Last Christmas Eve, John and I were closing servers. After we finished, we left the restaurant in search of a downtown Pittsburgh bar still open past eleven. We found one in old Chinatown, but when we walked in there were no patrons. The barmaid anxiously washed pint glasses. The waning moments of the Hawai’i Bowl showed on the television in the corner. Oregon State was winning handily. I couldn’t think of anyone who cared about that game, except for degenerate gamblers.

“Last call already been called, guys,” she said.

John had over twenty years in the business. Like any other actor playing a role consistently for that long, the lines became blurred. He rubbed his face and approached the bar in the same manner as he’d approach a table.

“Madam,” he said. “We certainly don’t mean to inconvenience you, but we just got done waiting tables and would like a drink. Purely medicinal, you know? Just one gin and tonic and we’ll be out of your hair.”

“I understand,” she said. “But I have to get out of here. I have to get to Wal-Mart for stocking stuffers.”

“Can I buy a six pack?” I said.

She said she hadn’t done her bank yet, so yes. I grabbed one out of the cooler, peeled a twenty dollar bill off that night’s earnings, and told her to keep the change.

“That’s so sweet,” she said. “Merry Christmas to both of you.”

After she packed the sixer in a brown bag, she rushed us out of the bar and locked the door. Behind us, the Iron City sign went dark.

Stranded in a lonely, empty downtown, we walked toward Smithfield Street. Our shoes crunched rock salt and echoed off the empty high rises. No cars passed. The night was cold enough for late December, but not the kind of cold that cuts through coats and chaps exposed skin. John pulled a beer out of the bag as we approached the Macy’s storefront. All the mannequins were dressed in red Santa caps. He opened the can and foam ran down his shaking hand.

The shakes weren’t alcoholic. John had a twitching condition. Twenty years buried in the weeds can drive a server to madness with PTSD symptoms like war vets. I’d been having dreams, horrible nightmares after eight years in. A recurring one where I’d be waiting tables in an airplane hangar and couldn’t see the end of my section. I couldn’t imagine what twenty years would look like.

“What do we do now?” I said and cracked a beer.

“Club Tush?” John said.

“They close early on Christmas Eve,” I said.

“Really?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

“We could go up to that church on Polish Hill, Robbie,” he said. “We could make midnight mass.”

“I want to get drunk,” I said.

I did, and church wasn’t the place to do that. John and I both took turns pulling on our beers. A cop car crawled by and then sped through the red light at the corner of Smithfield and Forbes.

“Smithfield News is open,” he said. “I’m sure of it. It’s only a couple blocks back that way.”

Smithfield News was a throwback to a time when hookers openly sold their wares on every corner downtown. To when sex shops, porno theaters, and peep shows were the main attraction. These were the days when car windows went up and doors locked when people travelled through. John and I agreed this last stalwart of urban vice was our best option.

Hiding our remaining beers in our coats, we walked in and each traded a ten dollar bill for a roll of quarters at the front register. Up front, the façade of Smithfield News looked like any other downtown bodega. A pop cooler stood to the right of the register. There were cigarettes, blunt wrappers, and junk food. In the rear of the store were the porn magazines, videos, toys, and viewing booths. The guy at the counter, foreign, wearing a red Yankees cap, did not wish us a Merry Christmas. He just eyed us suspiciously. Given our relative ages and the time and day we walked in, John and I could have been up to something swishy. In a store that sells pocket pussies and shit fetish magazines, there was no room for that hanky panky.

“I’ve never been in one of these booths before,” I said.

We walked through a short aisle of dildos of every size and color imaginable. Big, small, purple, green. Vibrating, ribbed, double-sided, strap-on.

“I used to go all the time back in the 80s,” he said. “They’re a good place to clear your head.”

Blackout curtains hung on the booths. I thought I should say something, or do something to commemorate this moment between us. I couldn’t think of the words or actions. So many Christmas parties John and I had worked that season contained speeches by bosses to their workers that they had not planned, and felt contrived. Business has been great this year, I value the hard work put in, all that stuff. And everybody is happy mostly because for one night they are drinking and eating on the company’s dime, and would probably be happier if the boss would just shut up and let the party go on. What was there to say about the two of us and where we were that night?

“Merry Christmas, John,” I said.

He laughed, and I noticed his hands were shaking again. Just a slight twitch in his fingers that he didn’t bother to hide.

“Kid,” he said. “I can’t help but think we should’ve gone to church.”

We walked into our separate booths and closed the curtains behind us. I cracked a beer and fed a dollar’s worth of quarters into the machine. The small, five inch screen cranked to life and a woman with teased, blonde hair and a bush worthy of its own holiday decoration straddled the hood of a black hot rod while a man worked underneath. It was standard. The woman writhed, and soon enough, the man came out from under the car and they fucked on it.

Two beers. I guzzled the first to try and get the desired effect while the woman on the screen groaned with pleasure. The man grunted, also with pleasure. I cracked the last as my cell phone clock hit midnight. All those years ago, our supposed savior was born, and I celebrated by watching decades old pornography and drinking tepid beer in a cubicle.

Since I’d started serving, I’d learned to find good times when they weren’t always available. I found them in after-hours bars and social clubs that stayed open. I know John found his in a projects bar that opened at seven in the morning and cooked barbecue right on the sidewalk. We found diversion in a porn shop on Christmas Eve. Sad, sure. At the time I thought John was trying to show me that this is what life would be like if I stayed in the business. That I’d end up alone and drunk. Well I was drunk, and it’s easy to be self-pitying on Christmas Eve.

What if Christ were born now, I thought, as the actors on screen changed position. What if a homeless couple, the woman convinced she’d been impregnated by God and in contractions, wandered the dead streets of downtown Pittsburgh that night? There’d be room at the inns, but the inns would all be closed. They’d end up at the only place open, Smithfield News. If the story from the Bible held true, three wise men would follow. They’d be guided by a neon sign. If they were so wise, they’d come bearing gifts of beer, quarters, and lube.

The screen went dark. I thought about leaving. What was the difference? There was nothing left outside that booth for me. I fed more quarters into the machine and sat on my hands, praying for a miracle. Praying they wouldn’t shake.


Photo credit: Matt Niemi / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND