2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
The Highs and Lows of Pablo’s Drum
At a bistro in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a gray-haired man sat at the end of a mahogany bar, next to the window, sobbing.
The mid-day sun shone through the painted glass, reflecting the restaurant’s name, backwards, onto the cracked tile floor. It read, “Sweetwater Restaurant”. Follow the shadow up, back to the crying man, up the punched tin walls, along the forest green moldings, and arrive at dusty old conga drums. They belong to Pablo, the owner.
Photos of Pablo in wooden frames adorn the restaurant’s walls. There’s one of his rock band from his early twenties, complete with a scrawling autograph in Sharpie under his face. He has a full head of hair, a devilishly attractive smile, and no trace of the terminal liver cirrhosis that would confine him to a bed for three months in a room directly above where the crying man is seated.
There are pictures of Jimmi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, Pablo’s favorite musicians. There is the washed out picture of a greying black Labrador, Rita, Pablo’s loyal sidekick until she died in 2006; photos with a tall, blonde woman, Nina, his wife.
And, there are the drums.
They are vintage conga drums that are painted red and white, with a shiny lacquered finish. The animal skin is stretched taught across the top. It is worn and leathery from use. Regulars and little kids would beat the drums as they passed by. Occasionally, Pablo would pull them out and play them. He’d beat the high drum and then, the conga tuned to be the low drum, called the Tumba. He played in the “open tone”, the loosest and most improvised style. He used four fingers near the rim of the drums. It resulted in a clear tone with a distinct pitch.
Pablo had rhythm on and off a drum set. His life had the on and off, high and low rhythm and sound of those drums. Sometimes high. Sometimes low. Always loud. He created his own beats, his own sounds, his own rhythms, complete with shouting, singing and dancing. Never repetitive, always melodic; the percussion of his life. Pablo’s life. He played it like he played the drums. The highs and lows. That was his gift.
I was the bartender at his place for more than two years. The other servers and bartenders, like me, had come in one day for a job, and found a home instead. Two other girls had been working at Sweetwater for seven years. It was the dysfunctional family I never had. I happily made old fashioned’s and stocked wine with Pablo always in the scene. He was the main character and the constant background extra.
Every day the place filled up more, drawn by his energy. Brunchers strolled by, and wandered in, under the faded Guinness sign hanging outside. Old timers who’d lived in the neighborhood for decades came in for a bite and to greet friends. Young professionals blowing their first six-figure pay checks on rib eye steaks and martinis. The diners were referred to by the servers as “covers” and “table two” and “four”. They played their own highs and lows in Pablo’s place. For the past few months, few of them knew about the dying owner who lay upstairs; the man who loved Zeppelin; the drummer whose rhythm was getting fainter; the beat of his heart and the pulse of the man fading.
But the crying man knew. He raised his head from the bar and looked around helplessly at the souvenirs of his friend. He clutched onto the things: a vintage lamp, a photo of a black dog, the edge of the bar and, of course, the drums.
He latched on, and he wailed.
Raul was the first of the regulars to cry at my bar. Then, they all started to come, asking to see Pablo. They ordered half-sized beers, in cups no longer than a finger, so they could be ready to go at any moment. They sat near the window, waiting for a swish of Nina’s blonde hair.
She was Pablo’s high drum. The had voracious fights at the restaurant. Pablo would spend the night drinking with his friends and berate her when she arrived. Pablo could spit fire, but she drank it like hot soup; the next day, they would be cozy at Table 5, splitting the fish special. Pablo drank Rose; Nina drank margaritas.
She was born in Norway and came to New York in her twenties. She manages their other business on Wythe Avenue, a bakery called Bakeri– “bakery” in Norwegian. The bakery girls wore blue coveralls. Nina would show up to Sweetwater in her flour-spattered onsie and be the most beautiful woman in the room. Her clothes hung and framed her like drapery on a statue. The woman had style. She met Pablo when he was still a party-boy drummer living in SoHo. Ten years later, they were stuck in love.
The waitstaff called Nina and Pablo, Mommy and Daddy. Sometimes I would walk into a shift, and see a frustrated lunch server. “Mommy and Daddy are fighting again.” Or, “Daddy is drunk, watch out.”
When that happened, it was better to have the regulars around as a buffer. They were mostly Pablo’s friends from his early days in New York. Or folks from the neighborhood, from before Williamsburg boomed. Before the renovated waterfront in 2010 transformed the landscape and gutted the neighborhood in unseen ways, Williamsburg was a post-industrial barren wasteland. Artists and musicians moved there, settled in and planted their roots, not knowing the pay off. Sweetwater opened in 2004, replacing a seedy punk bar of the same name.
Now, Williamsburg is prime real estate. Multi-million dollar apartments line the river. Pablo’s first apartment on North 6th street rents for upwards of $3000 a month. He used to pay $400.
That’s probably why Pablo and his buddies were so close. Williamsburg was like an island of Lost Boys in the late 1980s and 90s. After he died, a sign was placed among the flowers and candles that read, “The King of North 6th St.” It wasn’t far from the truth. Pablo knew everyone. He would zig zag around the block, popping in for a glass of wine at Rosaritos, DOC, or Zablotzkis, the bar next door. I found him there once without his shoes, bare feet up on the bar.
He loved pizza, and would order delivery from Fornino, just a block away. The delivery boy would then have to find him. From the time he made the call, to the time the pizza was ready, Pablo was on the move. A full glass of wine and a kiss on the cheek waited for him at every corner. Those were the days he played the high drum. His beat was strong, and echoed throughout the neighborhood.
The Tumba is the low tone, large head Conga. Shortly before Pablo died, after a wild Friday night shift, it was gone. Someone at the bar walked out the door with it. Nobody noticed.
Saturday morning, I walked into Sweetwater at 9:30 AM to start prepping for brunch. Laurent, our manager was sitting at the bar. I was surprised to see him so early. When he turned to look at me, his eyes were bright red and supported by purple bags. He held a cigarette in his shaking hand.
“What happened?” I asked.
He pointed to the empty spot on the floor, where Pablo’s two drums had stood the day before. Only one was there. He was devastated. It was his job to make sure the restaurant ran smoothly, especially while Nina cared for Pablo. Laurent and Pablo have known each other for years, through the restaurant scene in New York. They shared a love of friendly service and getting drunk.
Laurent could open and close the bar with a drink in his hand. Pablo had been the same way. Over the years, they’d come to believe they were invincible. Pablo didn’t feel that way anymore, and Laurent’s marble shoulder had been chipped. It’s like seeing a soldier go down beside you in the trenches. Except the trench is your bar stool; the bullet is that never-ending cup of booze.
Laurent missed Pablo. But now, looking at the empty space where the low conga, the Tumba lived, he seemed scared. Scared for his life and for his friend’s life. It’s as if he just realized that Pablo was going to die.
“Do you think Nina will notice?” I asked. He stared at me blankly.
Nina walked in the door and I busied myself cutting lemons into thin, circular slices.
“Nina, I have to tell you something,” Laurent said. She was holding a bouquet of flowers and set them down. Her tired eyes were inquisitive. She opened her mouth to ask, and then saw the high drum. Only one. Her breathing stopped short, for just a moment, then she exhaled deeply.
I watched her face closely and nicked my finger with the knife. The lemon juice slipped into my cut and sent a sting throughout my whole body.
“Ouch,” I said, under my breath.
Nina rubbed her hands together and said, “Let’s talk outside.” I saw them pacing and Laurent hugging his arms close to his body. When she came back in, she seemed defeated.
“Just let them fucking take it,” she said. “They can take everything. Whatever they want.”
Laurent stayed outside, smoking and looking up at Pablo’s window. He finished his cigarette and threw it into the gutter. He didn’t stamp it and it smoked out slowly as it sunk into the pool of dirty water.
Pablo’s memorial took place in an empty garage on Freeman street in Greenpoint. The exposed brick walls were lined with white trellis’, evergreen vines and white prayer candles.
They say that the dead always watch over us. This time it was literal. Guests brought photos from every stage of Pablo’s life. His early days in New York when he wore his hair waist-length and listened to reggae; his punk rock days hanging in the, now legendary, CBGB’s club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His white, vintage bike was suspended in the air with wire, like it was riding into the sky. More photos stuck out of its spokes. He was a well-documented man, or maybe he just knew enough people. His playful smile covered every surface of the room. “I dare you to forget me,” they seemed to say.
The crowd was eclectic. Motorcycles lined the street. Chicks and dudes with full body tattoos laughed next to a coifed, spotlessly clean business woman. The ages ranged from a four-year-old boy nick-named Gato, to a frightening woman in her nineties, notorious for yelling at the staff if her mussels were too spicy.
Nina stood behind a microphone and the crowd quieted. Some people were crying, some were smiling. Nina’s face was bright and clear. She looked lighter than she had in months. She was finally back with the man she fell in love with, she said. Not the sick man in bed. Surrounded by his friends and memories, he was more alive than ever.
“Pablo,” she said. “You were my light and my dark. My happiness and my despair. You were loving, funny and sometimes cruel. You taught us all, at the very least, how to experience emotion.”
Lauren, a former waitress, told a story of how she once chased Pablo with a knife. An Argentinean man said through a thick accent that Pablo made him feel at home in a foreign country. Nikki, a bartender, remembered when Pablo yelled at a customer for ordering the last lasagna- that’s what Pablo had wanted for dinner.
Nina asked for everyone held on to the person next to them for a moment. We were to be united for Pablo, in his memory.
Raul, the regular to my left with his arm around me, finally wiped the tears from his eyes.
After the memorial, all the guests were invited back to Sweetwater for an open rose bar and buffet. The mood lifted as the wine flowed freely. Groups of men filled their glasses over and over, laughing, their voices getting louder each time. The Rolling Stones blasted from the speakers. Chants of Pablo’s name would erupt from the crowd intermittently.
A regular named Matthew sidled over to cheers my glass. “The only thing missing is him,” he said, wobbling a little. “I keep expecting him to burst through the door and offer me a joint. It’s shame you can’t celebrate people like this when they’re alive.”
The strung-up lights in the garden turned on as the sun set. A warm glow permeated the crowd. When I left to go home, I could hear them chanting Pablo’s name all the way down the block.
By the next weekend, the festivities were over. The restaurant seemed a little lackluster, a little colder. We had remembered Pablo, and now it was time to forget. The churning of emotions that had pushed us through the last weeks was gone.
A new cocktail on the menu was called the Pabloso. The first time I made it, that Saturday night for a young woman, I realized that she would never know its namesake. The reverberation of Pablo’s life and personality hadn’t been loud enough to reach her. She had two and left. She didn’t notice the missing drum.
The next Sunday morning I came in at 9:30. I saw Laurent.
“He called,” he said, grabbing my arms. “The guy who took the drum. He said his friend did it, and he feels bad. He’s bringing it back.”
He squirmed and waited restlessly on the bench outside. Flowers for Pablo still decorated the front stoop.
He stepped onto the street. I followed.
North 6th street was deserted at this hour. The asphalt was littered with beer cans from the night before. The white morning light bled into the street. The air felt cold and crisp. Laurent held his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun.
After a few minutes, a lone man appeared.
He looked like only a silhouette, a solo figure ambling down the block, sun at his back. The red paint on the drum gleamed in the sun’s rays.
He set the drum before us and didn’t make eye contact. He murmured an apology and left without another word.
Laurent picked up the drum and entered the restaurant. He approached the empty space where it lived, near the photo of Pablo, the picture of his dog and next to the high drum. He placed it gently on the floor and gave the high drum a small tap, then the low. The low drum, Pablo’s low drum. The Tumba.
Backing up, he faced the drums, again a complete set, and we moved on to work.