The morning does not find writers well. I learned that the hard way, because in one of those “only in New York” nights, I stayed out drinking with Nick Tosches. A man they opened the bar for much earlier than they flipped their “Closed” sign to “Open”. A man who delivered one-liners like a preacher to a popup tent full of ill repute and wayward sons. And dressed for a world long lost, back when men were men and boats were wood, Mr. Tosches sat on a bar stool in a three piece custom suit, watching the rest of us roam the room in skinny jeans and untrimmed beards.
I took a Russian girl to Circa Tabac – Tosches’s favorite bar – after work. A bar I’d only heard of because Esquire had interviewed him there about a year earlier for his new book. The Russian smoked cigarettes, and like all Russian women I’ve tried to date, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make her laugh. But I had a secret weapon – my mom’s credit card. And even if that failed, she could still smoke inside Circa Tabac, which for some reason makes everything more interesting.
I had been going to Circa Tabac weekly since moving to New York. I’d finished a manuscript I was happy with and I wanted a real writer to look at it. And that time, with the Russian, Nick was there.
“Are you sure that’s him?” she asked.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t just go up to him.”
The Russian had been a central character in The Royal Tenenbaums when she was young. She didn’t understand that the rest of us had to hustle. Which really meant demean ourselves in every way possible. There was nothing romantic about trying to be a writer. No one wanted to help you. Even the ones who made it were always one flop away from obscurity. And the noose grew tighter around the dying medium every day.
“He’s a writer,” I said. “These guys don’t get the face time. They don’t hate their fans like actors do.”
It was a gamble, though. Would he dig a young fan interrupting his drink? There was a war in every line on his face. I hadn’t seen anyone else recognize him, but maybe that’s why he drank there. There was no way to know if he’d shake my hand or put his cigar out on my eye.
We searched Nick Tosches on her cellphone to look for an angle. According to the internet, he’d spent his early years in Newark – a city I had just moved from. And then we found the ace in the hole – he and I shared the same birthday.
“See,” I said. “We’re both Libra’s. I can’t lose.”
“He doesn’t look like an astrology guy.”
She was right. He looked like the kind of guy who thought horoscopes and voodoo and Jesus Christ all smelled the same.
I lit a cigarette and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Nick started watching me immediately. When I got to him, I put my hand to my head and did a military salute. Then we shook.
“I’m a big fan,” I said.
He pulled his eyebrows tight to his eyes. “A big fan of what?”
“Hellfire. The most rock and roll book ever.”
He told me to sit down. Then he looked at my girl.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
I explained my history with Russian women. “They keep dating me. But I can never tell if I’m amusing them or they think I’m an idiot.”
“Don’t worry about them, kid,” he said. “They’re just dope pushers with pretty faces.”
I had no idea what that meant but I decided then that I would listen to every piece of advice Nick Tosches gave me. I asked him how he had gotten his first book published. “It’s a dead industry,” he said. “No one good gets published anymore. And nowadays, even if you get published it’s no guarantee anybody will read your book.”
He told me that after he’d finished his first book, Country, he just worked his way through the Writer’s Market manual.
“Anybody could get published back then,” he said.
I realized that might be the only opportunity I would get. I didn’t even look back at the Russian. I just ordered a Maker’s Mark and another of what Nick was drinking. I couldn’t read the bottle that was opened for him, but it looked like port wine.
Eventually the Russian realized I wasn’t coming back. She walked past us and said, “Hi Nick” on her way out the door.
“I’m glad I’m not you tonight,” he said.
“I’m such an asshole.” I shook my head. “I really blew it.”
“It won’t be the last time. Don’t get worked up.”
There was one waitress working the place, a flapper with a fresh-plucked flower tucked behind her ear. She came over and sort of leaned into Nick’s lap. Nick dragged on his cigar. He winked at me and said to the girl, “Someday, we’ll run away together and get married.”
I didn’t ask any questions. I just let Nick go. He told stories about Lester Bangs. About his apartment burning down and Lester using a pay phone on the street as a home office. “I can’t believe that guy got so famous,” Nick kept saying.
Occasionally I’d try and steer the conversation back to getting published. And Nick always responded, “Before we leave, I’ll give you a list of some agents.”
I probably finished the bottle of Marker’s Mark. Nick had at least ten more glasses of wine. Everything was going too perfect. Then the anvil dropped. Some yokel on business from Columbus, Ohio sat down next to us. The guy looked like he’d won that trip to New York from a game show: Ohio State hoodie. Brown leather sandals. He leaned over Nick’s shoulder and said, “I’ve heard of Lester Bangs. He was in Almost Famous.”
Nick looked like he’d been saving one last punch, and he was deciding if this guy’s face was going to be the one to eat it. Then he excused himself and went to the bathroom.
The whole mood suddenly turned. I knew Nick had no time for small talk from Ohio. Five hours of drinking was getting us dangerously close to the red line. I needed to get out of there with the list of agents before the Ohio guy said another word. If the booze began to settle in Nick’s brain I’d be forever lumped together with this Midwest loser. And there was no way to get back from a handicap like that.
“Nick,” I said when he came back. “I’ve got a pen. Can I get those agents?”
“I’ll email you,” he said. “Give me your e-mail.”
Obviously there was no way Nick Tosches was going to e-mail me. I was staring defeat right in the face. I took a napkin and tried writing my e-mail down. But I was too drunk to keep the pen from shaking. Every letter I wrote looked like some ancient language.
I handed Nick the napkin and he put it into his jacket pocket.
I asked him about my manuscript.
“I’m not going to read your manuscript,” he said. “You’ve got the face though. You’ll get published.”
The guy from Ohio brought up some movie Ronald Reagan was in. They both agreed Reagan was a good actor. “You know what I always say about his Presidency, though?” Nick asked. “Some men are better out of the way.”
The guy from Ohio disagreed. He said something about Reagan and God. He said it was the last time the country was on the right track.
Nick got up and threw a $20 bill on the counter.
“That’s my cue,” he said.
“Wait,” I begged. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere you want to be, kid.”
That wasn’t true, of course. But there was nothing I could say. He was a cowboy with somewhere else to see before sunrise. I watched him push the doors open like James Dean, with no words left for anyone who didn’t deserve them. And just like that, the last of the greats stepped out onto Watts Street, disappearing between the gray buildings and endless car horn symphony of the New York night.