in a German opera.  By then, it was clear nothing was ever going to happen.  We were just hanging out, killing time–trying to make it seem like it was no big deal.  Like this was all we ever expected.  Just walking around taking pictures of rotting carrion.  Not talking much.  Waiting until it seems it’s been long enough.

Those minutes are murder.  Long, arduous ticks.  You start to envy the dead crow.

Eventually, it was decided it was time.  It was a quiet ride home.  Despite my gallant knight routine, or because of it, she was hurt and angry.  I can’t blame her.  I should have declined her invitation in the first place.  But who does that?

I later heard from the owner that she really hated me from then on.  Actually, I heard that from several people.  She wasn’t shy about broadcasting what a bastard I was.  She didn’t spare the stink-eye either when she came into the bookstore.   Maybe it wasn’t for what I did or didn’t do that week-end.  Maybe it was just for the person she saw.  A drunk unable to cope with painful feelings–his or anyone else’s.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t totally mislead her.

I had misled her enough.

And for that, Uncle Zorba, I know a woman will never forgive you.

Ain’t love crazy?

Honorary Irish

I love the Irish.  I love everything about them.  I love the music, the drinking, the fighting, the way they can sleep eight family members in a twin bed like a litter of puppies.  From The Book of Kells to Shane Macgowan, their art has lifted many earthbound souls to realms celestial.  Their service, both public and military, to this country is immeasurable.   Those hard-working, hard-drinking, lyrical lunatics have brightened my world and lightened my load.  They have picked me up (sometimes literally) when I was at my lowest.  No drunken regret, when confided to an Irishman, will seem as bad.

“Ah Marius, sorry tah here about yar troubles, but dere’s no need tah beat yourself up. I remember when I…”  From there he’ll launch into a tale of drunkenness that will magically make your shame lift.  “Pissed thah whole dance floor.”  “Wiped myself off on duh mudder-in-law’s curtains.”  “Barfed guts on dere wedding cake.”  “Crawled into thah casket and passed out blind.”   He’ll laugh and shrug, what can you do?  Indeed.

I am convinced that during the Dark Ages, the Irish saved Western civilization, just so they could kick it in the ass today.

My best bars were always Irish.  Guinness is the God of Beers, and when every third pint came free with a knock on the bar, it didn’t come closer to heaven for this thirsty lad.  I pounded my pints down a bit faster than the micks around me.   People would shake their heads and smile.  It’s actually considered bad form to glug one down quickly, unless you’ve gotten a call on your police radio, or the bar is on fire.  I was told to slow down, that a pint was meant to be enjoyed.  I figured I could enjoy it more once it was in my stomach.  I wasn’t using some trick like opening my throat, either.  It was more like opening my soul and pouring it in.  Now you see it, now you need to get me another.  I spent a lot of time standing around, drumming my fingers on the bar, waiting out the excruciatingly slow process required to pour another.

One of my proudest moments as a drinker came when I was visiting back home.  I had been drinking  at Biddy Mulligan’s, my old neighborhood bar in Queens.  One afternoon I walked in and ordered a Guinness, and they told me they were out.  What?

“How can you be out of Guinness?” I asked, incredulous at even the possibility.

“We weren’t expecting a certain visitor from New Mexico,” the bartender explained.  Apparently, I had single-handedly drank them two days short of the delivery.

“Next time send a postcard warnin’ us of yar arrival,” some guy said.  He held up his bottle of  Budweiser and looked at it.  “Please.”

That night, people would come in and order a Guinness, only to be told the bad news.  The bartender would answer their angry queries with a thumb over to me, The Lithuanian.  They called me The Baltic Black Hole.  I had earned the right to sit there.  I was okay by them.  I’ve been sober for a while now, and shouldn’t be proud of stuff like that.  So I won’t admit it.

The Irish make the best drinking buddies.  Great storytellers, sympathetic listeners, talented musicians, generous with their coin, drink, and fists.  They’ll fight someone for you just so you can finish your beer.  They’re useful, too.  Besides making good father confessors and bar room therapists, you can use them as crutches and leaning posts, or better yet, as battering rams.  They don’t mind being used as a weapon.  That hard head is more of a blessing than a curse.  They’d rather not be left out of any melee, whatever their contribution.  The only time you’ll see an Irishman on the sidelines is if he’s a cop doing crowd control, and that must just kill them.

I’ve watched old guys, frail as twigs, square off against much younger and stronger guys.  The crowd usually steps in to save them, but damn it, they were ready to throw down.  You’re just not going to find that kind of fire in some old fart WASP in golf pants.  I overheard this white-haired goat tell an upstart punk one night, “I’ve broken more men than cowards you’ve chased, Paddy.”  They’re all poets, I thought, they just can’t help it.  Sure like to kick ass, too.

Irish-Americans make for dangerous playmates, but when you get to tumble around with the mischief-makers straight from the Emerald Isle (the imported, pure, uncut shit) you’ve got to really step up your mayhem game.  You are now playing among some of the world’s elite.  Wear a loose shirt so so it will tear easier when you’re grabbed.  It’ll also give your liver room to grow.  As a drunken maniac, I always felt like a man without a country.  Then I discovered a country I felt I belonged in.  I met Dez.

He was a wiry, strong little elf, with a choke-hold that could black you out right quick.  (He put me to sleep a few times during our scraps together)  We’d throw each other around the room in full-on cage match savagery, and then stop to take a break and drink a beer.   We’d sit there drinking, he would console me over my problems, make me laugh, make me cry, wish me better days, then cuff me across the ear and we’d be on again.  It was the full Irish experience.  Strong stuff.  Not for the timid.

One morning, I was having breakfast with Dez and his family, who were visiting from Tipperary.  His father was talking about someone back home, a young guy that was helping him lay bricks.  When he went by in the morning to pick him up for work, “Sean’s fadder came out and gave me thah wave-on.”  Everyone nodded.  I asked what that was.  Dez explained that  if the person that’s supposed to be picked up is too poisoned to work, someone will come out and signal to the driver to go on without them.  In Ireland, it is so common to be too hung over to go to work, that the whole explanation has been abbreviated to a simple hand gesture.  They even have a term for it, The Wave-on.  How unbelievably fucking awesome.   I especially like how other family members will come out and perform The Wave-on for you.  That is so beautiful, so decent, it kind of chokes me up.

Later in the conversation, the mother recalled an anecdote about Dez’s younger brother, who got so drunk one night he came into their bedroom thinking it was the john.  He opened up his father’s closet and pissed into his boots.  “And it was me favorite pair!”  the Dad said, and everyone just laughed and laughed.  The whole family was teary with hilarity.  Okay, let me tell you, I’ve gotten my family fairly inoculated to my shenanigans, but that’s not how that story would have been retold.  It would be refered to, if at all, as “The Incident,” and maybe how it proceeded another rehab visit.  It would not be a happy ha-ha tale to regale your company with.  In Ireland, they laugh off things that would make you want to kill yourself in shame over here.  You can really cut loose over there.  You can be yourself.

I made a mental note, “Going to Ireland would mean my death.  Hold off, for now.”

I have yet to make that pilgrimage.  I’m still in a holding pattern.  I’m not sure I’m ready for Ireland sober.  I’m not sure Ireland is ready for a sober me.  I’m not as easy to choke out.

At the heart of the Irish is heart.  Bigger ones you won’t find.  They are fierce friends, loyal, brave, compassionate, cheerful, and funny as the devil.  I can’t think of a better brand of human.   These divine madmen, under all their craziness, pour out more love than you could ever drink.  As an outsider, I am eternally grateful for their taking me into their tribe, at least for that little while.  My life is richer because of it.  So in honor of your great snakecharmer, St. Patrick, I raise this phantom pint.  I salute your entire race.  You blessed sons and daughters of Eire.  Thank you for existing.  Cheers!


Guinness Is Good For You!

Farty Pints a Day!

Biddy Mulligan's, Woodhaven, Queens.

It was an amazing sight to see.   Six or seven bar patrons thomping on one dude. Some were trying to drag him out of his car, others swatting and poking him with pool cues.  It might have seemed unfair and unjust, but when you knew the whole story, it was actually a beautiful thing.

I love the Irish.  Even though hanging out with them has almost killed me many times, they have my utter devotion.  These mischievous Elves of Eire have always lifted me up when my life had me hammered down.  “Dere, dere, Mahreeus, sorry tah here about yahr troubles.  It’s nat ahl tha’ bad. Cheers!”  A pint of Guinness would appear, and somehow, from the ocean’s depths, I would rise again.

Biddy Mulligan’s is a working-class bar located three blocks from my grandparent’s house in Woodhaven, Queens.  People of Irish descent tend to frequent the place.  So do people of an Irish disposition.  If I die and become an earth-bound spectre, unable to reunite with the Source of All, I’ll probably drag my ghost ass to Biddy’s.  There I’ll haunt eternity, drowning my disappointment among the other lost souls. It’s a special place.

I discovered it during one of my trips home.  At first, I was a little hinky about going in.  These local bars are often very tribal. There’s a whole elaborate dance you have to do as an outsider to get any love.  Oh well.  It was time to dance.  The first part required tipping big and keeping my mouth shut. They’ll be a time for storytelling, jig-dancing, and lass-squeezing, but not now.  It was time to let people get used to seeing me, and critically, seeing me not do anything but drink.  A strange thing happens when I people watch. I turn into a single floating eyeball.  I become nothing more than a point of perception, a mere mathematical cypher.  Existing sure, but only in theory, and certainly not a threat to any established bar hierarchy.  Meanwhile, I’d wait for the generous tips to strike a spark, a wee tiny one, with the bartender, then cup my kindling and blow.

The Irish have traditionally made good kindling, certainly for revolution and disorder.  That’s my favorite part of them.  The music is lively too.  Yet even among all that riotous disorder there were certain set rules.  There was a difference between going “totahlly wide-o” and really crossing the line.  With all the fighting,  fussing, and frolicking,  some things were still sacred. I noticed that everyone left their money on the bar. The bartender peeled away bills and gave back change from the pile.  People would go to the bathroom, step outside to talk business, make phone calls, pick a fist fight, whatever, and leave their pile of money on the bar.  People coming and going,  but the money staying right there.  All this in New York City, in a fairly rundown neighborhood in Queens.

One old guy went on about it to me later.  “Marius, in here, a fuckin’ man can fuckin’ leave his fuckin’ money on the fuckin’ bar!”  He said you could take off for three days and come back to find your money where you left it.  I was impressed, and sort of believed him.

Now, honest to God this really happened.  Shortly after this chat, a guy walked into the bar.  A greasy sort of lowlife, with lots of pawn shop jewelry.  He ordered his drink, and put the money back in his wallet instead of on the bar. I noticed that. He’s drinking next to me, and starts running off some shit to me about being a cop, and being able to do whatever he wants.  He pulled out a NYPD detective card and handed it to me.  A lieutenant.  Probably not, I thought, but maybe.  Cops in New York run the gamut.  I’m sure there’s more than one bad lieutenant out there.  He starts talking about all the guns he owns, but I don’t see him printing anything through his shirt.

I was trying to size him up when a big, sweating and puffing fat boy came rolling in.  A lovable load in a wife-beater, name Al.  He orders a double scotch and hands the bartender a hundred.  He announces that he just won six hundred bucks at the track.  And then mumbling  “It helps make up for the beating I took yesterday.”  He lumbered toward the bathroom.

“Can you believe that fucking Pollack bragging about $600?” the bad lieutenant says to me, then reaches over and takes a twenty from Al’s pile.  I was shocked, but the brazen way he did it freaked me more.  Maybe he is a bad cop who can “do anything.”  Holy shit.  Al comes back from the head and looks down and right away notices he’s twenty short.  He never questioned the bartender.  He turned to the two of us. He said he was going to go back to the bathroom and when he came back he expected the money to be there, then left.  Pretty classy.

Now the next part is hard to believe, because it happened in front of me and I didn’t.  The bad lieutenant says to me “Why the fuck would I take his chump change when I got plenty of money?” and reaches over and takes another twenty!  Ok. Ok.  What the fuck is going on here?  He has to have an angle to pull this shit off, especially in this joint where they make such a big deal about trust.  I thought about putting in $40 of my own just to make this situation go away, but Al had come back.  He looked down, and then looked up at the two of us pissed.  I didn’t know what to do.  If this thieving fucker really is the heat, he could ruin my vacation.  On the other hand, I saw what I saw.  I took a chance.

“I saw this dirty fucker take your money, Al.”

The bartender came over.  “If Marius says it’s so, it’s so,” she said.  People appeared around us. The bad lieutenant started yelling.  Somebody grabbed his arm and the place went off.  More people had been watching than I realized, and nobody seemed worried if the guy was a cop or not.   A construction worker picked him up by the back of the belt, rag-dolled his ass out the door, then Dublin Dropped him face down into the street. People were pulling on his pocket trying to tear out his wallet as he struggled to get in his two-toned LTD oil-bleeder.  He finally peeled out and away, pool cues still banging on his car.

You don’t steal money off the bar at Biddy’s.

There was much rejoicing, and the man of the hour was a hometown Lithuanian.  Rounds of Guinness keep materializing in front of me all night, and my money pile never shrank.  A girl named Shannon told me I looked “suitable for framing,” and Al kept pulling me into his sweaty arm pit. I made it. I was welcomed into the tribe. I wasn’t Irish, but I could still put away “farty pints a day.”  And I could be trusted.  I may have been an alcoholic loser, but I still had some people’s trust.  I hung on to that.  I didn’t have too much else.

The Rose of Tipperary

Big Joe from Kokomo and Jimmy Shannon. Check out the headline.