A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Photo Credit: Hani AlYousif
Ten years have gone by, and still I can bring back every humid detail of that morning when I arrived in New York. I was seventeen, and it is safe to say now that I was foolish then. That I never stopped to think that to be an artist required more resonance. I never considered that my work would only boomerang me back to the all too familiar scenery of chained pit bulls and SpaghettiOs.
I work on my canvas every day but, after months of staring, it all seems blue. The painting that is. How could such a thing have happened? Every stroke seemed so important.
To know how to paint is to know how to work in opposition, to avoid an oversaturation that only mixes to a gray. The sad truth is, that blue and gray is what most of what my work has become. Sure, I sold a few when I first started but it really is incredible how quickly that excitement wanes. It is so easy to get trapped in a process, a process that slowly becomes repetition and routine.
I am convinced that art has nothing to do with originality, only delivering what already exists but differently, more cleverly. I used to just feel it, feel it in my head but, in just ten years, everything has become stale.
I lick the palette with my brush and touch it back to the big blue. New York City traps people like me. It plays with us, then repackages with a Return to Sender stamp. Tomorrow should be the day I finally listen and squeeze these tubes dry for good. I am just used to it I guess, so by the time it all became blue and gray, so had New York.
Tonight, I walk the streets in search of a bar where I can still smoke. Summer on the island is best at night when the traffic makes a desperate attempt to sound rural. I get to my usual joint, Stranahan’s, and see Ben behind the counter drying a pint glass. It is exactly as expected, and certainly not how I want to spend what should be my last night in the city.
I continue on for maybe ten minutes until I pass a pawn shop sealed off by a big linked fence. Only one bulb inside is lit, spotlighting a white Stratocaster through the window. It is the same color as my stepfather’s that he kept locked under his and my mother’s bed.
Above the stairs next door to the pawn shop sits a folded chalkboard outside of, judging by the smell, what seems like a hookah bar: “TONIGHT Jai Bahrami.” There are no signals of an audience here, and the two dozen or so lights around the sign blink in varying states of disrepair.
“Hip! Hip!” tunes from inside the bar. “When you’re on a holiday.” I know it instantly. There is a strangeness in the cover, the voice. It is much deeper than the original.
The whole tone of the place suggests that not many people have been down those steps and inside. The bar is a dark red inside and has only three round tables before the stage.
I order a beer, light a cigarette, and turn to watch the music. There are maybe twenty people watching Jai Bahrami, a few younger kids dancing, and a man in a dark suit sitting in the corner. From my experience with the bartender, I assume that I am the only person who speaks English in the entire joint.
As I look to the band, I get a bizarre lapse of familiarity. I have had a number of unusual experiences in New York, but I have never felt such strange deja vu as this. I raise my head and look more closely at Jai. Still I cannot recall ever having seen him before. His hair is long and black and he is playing the strings with such ease. It is the kind of sound that you think you recognize immediately but know that you have never heard before.
Jai hammers his hand against his guitar in a windmill-like strum. Pulling back his hair with one hand, he giggles the neck and reverberates the overdrive.
“Thank you for letting me play for you. Good Night.” The lights above the stage lower as I swivel around and realize that I haven’t touched my beer. The singer closes and locks the case to his guitar then walks to my end of the bar.
“Mind if I sit down?” he asks in a Middle Eastern accent. He has a long distinguishable nose, the kind of face you would automatically notice, one who if I had met before I would be able to recognize immediately.
“Please.” I hold up a palm and he drags up a wooden stool and sits next to me. I can see him eyeballing the cigarettes next to my beer. I lift the lip of the pack and pull up on two of the butts, offering him one which he graciously accepts. “You sound great up there.” I say.
“Thank you, very much.” He lights the cigarette.
“Weezer was my jam growing up.”
This makes him chuckle as he shakes out his match.
“By the way, do I know you? I can’t seem to remember if we’ve met before.”
“I do not believe so, friend.” His English is surprisingly good. “Jai.”
“Zack.” I take his hand. “Where did you learn to play like that Jai?”
“Iran?” I can tell he was from somewhere in that part of the world by his accent but I wouldn’t have dared to guess. “You guys got rock and roll out there?” I ask.
He takes a long drag of his cigarette.
I should not have prodded so much. Maybe asked a different question.
“Not much, no.” He lets out a long breath after this leaving me unsure if I have insulted him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No. No, it is fine.” He motions to the bartender for a beer. “Iran is a split.”
“Yes. It is split, like, urban.” He runs his hand through his hair and unbuttons the top of his flannel. “There are conservatives like you see on TV. People who are very inward and have never left Iran. Who have never even heard of The Beatles. And there is the city, people like me.”
“Boys with long hair and skinny jeans?”
This makes him laugh.
I touch a spot a few inches below my shoulder. “Mine used to be down to here.”
“Have you heard of the Basijis?” he says.
“They’re like police right?”
“Well, yes. They are religious police, hair cutters.” He sets down his drink. “They, do not like rock and roll. They will stop you for dressing like this.” He motions towards my jeans. “They arrest you for playing an electric guitar.”
I think of the white Stratocaster in the window, how carrying it home could make you a criminal. “So, how did you practice?”
“You are allowed to practice at home, but rock and roll shows are very forbidden. You are not allowed fans or to play covers.”
“Is that why you came to America?”
“For music? Yes. Mainly.” There is a long pause. He puts out his cigarette and looks at me as if he were staring into the cage of an animal at the zoo. “You’ve got blue on you,” he says pointing towards a stain of paint on my cheek.
“Thank you. I’m a—a painter.” I wipe off the smudge.
“An artist?” He turns to face me completely. “Another creative. New York is such a fantastic place for that.”
I turn back towards my beer. I have had this conversation too many times before. Some other kid comes to the city to be an artist. I know because I was that kid for the past ten years; luckily I have ripened to know how low the odds of a breakout are. I think it has made me more rational regarding what I can actually achieve.
Jai flips through his wallet and removes an old faded photograph of him and three other boys. “My brothers,” he says and hands me the photograph. He points to the tallest boy in the middle holding a bass guitar. “Amir, he is a writer. He wrote a story about New York when he was just ten. This one, this one here is Farid. He is an artist too.” He points to the shortest of the brothers holding two drumsticks.
“Do they live here with you?” I ask.
Jai returns the photo to his wallet. “No,” he says, dropping his eyes down to the bar. “They are with police.”
“Police? In Iran?”
“Yes. They arrest anyone they think violates their values.”
“And being a writer and a musician is too western?”
“Yes. Even being an artist.” Jai lifts an eyebrow as he says this. “I love New York. You and I are so lucky to be here. To be able to create, and destroy. We have no bounds.”
I catch myself unwillingly rolling my eyes as he says this. I draw the tip of my finger along the grain of the wood countertop. I want to tell him the truth. How hard and unlikely it is that he would make money with his music. That it is not about talent and all about connections. I want to tell him that even in the west, creatives still starve.
“You know it’s hard, Jai. Not everyone gets so lucky.”
“Luck is big Zack. But, I already won. Just because I am here. Because I can sing and play for you, because you could walk in here and listen.”
“Have you always thought like that? People still fail in New York. Too often actually.” And in fact, I only know artists who failed in the city.
“Fail? I play music for a living. Not just music, rock and roll. In America!” He finishes the last of his pint and stands up from the stool and pulls back his hair. “I can’t think of a better way to fail.” Jai slings his guitar case over his shoulder and I can tell that our conversation is at an end.
“I must go. Great to meet you, Zack.” Jai holds out his hand and I take it firmly.
“Good luck, Jai.” I smile and he smiles back.
Jai ascends the stairs and the man in the dark suit exits behind him.
I mull over our conversation for a few minutes until the bartender rings the bell for last call. Paying my bill, I return back up the stairs I had entered from earlier. It must be around three in the morning and there are no signs of a taxi. Luckily, it is a warm summer night to walk off a beer buzz.
As I step out on the street, I can hear two men laughing at the end of the block behind me. It is Jai, holding his guitar case, and the man with the dark suit. The man in the suit is all smiles and holds out his arm motioning towards the opened back end of a limousine. Jai shakes the man’s hand and ducks into the open limo. The driver closes the door behind them both and pulls down the boulevard.
Instead of being shocked, I find myself laughing, and turn back to face the outside of the bar. The owner shuts off the sign, leaving the alleyway almost in complete darkness. The only light comes from inside the pawn shop over that white Stratocaster. “Rock and roll in America.” I laugh. How could he fail?
I kick along a beer can that has escaped from a trash bin in the alley. I finally reach my apartment and spread myself onto the sofa, staring at that big blue canvas. The curtains are drawn closed and the metallic tubes of oil and suspended pigment are squeezed completely dry. I can see the city’s lights slowly dimming as morning comes to greet the island in the sun.
As my head finally rests on top of the pillow, a faint banner of white streams across the sky outside the window. I think of Jai and the white Stratocaster, how he must have felt finally stepping into that limo. I watch the wet dabs of blue dry into smaller and smaller skewed circles as a great sense of accomplishment descends upon me. The painting is not finished; it will never be finished. It is a process which only builds and removes more and more layers. This canvas will always require more paint, more paint that I will have to get tomorrow.
Alexander Drost was born in New Jersey. He is a twin. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing and Sculpture from the University of Colorado. You can find his work online in Blotterature Literary Magazine and 3Elements Review. He currently lives and works in Boulder, Colorado. Email: amdrost[at]hotmail.com