There are eight lounge chairs at the front of the cigar store placed four in a row. Jeff and Mike sit facing one another both puffing fat stogies. Pete stands behind the counter tending the register with a cigar in hand. From the designs on the ring bands I can tell they’re smoking the same brand.
Mike says, “Pete, is that your favorite fuckin’ cigar?”
“Yeah, I love the fuckin’ Dominicana Fleur de Toros.” Pete looks up from the till and examines the cigar, rolling it back and forth between his fingers.
Jeff says, “Yeah, that’s a good fuckin’ cigaw.”
I enter the walk-in humidor and scan the rows of open cigar boxes, each laid display like a baby dangling its legs. Pete peers in.
“Can I help you with anythin’?”
“Yeah, I’m looking for a Maduro wrap in a robusto.”
“Aw, you know your cigars, ok.” He steps halfway in.
“You tried the Avos?
“You have the XO’s?”
“Aw, you really know your cigars.”
“I used to work for De La Concha in the city.”
“Aw,” Pete shouts out to Mike and Jeff, now joined by a third, much larger man.
“This guy worked at De La Concha. You know, in the City.”
“De La Concha?” Jeff sits up and shouts at us through the glass wall.
“Yeah,” I say walking out with my stout Maduro Avo, “I worked there in ‘96 for the Melendis.”
“Oh,” Jeff seems excited. His mullet bobs, his sunglasses shake in their wiry gold frames. “Lionel sold that place years ago. Mike, when did Lionel Melendi sell that place?”
“Oh,” Mike thinks, “Could have been oh six, oh seven.”
Ten minutes later it would be Dursos, the pasta place on 35th. Then Utopia Bagels. Who owned it; how long it’d been there; when they did renovations. Etcetera. We knock back expressos with Sambuca and slowly sip Black Label while smoking and bullshitting. It is boring and beautiful. This is home.
A critic once wrote about Raymond Carver that he does what any great writer does: he makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. Returning to my childhood in Queens, a business errand turns into a philosophical and cultural assault.
I drift through New York like a ghost, dodging remnants from the past like the throngs of tourists at Times Square while en route to wait for 40 minutes to get a lunchtime table at the Carnegie Deli. Or traversing Queens time and time again to midtown on the F Train and walking back and forth to the Pakistani Consulate, which is not incidentally directly opposite Emanu-El Synagogue on East 65th.
A high school friend’s daughter’s sixth birthday house party, where after twenty plus years I reunite with an old childhood friend and an old ex-lover. She’s grown haggard and rotund and is looking after a toddler and married and with his two children half the week. Eric and I have a brief but intimate catch up. And hardly a word spoken with Kim, apart from greetings and goodbyes. “Be safe,” her final thought, spoken after an obligatorily parting embrace. And so, what was a lifetime ago a magically fabricated romance is now a salutation at a suburban Sunday buffet.
But that’s not what any of this is about.
He is sprawled out across the hammock on his back, his wife and grandchildren all watching, one of the girls talking to him while he listens and sways. His face shines as though he has never known such bliss. The day is bright, the park semi-crowded. I can tell from his buck teeth that he works with his hands. He swings like a pendulum, his thoughts drifting from the far past to the grandchildren before him. This man has toiled his decades to the bone, and though weathered, he is not broken. A faint glimpse of consciousness glimmers from within his gaze. He is a child again, a young man; a different life, another world.
On our way out of the park we walk passed the hammock and it is empty. My son and his two friends and their three mothers continue up the path, and I say I’ll meet up with them by the car. I sturdy the wide hammock underneath me before I fall in and look up at the trees. Embracing the jet lag, the fleeting fragments of past days set in. New York, China. And this is where I am.