I just ordered another, and I don’t want to look at the goddamn note—the bill—the one in my pocket. Not again. I’m doomed. Oh well. Que sera sera.
The bar is almost empty. Sinatra croons out of speakers unseen about the “wee small hours of the morning.” And that’s what these are, the maudlin hours. Midnight – when lonely souls hug inanimate pillows and beasts with venomous crotches prowl and thieve the light from once-wondrous eyes. But I’m not brooding on that now. I have the note in my hand, my hand in my pocket, and I’m about to read it again. …
Close to $100,000 in the hole, it reads. Signed, -Your Masters and Bachelors Degrees. … Shit. To hell with apple pie and baseball, Jack. American as debt. Right. …
The bartender wipes down a glass with a rag, and then, with his fingers, gently massages a lipstick stain off one of them. Did he know her, the patron with the lips? The poor bastard. He’s lovesick. I can spot these sad sacks by their red, rheumy eyes, their slouched backs and how they consistently eye their phones in a desperate hope that the love lost, the heartbreaker, will call any minute and say, “I love you. I made a mistake. Come home.”
But no. That’s not reality, folks. So he continues to wipe down the martini glasses, the shot glasses and now the bar, sniffling here and again. He’s probably waited all night long, his shift, to let out a good wail, and it would appear that now I’m the only wiggy skull left between him and it. Time to go…. Yes. The poor bastard. Let it out, man. I’ve been there. We all have, and damn the liar who says he hasn’t. The prat.
I hailed a cab, crawled in claws first and found a crumpled New York Times on the seat. Like a good friend with bad news the paper seemed to have been waiting for me, so I thumbed through it, ignoring the bill still in my pocket. “Where to, sir?” the cabbie said. “Her house!” I blurted. “She’s expecting me.” The driver examined me through his rear view mirror … me, this excited passenger speaking in code and wrestling with a day-old paper in the back of his sullied cab. “Where?” he asked with a tinge of concern. “Her house, man! Her house. In Wash Heights. She does yoga. All hippies do.”
“OK,” he responded. “Take the West Side Highway then?”
“Good idea. Yes. The West Side Highway. Go now. We’re out of time! The hour is late and I have a date!”
And for 30 or so minutes the driver in red slammed on the gas of the yellow bee and zipped in and out of late-night New York City traffic, leaning on the horn and damning drivers and drunk jaywalkers in skirts and loosed ties until we got to the elevated freeway on the bank of the whipping Hudson.
We arrived to her apartment building with a loud shrill of the tires. The mad cabbie kicked me out of the car and, as quickly as he could, sped off into the bright lights of the city. He slowed the sedan as he approached an intersection—the red lights, but kept on his way, not stopping, only checking for traffic on either side, and then he was gone, a blur in the distance and a memory of mine to forget with all the rest of the trivial shit that happens in life.
I rang the buzzer to her shoebox apartment. No answer. Try again, I thought. No answer. Damn. No date then, and the bill continued to weigh heavily in my slacks. So I sat there on the corner outside of her flat for a bit and brooded intensely. Lie back on the concrete, maybe, stare at the stars, possibly, I thought – at least until the fuzz comes and barks at me to “move on” or a mutt comes to piss on me. And this is when the ugly ruminations chewed at my skull and dragged my mood into the gutter:
It’s a bastard of a situation when you’re $100,000 in debt to Uncle Sam yet insufferable citizens of the Know It All Nation continue to hit you over the head with, “Oh, you’re Native American? Well, shit then, you guys don’t have to worry about tuition. …”
“You nitwitted ninnyhammer! You foul faced runt!” I boomed at fellow classmate. He was the kind of rat who wore salmon-colored slacks and sweaters over his shoulders, lobbing Frisbees through the quad, pretending to be a jock when he was, in actuality, a weak jackass—a real privileged prick.
Yet these kinds of conversations re: tuition can occur in the newsroom as well, as I, the bullish inkhead journo, have noticed. Time and again have I met the sot writer with gray sideburns and whiskey on his breath who thinks I got my degrees because of affirmative action or simply because I’m Native American. And these thugs are older than Frisbee kids in salmon pants, to be sure. The free-tuition rumor is by no means fresh. It’s hackneyed. It’s banal. It’s rank and wrong, but it’s American tradition to hang onto the rank and wrong until the majority votes otherwise. It’s all politics, folks, and it’ll play with your patience.
So I lied there on the corner for about an hour, thinking about the bill, the girl who wasn’t home and the story I was late in filing until a group of Dominican cats came wobbling down the sidewalk from Broadway in a plume of smoke. I could smell the aroma of good weed as they approached. “That’s quality product,” I said from the ground. “I should know – I’m from Colorado.”
They laughed and went on their merry way, and so did I. The bill still looms, the bartender’s still sad and the Know It Alls keep at it – their outdated, misinformed American script: the assumption that we, Natives, go to school for free. Not without a scholarship or a sack of scholarships, chum … or maybe Mitt Romney for a father. Remember that pompous homage to oblivion and privilege? Anyway, upward mobility comes at a hefty price in this country. That’s if you believe the game isn’t rigged. I, for one, do. The table’s titled, Jackie Boy. And what do you do in such situations? Knock it over. WOP! Righty-O. Cheers.
Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, has a Master of Arts degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in New York City.