That night when Ernesto entered the bar, everyone stared at him without speaking. We could see that he was drunk already. He had only finished work about an hour earlier at the Palm, but a slow night meant early visits to the bar waiting for customers to finish with steaks and martinis. The staff was careful to tote drinks quickly from the service station--even the managers drank their favorite cocktails in specially chosen to-go cups throughout their shifts. You screw up and you were warned only once. The average check at lunch being a minimum $200 meant the incentive was high to balance it all, and the more-often rapid pace of the Palm meant there was barely enough time to pick up drinks and return for multiple tables. The chase to beat $500 per shift.
The problem for Ernesto, unusual for a Latino towering at 6’4” and built like a football player, hit his edge. He turned into a different person; if you were a woman within 10 feet of him things got ugly quickly. Ernesto fetched as quite a handsome man with olive-brown skin, square jaw, closely cropped beard, and jet-black hair that finished into a widow’s peak. His visage sent women everywhere into a state, vying to catch his eye. It was fascinating to watch.
At first glance.
He might at times have on his arm a petite Columbian, or Peruvian, or Brazilian socialite, always fluffed and polished with the tiniest waist, bosom, and ass over-flowing. Dinner’s a-wooing began subtly, turning into butchery by the time the second hour chimed, making dessert course a damn near impossibility. We would watch as he would begin with gentle hand grazing with full lips, quiet attentiveness and deep soul searching with his lustrous brown eyes; a few drinks in, some small distraction-- an imperfection in the table settings-- would set his volume to increase. His date's eyes would begin a familiar dance as they darted around searching for locations of the bathroom or exit. The denouement of the evening coinciding with a serious deriding of the wait staff, with Ernesto’s voice booming and the date’s arm being pulled to stay in her chair.
He knew all the waitstaff. He didn't care. They mocked him, and played the game.
It was at this tender juncture of the date’s fear and angling towards escape, that the impending sound of deft bet placements by all of us watching from the elbow of the bar, became critical. Shots of Jameson were poured and tossed back. Bets were placed on how many minutes until the date left, or disappeared to the bathroom never to return, or drink in his face, or the date shouting, or… It depended on how the date began, and if dinner was the first or second stop. All knew too well that a misplaced bet could result in a bereft watch or coat. That's how hard we lived to play, all five of us crazy friends. The bartenders just loved us.
No matter how predictable Ernesto’s ritualistic dating strategy was, we lived for the moments of subtle differences in his performance. It was a live telenovela that we watched from the sidelines, and incredible entertaining. For me, it was made doubly fascinating as Ernesto looked so similar to my grandfather in his younger days; it was like co-existing with an alternative version of how Grandpa lived in New York City in my timeline, versus what he likely lived in a seaside town in Ecuador, sixty years earlier.
© Isabel Alvear, October 2020 Part Two Next Week!