I burst into Ric’s apartment, hungry for explanations. The air was stale, with none of the normal scents of spices and flowers. I was embarrassed about my weeks at home, but not at all certain he knew about my problems. It turned out his are real.
I’ve never seen Ric drink cognac at 4 pm. He was intently watching a lurid Edgar Allan Poe movie called Masque Of The Red Death, which presented rationalism as something evil and demonic that only love can defeat. From what I know about Poe, he didn’t believe love could subdue a newborn kitten. For him, love was likely to be buried alive.
I got Ric to talk, though he could barely look at me. He can’t cover the restaurant’s rent. The problem is that the business was successful so briefly that Ric never sorted out his finances. Had Round One struck months later, he’d be in pretty good shape. A tsunami of personal and commercial bankruptcies will hit the civil courts when they reopen.
Businesses just don’t have money coming in, even as they must continue paying rent, insurance, salaries. The banks may have put some cash in circulation, but we all know millions on millions of workers are being put out of work.
I had no idea that the pandemic master plan for corporations called for mass firings if the flu came back. Some state governors are dismissing public workers, too—by executive fiat. We’re diving headlong into what could be a Depression. No one will be able to buy anything. How will people eat, even when there’s food in the stores?
“The bosses are all quoting Ayn Rand,” complains Evelyn. She’s right, but it’s not Rand’s fault. Atlas Shrugged presents a society drowning in so much mediocrity and inertia that its workers walk away from pointless jobs. That’s not what’s happening now, when people who claim to be Rand followers are shutting private enterprise and government down just when Americans most need them. That’s objectively anti-social and stupid.
Faced with a choice between paying his employees or the landlord, Ric is backing his people. Rand probably wouldn’t have done that, but I think she would have respected the entrepreneurial impulse. Ric wants to keep his dream alive.
I should explain that he’s always been an optimist. Hey, he tried to romance me once.
A Date to Remember
I forget how we met. We wound up talking for hours at some party I crashed. I didn’t like the other guests and he was worth knowing—informed and irreverent and pursuing big ideas. I guess each of us assumed that the other shared his own sexual direction. Men do that about everything.
Days later, Ric invited me to dine with him. He surprised me by choosing a pricey French joint, his treat. I can be generous, too, so I just reckoned correctly that he had more money than me. I let him lead on the wine and appetizers.
As we built a buzz over some excellent Burgundy I never would have ordered, we talked about our roots and our ambitions and our politics. Of course I mentioned Ayn Rand and he pointed out that she never acknowledged the problems of race or religion or sexual issues in her novels. He was right. But a lot of writers used to skip over that stuff. ‘Deep’ thinkers, too: What did Marx or Keynes ever say about gays and minorities?
Ric thought that was funny. He hates ideology. I get a pass because I don’t mind his mockery; he’s good at it. Opposition sharpens the mind.
Socially, I wasn’t dating anyone and didn’t feel like discussing it. He said he was solo, too. I didn’t think much about that. I certainly wasn’t looking for a ‘wingman.’ I prefer to circulate alone, forgoing the buddy talk and prospects for competition. As it happened, the waitress struck up a conversation with us about the wine, lingered after dinner to pour free cognac. She was attractive and I like attention, but I thought it was cool that neither of us tried to pick her up or get her email.
Later we sought out a bar for drinks on me. He led me to an unfamiliar lounge full of guys, with one cute woman who came over to greet Ric. She was buzzed and lively and very fond of him. He introduced us and watched us talk till she ran off to greet someone.
Did I want to date her? I said no, thanks. She wasn’t my type and I silently wondered if she was a lover of his. Was he testing me? Suggesting a threesome? I make my own arrangements.
Almost imperceptibly, his hand came to rest on my naked forearm. It was then that I realized the other men were gay. We were on a date. I felt terrible, reckoned I must have led my new friend on by being supremely dense.
He watched my face carefully. I was frozen, as if in a high-stakes round of poker. What the hell to do?
I raised my other hand to offer a toast to diversity. He cracked up. “Hey, are you straight?” I confessed I had just figured out that he wasn’t.
We swiftly agreed we’d each suffered worse dates with ‘appropriate’ partners and decided to continue becoming friends. It wasn’t long before Ric fixed me up with Lisa, whose brother was an old friend of his. I reciprocated by introducing him to an architect pal whom I suspected was out when he wasn’t at work; they dated for a few months. Ric and I hung out less after Nina moved in, but that always happens when a friend falls in love. Real friends are still there when your romance hits the fan.
I wish I could help Ric now. On top of his business woes, he imagines he has bedbugs—until recently New Yorkers’ greatest fear. He showed me three round, raised welts on his back, but I saw no bites. They looked like hives. But it sure made me want to go outside.
The Oracle of Inaction
As I stood at the door, wishing I could ask him about the disappearing trickster, Ric shocked me by saying he’s been enjoying my exchanges with the LES DIY woman. I tried to grill him, told him ‘Evelyn’ had just duped me.
He didn’t care. “She’s a special prize,” he said. “She got you out of that place. She did it for both of us. Keep at it.” At what? I’ve been around those people for almost five months. The food’s good, but something’s missing.
He just laughed. “All in due time,” he said. Given Ric’s track record—Lisa was my longest, greatest love—I should be intrigued. But Evelyn is all bluff. She should have met me when she had her chances. Round Two has dealt solitaire for all.
At the door I flat-out asked if Anna is behind this. I know he’s very fond of her. Ric looked pained, said she’s still getting over her daughter’s death. Back to zero. He doesn’t even know ‘Val.’ “Just hang on,” he said. “No one’s going anywhere.” Not exactly inspirational, but at least he didn’t complain—yet—about any of the stuff I’ve posted.
I got home to find a neighbor on the top floor failing. She had hip-replacement surgery the day the pandemic recommenced, and they cleared her out of the hospital too quickly. It probably saved her life to be spared all that exposure to H5N1, but something’s gone wrong and she’s in screaming pain. I probably shouldn’t say this, but one guy has gone out to look for street heroin to give her.
The pharmacies aren’t working and her painkiller ran out. It seems that few residents stocked legitimate pills—a claim people neither believe nor challenge. Someone coughed up Tylenol with codeine. I hear it failing.
Two years ago, this woman fussed endlessly to our slumlord about my practice of chaining my bicycle in the rear of the ground-floor hallway. Ever since, I’ve had to carry it down and up three narrow flights when I wish to ride it—far less than I used to.
East Villagers tend to live and let live. Or die. I never complained about the hip-hop my upstairs neighbor blasted 12/7, when he wasn’t working or skateboarding. I’ve missed that manic thumping since he got run over.
I hate to be so certain that this poor, howling woman took pleasure in seeing me lug my bike. In that weird way silly things pop into our minds, I hear a Gene Clark line from Some Misunderstanding about everyone needing a fix at times like this. He suggests it feels good just to keep living. It’s easy for a dead artist to say that.