I was stepping out of my favorite Joycean establishment (and by that I mean it looks like a set from The Dead) the other night to smoke my cherished CAO maduro (I tend to buy one cigar and keep it around for a few months in the humidor till I've wrung the anticipation (and probably too much of the moisture) out of it). Anyway, I was stepping out of the bar and up ahead of me was Ryan McMann (not his real name, but close enough). Hadn't seen him in at least 20 years, and he was more or less in the process of being asked kindly to exit.
He didn't seem particularly out of control, but that's the exasperating part of his charm. He's a big red headed Irish bull of a drinker so he probably didn't hear me call his name as he wrestled the air on his way to the cab his friend was about to drive off in without him. So that's where I caught up with him and proceeded, with a great deal of reiteration on his part, to catch up.
We managed between the two of us to get back to the sidewalk during the course of what can only be called a conversation for lack of a better term. Turns out he had just gotten back from watching a childhood friend die up at Mt Sinai, and was on his way to the wake, which in his terms meant the wake would probably be the next day, and he was trying to honor the occasion at every bar between here and Queens in the process.
When I said Ryan is big, I mean first, extremely tall and lank of jaw-- I remember now he once told me he had Marfan's syndrome, and spent a great deal of time at doctor's offices being studied and treated for it. But big too in other ways less obvious to the eye.
We hadn't been stationed at the sidewalk long before he'd learned I was married now and stopped asking for my phone number while simultaneously asking to meet my husband and petitioning the group next to us for a cigarette. What I heard was him mumbling and the group of kids simultaneously moving in and backing up a bit, wild eyed like nervous colts sniffing something new. He turns to me and says, "These crazy kids think I'm calling em a dirty name and I'm just askin for a fag!"
I give the group my maternal assessment-- they've never seen anything like Ryan before, they're all from good homes where no one keeps liquor or wears last season's shoes. Don't ask me what I said to calm them, but I'm sure by their reaction that they realized he was harmless. They skittered a little closer and one of them realizes what a fag is in his mind and hands him a cigarette.
This is a filter cigarette?! he asks as if it's not obvious. A filter? He rips the filter off it and mutters about the filter being what gives you cancer. The kids laugh and start to get a little comfortable and Ryan continues on his fag/fag theme and I realize as he's talking that two of the kids are actually gay, probably because one of them leans toward me as Ryan is rambling on and says we're partners, we're gay and I'm nodding and saying that's great, congratulations and Ryan is still oblivious when the kids amble off, but not before he begins a monolog (and in the ten years I knew him before the twenty in which I haven't seen him I had never heard him give off a shred of poetry, much less of all things Oscar Wilde, which made the colts even more skittish because Ryan keeps repeating his aside which is "and I have no idea what men do with young boys," along with the much more innocuous, "1888." And he's in full Irish story mode, beginning with the nights of revelry and dissipation leading up to Wilde's crafting of the poem we're all now dreading to hear. But first Ryan must pay tribute to the long-suffering wife and kids and now Oscar's pulling up in front of the house in a horse and carriage in the cobblestone street and staggering in the door, breezing past his bewildered family to sit before his desk and pen the poem we're about to hear, if Ryan ever gets to the point. The kids are getting a little terrified that there'll be consequences if they interrupt him again (which could mean he's going to start over at the beginning or take a swing at one of us). The poem, it turns out, is The Harlot's House, and he declaims it quite well, for a man with whiskey and cigarettes for a voice and recent death weighing on his mind.
The kids breathe a sigh of relief when it ends. Exeunt kids. My husband shows up for introductions and we're treated to more of Ryan till he manages to forget he's already given us Yeats but at least it's He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. And each time dramatically lays the imaginary cloths at my feet, so it's a little embarrassing but not nearly so much as when he announces to the kids at his first recitation that he never slept with me and only wished he had.
The second time it gets a little annoying and I chafe a little at my bond of debt for what I owe him, just to stand here and let him talk before he staggers off to the next bar to try to forget his friend just died in front of him, a guy he'd known since he was five, they'd shot up together and cleaned up together and Ryan traded heroin for whiskey but for his friend it was all too late. He'd already gotten Hepatitis C, and his clock was ticking.
And I worry silently when he tells me this part, that Ryan's clock is ticking too, and he's pushing the hands faster and faster tonight. This bothers me because despite all the boozy blindness of his rambling and his big scariness, Ryan is as good as men get. He's telling my husband about his life in the Village, he plays some kind of music, I don't know what, he was friends with this and that jazz musician, and I'm thinking back to why I knew him from behind in the dark from thirty feet away and took the trouble to hobble after him with my foot splinted in this giant boot. And it has nothing to do with who he knew or what he played or recited or even that he made his money shucking stack on stack of the Daily News out of the back of a truck since he was a beanpole kid with barely the arms for it.
No. I met Ryan because he was a regular at my bar in another life I had back then, and he would stumble over to an unruly patron and whisper something to them and they'd put a big tip on my bar and walk out, expressionless. He'd hang out and tell stories I can't remember, and tipped well. And one night when I crashed at my girlfriend's loft and one of her other guests waited till we were all asleep to rape me, and I woke up and felt I was on fire, and everything hurt, not just the raw memory of what had happened, but the water of the shower on my skin, and the thought process that led me to take that shower instead of going to the cops, everything, even the air hurt me, and the next place I knew to go to in that part of town at that hour was Ryan's, and he made me breakfast and put me to bed and hovered over me like a mom and I knew that nothing else could hurt me that day. And I can still remember the icy white blue of the walls as the sun first hit them, as if that were all there was left in the world. And Ryan let me stay until I was ready to go, and never asked anything of me for it.