This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Upstate

One of my most memorable dating experiences was the time when my date made an attempt to get me good and drunk. I was nineteen and he twenty-six, a graduate student. I don’t know why he decided to go that route; up until I became aware of his feeble attempt at predation, I actually liked him.

That Friday afternoon, after I was done with my classes, we shared a plate of grilled shrimp and some corn fritters in a small cafe just off campus and then went back to his place, where he showed me portions of a paper he was writing about Varangians. It was that moment that’s always awkward for men and women with little sexual experience, on a third date, after a third kiss, when there are no longer any scripts to follow. I, like a proper lady, waited for the gentleman to lead the way; the gentleman, apparently, was too self-conscious to contemplate consensual sex with a woman who was alert, awake and oriented times three. And so after a few uncomfortable periods of silence, when we kissed more from not knowing what to say than from wanting to kiss, he suddenly offered:

“Hey! Would you like to go to a really cool place? They play jazz there.”

The place he took me to was a cocktail lounge at a Ramada by the airport. Lots of faded green velvet and chrome, air hazy with cigarette smoke, floor worn out from ten years of people shaking ash on it and rubbing it in — that’s all there was to it. And, of course, there was no jazz. Instead of jazz, the lounge had a distinct smell of resignation and joyless traveling-salesman sex.

The patrons were mostly male, in their forties and fifties, none of them local. They made loud guttural noises and talked over each other about some nonsense, competing for the attentions of two middle-aged waistresses, who appeared dressed in polyester outfits that were at once very revealing and three sizes too small. One of them eventually hobbled over to us, tossing her dyed yellow ringlets with an air of dismissive superiority. Her breasts were like basketballs, and when she talked to us, she tilted her chest to the side slightly, giving us a view of her impressive cleavage. The joie-de-vivre implicit in the glorious voluptuousness of her body stopped at the neck, however. Above it were scowling lips covered in thick pale beige substance, dead eyes and an expression that combined tiredness and scorn.

My date ordered two drinks. The waitress gave me a quick sideways glance, but did not ask for my ID. She had no desire, apparently, to stick her neck out to protect a privileged nineteen-year-old, and thereby lose her tip. She was at a point in her life where one accepts that life sucks and is full of predators, and you have to look out for yourself first and foremost. After all the mistakes, and all the disappointments, and all the seedy jobs and seedy men and unplanned pregnancies and betrayals, it seemed small and insignificant on the grand scheme of things, another college girl getting plied with alcohol and taken advantage of. The bills needed paying, and it wasn’t as if I was going to leave her a tip if she made an unpleasant scene about me being underage.

The economy was booming then, but you’d hardly know it in this hilly corner of the Northeast, whose depopulated towns looked at once quaint and dreary, their ambitious nineteenth-century facades decaying a little every day. On a snowy, frigid night not long after the Ramada lounge thing, I was taking a bus back to my University after visiting my parents for a weekend, when it stopped over in Binghampton, about half-way. The slumbering students with their headphones were jolted awake when the driver flipped the lights on, and the bus exhaled noisily. It was two o’clock in the morning. A couple of cops brought a dog onboard, to sniff for drugs. Outside, in the tiny parking lot of the tiny bus depot, two drivers from competing taxi companies came to blows over a fare, a single passenger on the way to the university there. The cops broke up the melee, and the winner drove off triumphant for the campus in the hills. As the bus turned around, it passed by the loser, a very skinny, long-haired man dressed in seventies-style polyester, holding a rag to his nose. He leaned with one hand on the hood of his car, old and brown. Inside, it probably smelled of tootsie rolls and the radio was always tuned to the rock-n-roll station.

A few years later, as a lawyer doing research for a motion, I read a case that arose in a rural area within about a couple of hours’ drive northwest of Binghampton. A fire broke out in a delapidated trailer that had neither a telephone, nor sprinklers nor a fire extinguisher. You could see a lot of ancient trailers and mobile homes like that, held together with rope, plywood and sheer determination, sprinkled along Route 79. One of the occupants escaped. His wife and infant son perished in the fire. The conflagration almost completely destroyed the trailer and all of its contents. The next day, the fire marshall found two sets of remains and called the coroner. It was a cold, rainy day, and the coroner did not feel like driving all the way out there, so he issued the death certificates based on the fire marshall’s description. The day after the funeral, the lone survivor went back to the place where his dwelling had once stood, and, while rummaging through the rubbish, discovered the charred and partially decomposed body of his son. It turned out that the set of remains originally identified as the baby’s actually belonged to the family’s pet rabbit. The man sued the county for negligence over the coroner’s actions.

He lost the case.

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