Not quite three years ago I started working in a wine shop in Brooklyn Heights. In September of that year I had just been informed that a contract I expected to receive to teach as an adjunct professor at an art school in Baltimore City during the autumn semester was not going to be delivered. After a few semesters, years prior of costs, commuting every Sunday from Brooklyn via Amtrak or Bolt Bus to spend two nights in cheap faculty housing, devising seminar material, and spending an 11 hour day working with art students, the lost gig was still money that needed to be replaced. When I prorated the actual hours it took to teach at the college, comparably the pay was about the same. Retail wine and spirits would do, at least temporarily. Nearly three years later, a part-time job selling wine has imparted (or has reminded me that I have always had) the skills of epicurean discernment, sales acumen, and the ability to find the good in a challenging array of personalities.
I realized at once the access I gained to a variety of people, as a cashier and working the floor discussing wine and food, was irresistible. Ideas abound among drinkers, most of whom like to talk. Politicians, actors, artists, lawyers, construction workers, housewives, stay-at-home dads, bankers, bartenders, journalists, architects, fashion designers, musicians, homeless people, everyday drunks, revelers, travelers, 40 year old trust-fund kids, retirees—everyone you can imagine—comes through those double doors to purchase their drinks of choice for whatever occasion. Beyond being human beings living in New York, the salient thread among them is their pursuit of the dangerously sublime feeling that only booze can provide. I know the state of being they are commonly after rather well. I am ready to accommodate them.
Saturdays are a perennial holiday. Traffic starts in the morning with phone orders for home deliveries, early birds preparing for evening meals, and chronic alcoholics making their first rounds. Heavy foot traffic starts in right around brunch time. From noon to 8pm customers come in constant predictable waves, for shooters, pints, handles, wine for dinner, prosecco, Champagne, case buys for the month, and party gifts. During such shopping hours the store is altogether a market, depot, and public square. Human spectacle then and there is relentless. As it goes, identifiers of such as race, class, sexual and gender identity not only create optics, these things inspire a discourse specific to the environment of the shop. The wooden shelves, overhead lighting bouncing about hundreds of bottles that line the walls and aisles provide a timeless but inimitable backdrop. It is a cinematically perfect storefront setting that is rarely found in Brooklyn now days, but once was in abundance in the borough. This boutique wine shop is then improvisatory theater. Everyone who enters this zone—from the most degenerate one–liter–of–vodka–a–day drinker to the most skilled sommelier looking for a rare Italian varietal to pair—knows it.
There is no bell on the door. When customers enter, staff is signaled by the rattle of window pane of the opening and closing wood framed doors. On this day, in comes a fashionably dressed and well groomed, young Black gentleman who appears slightly agitated, irritable, and perhaps mildly drunk. He is lean, dark, and handsome. I gave him some time to think as he stood near the door slightly leaning on our delivery countertop that is adjacent but behind the cashier stations. My colleagues are busy with others, or have decisively ignored him. He sees me catching him out of the corner of my eye. I ask him if he needs something. He is silent for about ten seconds, before he says, “Well, yeah. I guess I do need something. Let me see…” He bends over looks through the pints and shooters of spirits behind glass beneath the countertop upon which he was just leaning. He then says, returning his body upright, “Now that I think about it, I don’t need another drink, but I want to ask you something.” His limbs fidget with emotion. I am curious and nervous about the state of the person in front of me. However, I am used to this feeling, as it frequently occurs while engaging with the profusion of characters that visit the shop. “Tell me something, what’s wrong with being Black.” I was prepared to answer a question about Tuscan wines, or, to point down the aisle to Cru Beaujolais, expound on my love of Loire Valley reds, or, in the case of the person I imagined him to be, to lead him toward an overpriced California Cab Sauv at his request. I did not expect to have so frank a conversation about race, more specifically, not about the situation of young Black men in the United States with one of those young Black men in our tony wine quarters.
Most of the regulars are white middle and retirement aged social liberals. If at all, they speak abstractly about race in hushed tones. For some the concept of race seems not to exist. Though the neighborhood is demographically changing, the older Brooklynites in the area tend to think more about ethnicity and socioeconomic class than in terms of race, at least on the surface of things. Many recall the familial dilemmas of yesteryear when Catholic and Jewish men and women decided to marry each other. That isn’t to say white racists don’t enter the store—they do and also with some regularity, and, they are not always older, and they are not always white. Generally, customers from the African diaspora that visit also pretend, as much as they can, that race doesn’t exist, or at least to no effect on them. In spite of there being very few white Anglo-Saxon Protestants that stroll in, such a sensibility is still the default despite the ethnic and religious mix that comprises daily customers. So, then, as the young man rhetorically asks; what is wrong with being Black? Nothing at all, I say. He challenges me, by explaining how he was just thrown out of a bar a few doors down on the next block. He had purchased a round of drinks for everyone, just before he was tossed. He admitted being somewhat inebriated, but he had all of his faculties. It was 5:30pm or so. He had some drinks at brunch and decided to make a day of it. His apartment in Red Hook was close to Atlantic Ave. The shops, the restaurants, the beautiful people, the energy of the west end of the avenue are a draw for a young person wanting to relish their time in the borough. Out came his wallet and declarations of wealth and his right to be as free as anyone else. There were (and are often) people under the influence marching, stumbling, mumbling, screaming, laughing, crying, enjoying or killing themselves with booze ever present on those blocks. How was this man any different? The interrogation persisted.
By this point the Italian-American shop owner (the fellow I work for) has noticed how animated our conversation had become. Nervously the proprietor approaches, pretends to adjust and arrange bottles in our vicinity. The shop continues to bustle around us. The rest of the staff is handling it. They are oblivious of us. I can feel the owner’s discomfort. I imagine, with reason, that he’s concerned about the tone of the conversation, and the appearance of two Black men having it in his store during a peak shopping hour. I turn to the young man and ask him to take me to the bar that threw him out. I wanted to see which one, given the avenue is filled with them from Flatbush to the piers. Clearly, I needed to get him out of there to calm some nerves, and curtail a conflict or the performance of one. As we exit and begin our short walk, he is even more upset. We head west toward the piers. The downward slope of the pavement disappears into foot traffic and sunset. He insists that if he wanted to he could talk like, walk like, act like “one of them.” He explained, “I talk like I talk because the people I love, the people I spend my time with talk like this. Look at me! Do I look like I don’t have money?!” We continued to the sidewalk in front of the bar. I notice the demographic through the plate glass windows. There were on the bar stools at that moment a sparse attendance of neighborhood folks, urban professionals, and hipsters. We turned back toward the direction from which we’d come, heading along the same avenue a few blocks further up from the piers.
As we are returning to the store, some banter and serious observations continued. He tells me his father works in the music industry and owns a few properties in town. He refuses to tell me his and/or his father’s name. He says he could buy the whole wine shop. He could buy the bar that he was ejected from. He insists that if he tells me who is father is I would be star struck. Obscuring the name on them, he shows me his credit cards. He shows me a few hundred–dollar bills in the clip. All the while impatient with what he perceives as a humiliating circumstance to find himself in—near drunk, vulnerable, and recently tossed from his bar of choice—wondering with no answer available to him as to why he feels as rejected as he does. After listening to and affirming his experience, I tell him I want to briefly share my thoughts on the situation of being Black and male in the United States. “How old are you?” “27.” “How old to you think I am?” “30.” “No. I’m 47.” “Damn. You’re eating good, must be eating really good” he says slowly nodding. I tell him, that I have a daughter his age, and, that I could be his father. He agrees. I share candidly the situation of restaurant, bar, and shop owners and the liability that can come from entertaining people who are visibly intoxicated. His breath is sweet like his mouth has been rinsed with lager and rum. Steady on his feet, yet his tongue is faltering the way people on their way to being too drunk tend to sound. Remarkably still, he has clarity of mind and maintains rhetorical focus throughout our exchange. He interjects the different treatment he feels in the world than that what he witnesses from his white European descendant peers. Many of whom, he says, don’t have nearly as much money or standing as he has. I tell him that unfortunate as it is, being a Black man means paying extremely close attention to how you move, when and where in the world. Yes, white people get drunker than he was in that moment, bar hopping and the like without incident. Yes, because he is Black he should take care to present well and better than that. He had overindulged, and that no matter whom we may be (white, Black, and otherwise) in the public eye how we present ourselves exposes us to questions. “You have to understand this—I am from Haiti. I am Haitian.” He needn’t say much more for me to understand that his comprehension of the subtle understanding of the everyday consequences of race to Black American men is different than what it may be for a man born in a predominately Black society. He needn’t say much more to me about the pride Haitian people have, and the history their country contains that gives its most common citizens valorous airs. I tell him so anyway, and with filial appreciation to his country of origin.
“Have you eaten?”, I ask him. “You know, I haven’t. When I spoke to my mother this morning, she told me to make sure I eat, especially if…” he trailed off. “I’m headed up to the Bronx tonight. It’s my great–grandmother’s birthday. We’re having a big dinner. Family is getting together. Yeah, I should eat something before I head up there.” We’re in front of the wine shop again at this point. He thanks me for taking the time to talk with him. He couldn't believe I would take the time to just talk him through a moment of anger and doubt. “No one has ever done that for me. You are a stranger, and you are just talking to me, like human being to human being.” We gave each other a big tight hug. I told him that just a few doors down is a casual but nice French bistro. They are used to spending time with Black people there. They speak French there. Black people work there. They’d love to see him. I recommended the cheeseburger with a side of green salad or the lamb shank with stewed vegetables over cous–cous. I walked him over to the restaurant. We looked through the menu displayed on the window next to the door. “That lamb shank is sounding good, about right. I think that’s it.” He thanked me again. “Big love, brother”, I say to him. Our hands clapped, thumbs locked into a handshake, pulling each other into a quick hug and pat on the back. “Thanks man. I appreciate that.” “All good man. Have fun in there. And don’t forget to drink some water—no beer, just water!” He looked back, smiled, and went in to get a bite.