The restaurant was called Balzano’s, and it had just opened. All the employees were new, especially me—at least that’s what it felt like. I told KC how incredible it was, how I miraculously pulled off the pizza-boy to trendiest restaurant in Manhattan switch, but I probably had the shittiest job in the restaurant—worse than the busboys even, and they were treated like shit. At least they were needed, I was like that powdered cinnamon they put on your cappuccino that you could totally live without—or with—cause it’s so barely noticeable in taste, just looks kinda pretty. I was treated like trash, like they treated all the Latinos. That’s why I started learning Spanish, to fit in. I was around it all day and thought it would make me more accomplished if I spoke another language. But all I was really concerned with was making more money than KC, which I wasn’t. I was only making a little more than I was when I was making pizzas. All my ideas seemed to backtrack my life.
I was standing by my barista station one day, waiting for tickets to pop up, making whatever order that was on the ticket—I wasn’t very good at making any of the drinks, but got all erratic whenever someone questioned my competence—and waiting for the overpaid and ungrateful waiters to come by with their black trays and pick up their lattes and shit. Why my life was so goddam frustrating is beyond me. Was I defective? I mean, it’s terrible that the white people got the better jobs, and I suppose it’s not fair—not like life was ever fair, but like—I’m white. Why was I at the fuckin barista station? Was I not white enough? Must be that goddam tribal tattoo I got in Colorado—fuckin tattoo. Anyway, I started fuckin up the drinks on purpose. I was really upset about it all—my social standing and what not. I carried my weed on me hoping to sell at least some of it. It had been nearly three weeks and still I hadn’t sold my first fucking ounce; the ounce I told The Gak would be sold in no more than a week. What a failure I was—can’t even sell weed. But that all changed.
First, I met Handsome Mateo. I’ll call him Handsome Mateo cause in real life that’s what he looked like he might be named. He was an off-duty model that looked like what every man wanted to look like—I think, not me though, I was confident in my appearance. Anyway, he was also some kinda Italian or whatever, and Mateo is an Italian type name, I think—I don’t know shit about Italy. But I’m Italian—and Jewish. I’m a jewtalian. Anyway, that’s why I’m gonna call him Handsome Mateo. Meeting dudes like him made me feel queasy cause I was usually the pretty one; the one that got all the attention. Now I just felt short. But I got over it.
He was handsome, but his maturity level was a bit below average—like second grade maybe. Sometimes it bothered me, like his bathroom jokes—those are never funny—but he told them all the time so I kinda had to laugh. What was I gonna do? Tell the guy he wasn’t funny? I could have told him that—but he was the first person that was becoming a pseudo-friend, so I didn’t wanna upset him. To be honest, I couldn’t believe the guy was a model. The point is, he became a regular client, and soon I saw him often.
The first time I went over to his brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, we played video games and joked about girls—nothing out of the ordinary. The second time I went over, I met his roommate, Nate, and sold him some weed too. It was around that time that I finally sold my first ounce and made a goddam extra fifty bucks. The third time I went over he showed me his paintings—he was an artist too, a genuine Ken-of-all-trades. But by the time Balzano’s had shut down—I’ll get to that—my visits to his brownstone slowed down and it had been quite a while since my last visit when he sent me a note one day a buncha months later and told me to swing by.
At that point, he had a girlfriend—a chick version of him—and she was pregnant and had moved in with him. He sends me a text one day and told me like it was some great fortune cookie he had been surprised by after a delicious Chinese dinner—like whoaaa trippy! Pregnant! He and his girlfriend had met at the highly elite restaurant he had easily scored a job at—as top waiter—right after Balzano’s shut down. I remember thinking: if I were as tall as him, I could get those jobs too. What a prick that this guy never had a problem in his life, except for maybe his newly pregnant girlfriend that didn’t seem to like him all that much—from what I could tell, at least. And the beef jerky—that mighta been a problem too.
Oh right, when I showed up on that day, there was beef jerky everywhere; beef jerky hanging like laundry in the kitchen, in the living room, up and down the hallways, I mean, it was all over—disgusting, actually—but interesting. That’s how Nate (his roommate) was paying rent. He was always on another hustle—Nate was—which is maybe why we got along so well. But anyway, it reeked like jerky in that damn place; a bit more toxicity to the already tense household. I didn’t mind the smell, but Angelina did. I’ll call his girlfriend Angelina cause that’s a hot chick name—and she was a hot fuckin chick that seemed completely indifferent to the relationship with Handsome Mateo—like any dude with good genes woulda been fine. I don’t think she woulda dated me, but I’m not sure. I probably had to be taller—and I’m not like a midget or whatever—I know that’s some kinda bad word now, so sorry or whatever, but he was like six-foot-something, and girls like that shit—I think. But I don’t wanna get tied up on that, I mean, not like it’s his fault he’s tall. Back to the bad energy, I felt immediately upon entering that day; it was clear that it was disrupting the household. The beef jerky had become a thing.
“Duuuuude!” He said to me after opening the door to his apartment. He was kinda dumb but always so excited to see me—that sounded bad, but what am I gonna do, lie to you? And the way he talked, his inflections went all over the place, so you gotta imagine that as he’s talking, all his questions ended in these high-pitched surfer tones. “What’s up bro?” Like that bro that he just said—ended with a high inflection. “I haven’t seen you in forever!” He said to me at the door and gave me a hug. “I’m gonna be a dad. Crazy, right?” But he said that like the tiny person growing inside Angelina was nothing more than a science experiment that was going just swell.
“It’s def crazy.” I assured him as I walked in, sniffing my way to the jerky. “You’re like an adult.” It was goddam wretched in there. Finally, I was like: “Dude, what in the fuck?”
“Oh, I know.” He was frustrated, I could tell. I couldn’t fathom how he and Angelina were keeping civil in that abomination of an apartment; that smell, jeez, it was rancid.
There were dried cows hanging from all the clotheslines in the kitchen. “What the fuck is that?” I asked.
“It’s Nate’s new thing. He’s making beef jerky.” And for the first time—Handsome Mateo was serious. “It’s terrible, but we’re moving into our own place soon, so, only a little bit longer. Is it bothering you?” I had never seen him so concerned.
“Nah man. All good.” And you know what? After I got over the smell, I thought it was awesome. “It’s actually pretty cool,” I said. He didn’t think so. As we walked to the living room, I was that it was all over—in every room. Everywhere we walked: more jerky, fuckin everywhere. I stopped thinking it was so cool. It was horrible. “Sooo—what? He’s selling it?” I asked.
“I don’t fucking know. I guess so. Angelina hates it.” As if anyone would not hate it. THIS IS DISGUSTING DUDE. That’s what I was thinking… But he seemed to have a good hold on it, maybe. Anyway, I could tell that he was stressed out. It was the first time I realized that I wasn’t even there for the weed—I was there to rescue him from his life—to be his friend. That type of thing became common.
I sat down on his couch and asked, “How’s it all goin? You guys happy still?”
He hushed me. “She’s in the other room.” Then he upped the volume of his voice, assumably so that she didn’t think we were talkin about her. “You wanna play Xbox?” He asked like a teenage—and I got no quarrels with game-players, it’s just, I never understood how to work those things. It’s like, ever since I made it back to civilization—after boot camp and all the other juvenile institutions I was accustomed to—all the technology was crazy confusing. The damn controllers made no sense—too many buttons. And what’s the deal with having to code my driver before the race starts? Can’t I just choose between the black or white guy or hot chick or whatever and hop in either the Mercedes or Thunderbird and get on with it? I don’t give a fuck what color hair the guy has, just make him fast and efficient, am I wrong?
But I said yes anyway. “Sure, but I don’t know how to play.” That’s when Angelina walked out—wiping the crud from her sleepy eyes. She was gorgeous—but also moody. She was pregnant—of course—but I got the feeling it was more Handsome Mateo that put her in a mood than the pregnancy. Or maybe it was the beef jerky.
“Hi Greg.” And she never said hi to me, usually. “What are you playing babe?” She asked Handsome Mateo, in between heavy sighs. I was beginning to think that maybe I should just sell him the weed and get out, cause when she sat down, she sat down with a heavy presence. A presence that said: stop selling my boyfriend weed. He’s supposed to be practicing how to become a fucking father. You’re not helping you scumbag. Maybe she was thinking something else, but probably not. Yeah, I should definitely leave, I thought to myself. I forgot that weed was a drug—that some people abused it. I never understood people who smoked so much, but maybe that’s because I was always drunk. Well—not always, not yet at least.
I tried to speed the visit up by saying: “You want an eighth, right?” I was feeling guiltier by the second. I thought to myself, how could you buy weed at a time like this? You’re gonna be a damn father, what kinda dad are you gonna be? It was getting more uncomfortable with each heavy sigh Angelina let out. But he didn’t seem to notice—or care—that she was the most upset human in the world.
He set up my character in the video game then said, “Actually, give me two.” I know this is maybe a sad story—but these are the lives that I was becoming exposed to. And although I felt bad about it all—sometimes, I guess—maybe not… Although sometimes there was a hard moment or two, I was determined to find more clients and sell more damn weed. I was determined to make this goddam career a success. I figured out soon that if I just told people to buy more, they usually did. Then I learned that if I told them they had no option—that all I had was a quarter-ounce, they still bought it. And that’s what I did. But Handsome Mateo was one of my first clients, so I still went over to his place, even though he usually only wanted an eighth, except for that day—when the problems in his life outweighed his desire to keep frugal with his weed-intake. I took out a quarter-ounce—double his usual order, and Angelina looked double as pissed.
“It smells horrible, babe. Can you talk to him? Is he home?”
“So you’re not a beef jerky fan?” I asked her, trying to make like of a shitty stench and redeem myself for selling too much weed to her unresponsive father-to-be.
“Every week, Greg… Every week, it’s something else.” She looked at Handsome Mateo, “Babe.” But he was still busy setting up the game, even though I made it abundantly clear that I had changed my mind about playing and that I was going to leave. “Baby.” She said again. But nothing. “BABE!”
“Can you talk to Nate?”
“It’s just a phase baby, he’ll be out of it soon. And we’re moving. Just—I know. It sucks.”
“But it smells like fucking shit babe. I’m like, throwing up in my throat right now. Aren’t you?” And she looked at me. Don’t fuckin get me involved, I thought. “Don’t you just want to jump out the fucking window? Isn’t that the most…” And she looked for the right word, the word that would most accurately capture her unhappiness, “…revolting smell you’ve ever smelt?”
“Well…” I quickly probed my brain for words. “I mean. It’s not my favorite smell—I don’t know, I kinda like the idea though—Entrepreneurial spirited I guess, right? Is he making money from it?” But there was no happy ending to that conversation. She didn’t like me, and the reason I was there was absolutely no assistance. It made her quite mad, actually—I think.
“It’s fucking ridiculous—really—ridiculous. I hate it.” She said to me, about to let it all out. I could see it resting below her eyeshadow: fumes. She hated me and everything I stood for. She wanted Nate dead and for her boyfriend to finally stop fucking with that goddam video game. Her eyes spoke death to you all. LET ME OUTA HERE, I was thinking. But Handsome Mateo—in his oblivious state of being—just let me fend for myself. And she didn’t stop—she kept going: “It’s disgusting. DIS-GUS-TING. Ugh. I wish he would fucking stop.” Oh jeez, I had never thought to myself: thank god this isn’t my life, but at that particular moment, that’s exactly what I was thinking.
“So… Here’s the weed dude.” I motioned to him that the quarter was on the table, then made a break for it: “I’m actually heading over to Scotty Gun’s house in Jersey.” Scotty Guns was another model-waiter that I had met at Balzano’s—before they shut the entire place down and laid off all the workers. But I didn’t realize they weren’t friends. I figured all model-waiters were friends with each other. I mean, they looked the same, kinda.
“He’s a fucking asshole.” Handsome Mateo said immediately. Ah, so he is paying attention. Angelina is right. Then he told me, “the guy’s got problems—tell him I say hi.” And before I left, he told me to: “Wait—I want to show you a painting I’ve been working on.” He walked right past Angelina, not paying her much attention—I could see how that musta been frustrating for her—and took me into the other room. He unveiled a big painting; it made no sense. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m fairly certain it was fucking atrocious. “Crazy right?” He said. He always used the word crazy to describe everything. I rarely lied—just exaggerated. I preferred to twist the conversation to something that I could stand behind—that wasn’t mean or too deceitful.
So I just said something along the lines of: “I definitely couldn’t do that.” Which is true, I doubt I could replicate that monstrosity.
“Are you showing him your painting?” Angelina said from the other room, like don’t think you can run away from your child you piece of shit. Handsome Mateo rolled his eyes like I would understand his irritation. But I didn’t. She seemed right about everything, but what was I gonna do? Tell my almost-friend that he was wrong? I just knew that I had to get the hell outa there.
Finally, he paid me and I busted out. Angelina couldn’t have been happier to rid her jerky-infused apartment of me. The point I’m making is that I never saw that dude ever again—not until the Black Apple. But I’ll tell you about The Black Apple later on…
But not every client was easy to handle. Some frightened me, like Scotty Guns. He was a goddamn lunatic. Every time I saw him, I hoped to leave his place alive.
Later that day was no exception.