keeping minutes of wasted hours

stela xhiku

It’s half past a freckle and I’m reckoning with the cosmos – Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity, an exhibit at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. I visited the exhibit last October and nearly a year later am giving myself a migraine trying to remember past the only note I wrote in my diary: “They had a sundial in the shape of a ham.”

I was a corporate copywriter and bartender at the time, so these hammy relics were personally irrelevant. At the office, I felt time move in Stevia packets stacking next to the phone receiver, that two o’clock feeling, the four o’clock deliberations over the night’s plans, convincing my deskmates out of yoga classes, “Come to my bar!”

The clock and its Greco-Roman mathematics may have meant more to me, say, when I was telefundraising for the Metropolitan Opera. I was allowed one 15-minute break every three hours, and 45 minutes for lunch every 8 hours. In the next cubicle over, Jackie the metronome stuck to her script so faithfully that I could follow her lead. “Each time the curtains go up, it costs us at least a million dollars,”Jackie starts. “And we’ve got some really fabulous productions this season,” I finish. She had me wound to the minute. Hours were also kept with precision on my Google Calendar, which I used to monitor myself like a medical mystery: meals, exercise, periods, expenses were all recorded there.   

The bar – a karaoke bar – went by a different measure. Watch hands ticked to the remix of Ignition, which could accurately frame the night in three acts. And while the clock may have meant something at some point, it’s nothing to a bartender whose nights start at nine and end anywhere from midnight to 6 AM. By 1, you’re still not sure whether the night is ending or starting. But after a few months, I learn to read a new instrument of time measurement: the customer, especially the one who comes straight from work and has to be put out with the recycling. It’s not a very sophisticated meter, but it’s easy to watch polite faces become warm and dreamy, respectful nods turn gaseous, burpy over cigarette breaks. Solitary patrons slowly give up the pretense of looking at their phones, waiting for someone to show, and start smiling at ceiling corners. Couples start to kiss.

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When I arrive around 9, the crowd is sparse. My co-bartender Anne tells me I’m late. Tom, in a three-piece linen suit, is having seltzer in the corner. He wants to be left alone so his eyes keep to the circle of his glass and the square of his napkin. There’s a man one stool over who keeps whispering “another round” into my ear.

I announce “Free Drinks!” on the mic, “you have that gentleman to thank!”

The Opening Ceremony good-bye party wooops. A Swedish man finally takes his coat off.

Somehow it’s almost 11. I spin to run a card and, when I return to the room, there are two suits – a pair of twins overwhelming the low clearance of the narrow bar. There’s a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the end of the room, so the optical illusion of quadruplets has me claustrophobic.

“Can one of you go in the bathroom?” I yell over the song, “Twins freak me out.”

Antonio, a showtunes singer, arrives shortly after midnight. He’s got this incredible voice so the place quiets down to hear him sing My Way.

“This song makes me cry,” Tom says, elbows firmly on the bar. “Wow,” whispers the Swede.

And not the words of one who KNEEELS!

Coming off the full applause, the man buying rounds leans to me and mouths “another.”

One of the twins wants Bulleit on the rocks.  

“Have you ever seen Dead Ringers?” I ask as I hand it to him.

He nasalizes a thank you and does his best to get away.

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1-ish and Tom puts on his aviators to sing Mr. Bombastic, scatting cocaine endorsements throughout: “Cocaine is great!”

This gives me enough room to talk to the silent rounds-man, who tells me that he bartended at Studio 54. “It was a crazy, crazy time and it’ll never happen again” he says.

I have to keep moving because Opening Ceremony has become restless, mean even, about claiming their rounds. Antonio is cashing in free whiskeys from three rounds ago. He’s inflated with congratulations and sits upright on his stool, humming powerfully.

Antonio eventually figures out that I’m moving his song cards to the back. Hit Me Baby One More Time gave everyone a taste for pop and he wants My Funny Valentine.

Twice he confronts me and I excuse myself to duck below the counter, where I make spook-eyes at Anne.

Studio 54 taps me on the shoulder and orders a drink. “Sure,” I say, with my face to the dishes. “Hey,” he says, “I need eye contact,” and when I turn to see what the fuck he means, he’s got two fingers pointed at my eyes.

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At 2 AM, The Thong Song comes on and Antonio is sitting more erect than ever, a totem hummer, phantom menace. He’s become very drunk and is complaining to the Swede. But the Swede isn’t one to commiserate! He’s happy!

He makes me repeat my name so he can say, “Thank you, Stela,” each time I hand him a bottle. He does this even after we’ve exchanged stories about Brighton Beach.

“I’m Stephen,” he says for the third time. I blink at him and feel like a real idiot.

I pivot to Studio 54: “We’re out of prosecco.”

By then, we’ve reached capacity. Studio 54 has had it with my neglect and asks for the check, annoyed that I’ve got shifty eyes, hurting that it’s not the 80s. A man immediately steals into the open stool and wants to know about the beers.

“You’ve got a very guilty face there,” the Swede reaches his finger over, “I can just see you walking down the street with flowers.”

The twins are on their second duet and the fun one is pointing the mic to strangers.

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It’s witching hour – 3? 3:30? – and a rowdy bar means the most unsavory things are being said forcefully, not whispered like they oughta be.

I’ve got one twin wilting at the counter, asking to settle. He writes his number on the receipt, “If you don’t care about being in a rotation of five girls,” he says, “you should text me.”

My stomach turns and then delights to see that it’s Tyler Winklevoss! It says right there on the bill! Tyler Winklevoss! I text him the next day and over the next few weeks, staying strong through his request for “pics.” I send him closeups of my forehead and nose. He responds: “These pics are a little creepy lol.”

That’s not even the worst of it. The Swede’s picking the label off his beer and calmly asking me if I would ever consider shitting on his lap. He starts negotiating prices immediately. “Five hundred? Eight? Nine?”

A group of friends is wrestling over two mics. It’s the remix to ignition.

It’s still a singalong but the energy’s waned and the crowd is unified in a different movement, backing away from drunker friends, trying to reclaim some space. Mama rollin that body got every man in here wishin.

Unprompted, Anne starts handing out cups of water.

Last call! Anne and I are smiling like we’ve announced a surprise. Laaaaaaast call!

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By 5, Anne and I sweep and wipe silently. Our UberPools are coming. Mine has a man from New Zealand in it. He’s new to Bed Stuy and keeps saying about his bed, well, that he doesn’t have one. “I don’t even have a bed in Bed Stuy.”

I’ve gone and confirmed that we are neighbors with only two blocks between us, so he’s insistent: he doesn’t have a bed.

“That sucks, dude. I have one. It’s incredible.”

When we arrive at his doorstep, he’s brandishing his phone, asking me to put my number in.

It’s embarrassing to have to deal with this man, embarrassing that I have humored him at all, so I quickly do as he says to speed up his departure.

Soon as he’s gone, Michelle the driver ughs. “Don’t worry, Michelle, I gave him a fake number!”

The two of us talk shit, giggling for two minutes about his sorry state of bedlessness until we get to my place. “Thank you, sweetie, FIVE STARS!” Michelle says.

Then I earn five hours of heavy sleep until my skylight lets the sun in at high noon, warming my eyelids.