By Neil Plakcy
I was living in New York then, staying with an old college friend in graduate school at Columbia. During the day I struggled to write a novel, and, for eight hours every night, I washed dishes on the late shift at Casita d’Oro, a Tex-Mex restaurant on Columbus Avenue.
It was sweaty work. As soon as I arrived I stowed my street clothes and winter coat in a locker, but not the fancy Seiko watch that my parents had given me for graduation. That I pushed up over my bicep. I wore that watch every night to remind me that washing dishes was just a stage in my life, that I had a brain and an education, and that something better was bound to come along.
The watch showed the day and date, and, because it had been purchased by my dad’s friend on a business trip to Japan, the kanji for each date followed its English abbreviation, which showed up only briefly in the late night hours. The occasional, almost arbitrary appearance of the tiny characters differentiating each day—from nichi for sun, through moon, fire, water, wood, and gold, down to do for earth, Saturday—seemed to symbolize the tenuous nature of my life at the time: writing without publication, working mindlessly at the restaurant, waiting for something to happen.
Casita d’Oro was a friendly place, frequented by Upper West siders who wore expensive clothes, drank the best wines, and ate platters of faux-southwestern cuisine decorated with imported fruits and heirloom vegetables. The staffers were all unemployed actors, out-of-work writers, artists waiting to be discovered, and dancers between shows. The headwaiter, Lucas, had a master's degree in music from Oberlin, and as the evening hours expired he could be coaxed to the highly polished baby grand, where he would entertain the staff and regulars with boogie woogie, jazz, and rock’n’roll standards.
After about one a.m., there were few platters to cook and even fewer dishes to wash, and it was easy to get the kitchen cleaned up so that we could all go out and sing around the piano. One Thursday night in November, after the first cold snap, a party came into the restaurant just before midnight, a distinguished-looking couple in their mid-sixties accompanied by a guy and two girls who looked to be only a few years older than I was.
I didn’t see them come in; I was still back in the kitchen. But Tom, a waiter who was a fellow writer, alerted me a few minutes later.
“Do you know who’s here?” he asked, rushing in, leaving the double doors banging behind him. “Ricardo Mitchell and his wife.”
I knew the name. Ricardo Mitchell’s grandfather had founded one of the big Wall Street investment banks, and he had started a literary magazine shortly after graduating from Harvard. New Literature had published Ginsberg, Kerouac and the other Beats, and had been one of the first to publish the black writers who emerged from the sixties. Since then, it had been in the forefront of every literary movement. Being published in New Literature was a sure sign that a writer had promise.
“I’m going to slip a poem under his plate,” Tom said, reaching down into his backpack for the battered folder of poems he always carried with him.
“Think I can get a chapter under there, too?” I asked, rinsing what seemed like my thousandth plate of the evening.
Tom ignored me. I was accustomed to that. Dishwashers were the lowest of the low on the restaurant hierarchy, and Tom only deigned to talk to me at all because I’d had a short story published in a magazine a few months before.
I moped for a while, regretting that I was stuck in the kitchen, then I started thinking about a place in my novel where I was blocked, and figured out what I wanted to do. I forgot all about Ricardo Mitchell until I heard the piano start up in the dining room.
I finished the last few dishes I had to wash and pulled off my apron. I slipped my watch back down onto my wrist, walked through the swinging doors, and joined the group at the piano. The manager, the waiters, and a few of the line cooks were banging out time on the lid as a middle-aged couple jitterbugged in the front window.
When the music stopped, Tom suddenly began reading his poem. Everyone in the room maintained a respectful silence, although the poem was, in my opinion, too sentimental and nothing New Literature would ever publish.
But Mitchell led the applause when Tom finished, and flipped a card out of his wallet. My heart sank as Lucas launched into another song, and I realized I wouldn’t get the same chance as Tom. I kept singing though, because these nights were what I lived for, this brief glimpse of life in the arts. It was the life I’d dreamed of when I was in a small-town college, staying up late in the library, scribbling my stories into spiral notebooks, and sitting in the audience when a visiting writer passed through town. Like my watch, it was proof that was a world beyond my little patch of Manhattan, a world that someday I might be a part of.
One of the students was standing next to me, singing along, and we smiled at each other. When Lucas slipped into something quiet and instrumental, she turned to me and said hello.
“Are you a musician, too?” she asked.
I shook my head. “A writer. Though not a poet,” I hastened to add.
“Thank god,” she said. “Ricardo’s an angel, though, isn’t he? He’s so good to any young writer.”
“How do I get him to be good to me?” I asked, before I could even think about what I was saying.
“Be good yourself,” she said. “Are you?”
I shrugged. “I work hard.” I told her about the story I’d had published.
“I read that!” she said. “It was amazing.”
She told me that she and the other students had been helping Ricardo Mitchell put together the next edition of New Literature, reading through every journal and literary magazine looking for talent. “Come on, you’ve got to meet him.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me over to his table, where she introduced me.
Mitchell was as gracious to me as he’d been to Tom, giving me his card and inviting me to submit something for the next issue. I thanked him profusely, and then, not wanting to overstay my welcome, said there were probably dishes back in the kitchen that needed washing.
Before I could slip away, the girl told me her name was Carol, and she gave me her phone number, along with an invitation to a reading at Columbia a few days later.
“Maybe we can go out afterward,” I said, over the sound of Lucas’s rendition of I Heard it Through the Grapevine. “Someplace a little quieter than this.”
“Count on it,” she said.
I banged back through the double doors and picked up my apron, my heart pounding, already thinking about the story I’d send to Ricardo Mitchell. I popped the elastic metal band on my watch so I could slip it up over my bicep, and I caught sight of the time. The day had shifted over from “Thurs” to kin, for gold, or Friday.
I didn’t know if I’d fall in love with Carol, or if Ricardo Mitchell would ever publish one of my stories. But knowing I was already a part of that life in the arts was all that mattered, those few brief hours of Japanese time.
Neil Plakcy is the author of the mystery Mahu, published in 2005 by Haworth Press. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and his fiction has appeared in Blithe House Quarterly, South Florida, Vox, The Cool Traveler, and numerous anthologies. He is an assistant professor of English at Broward Community College.
Kanji meaning "day of the week" courtesy of About.com.
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