Monday 28 November 2022

Sharp Struggle by Mike Lee, Sambuca,

 These days the traffic in the Village is almost back to what it was before. Not quite the same, but then again, nothing ever is anymore. Wood and metal sheds cover much of one side of the street in front of the restaurants, and with winter’s arrival, most spaces heated; the indoors bustling with customers socially distanced. Business in the neighborhood seems to be doing well until one sees the closed places. Hardly anyone notices this anymore.

I frequented an old Italian cafe for years, finding comfort and escape from isolation in that room. Before business picked up, it was primarily quiet, except for the college professor, the crime writer, the graduate student working on his dissertation, and Roberto.

The latter is the only person who engaged in conversation, usually about radical left politics or our mutual respect for the writings of Victor Serge.

We became friends, talking most Saturday afternoons over brunch and cappuccinos. Afterward, we take long walks. Roberto would point out obscure historical facts, such as the line of shops on Bleecker Street, the subject of an Edward Hopper painting, and the gated courtyard that the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft used for a setting.

He reminisced about the neighborhood. Someone would drive up from Pennsylvania every Fourth of July with a truckload of fireworks.

After the load was emptied, there would be a raffle. The winner got to drive the truck to the docks. Then, a crowd would gather to set the vehicle on fire and push it into the Hudson River.

Roberto was one of the few Marxists I had met with interests beyond politics. The world to him was more than how many sharp struggles the working class had to engage in. While important, existence is also predicated on the urge to create.

Regarding politics and art, we both identified with Serge, mainly because we were more than outsiders; we were rebels against the rebels. Serge was an anarchist who allied with the Bolsheviks and constantly got in deep trouble for his efforts. 

Roberto waits outside the door, pulling slowly on a self-rolled cigarette. He is cheap by nature and old school about it. He lives on his teacher’s pension—living like it is Paris in the 30s—as he says on occasion—living in one of the last rent-controlled apartments in the neighborhood.

Though I never visit, Roberto’s apartment is a two-bedroom and has been in his family for three generations. He pays 300 a month. The landlord is a cousin and takes the loss, but Roberto knows the cousin is waiting for him to die.

“Just avoid taxis,” I joked once, referring to Serge dying in one in Mexico City.

Roberto gave me a pained expression.

Roberto has the face of granite, defined by the toughness of growing up in the neighborhood and working in the most challenging schools in the Lower East Side during the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. Also, he once belonged to one of the multitudes of Trotskyist groups that formed after splitting over things as mundane as dinner checks or whether space aliens were actual Socialists. There is a book published recently about these groups.

Roberto married years ago. Divorced. No children. Moreover, I say little about myself beyond outlining broad experiences associated with my work with trade unions. 

I avoid sharing the past, preferring to make pronouncements of the now. I have reasons.

In the café, we mainly talk about literature. Still, when other subjects close to personal enter, the conversation string concludes with a coda from Roberto, “We all do things we always regret. Just wrap it in a handkerchief and carry it in your pocket. My father said that, usually looking guilty.”

Our favorite table is still available. We sit and immediately order while discussing the personal events of the day, which is our usual. We woke up, puttered around, and wrote some. Both of us are writers, though I publish more than Roberto does. Nevertheless, Roberto goes for the major literary magazines. He got into The Paris Review and New World Writing.

I found it understandable that he wrote about being a schoolteacher and the neighborhoods he worked. I never asked why he never published anything about his experiences in the Village growing up and now getting old.

As for me, I am content to go for anyone who will take my work.

We talk about Serge again over omelets and ham, with large cups of cappuccinos, about the desk drawer where his novels had lain until long after his death. As for books, Roberto wrote three. I wrote five, all ensconced in a hard drive, though several bound drafts of my first book were in a closet. We each had at one time an agent making promises later unfulfilled. We do not talk about that today.

Instead, it was again about Serge, his vision to recreate painful memories and tell a story, knowing that more than a few pairs may never see each book of eyes. He also wrote so many letters and polemics. He was the true idealist, distressed at what he witnessed in his career as a revolutionary. In the end, that career was only death in exile—one which, from birth, he mostly had lived.

“You think about all that Serge had seen,” Roberto said. “The saddest was that his son sketched his father’s dead hand resting on the morgue slab.”

He pauses to pull off his glasses and wipes his face.

Roberto stares down at his right palm. “I have no one who will sketch mine.”

I glance at my hands surrounding the oval plate. I struggle to say something personal.

Instead, I nod and say, “I am sorry.”

After our plates are taken away, we order Sambuca and sip them in silence.

About the author

Mike Lee's work appears in or is forthcoming in CafeLit, Drunk Monkeys, and others. In addition, his story collection, The Northern Line, is available on online bookselling outlets. 
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