Nighthawks (The Nobody Crowd)

Contributor: Ryan Stevens

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Phillie’s used to be the place. There used to be crowds here every night of the week, packed in here like sardines. Used to be, like I said. Now I’m sittin on a barstool by my lonesome, while Phillie himself shines the mugs and makes nice with some wiseguy and his lady all dolled up in red. I wonder what it’d be like to have the old days, the salad days of this place come back again. It’d be different, sure. The patrons have all aged a little, we’re not as lively as we used to be, yeah, but still, what a sight it would be to have the old crowd back in here, even with the extra gray hairs.

It’s so bright in here. Ol’ Phillie’s has these damn fluorescent bulbs that throw fake light all over the place, blasting this harsh glow on every square inch of the place. They bombard the surfaces, hemming in all the shadows to the smallest possible specks of darkness. Behind the counter, low to the ground, there’s a rim of shadow that is completely safe from the lights. Out on the customers’ side of things there’s nowhere for our shadows to hide. Even us non-shadows kind of suffer from these lights. They glint and gleam off of every reflective surface in the damn place. It ain’t so bad in the daytime, when the natural light pouring in from the big windows covering two of the three walls in the place. At night, thought, the transition from natural darkness (even at dusk when there’s still natural light out, just dimmed is all) to this store-bought light is absolute hell on the senses. Not just the eyes. Yeah, your eyes sting with whiplash and you’ve got to do a few blinks to adjust, but it’s more than that. Your ears perk and readjust to the air pressure of the tiny room. Your nose crinkles when you squint in the new light and as a result you get an even bigger whiff of the cigar smoke and the coffee. From that your brain sends a pulse to your mouth, guessing how everything tastes, all because of the lights. And the last sense, touch, that one feels the lights just as much as your eyes do. The hairs twitch, your hair goes ever-so-slightly taut with the tension of transitioning from the real, natural world of shadows and dusk and crowds to this place, all linoleum floors and chrome coffee makers.

I could be eavesdropping on Little Miss Red and Bogart jr.’s conversations over there, every now and then extending to include Phillie, if I wanted to. I don’t want to. I just want to finish my coffee and go home. This place, it really did used to be something. I’m here more than I really should be, and it’s not like I ever plan to come here when I wake up. But over the course of the day I get all misty-eyed and start thinking about those old days when there were more people to talk to besides Phillie himself and Miss Scarlet and her Sharkskin boyfriend, people that were interesting and going places and fun to talk to.

Like I said, I don’t want to listen to that vapid tube of lipstick and Sinatra jr.’s conversation. But in a place this small, with sound bouncing off the three walls mercilessly, no cup of Joe or Sports Page or even a pair of steel wool earmuffs could blot out everything. she says something about “hitting up that new jazz place” and I can see Phillie wilt ever so slightly. I can’t blame the poor guy; that tart just flat out said she wanted to leave this place to go somewhere else, right in front of the owner! No tact, these people.

Not that I can fairly blame her, not really. It is dead in here, tonight and every night the same for God knows how long. At least, that’s how it’s been the nights I’ve been here.

I think about all those old times and I feel like they’re coming back. I really do. I genuinely trick myself, damn near hypnotize my own mind, into thinking that tonight, tonight, Phillie’s comes back. Or rather, people come back to Phillie’s. So I come by, expecting to actually have to wait in line (a problem no one has encountered at Phillie’s in a long time). And that’s never the case. I’ll sit, drink some coffee and read the Sports Page. Phillie’ll polish his mugs near me and we’ll shoot the breeze if it’s an extra slow day, but if someone new strolls in, he latches on like a tick, hoping to convert looky-loos into new regulars. I’m not mad, honestly. If I was him, I’d be doing the exact same thing. After all, for me this is just the hollow shell of a good time. For Phillie it’s the hollow shell of his source of income. Poor fella, nothing by way of legacy but a three-corner shack on a street corner in a past-its-prime part of town. I can’t even imagine that kind of life.

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Ryan Stevens was born and raised on a farm in South Carolina. He found this boring, so now he writes.
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