Tata: Mom, you’re too frazzled to talk to me. Go to the post office. You’re not making sense.
Mom: You obviously called for some reason.
Tata: I did. Call me when you get back.
Mom: What is it you want?
Tata: When you get back, can you please read me the recipe for the crepes in the manicotti?
Tata: What? I’m going to make manicotti.
Mom: For Christmas? You sure have a lot of free time.
Tata: What? Mom!
Mom: I don’t have time for this right now.
Tata: Bye! Good bye! I’m hanging up now!
I glare at the phone and curl my lip to hurt the feelings of a plastic appliance. If I let her, Mom will tell me for the next half hour how she doesn’t have time to talk to me. Because Mom can turn a half-hour trip to the post office into a three-day ordeal, if I ever want that recipe I’d better call Miss Sasha. And speaking of Miss Sasha, on Saturday afternoon, I told her I’d always resented the way she and Mom ordered from the L.L. Bean catalog together. When Miss Sasha has babies, they’re going to have black onesies with red anarchy logos and fishnets for pre-school, where they will be the coolest kids if it kills me.
Saturday night, Paulie Gonzalez picked me up in the giant 1968 Ranger that rattles my windows from half a mile away. I’m not kidding. The previous owner buffed all the paint off every nook and cranny so the truck is all black matte primer and sinew. It is as badass as badass trucks get. It is too badass for seat belts. The radio is mounted crooked where Paulie made it fit.
Tata: I LOVE the truck!
Paulie: Great. The gas tank’s right behind you.
Tata: Catching fire would put a serious crimp in our evening plans. Can we have a minimally crashy evening?
Paulie: Do you have change? We’re taking the Parkway.
Tata: How can you ask that? Your truck sounds like a tambourine! Nobody else has any change anywhere. Because you hate pocket change and throw it over the seat, little children stare at gumball machines with mounting despair.
Paulie: Good. It’s time they learned to steal.
It’s like there are two Paulie Gonzalezes. One jets around the world, preventing hackers from swiping money and information. The other should never be left with children whose parents do not want their darlings to learn how to properly grip a crowbar. You can’t look at him and judge which one you’re talking to. I’ve seen him change his oil wearing Bruno Maglis. We drive down to Asbury Park, which we both love, on the Parkway, which we both hate. The Parkway is for nice people. We are not nice people. When a Honda full of young women in pastels take too long to find seventy cents, Paulie beeps the horn. Because the truck is gigantic and the CD player is blasting – of all things – Randy Newman, we barely hear it. The young women in pastels spin in their seats and in horror to learn how the Queen Mary docked behind them in the exact change lanes.
Bars in New Brunswick serve a variety of odd purposes: art shows, rehearsal spaces, political hotbeds, live music, memorials and wakes often fill the drunken community centers of a town without other places for its people. Over the years, I have spent a lot of hours with the people in a couple of places in particular. At Asbury Lanes, Sharkey has engineered an excursion of people who’ve never seen one another in daylight, and some of us haven’t seen one another in ages. I am overjoyed when about twenty of us arrive just as the Supersuckers plug in their guitars. We can’t say “take the stage” because though there is one, it’s in lanes eight through eleven, and in lanes one, two and three, rockabilly freaks who look like they only take off their bowling shirts to get more tattoos are bowling. The women have black hair, bleach blond hair or red hair, so in that respect the room looks like an Italian funeral, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tattoos. Tattoos everywhere. Everyone’s got ‘em. I decide I need a new tattoo for Christmas, because according to Jewish law, it’s really tacky to get them for Hanukkah.
Everyone is decked out. Paulie and I make the mistake of trying to get a drink at the bar, where apparently nobody’s supposed to do that. We spend most of the Supersuckers set watching the bartenders serve about ten customers. One odd character stands behind the bar next to pre-poured pints of beer. She picks one up and extends her arm toward patrons who invariably shake their heads and make “What, are you kidding me?” faces. By the time we get beers and get out of the bar, the Supersuckers are closing their set with my favorite smutty, audience-participation-required anthem Born With A Tail. The bowling alley goes relatively quiet for a long while, then the Reverend Horton Heat plays for two hours.
I dance dance dance dance dance and halfway through that wish I could borrow someone else’s feet. Asbury Lanes sells buckets of tasty tater tots that are hot as lava. I wait five minutes after someone offers me a tot and still burn the roof of my mouth. I do not care, however, because the tater tot is delicious. The audience surrenders any pretext of good behavior. How people get drunk in a bar where getting a beer is a half-hour affair is beyond me, but some people are indeed tanked and stumbling. Paulie shrugs, “Two-beer drunks.” Ah! Women of all shapes, sizes and stocking styles climb up on the bowling alley tables and gyrate. In truth, these are my people, and I love this place. When the Reverend says goodnight, we feel seasick and relieved at that always strange moment between band music and house music. The brownie troop breaks up, but some of us have rooms at the Berkeley Carteret, which is just as well because it’s December and the police have taken up positions on every streetcorner in New Brunswick and Highland Park, to offer comfort to the communities and ticket people doing 26 m.p.h. on Easton and Raritan Avenues. Paulie knows this well. His truck sports a peeling red REJECTED sticker from the mobile inspection station the Highland Park Police erect because it’s Tuesday and my wife won’t blow me at a location guaranteed to tie up traffic for five towns. We stay at the Berkeley Carteret, which seems to be an odd wormhole between the guido-mob and hip hop-kid universes. The forced air is so dry I dream about the Sphinx. From my window, I watch people walk at the freezing edge of the Atlantic. With happy dogs.
Fortunately, Dad changed his mind and decided to organize Christmas Eve dinner. Everything I have to prepare will be done ahead so I can chase him around in my Oscar-nominated, familiar role: sous chef. I suppose I should mention this to Mom, who generally avoids being in the same room as her longtime ex-husband, and I probably will. If she calls me back.