Immigrant blues meet piss-weak beer in the Italian Market.
"A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing," Ernest Hemingway once wrote in a short story about the alcoholic repose some men find in the solitary comfort of a freshly scrubbed cafe. Wings More, a bar/deli on the corner of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue, is neither clean nor well-lighted. There are grease stains on the cracked tile floor, cigarette ashes spread across the wobbly tables, and the stark overhead lights flicker.
It's certainly not a cafe; it's a stretch even to call it a bar, although there is a cramped three-seater next to the bulletproof-encased takeout window. It's more of cafeteria--or a cantina, actually, since the clientele are almost all Mexican laborers who live and work in the Italian Market.
These are ragged, sad-eyed men who stare forlornly into their 16-ounce Budweiser pounders, and wild-eyed drunks who fall backward in their chairs, crashing to the floor laughing and yelling in Spanish. These are men who know the meaning of work, who drink to the pain--or freedom--of being separated from wives and newborn babies. These are strangers in an unwelcoming society. You smell despair as soon as you pass through the Old West-style swinging doors.
Still, there's a comfort found here. This is a place to be alone, a place to drink for those who need to drink.
Hemingway's character liked to take his brandy on the cafe terrace in the "shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light." At Wings More I like to sit at the small corner table next to the jukebox. This table overlooks the barroom, and from it you can watch Sonny the owner work the cash register and Dice the barman serve the drinks.
Sonny is a polite Asian man who always remembers your drink and bows his head hello. Sonny is constantly smiling but he never tells you why. He just nods and bows, bows and nods. Sonny prefers to keep the reasons for his happiness to himself. Dice is always on the verge of "taking one of these damn Mexicans outside." Dice is the one who tells people to "read the sign, fool."
The sign states: "If you in our view appear to be drunk or intoxicated you will not be served." Dice has a deep scar running along his cheekbone. No one ever asks him how he got this scar. Everybody lets him keep that to himself.
The music is always loud, and on a recent evening a man held onto the jukebox, swaying and singing along to some sad Mexican ballad.
"What's this song about, man?" I asked him.
"Nada," he replied, not looking up from the floor.
Nada. That's exactly what the waiter in Hemingway's story said. "It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too," said the waiter. "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name, thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada."
The man at the jukebox closed his eyes as he sang. His companions at the bar threw wet napkins at him. Sonny was smiling. Dice had gone home for the night.