For the second year–but not in a row–my brother joined me in New York for the turkey days. At Harry’s Steak they stuck us in a back room like a vault made of wood, away from all the round, convivial tables with their centerpieces. The cherry finish framed frescoes of peasant revels: monks and villagers in wine cellars of massive barrels. As we sat down, half a family of Latinos—a father, two children, and his mother—was just getting up to leave. The old lady was being slow—inching along the bench to where she might heave herself up—and her grown son curt. He gave the jacket he was holding out to her a limp shake: bored matador and tired cow.
Beyond them, further steps descended to an alcove whose exposed brick had been painted white and shelved with magnums and bottles. There were candles lit on all the tables. No one came to sit there all evening. We were later attended by a rotating staff, none of whom were Latinos.
In the corner of our room was an attractive couple; much to my brother’s envy, the man, who spent the night expostulating to his date, ended slumped across the banquette, jacket open as if in illustration of the digestive ease afforded by his posture, but the blonde remained upright, chin in her hands, tasseled earrings swinging just below her clipped hair. I make his laissez aller sound a gross lapse of decorum, but in fact the hush and tastefulness of the surroundings—the panels of menu slate behind them awaiting the day’s chalked prices—lent everyone class: the little girls all decked with frills and teenage sons in college sweatshirts, the calculated outfits of girlfriends brought home for the holidays, Asian or Indian every one, who passed through, the Emperor’s or Maharajah’s children in parade review, on their way back from the unlimited dessert bar to still further rooms, pumpkin mousses dainty on saucers.
Behind us, a group of Columbia theatre classmates—four boys, three girls—toasted their six months in the big city since graduation. They were surprised by how long ago that felt and how little had happened. Yes, they sounded innocent. But neither appallingly eager, nor poignantly poised for disappointment. And more modest in the claims they’d staked on the world—though perhaps this was only the effect of polite conversation. Who’s to say each of us don’t have, on the walls of our rooms, a map with plans for conquest? They discussed the coming season, glossed over boring jobs, laughed at the memory of past professors—one among the group of friends had remained in the shelter of academe—and the only thing I could think to predict was that there would be, in the future, more remembering and less looking forward. If they were unlucky, more glossing and less hopefulness. Only over coffee did they bring up old, bitter amours.
The girls left first—the one who tottered on her heels, having protested all night, with each sip and bite, that she could neither drink nor eat another thing, snapping shut her small purse—and the boys, straight and gay, were still discussing them when my brother and I went. In the main room the sunken central area had emptied, and the lights over the bunched roses, autumn-orange lilies and daisies been extinguished, but at a few rim tables still crowded circles of turned backs, hunched over a joke. I don’t believe, all evening, there was ever anyone at the bar.