Irish Coffee Humiliations

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Glad Tidings from New York

Ease back in your seat on the Hudson Line on the charged, brilliant, freezing day before Christmas Eve?the train screams upstate along the iced-over river in a sanctifying rage of whipped-up snow, under a blue sky into which the cold has seared a new purity?and who's sitting across the aisle from you, reading a quiet New Yorker, huddled like a Westchester burgher, but M. Doughty.

That's a good thought. Like that novel, the first Soul Coughing album?and the second Soul Coughing album, for that matter?is a wistful, yearning, already-elegiac evocation of an NYC bohemia you might have belonged to; or wanted to belong to; or that possibly even existed. I told Doughty what my friend had said, and he doubled over?almost fell out of his chair. (The musical gentleman himself, stricken with angina pectoris on the Hudson Line, amongst residual businessmen and the fleecy kids stowing their kits homeward from college for snowy Briarcliff vacations.) A year ago, last December, I'd watched Soul Coughing move an overpacked Bowery Ballroom, a tribe undulating in a womb of heat, bass, weed, sweat, comporting itself organically on the edge of suffocatory disaster, according to some scary pack logic?

But that was, like I said, a year ago, and now here we were, the two of us?two real cool guys, I'll tell you?moping homeward on the commuter train toward the pudding, or whatever it was our mommies had prepared for us this Christmas, each of us possessed of ungainly adult woolen headgear. To guard against the sniffles, and the Hudson Valley cold.

I was pleased when Michael Jordan's: The Steakhouse (what a name) opened on Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Ave. Terrace, because it meant that there now existed a bar at which one could reside while one waited for a train, and from which?and this is what differentiates it from the brine-smelling old tavern attached to the Oyster Bar downstairs?one could overlook the Terminal's main floor, which buzzes with a great optimism, with a cosmopolitan energy, these days. Snuck onto a stool one day after Christmas when I was passing through, and ordered an Irish coffee. I'd never had one, and it seemed seasonally appropriate. Besides, I was swaddled in the correct tweedy woolens, lacking only a shillelagh to fulfill a momentary fantasy of myself as some picturesque old son of a bitch in Dublin, issuing lachrymose poetical effusions about, aye, the birds of Aengus and, yea, the heirs of Uladh amidst ye cairns, and scurrying into the street periodically to cudgel Ulstermen.

But the Irish coffee sucked, hard. I was expecting a low-key drink for a snowy night, a drink in the presence of which I could feel nostalgic and melancholic?the year's ghosts fluttering around me there under Grand Central's great starry whispering barrel-vault. Instead I was shoved a wine glass full of hot Jameson-laced coffee into which a sourpussed bartendress dumped a cloying dollop of whipped cream and squirted a kelly-green jizz of creme de menthe. It was emasculating.

The bar reached up roughly to my chin. I should have asked for a phone book to sit on. I had figured that the bartender would float unsweetened heavy cream on top of coffee in a regular coffee cup. The coffee was topped with a maraschino cherry, no less?a humiliation. The sugar occluded the taste of the booze.

I should mention the throng at the bar, four deep. A densely packed herd: we should have all climbed inside the circular bar, and called ourselves the Vanderbilt Terrace Cattle Co. (Michael Jordan, Prop.). The usual dense crowd dynamic was at work: weird miscegenations, conversations that shouldn't have happened, shared air, some guy with a Rolex?apparently he was from Missouri?doing weird stuff with a cocktail straw to my back. I've been yearning recently for Dinkins' New York, that doomed city of depopulated vistas, the boulevards surreal and ghostly on afternoons, empty barstools like riderless horses, furtive gray figures skulking in autumnal Central Parks with no people in them, a seedy amber city winding down into extinction. No more.

Michael Jordan's: The Steak House, Grand Central Terminal, 23 Vanderbilt Ave. (44th St.), 655-2300.


Skeins of coincidence that bludgeon your skeptic's faith in disorder?the way you're home at your parents' for Christmas and, messing about your childhood room, you pull that particular volume from the shelf, for the first time in years, and it's inscribed ("Autumn 1992") from that college girlfriend?

Next scene, 22 minutes later: in which you're rustling bottles of wine up from the basement to accompany your mother's herb-crusted rib roast, and a cloud of dust in the old house's basement generates, in its dispersal, a flash of ruby-red bottle light against the inky subterranean darkness?

So the bottle, a 1990 Chateau Pavie, was from her, too. (Shards of the past scatter around you like rain.) And I'll tell you one thing?all those years of sitting around do, in fact, do wonders for a Bordeaux. Ninety-eight percent of what's said and written about wine is absurd?all that attention paid to effects that are probably imagined. But it must be recorded that the power of this bottle was no joke. Research into the history of the early 1990s (I checked an old diary, an awful experience) reveals that the bottle was given me in 1993, presumably for my August birthday. So it's been sitting in my parents' basement for seven years, ripening, plumping up?stealthy, stealthy. It threw a sediment when we poured it; it glowed with that dark-purple blackened color that defines mature Bordeaux. I'm sure that under optimal conditions?that is, an even and eternal 55 degrees?a first-growth Bordeaux from the great vintage of 1990 would have lasted even longer, decades more. But my parents' basement heats up, if only relatively, over the summer. I guess the bottle "cooked" down there during successive heat waves, and its aging process was speeded up.

Anyway, the wine offered the best experience I've had with wine since my 25th birthday, which I spent as a guest at an old beach house on the Oregon coast. The huge fireplace that day hissed and roared; the cold wind whipped up off the Pacific. We dragged up cases of wine from the basement, dusty and grinning, swigging beers, and inspected them. Firelight, and the house had been in the family for a hundred years, and what bottles were down there no one really knew. Three of the bottles?I've forgotten the chateaux?were from 1971, which happens to be my vintage year as well. One bottle was corked and rotten, but two were great.

Roasted a leg of lamb and ate?the four of us?at the scarred wooden table in front of the picture window overlooking the sea of holly bushes, and beyond that the beach, and beyond that the sea. It gets pretty cold on the coast of Oregon, even in mid-August.

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