When I got there, Joe Durkin was already holding down a corner
table and working on a drink -- vodka on the rocks, from the looks
of it. I took in the room and listened to the hum of conversation
at the bar, and I guess some of what I was feeling must have found
its way to my face, because the first thing Joe asked me was if I
was all right. I said I was fine, and why?
"Because you look like you saw a ghost," he said.
"Be funny if I didn't," I said. "The room is full of them."
"A little new for ghosts, isn't it? How long have they been open,
"Closer to three."
"Time flies," he said, "whether you're having fun or not. Jake's
Place, whoever Jake is. You got a history with him?"
"I don't know who he is. I had a history with the place before it
"He died, didn't he? Was that before or after 9/11?"
That's our watershed; everything in our lives is before or after
that date. "After," I said, "by five or six months. He left the
place to a nephew, who tried running it for a few months and then
decided it wasn't the life he wanted for himself. So I guess he
sold it to Jake, whoever Jake is."
"Whoever Jake is," he said, "he puts a good meal on the table. You
know what they've got here? You can get an Irish breakfast all day
"What's that, a cigarette and a six-pack?"
"Very funny. You must know what an Irish breakfast is, a
sophisticated guy like yourself."
I nodded. "It's the cardiac special, right? Bacon and eggs and
"And grilled tomato."
"Ah, health food."
"And black pudding," he said, "which is hard to find. You know what
you want? Because I'll have the Irish breakfast."
I told the waitress I'd have the same, and a cup of coffee. Joe
said one vodka was enough, but she could bring him a beer.
Something Irish, to go with the breakfast, but not Guinness. She
suggested a Harp, and he said that would be fine.
I've known Joe for twenty years, though I don't know that ours is
an intimate friendship. He's spent those years as a detective at
Midtown North, working out of the old stationhouse on West
Fifty-fourth Street, and we'd developed a working relationship over
time. I went to him for favors, and returned them, sometimes in
cash, sometimes in kind. Now and then he steered a client my way.
There were times when our relations had been strained; my close
friendship with a career criminal never sat well with him, while
his attitude after one vodka too many didn't make me relish his
company. But we'd been around long enough to know how to make it
work, overlooking what we didn't like to look at and staying close
but not too close.
Around the time our food arrived, he told me he'd put in his
papers. I said he'd been threatening to do so for years, and he
said he'd had everything filled out and ready to go a few years
ago, and then the towers came down. "That was no time to retire,"
he said. "Although guys did, and how could you blame 'em? They lost
their heart for the job. Me, I'd already lost my heart for it.
Shoveling shit against the tide, all we ever do. Right then,
though, I managed to convince myself I was needed."
"I can imagine."
"So I stayed three years longer than I intended, and if I did
anything useful in those three years I can't remember what it was.
Anyway, I'm done. Today's what, Wednesday? A week from Friday's my
last day. So all I have to do now is figure out what the hell to do
with the rest of my life."
Which was why he'd asked me to meet him for dinner, in a room full
It had been over thirty years since I put in my papers and retired
from the NYPD, and shortly thereafter I'd retired as well from my
role as husband and father, and moved from a comfortable suburban
house in Syosset to a monastic little room at the Hotel
Northwestern. I didn't spend much time in that room; Jimmy
Armstrong's saloon, around the corner on Ninth between
Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth, served as a combination of living
room and office for me. I met clients there, I ate meals there, and
what social life I had was centered there. I drank there, too, day
in and day out, because that's what I did back then.
I kept it up for as long as I could. Then I put the plug in the
jug, as the old-timers say, and began spending my idle hours not at
Jimmy's joint but two blocks north of there, in the basement of St.
Paul the Apostle. And in other church basements and storefronts,
where I looked for something to put in the empty places alcohol
used to fill.
Somewhere along the way, Jimmy lost his lease and moved half a
block south and a long block west, to the corner of Fifty-seventh
and Tenth. I'd kept my distance from the old place after I sobered
up, and I avoided the new one for a while as well. It never did
become a hangout, but Elaine and I would drop in for a meal from
time to time. Jimmy always served good food, and the kitchen stayed
open late, which made it a good choice after an evening at the
theater or Lincoln Center.
I'd been to the service, at a funeral parlor on West Forty-fourth,
where someone played a favorite song of his. It was "Last Call," by
Dave Van Ronk, and I'd first heard it when Billie Keegan played it
for me after a long night of whiskey ...