The Night Side
My real life—or what I think of as my real life—began in fiction.

It was late March 1959. Earlier that month, I had turned fifteen, an occasion I had celebrated by nearly killing myself with a bottle of whiskey. In the bedroom of one of my friends, with a shot glass at the ready, I had cracked the seal on a fifth of Seagram’s 7 Canadian whiskey. My bottle, purchased for me with my own money from the Colony Liquor Store on Eighty-second Street, in Jackson Heights, by an older friend.

I screwed the cap off the glass-threaded mouth of the bottle and put my nose to it. It smelled strong and scary. This was stuff men drank in taverns. Up on the avenues and side streets, in the shadows of the looming elevated train tracks, they sat along dark wooden bars and ordered shots of it, glass of water on the side, pack of unfiltered cigarettes and book of matches to the other side, nest of dollars before them anchored with a few coins—quarters, dimes, nickels. The men sat on stools, their backs to the world, and faced the lighted back-bar mirror, the gleaming ranks of bottles. Carefully they lifted the little brimming glass to their lips and knocked it back, grunted, clacked the empty glass on the bar, with a nod ordered a refill from the gruff but friendly bartender, a tough-faced priest in this world that counterbalanced the world of churches and Mass, holy sacraments. This was the sacrament of real life—take and drink.
Photo © Giulia van Pelt

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