Author’s note: I wrote this after consuming a substantial amount of whiskey, then edited it sober. Best read with a fake NY accent.
So I’m in my favorite bar in Brooklyn. It’s 2amish, when the regulars from my first Brooklyn neighborhood come in to get rowdy. They say the Subway is the great equalizer of New York City but we’re not allowed to drink alcohol on trains here. This cavern of debauchery—my Tuesday night worship center tended by Metalhead Jesus who serves whiskey instead of wine—doesn’t quite draw a random sample of city-dwellers; set back a considerable distance from the street with nothing but three stenciled letters reading “b-a-r” to identify itself, I suppose it self-selects for those inclined to be trusted with secrets; it transcends class, race, and income, while running the gamut of big city personalities.
This is the place that keeps me grounded; it’s how I make sure I never get sucked too deep into any particular bubble, my portal back to ordinary life—whatever that means in NYC.
I was at the far end of the bar laughing with Lily*, a woman who befriended me years ago by telling me all of her girlfriends hated me, then being impressed when I didn’t give a shit about who or why (because their boyfriends tend to get drunk and send me naked pictures, I guess). She asked if I wanted to go out for a smoke with her, so I broke out a pack of my duty-free Camels from Istanbul.
“You know these only cost $2 a pack in Turkey? Why are they so expensive here?” I complained rhetorically.
Unexpectedly, the guy sitting next to Lily, a “regular” so she claimed when she introduced him to me, uttered to no one in particular:
A record screeched inside my head and I let out a scoff.
“What?” I looked to Lily seeking some further context about this person, this statement, but with a subtle shake of the head as she turned away, she removed all ties and responsibility from this person.
I observed him as he started straight into the bar shelves. He nodded, one emphatic nod, and looked at me sideways as if to say, “you heard me.”
“Wait, what? Did you say ‘sharia’?” He sighed, seemingly exasperated that I didn’t get the connection, and sipped his drink. He expected me to drop it and go away. But sometimes I like to argue for sport, so I decided to call his bluff.
“No no, how would sharia law impact the cost of cigarettes in New York?” For a moment as he sat there looking annoyed, I doubted my own skepticism. I bended my mind to consider this new conspiratorial option. At the very least, I wanted to hear the punchline of a joke I didn’t get.
He made the face of a know-it-all fifth grader, and for a moment I thought I was about to get schooled. Then, all at once, he resigned, hunching forward.
“Yeah, I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about,” he admitted. “You got me!”
Lily gave me a congratulatory glance. I laughed. He was too drunk to care, but I could sense the onset of embarrassment seeping through the whiskey, so I said: “OK, well you wanna know my theory?”
“Yeah, what is your theory,” he said, finally turning to face me.
I said something about how the American public’s complacency with monopolistic industries that are capable of manipulating governmental regulatory entities has resulted in bulk inflation of goods that holds no bearing on the actual cost of the items outside of this legislative zone. Cigarettes were an easy target here because of the additional “sin tax” factor. Just a theory. I don’t really know, but at least I know what I don’t know.
He faux proposed to me, and Lily and I finally went outside to smoke.
I wonder in what other circumstance he might have blurted out an Islamic buzzword as an explanation for some other minor first world injustice, and how maybe another time no one would have called it out. Someone listening may have thought “yeah, that Muslim thing, that sounds right,” and inflated the image of Middle Easterners as abstract demons coming for every last one of our freedoms. After all, how many Americans believe that Islam started and is the present cause of all our problems? I would think there is some substantial overlap with the ones who think a set of religious laws that are used to generally oppress women and free thought, has anything to do with the price of cigarettes anywhere in the US.
I don’t really know who else would care enough to call out a drunk stranger at a bar. I hope a lot of people. I personally do it all the time, for practice and amusement. There’s an art to engaging with people who automatically assume themselves more clever than you, to setting them straight without pissing them off, to doing it in a way such that they respect you after. I wish more people would do it. This city is built on bluffing and bullshit, but what it really needs is a whole lot more caller outers.
Back inside, we all continued drinking whiskey around our corner of the bar and navigating other shaky political ground and laughing. If you want to kick it in the great equalizer, you can’t be so PC all the time. I’ll forever be baffled by the dumb shit Americans say. But I’ll keep listening to it.