It was just a business hotel, a lobby, a small reception desk and the bar across from it. The walkway attaching the hotel to the commuter station the only distinguishing feature. The grit of Newark edged at it from every direction. The rooms were half the price of NewYork and the airfare cheap to fly into Newark. The place attracted the business traveler on a budget.
Joe the bartender looked in the mirror as he polished the wine glasses, the lines he saw on his black face a reminder of how long he had been there. He laughed to himself; Hell, Joe wasn’t really even his name, people just called him that. The old Sinatra song he guessed..
Usually, the bar filled with commuters wanting fortification before heading home. The east coast cold of this night seemed to have scared them off. Only a lone drinker at the bar. One Joe had not seen before.
“422, Don Guy,” the man said to Joe who marked it on the tab near the register. Guy looked well traveled, Joe took him for the journeyman middle age business person. Joe continued his work behind the bar, overviewing the inventory of bottles.
Guy was finishing a steak sandwich he ordered and on his second drink. Adjusting his glasses, he kept looking at his phone, making notes on a sheet of paper beside his drink. Joe ask him, “Anything else Mr. Guy?”
“Sure, I will have another round.”
Just then Nick walked into the bar. Joe turned and said, “Mister N, I haven’t seen you for a while.” Joe thought to himself, Mister N alright, N for no good. Nick was a small time crook who had worked the notorious 4 corners area of the city for years. Never making it to the big league, but involved in small ways with all the Vice in the area, gambling, prostitution, illegal alcohol sales, and protection games. You name it he always seemed to be around the street dirt. He had the look of a wise guy, fedora hat, dark features and no smile.
Joe had heard they called him “Penny” on the street. He picked up the small change from the rackets for the, never seen, big names. Yeah, he had the look of a wise guy, but wasn’t.
“Where is everyone,” Nick said adding, “I guess it’s you and me keeping this place open,” as he pointed at Guy around the corner of the bar.
Guy wondered if he should waste a word, but acknowledged the comment with a slight glance and lifting of the hand that he was writing with.
Joe had seen Nick work before, the only reason he came here was to find marks. A lonely woman needing company, the office worker who could be worked for money or the stray who could be lured into vice.
Nick, never one to pass up an opportunity, sized up Guy as a mark for a sinful tour of the city and some quick money. He finished his first drink, “Hey, can I spot you a round?”
Guy turned and said, “Sure.”
Nick asked, “Your not from here, right?’
Guy turned and said, “Chicago, just here to run business tomorrow.”
Nick managed a small smile, “Good place to start, huh, cheap rooms, train into the city. And Joe, my friend behind the bar, to keep the mind going with the right mix.”
Guy nodded, “Yeah, I think you covered it. Assume you from here?”
“Born and raised,” Nick said as his mind ran through the various plays he might have with this one. Maybe a tour of ….
Just then, Guy ask, “How’s the economy here?”
“Good I guess, this place never seems to take off though, the street always the same. Chicago?” Nick asked.
“You know, the business sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t, You either win or loose,” Guy said then went back to looking at his phone and making notes.
Nick edged in again, “You know, you look like a business person that been around for a while. Like me maybe, unfeeling boss, jobs assignments too long, always away from home…”
Guy turned toward Nick, “Lets have another round shell we?” Joe brought a couple more drinks.
Nick said, “You know, Newark does one thing right, some call it sin city. Hey this is Mecca for that. Ever think you need a break from the routine.” Nick paused then gambled by saying, “I can take you some places that won’t be in your trip report, if you get what I mean.”
Guy hesitated, “Let me think about it, sounds interesting.”
Nick sensed progress but had to go to the rest room, “Hey, I will be right back.”
As soon as Nick turned the corner to the restroom, Guy got up and walked out of the bar past the lobby. Joe caught a glimpse of him leaving. He could not see if he took the elevator to the room or door outside. He called the front desk, “Don Guy, 422.”
The clerk said, “No one registered by that name.”
Nick came back sitting at the bar, “Wheres my friend?”
Joe turned laying the tabs on the counter without saying anything. He opened both hands with a questioning look on his face that said it all...
Nick turned toward where Guy was sitting again, seemingly hoping he would appear out of thin air. Nothing but his notes. Nick pulled them over and looked at them. He saw a M circled and a number 9 in 10th. He said to himself in a muffled voice, “Shit, the Big M, Meadowlands Race Track, number 9 in race 10.”
Joe ask, “What did you say.” He still stood in front of Nick with hands open, the bills on the bar. Nick shook his head and whispered to himself, Dam this guy was a hustler.
Nick grabbed the note with the horse number and put it in his pocket. He pulled out two $100 bills and gave them to Joe.
Joe went to cash register and then turned to give Nick his change. Nick was gone, disappearing into the darkness of a Newark night, hoping the change would keep Joe silent and what was left of his wise guy reputation intact.
Joe knocked on the counter twice and put the change in his pocket. The night was done.