We glanced at each other, and Mark asked me if I was at all nervous about what we were about to do. I smiled, “Yeah, a little bit, but usually the things that make me a little bit nervous are also the ones that make the best stories to tell later.”
Mark’s silent gesture toward the door indicated his agreement, and so we passed the barred front window, opened the heavy wooden door with the Yankees sign on the front, and entered the dimly lit bar.
There was no question that we “weren’t from here”. Around (and behind) the bar were a woman in sunglasses (despite the already low lighting in the place), a friendly guy with a big, toothless smile, a bartender whose cool countenance said he’d seen more in his sixty years than all of us in the joint combined, Mike, and Baldy.
“What can I do for you?” The bartender, barely lifting even his eyebrows, asked.
“We’re looking for a house,” Mark answered. I glanced at him, assuming that his word choice had been careful enough that making it sound as if we were shopping for real estate was no accident. This was the most interesting third date I’d been on in awhile.
“What kind of house?” Asked the bartender.
Mark hesitated, so I answered, “It’s pretty small,” and looked back toward Mark. He pulled his Blackberry out of his pocket, showing the bartender a photo that he’d been emailed of a tiny little house sitting between two much larger ones.
“Where’s it at?” someone else at the bar asked.
“We aren’t sure. It’s somewhere near T and Van Sicklen,” Mark responded to the group. The handful of patrons at the Wrong Number were all listening in casually now.
With more excitement than the rest, the toothless guy (who was not that old, to be clear), reached for Mark’s Blackberry to examine the house.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I never seen that house.”
“You mean you want to look at that house, and they didn’t even tell you were it’s at? That don’t make much sense,” someone else offered.
“Can I get a Bud?” Mark asked the bartender. He looked to me, “do you want one, too?” I did.
“Make that two.”
I waited for our beer while Mark used the restroom. The bar was straight from the 30’s with original Art Deco ceilings and vents. Since dating Mark, I’ve learned a little more about New York’s architecture.
While he was gone, I made small talk with a good looking guy in his 50s named Mike. Mike had the wrinkles and cough of a guy who spent way too much time in bars, smoking cigarettes, and probably doing some kind of work with his hands in the sun. I imagined stories of his first wife, whom he had truly loved, and of his second who in my imagination she was still in the area. In my imagination, his kids were estranged, and he found that The Wrong Number and its patrons were his family. His neatly combed, dark hair was brushed straight back, and when he smiled, his perfectly straight, white teeth surprised me.
He asked me where we were both from. “Mark’s from Staten Island, and I’m from St. Louis.”
“St. Louis? You a Cardinals fan?”
“I am!” and so we talked about baseball for a minute or two before Mark came back beside me and took a sip from his red plastic beer cup. Mike was just finishing his story of watching the Cardinals beat the Tigers in the 2006 World Series, and I smiled, telling Mark I’d been hearing lots of stories lately of where people were win the Cardinals won the Series.
The guys at the bar (the women never spoke up), placed wagers on where the little house was located.
The toothless guy said, “It’s gotta be further up Van Sicklen. I know this block. It ain’t here. Unless I drove right past it and didn’t see it it was so small. But it ain’t on this block. I’m thinking it’s up further, by where Toni Marinelli and them’s house is.”
Mike said, “I’ve lived in this neighborhood my whole life, and I’m telling you, if you go further up Van Sicklen, you hit those big old houses where the Hassidic Jews live.” He looked at me, “mansions, these houses are mansions they live in. You’re not gonna find this little house over there.”
The toothless guy was adamant that we just needed to go further up Van Sicklen.
“You wanna bet on that?” Mike asked him.
An old guy in tinted eyeglasses and a velour Puma tracksuit and wifebeater came out from the back room. He walked over to us, took the last puff of his cigarette, and dropped the butt on the floor of the bar, grinding it out with his tennis shoed right foot. Smoking is illegal in bars in New York.
“What are you guys looking for?” the guy asked.
“This is the owner,” Mike said. “This place is famous. Famous. Been here since the prohibition.”
“Not in this location,” chimed in the bartender.
“Have you owned it that whole time?” Marked asked the owner in the velour tracksuit.
“Famous,” said Mike, and then he half whispered to me, “organized crime. You know,” with an emphasis on the word “you”.
The owner told us that the bar used to have a different name and a different location, but said that he’d owned it for a long time, and that the bar had, in fact, been open since the prohibition, hence the 1930’s ceiling and air vents.
It seemed that everyone in The Wrong Number had a different idea as to where the house was that we were looking for. We could have walked through the neighborhood all afternoon and not covered all of the blocks that they’d suggested we walk down, so we didn’t argue when the owner offered to drive us around to look for it.
And so Mark and I climbed into the owner’s white SUV with black leather interior, and peered out the windows as he drove us through the neighborhood hoping to spot the house. The owner told us about the different blocks as he drove, and Mark, sitting in the front seat, reached his hand over his shoulder and wiggled his fingers. I squeezed his hand for a minute, content.
We found ourselves back in front of The Wrong Number, having had no luck finding the house after fifteen minutes or so in the owner’s car. As we climbed out, Mark asked the owner, in the tan, velour, Puma track suit with the wife beater underneath, what his name was.
“They call me Baldy.”
“Baldy, I’m Mark. Thanks for your help. It was great of you to drive us around.”
“Thanks so much,” I said from the back seat, and Mark and I headed back toward the N train, my hand in the crook of his elbow. We paused for a minute over the tracks, looking down at the graffiti, the white frame row houses, and the litter strewn on the ground. He stole a quick kiss, and into the subway station we went.
*Note: Upon further investigation, and adding irony to the name of the bar (The Wrong Number), I found out that the little house we were searching for is actually not in Brooklyn at all. It’s in Toronto.