By: Tony G. Rocco
Oscar had been in the museum most of the day, roaming its marbled floors of paintings, installations and sculptures, when hunger and thirst drove him into Denizens.
The bar, long and curved like a piano, immediately claimed his attention. Young men in black and white, groomed and coiffed to perfection, served drinks that looked like rainbow parfaits and miniature fish bowls stuffed with exotic fruit.
He aimed straight for the only empty barstool and immediately noticed a sound that seemed completely out of place. To his right sat a young man sporting a reverse Yankees baseball cap and two gold chains, one with a large cat’s eye that winked in response to the wearer’s body movements. His baggy t-shirt displayed an airbrushed image of Biggie Smalls splattered with bloodstains.
The bellicose sound of hip hop music emanated from purple Dr. Dre headphones fitted snugly over his baseball cap. With eyes closed, he nodded slowly as if falling into a blissful sleep. A snifter of dark liquid accompanied by a tall glass of cola with several cherries and a straw sat patiently in front of him.
“Hi, I’m James. What can I get for you?” the bartender asked, leaning forward with a smile.
“You can get me something to settle my nerves,” he replied, glancing to his right.
“We don’t give out Valium.”
“Too bad. Give me a Manhattan, then. Makers Mark, straight up, no fruit.”
Oscar gave the bartender a furtive look to suggest he do something about the nuisance next to him, but the bartender only shrugged and served him his Manhattan. He placed his red fedora on the bar and slowly scratched the gray spot his beard. His bald pate reflected the luminescence of the bar like one of the gleaming liquor bottles on the back-shelf.
Realizing that the bartender would not rescue him, Oscar swiveled to face his tormentor.
“Excuse me, sir.” He raised his voice to an edgy whine.
His would-be interlocutor continued to nod, adding a low-pitched drone to complement the steady cacophony of the headphones.
Oscar rose to bring the full brunt of his full five-foot seven frame to bear on the situation. He resisted an urge to slap the headphones from the man’s ears.
“Excuse me.” His voice cracked. No response.
Oscar sat down. He slumped over his Manhattan and studiously surveyed the bar for another seat. It was happy hour, so there were none available.
After a few minutes, the man to his right slowly turned toward Oscar.
“Yo, why you messin wiff me, man?” His voice boomed god-like over the bar. Heads turned.
Oscar recoiled at the sudden confrontation and turned to address the man.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, coughing slightly. “I was just wondering if you would, er, I mean, could you turn down the volume of your, um, music, just a bit.”
He mouthed the words while pointing to his head with two index fingers, as if plugging his ears. The man scowled and shook his head.
Oscar took the napkin from under his drink and flipped it over to the blank side. He motioned to the bartender for a writing implement and wrote: Would you be so kind as to turn down your music? He held the napkin in the air like a white flag.
D took the note and squinted at it briefly. He looked back at Oscar.
“Don’t like my music, huh?” He dropped the napkin on the floor. Oscar lunged to catch the fluttering note.
“No, no… It’s not that.”
He pointed to the earphones on the man’s head and motioned like he was pulling his head apart with two cupped hands. The man stood up, yanked the headphones from his ears and reached over to place them around Oscar’s shiny head.
Oscar pulled away, nearly falling off his barstool. He raised two hands to shield himself from the aural assault.
“No, no…” he stammered.
The music blared, unmuffled by the cranium that had previously muted its throbbing beat. Bar patrons stopped their cocktail chatter to investigate the cacophony. The bartender strode over.
“Excuse me, gentlemen. He eyed the odd couple before him. “Customers are complaining. David, keep those things on your head or turn them off.”
“He don’t like my music.” He glared at Oscar and brandished the headphones like a sonic weapon.
“That isn’t so. I just…” The bartender raised the palm of his hand.
“Put ‘em back on or turn ‘em off.” He leaned in to assert his authority. “We’ve talked about this before.”
“And you know my name ain’t David. You know what my name is.”
The bartender looked skyward. “Sorry… Dah-veed.”
“I call you by your name. I don’t call you Larry or Oscar.”
“Oscar! That’s my name.” He thrust his hand toward D in a spontaneous act of friendship. “Pleased to meet you, Dah-veed.”
“He gets my name right, why can’t you?” James shrugged and waited for him to obey his command.
“Pleased to meet you, too, Oscar.” D extended a hand that swallowed Oscar’s slender digits and brought a wince to his face.
“Let’s not fuss over this. I just wanted you to turn your music down a tad.”
D grunted in assent and fiddled with a knob on his headphones. The blare of hip-hop faded to a transistorized whimper. Assured that the sound issue had been addressed, James returned to his other customers.
“Why don’t you like my music?” D asked contentiously.
“It’s just that you don’t usually hear hip hop in a bar like this.”
“I don’t go nowhere without my music.” D took a long draw on his cola.
Oscar glanced at the image of Biggie Smalls adorning D’s chest.
“Who is that guy on your shirt?”
“That’s Biggie, man, from Brooklyn.”
“Is that blood?”
“Yeah, ‘cause he got murdered.”
“Nobody knows who done it or why. LA drive-by.”
“Those gangster rappers, or whatever you call them, live such violent lives. Why is that?” Oscar fingered his empty Manhattan glass.
“They from the ghetto, man. Not from no artsy fartsy place like ya’ll people here.”
“Hell, yeah. I know all you artsy types come here after doing all your artsy stuff in the museum.”
“What brings you here?” He motioned to James to make another Manhattan. James, noticing his interaction with D, returned a look of concern.
“My old man is an artsy type, yo. He makes me come to this museum with him, but after an hour or so I can’t stand it no more, so I end up in here listening to my music and drinking Hennessy.”
D raised the snifter and swallowed its remaining contents, following it with another draw off his cola.
“Ya’ll alright… I don’t mind you artsies, but it ain’t my thing, you know what I’m sayin’?”
James served Oscar his Manhattan.
“Everything good here?”
“Everything is fine with us artsy types. Not sure about our hippity hop friend here.”
“Has Dah-veed started telling you his life story yet?” James cast a pointed gaze at D.
“He told me that art isn’t his thing, that he’s here to get away from his dad, who is a detested artsy type.”
“I didn’t say detested, or whatever. Ya’ll ain’t my people, that’s all.”
“OK, let’s change the subject. How about those Giants?”
He raised his Manhattan in the direction of a large television positioned over the far end of the bar. Stick figures scurried silently across the screen. Their orange and white uniforms identified them as San Francisco Giants.
“Sheeit… I don’t give a damn about no Giants. This conversation is getting stale, so I am going back to my music.”
D donned his purple headphones, turned up the volume and again nodded contentedly. Without saying a word, he held his empty snifter out at arm’s length. On cue, James refilled it and put it back in D’s raised hand. D stopped bobbing his head long enough to complete the operation, took a gulp and set the glass on the bar.
“He’s got me trained like a seal,” James said, flapping his arms.
“So, what is his life story?”
“It’s coming into the bar right now,” James said, as a large black man made his way ineluctably toward them.
“Mr. Menciere, good to see you. The figure advanced toward the bar like a torpedo.
He was a handsome, middle-aged black man, over six-foot, dressed in a three-piece suit and wearing a black bowler. He sported a red bow tie and shoes that glistened with a blinding sheen. His countenance was grim, but when he reached the bar, his voice boomed with a pleasant authority.
“Good afternoon, James. I trust you are taking good care of my wayward progeny.” He glanced at his son, who was unaware of his arrival.
“I hope he’s kept his bar tab under six figures. Give me the usual.”
James mixed a Sapphire martini straight up with a twist and placed the glistening cocktail between Oscar and D. Mr. Menciere gazed at his son as he nodded in a drowsy stupor. The muted sounds of hip-hop mixed awkwardly with cocktail chatter.
“Ah, you must be the artsy father,” Oscar said, in a mock accusatory tone. He turned and extended a hand but received none in return.
“I see you’ve been talking to my son. Yes, I am he, the artsy father out of touch with the lives of black people in the ghetto. I got the memo.”
Mr. Menciere watched D with funereal gloom, arms folded. He took the bowler from his head and positioned himself directly behind D. With both hands he yanked the hat down over his son’s cap-clad head. D jerked to life.
The bowler consumed his headphones and Yankees cap. He tore it off and threw it to the ground.
“What the fuck.” He spun around to see who had committed the assault.
“Artsy dad one, hip-hop son zero,” Mr. Menciere bawled.
He pulled one of the earphones away from D’s ear. “Is number one son ready to go home?”
D removed the headphones and slammed them on the bar. Hip-hop again filled the air.
“I tol’ you I ain’t going home witchoo.” He adjusted his Yankees cap, put the headphones back on and turned to face the bar.
“This is what he does to me.” Mr. Menciere looked to Oscar for sympathy. He reached for his martini and swallowed it in one gulp. “Tunes me out while he listens to that obnoxious noise.”
“I see. We might have a generation gap here. A cultural divide, if you will.”
“Cultural divide my ass. There’s no culture there, just bombast and adolescent swagger. Look at that t-shirt.”
Mr. Menciere pointed to the bloodied image of Biggie Smalls.
“He idolizes that dead rapper. And what is it with that… that blinking eyeball?”
“I feel your pain.” Oscar motioned to James, who had been keeping his distance from the situation.
“Another Manhattan, and whatever Mr. Menciere is having. I have a feeling he’s not leaving just yet.”
“I need more than a martini.”
“The bartender won’t give out Valium. I asked.”
Oscar extended his hand once again and this time the gesture was returned. D continued his head bobbing.
“Why doesn’t he want to return to his domicile, which I assume is with you?”
“He doesn’t want to listen to me bitch about his lifestyle, his obsession with hip hop, his drinking…”
“Where is he going to go if he doesn’t go home with you?”
“The ghetto, I suppose, where he can be with his downtrodden brothers and sisters.”
“You don’t take him seriously, do you?”
“On?” Mr. Menciere raised an eyebrow and turned to face Oscar.
Oscar could see family resemblances despite the differences in age, attitude and attire. The two men shared the same hulking frame and bulging brown eyes aglow with energy and intensity. Each seemed possessed of a brooding essence that lay beneath the surface.
“On whether you want to have a good relationship.”
“Suppose I do?”
“You won’t as long as you dismiss the things he holds near and dear, like hip hop.”
“He dismisses the things near and dear to me. Calls it ‘artsy fartsy bullshit.’”
“Yes, I know. Dah-veed told me all about it.”
“He told you his name is Dah-veed?”
“Yeah, he’s adamant about it.”
“Hah, that’s hilarious! I used to call him that when he was four. I am surprised he even remembers.”
“Well, he does. Ask James here…”
“Bawls me out every time I call him Day-vid,” James confirmed.
“How did he go from that spunky little old boy who loved PBJs to this?” Mr. Menciere muttered to himself and gazed into his martini as if its bluish glow could provide an answer.
After several minutes in contemplation, Mr. Menciere balled his fist and gave D a light nudge on the shoulder. D cracked his eyes.
“Watchoo want?” He asked without removing the headphones, his voice booming.
He waved at D and grinned impishly. D removed his headphones and turned the volume down.
“Remember the game we used to play?”
“I don’t know ‘bout no game.”
“To learn the alphabet? A long time ago?”
D thought for a moment.
“Oh, yeah, the PBJ game… So?”
“Let’s play it now.”
“It was a dumb game.”
“It was fun. You liked it.”
“How we gonna play that game? You ain’t got no PBJ to give me.”
“True But I’ll make one for you later.”
“I tol’ you I ain’t going home witchoo.”
“Just play the game with me.”
D looked around to see if anyone was watching. Most patrons had lost interest in the hip-hop drama that had distracted them a few minutes ago.
“Awright. How does it start?”
Mr. Menciere began:
“Oh, yeah,” D replied. Then:
Give that PBJ to me.
“Good! You remember.”
Can’t do that ‘cause I’m too greedy!
He scrunched his face and continued:
Q-R-S and T-U-V…
Share that PBJ, meanie.
W and X-Y-Z…
I’ll give you half, now leave me be.
“Awright, dad, I played your game. Now, where’s my PBJ?”
“James, one PBJ, please.” Mr. Menciere waved a hand in the air. “Can your kitchen manage that?”
“Our kitchen can handle it.” The two men sat in stony silence until the PBJ arrived.
“Here you go, one PBJ.” James set before them a large plate on which rested a single white bread sandwich oozing grape jelly.
“Just like the ones I used to make.” Mr. Menciere reached for half. D blocked his shot.
“Hey, that’s my PBJ,”
“The game says I give you half. Now who’s being greedy?”
The two men ate their halves without speaking. Between bites, D slurped his cola and Mr. Menciere sipped his martini.
“PBJ – now there’s a happy meal for ya,” Oscar said, casting a covetous glance.
“I think we must have one more, don’t you?” D nodded in agreement and the eyeball pendant blinked enthusiastically.
“Two more, one for you and one for me,” D said.
“Indeed. Greed is good.”
“I’m feeling left out… James, a round of PBJs for the three of us, my treat.”
“Thank you, kind sir.” Mr. Menciere nodded cordially at Oscar. “Your largesse is greatly appreciated.”
“Denizens, the best place in the city for a PB and J.”
James returned a few minutes later, empty-handed. “Gentlemen, I have some sad news.” His face was frozen in solemnity.
“Don’t tell me. You’ve run out of peanut butter.” Oscar was aghast.
“Yes, and grape jelly.”
“This is an outrage,” Mr. Menciere said, feigning indignation. “Son, this calls for immediate action.”
“What we gawna do? They ain’t got no peanut butter.”
“We must make our way to an establishment whose stores of peanut butter are limitless.”
“Yo, I hear dat.”
“You’re game, then, Dah-veed?”
A look of surprise swept across his face.
“Yeah, Dad. I’m game.”
“James, the check, please.”
- 30 –