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Saturday Night Sober (a true short story)

An account of a night in 2009.

It’s 3am. I just got home. On the way in through the kitchen, out of habit I loped toward the cabinet above the sink to take my nightly cup of water to my room when I remembered I was completely sober and I could stand up straight and calmly reach for the cup of my choice.

My evening started at 6pm at a gallery in the West Village where I watched an artist demonstrate unusual ways to conduct electricity in order to light a lamp. He successfully turned a hot dog into a battery. I wasn’t that impressed because as a child I had had a potato clock from the Klutz catalog. But he was humble in his presentation and earnest in his dedication. He said he had researched many different brands of hot dog and found Nathan’s to be the best.

Performances by other artists followed. People had started smoking in the gallery and I went from antsy to entirely uncomfortable. I craved more than anything, a hot dog. I walked East on Spring Street to a Bavarian bar where I ordered two wieners with mustard, potato salad, and fancy ginger ale. Whiskey would have gone well but I had been drinking too much in the weeks before and had been feeling sickly.

By the time my text messages convinced my friend A to leave his apartment two blocks away and join me I had already paid my bill and exited the bar. But now he, too, only desired sausage and claimed that half the reason he left his apartment was because that sounded so good. So we went back to the same Bavarian bar, got a table, and I had Averna with lemon juice while he had the sausage platter.

Except for that small glass of digestif, for the rest of the night I refused all drinks. I was resigned to a plan of not having fun and this led me to a new state. I was sober and extremely malleable. I was willing to go anywhere, whatever party A and his friend J chose. But A was frustrated with my demeanor- I would say yes to any proposed destination but showed little enthusiasm or investment- only a detached, annoying serenity like a cartoon monk. A said I’m only fun when I’m single.

At a bar in Bushwick we joined a few of J’s friends and the difficulty of rounding everyone up for our ride back to the city wore at my composure. I insisted on sitting shotgun even though four larger people had to share the back seat. Between my blanket contentment and unabashed selfishness I could relate to A and his usually unbearable, constant critiquing of our surroundings. Each party was kind of lame, in part because the night had become too loaded with expectations for anything good to happen. A and J became grumpy.

I texted my friend K to see what he was up to. He wrote back from a party on the Upper East Side. Now at my last stop with A and J, a bar in the East Village, I texted K to say I was headed uptown and was he still at the party. He replied with the address. But by the time I got on to the street and called K he was already leaving to go downtown. I pressed him for information about this uptown party. He said it was a crazy dance party, someone’s birthday. I wouldn’t know anyone. I decided to go anyway.

The streets were crowded, no free taxis. Waiting for the subway at Astor Place, the station was packed. Saturday night. Everyone going home or out still further. I boarded the rear car of the 6 train and just managed to grab one of those new little fold-down seats. Whenever someone stands up from one the seat snaps back against the wall making a loud bang and everyone looks up. I used to forget, too, to ease the seat closed with one hand as I rose and when it made that horrible noise I would scold myself for being so thoughtless but I’ve got the hang of it now.

Earlier in the week I was looking for something to read. I scanned my brother’s bookshelves and realized I had never read anything by Hemingway. I borrowed “The Snows of Mount Kilmanjaro and Other Stories.” After reading the title story I was skeptical- okay but not really my thing. But now, on this subway seat I read “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and changed my mind.

I and several others got out at 68th Street. I walked a few blocks South East to the address, a tall, luxury building. Inside I told the doorman the apartment number- it’s still going right? He said “You’re a little late.”

I took the elevator up to the 30-something-th floor. The hallway was brightly lit, long and narrow, inelegant. As I walked I listened hopefully for party sounds. Far down the hall as I approached the door I heard loud music- a poppy 80’s style dance song I didn’t recognize and laughter, shouting and whoops. So the party is still going, that’s good. But the door was locked. I knocked. Then I rang the doorbell- it made a light buzz just on the other side. No one answered. I buzzed again. Then a song came on that I knew but hadn’t heard in a while. I tried to remember what it was. A full minute in, my brain made the connection- it was from the movie Donnie Darko. The laughter and shouts kept going- girls’ voices, low men’s voices.

Then I started to feel different. Insecure. The reality of being uninvited. These people having a good time inside. They don’t need me. Why should I interrupt them? And no one coming or going- I thought this was supposed to be a big house party, a rager. I almost left. But it would have been too depressing to have come so far, a pathetic story.

I began to hold down the buzzer for longer amounts of time. Still no answer. I started to call K to ask if he knew anyone inside who could open the door for me. Just then someone on a cellphone opened the door to come outside. I acted like I had just arrived, pretended to be on my phone and switched places with him.

Inside was dark. All lights were off in the apartment but the music was very loud. The apartment was not as big as I had imagined. I moved forward into the living room. The walls were floor to ceiling windows overlooking midtown. There were only about 12 people, most of them dancing in the center of the room, a few sitting on couches closely surrounding the dancers.

The windows were lined with a seating area. I walked over in the dark and looked out for a bit. Then I took out my camera, took a few pictures out the window, sat down, and looked out some more. Only one person seemed to notice me- if he even did- a man sitting on the couch holding or sitting next to a candle. We watched the dancers. Everyone was having fun. At one point someone yelled out “Happy Birthday” and a boy’s name. I was definitely trespassing. I walked through the kitchen- lights off, bottles, plates in the sink- probably dirty with cake. Walking toward the exit I came across a bedroom door ajar. The lights were on and a few people sat on the bed talking. I quickly turned around and made my way back through the living room, looked around a little longer and left.

I noticed on the elevator floor a plastic cup printed with “Happy 25th Birthday” and the boy’s name. So this was a very important birthday for not too many friends and I had just crept in and out in the dark. I said goodnight to the doorman and walked back West toward the subway. The station was deserted. Only a half hour had passed but it was no longer Saturday night. Figuring I just missed a train I exited the station and walked West on 68th Street toward Madison.

I no longer felt chilly. In fact, the wind was warm and I left my coat open, feeling refreshed. Just passed a Hunter College art gallery the next building, a residential, had wonderful carvings of bulldogs, owls and eagles and medieval style ironwork in the doorways.

How had I never noticed this building? And on a side-street? It reminded me of the morning after a drunken one night stand that brought me to Tudor City for the first time. When I left his apartment building I looked at the cross streets to find my bearings: Tudor Place and Tudor Street. Where the hell am I, I thought. I will walk a block or two and as far as know I could emerge anywhere in the city. I think his building had bulldogs and eagles, too.

I kept walking. When I got to Park Avenue I looked across the street and saw for the first time this season’s blossoms. I felt happy to receive this sign of spring.

Now every taxi was free. But on the deserted side-streets, free from self-consciousness, I could take all the pictures I wanted. As I approached Madison Avenue a public bus turned onto 68th Street and passed me. I remembered with surprise that this special, hidden block was a bus route. I wasn’t just discovering all of these beautiful buildings. Every day, every few minutes busloads of people pass down these same blocks, looking out the windows including everyone who gets out of Lincoln Center and takes the crosstown bus to the 6 train.

I felt a little sheepish. I couldn’t stop taking pictures so I hailed a cab. My coat got stuck in the door.

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