C huter Street wasn’t somewhere you intended to go, much less wanted to. It was reminiscent of the dimly lit halls that led to the bathrooms at the back of underground clubs; a neglected necessity. Most people in the area came here for the small shops and delicatessens that had carved out tiny niches and sustained themselves on their dedicated nationals. Rising costs kept most repairs from getting done so if you stuck around long enough you’d end up sharing your meal with the roaches or dealing with squealing air units while scarfing down a sandwich.
There was a Chinese spot right at the intersection of Chuter and 9th Avenue. The blue and white sign out front said Go Happy, but everyone in the area just called it Happy’s on account of it being the owner’s name, and for my money, it was the best Chinese food in town. Five bucks got you a warm plate of rice with all the mixings, salt and pepper ribs and a can of soda. I found myself there at least once a week, greasy lipped and glassy eyed, staring out the front window writing songs about strangers in my head.
On this particular day of people watching, a new face entered the scene. Tanned leather skin crinkled around his eyes and stretched tightly over a massive and permanently clenched jaw. His hair had gone as salty as his attitude as he timbered down onto one of the metal chairs outside and barked for a waiter.
I glanced back at the counter. The silver bell for service sat quietly atop it and the sound of cardboard boxes being broken down drifted out from the kitchen. The stranger glanced at his wristwatch revealing his meat mallets for hands. Part of me thought it was time to leave. That nagging intuition we all too often ignore. The other part of me was too curious to leave though. I was only a foot away from him, a thin single pane window all that stood between us. He barked again, this time craning his neck to look inside. His eyes narrowed when he saw me and I dumbly stared back. He lifted his hand and his knuckles rapped against the glass. Eyebrows lifted.
“A little service here please,” he said through muffled glass.
“I’m not the owner.”
“I said I’m not the owner,” half-shouting this time.
He shook his hand by his ear. “I can’t hear you, kid.”
“I said. I’m. Not. The. Owww-”
He pointed at his ear again, scrunching his face at me with a look of annoyance.
“Oh for god’s sake.”
I hopped up from my stool, marched to the counter and hit the bell. Happy wandered out from the back and smiled when he saw me.
“Yah,” I said, shaking my head. Annoyed. Realizing Happy had done nothing wrong, I continued. “Yes, sorry, they’re great. You got a customer outside.”
“Oh!” His eyes lit up. “Thank you!”
I took my seat back at the bar and watched. The stranger glanced up as Happy rounded the corner and hit him with a Hey Cheech.
Happy smiled, but he always did. He handed the man a small menu who immediately waved it off.
“Already know what I want.”
“Oh perfect. What can I get for you?”
“Plate of spaghetti. Red Sauce. And a cappuccino. Four sugars please.”
Either Happy had done a massive menu overhaul since my last time here or this guy was on one. He smiled at Happy. At least, the shape his face took was a smile. There was nothing genuine about it.
Judging from Happy’s cracking facade and the stains I could see on the menu from here, jury wouldn’t be out too long on this one. The stranger seemed to gather as much because before Happy could get a word of protest out of his mouth the man reached into his back pocket and slapped a Benjamin on the table.
“Should cover the cost.”
Now Happy knew what a hundred dollar bill looked like. Probably had a sock drawer full of them at home. But scrawled in invisible ink on the front and back were the words BAD IDEA. Apparently both of us were ignoring our instincts that day because after a moment of silence, Happy staring at the bill, the stranger staring at him, Happy reached down and scooped it off the table.
“Maybe rear window here can help you out,” he said, nodding in my direction. I averted my eyes until I heard Happy sidle up next to me. He let out a sigh and placed the bill in front of me.
“He wants to get -”
“I’ll give you $20 to find the closest Italian place and bring him what he wants.”
“Why doesn’t he go to the closest Italian place?”
Happy shrugged. The shrug of a man who was willing to sell his patience just to get by.
“You sure it’s real?” I asked.
“It’s fuckin’ real,” the stranger shouted through the window.
I glared up at him.
“Tick tock sweetheart.”
I snatched the bill off the counter, crumpled my napkin and tossed it on my plate.
“Lunch is on you next time.”
TO BE CONTINUED…