Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Pub-Crawl

Beneath the pavement of Broadway, a bit above Bleeker, lay Pfaff’s saloon.
Taking Murphy by the arm, Scully steered him  down some narrow steps and into the beer cellar, already loud with drinkers densely wreathed in smoke.  Sand strewn on the deal floor; patrons' drawings  tacked to the walls.  Mostly all male, the exceptions being what are known variously as grisettes or demimondaines. The lighting was dim, such illumination as existed  proceeding largely from the ends of cigars.
“B-but” Murphy  objected.  “This place is sixty eighty years before my time!”
“Don’t you worry,” said Scully.  “Old Pfaff won’t mind.”

They made their way slowly through the crowd, Scully nodding to acquaintances as they passed.  Scully seemed to know almost everybody there.  Murphy’s glance was arrested by the sight of a well-bearded fellow of some three score years, his collar open over a broad chest, a brimmed hat raked down to the right.  He nudged Scully with an enquiring look.
“That’s Walt Whitman, the People’s Poet.”
“Whoa!  I am out of my element here.”
“Here, no sweat, I’ll introduce you.”

Whitman nodded slowly, sizing him up.
Murphy felt uncomfortable, amid the ring of stares.  Finally he threw a punch, just to show he had one.
The poet looked thoughtful as he picked himself up, fished out a loosened tooth and wrapped it carefully in a blue handkerchief, which he then placed in a flapped pocket of his overcoat.
“Quite a punch you got there; shades of Fitz-James O’Brien.  Drink?”   And without waiting for an answer, the bard signalled to the barkeep, who, without waiting for an order, slid swiftly-silently over  with a tray of three tall ones, a trio of frosty schooners  bright with beer.  Then with a toast to the left, and a toast to the right,  the three comrades drank one another’s very good health.

“So what’s your grift?”  said Murphy when he had drained the best part of the glass.
“Bard.  Yourself?”
“Private Eye.”
The poet nodded.  “A fair number of gents would bear watching, in this place.”
Murphy surveyed with a professional eye.  “Thieves?”
“Mostly more like fences.  Though they do steal one another’s epigrams and that quite shamelessly.”
Murphy shrugged.  “Any mug what steals my purse, steals trash; but some guy swipes my one-liners...”
Whitman pursed his lips, and hastily wrote something down on the back of a napkin.

And so the talk went round, as the earth whirled, and the hourhand crawled the clock, and the stars pursued their distant stately orbits.  Friends passed through and sat awhile, till he could scarce collect their names -- Bill Howells, Hank Clapp,  Sam Clemens, Ed Poe, Steve Crane,  trailing a train of Eastern Jews and  Irishmen, some but recently arrived from Castle Garden, and calling each other “comrade” and “Brother Brush”:  all hosted and toasted in bumpers of beer and ponies of brandy.

Yet when, at length, dawn lifted sleepy eyelids in the east, Murphy found himself alone, back on his own three-slat bed, his soul aswarm with fleeing memories, his mind as clear as a crystal bell.

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