Abigail Rasminsky | Longreads | August 2018| 14 minutes (3,400 words)
When the two stragglers let the door clatter shut behind them, I turn the lights in the restaurant’s dining room all the way up and zip over to the stereo. For the past few months, we’ve been blasting the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” while closing. We all sing You may ask yourself, my God, what have I done? while manning brooms and mops and rags, none of us aware that we are singing of our own lives. At the chorus, we give in, drop what we’re doing and dance: Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down…
I stack the chairs and tables as I’ve been taught, sweep crusts of bread and remnants of lettuce off the tiled floor, grab the register drawer with the remaining cash — 200, 300 bucks tops, since I’ve been emptying it steadily all night — while, behind the counter, Emily cleans the cappuccino machine and stashes the whipped cream, milk, and pie in the fridge. Tom drags the mop over the floor I just swept, the bucket for dunking sitting at the lip of the kitchen.
During the day, the place is bustling with people — upstairs, downstairs, out front, gates open all summer long. But now it’s 12 a.m. at The Grey Dog on Carmine Street in the West Village, and everyone else has gone home.
I leave Emily and Tom singing in the dining room, and carry the money from the register, platter-like in one hand, through the swinging doors of the upstairs kitchen, down the narrow, slippery staircase, past the dishwashing station and the baker’s area, where the croissants and scones are warmed at 5:30 a.m., past the catering department, where two Irishmen make platters of Caesar salad and triangular-cut sandwiches all morning to the sounds of NY1, and get to the restaurant’s windowless, corner office. I unhook the mass of keys from the loop of my jeans and let myself in. Sammy, the resident cat, slips past my ankles. The office reeks of cigarettes and pot.
Up on the desk, I count the cash, separating crisp bills from soft ones, count it again, and add it to the change drawer under the desk, which is always stacked with rows of 1s, 5s, 10s, 20s, and a couple of 50s — $1,000 or $2,000 total. Much of that night’s profits — but not all — have already been rolled up, wrapped in elastic bands, and dropped into a heavy metal drop box in the corner of the room.
When I’m done, I switch off the lights and lock the door behind me, making sure that Sammy is inside. If I forget — as I have before — the cat wandering the restaurant will set off the alarm at 3 a.m. and my boss will get a call from the police: There’s been a break-in.
Just as I turn around to walk through the unlit basement and bound back up the stairs, I see Emily in the semi-darkness. There is a gun by her right ear, its barrel pointing at me. Her body is bigger than usual these days — she’s 27 and six months pregnant with her second child, a mistake courtesy of a quick fuck in the restaurant’s downstairs bathroom with one of the cooks. They broke the sink off the wall, and now here she is, shuffling along the slick floor, belly first, with a man at her back, pushing her slowly into me, toward the office door at my back. I can barely see his face; it is nuzzled behind Emily’s hair and concealed by the panic on her own face.
Emily and I stand frozen in the underground quiet, looking at each other.
Then it hits me: The door.
I didn’t lock the front door.
Emily whispers, “Open the office.”
I wasn’t supposed to work that shift. It was a Sunday in January; that part I know because this happened in 2004, the year I started carrying around a paper agenda to keep track of the four increasingly overlapping spheres of my life: restaurant work, yoga teaching, dance rehearsals, social life. The “12–5 pm” barista shift is boldly crossed off, and in its place it says “Man PM.” I had recently been promoted to evening manager.
I shouldn’t have even had the job at all. I had no barista experience, had lied on the application form. I’d called my best friend on the way to the interview to verify that I knew the difference between a cappuccino and a macchiato. I barely made the cut, and not because of my poor foaming skills. “She’s not pretty enough,” I later learned my boss had said to Emily.
But I did get the job, and more surprisingly, I loved it. Part of it was that I was 24, hired at the end of my second year in New York, when I had finally begun to relax into the rhythm and pace of the city, getting the sense that New York wasn’t a horrible beast about to digest me, but a crowded and sometimes magical place where people got up in the morning to go about their days.
Just as I turn around to walk through the unlit basement and bound back up the stairs, I see Emily in the semi-darkness. There is a gun by her right ear, its barrel pointing at me.
I was living alone for the first time, figuring out how to lug stoop-sale bookshelves up the stairs by myself and experimenting with drilling things into the drywall. I was getting better at staying away from the mafiosos who hung out on my Carroll Gardens block, their hands clasped behind their backs, perusing what had once been their stronghold. I was getting tougher from two years of pushing my way onto crowded trains and dealing with my bullying landlord.
It was at Grey Dog the spring after 9/11 that I first felt as if I was doing more than just bumping up against New York, trying to gain entry. I was weaving myself into the city’s fabric.
I had come to New York, like millions of others, with a singular, driving ambition: to dance professionally, and I had, more or less, made it happen. But performing — in fact, the whole creative process — was painfully temporary: I’d get cast in a show, and rehearse for a few months with the same five people, get to know their bodies, their partners, their life dramas, and for a short while, during the run of the show, the theater would become our home. Before the seats were filled with spectators, we’d warm up along the cold reach of the stage, leaving socks and turtlenecks and hairpins lying about as our joints and muscles loosened and warmed. My friends and family would buy tickets and watch and applaud and give me flowers and take me out to dinner. I’d feel something secret and urgent well up inside, and think, My God, I did it.
Then, it was over. Someone else would turn the space into a different enchanting place, and I’d start the process all over again, scaling the slippery wall of New York.
The work at Grey Dog was, of course, mundane, but that was beside the point. It paid well, and the hours were flexible, so I could continue rehearsing and performing.
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But Grey Dog was also more that: It was a home, a place I could return to every day, where I would see the same faces, where everybody knew my name. Because for all the ambition it teems with, what makes New York livable, in fact, survivable, is a stable community. From that sense of security, I could carve out my “real life” — my dance life — without worrying that I would fall through the city’s cracks.
The staff was made up of a ragtag crew of artists who dubbed this time in our lives, this very job, “recess.” It was temporary, we told ourselves, a stopover on our way to our real, future lives. It’s an old story, really, restaurant life: We got stoned at work, played volleyball when our shifts ended, had wine tastings in the basement, and vied for absurd awards at the Christmas party (“Most Likely to Sleep with a Customer,” “Best Smile,” “Countergirl MVP”). We were all on our way to something better — and while many of us pursued our artistic lives simultaneously, hardly anyone ever left. After a while, I understood why: Recess was a blast. We stayed out until 4 a.m., or we started drinking at 1 p.m. We had no sense that time meant anything. The days kept accumulating behind us, but they meant little. The future was infinite!
If only we could get up in the morning.
I turn around, unlock the office, and instinctively reach for the light switch. “Keep the light off,” the robber says.
For some reason, Emily and I sit down together on the same swivel chair, even though there are several strewn about.
The man rips the phone out of the wall; the cord goes flying and almost smacks him in the eye. He stuffs the plastic receiver in the pocket of his parka.
“The money,” he says.
At first, I don’t move, I’m so distracted by how young he is, maybe 19 or 20 at most, and drowning in his jacket. But the barrel of the gun is still pointing at us, so I reach for the drawer. His right hand holds the gun steady, while the left one scoops up piles of cash and deposits them into his pocket, alongside the receiver.
The gun: so small and simple it almost looks like a toy, flat and light and made of plastic. But what do I know of guns? Even if it’s fake, my teeth are still chattering.
Oddly, this man, this teenager, appears to only be taking small piles of fives and tens. By my quick calculations, he’s grabbed two or three hundred dollars, which strikes me, even in the moment, as a terrible robbery job. If this guy doesn’t kill us, I think, there’s a good chance my boss may not either, since he doesn’t seem to have robbed the restaurant blind.
When he’s done with the piles, he looks around the room — at the file folders, loose papers, a printer — then decides against taking anything else.
“Stay here,” he says, and lunges for the door. Emily and I don’t move.
Is he coming back?
What if he’s not alone?
Where has Tom been this whole time?
Emily fingers the underside of the desk. “Where is the fucking panic button?” Until just then I didn’t know there was such a thing — apparently it alerts the police to an intruder. “I was trying to find it upstairs under the counter when he came in,” she says apologetically, “but I couldn’t locate it there either.”
I ask, “Do you think we can go?”
I want to get out of here, but don’t feel safe leaving Emily alone. Once we leave the office, however, in spite of myself and the fact that she can’t move as quickly as me, I bolt through the catering corner, past the baking department and the sinks, then back up the stairs to the kitchen, where Tom is standing, near the stereo. He has just seen the man run out, and yells at us: “Who was that?”
Big, strong, and 6’3”, Tom has missed the whole thing.
We call our boss and the police, and soon everyone arrives. When the door swings open, Emily crumples to the floor, begging someone to call her boyfriend.
We drag everyone downstairs to prove to them that the guy took as little money as we’d thought he did. Emily and I are in accordance about this, though neither of us has mentioned it before now. But it turns out all the money in the drawer is gone.
We’re both dumbfounded. I apologize to our boss over and over again. I offer to pay him back, somehow, slowly, over the next few months of work. He pats me on the shoulder.
“Abs, it’s money,” he says. “I’m happy you’re both OK.”
The cops ask one of us to drive around the neighborhood to look for the guy. I volunteer, since this is, after all, my fault. I’ve never been in the back of a cop car before — didn’t know you can’t let yourself in or out. It’s raining. We find the ripped-off phone receiver next to a fire hydrant along Morton Street, but no robber.
To my astonishment, I feel worse about our boss’s $2,000 than I do about Emily and her baby. The thought of her endangerment is far too much to consider.
I know I can’t go home alone to my apartment, so my boss drives me to be with the only person I can bear to face: my ex-boyfriend. Josh has moved since we broke up a year ago, and I don’t know the address, so I call him from the car on the way to the general area, and ask my boss to circle the blocks around where I think he lives until he wakes up. When I arrive, he’s in light-blue flannel pajama pants. He hands me a beer, and we sit on the couch, his sad eyes barely meeting mine, full of worry.
I try to tell him everything — that I was supposed to have already quit, that I was ready to move on with my life, that I was sick of recess, of all the debauchery — but all I can muster is It’s my fault. I didn’t lock the door. I thought we were safe.
This is the only way to live in New York, isn’t it? To believe you are safe? Ignore the wild-eyed person walking into the subway car/deli/bar/elevator. Become immune to any passing oddness, anything that seems slightly off. Move your body a little further away and ignore. Before the robbery, I had been walking home from the train every night with my headphones on, trudging down dark streets like I had every right to be there. In the early days, I held my keys between my fingers — a trick every young woman learns — but that didn’t last. I didn’t need them, on these quiet, gentrifying streets.
The next night I stop by the restaurant. It’s someone’s birthday and karaoke has been on the schedule for weeks. The girls crowd around me and say how glad they are that it was us, not them, who were there — you’re the two toughest, the most sensible and level-headed. We would have cried or screamed our heads off and he probably would have shot us! This seems, even in the moment, very much like the wrong thing to say, but I do take comfort in their belief in us, in our so-called toughness. The boys all explain in great detail how they would have defended us if they’d been there. Most plans involved frying pans.
We go around the corner to a dank karaoke bar, where we take over a private room. I settle into the corner next to Rayne, the baker, and let people buy me cheap, brightly colored cocktails in plastic cups. At the Christmas party a few weeks earlier, Rayne wore a skin-tight jean jumpsuit and won the staff’s “Best Butt” award. Her hipster boyfriend, who always looks like he’s just wandered off the L train, stops by the restaurant once in a while but never stays for long.
I look over at Emily. She’s singing “La Isla Bonita” totally out of tune, swaying her belly from side to side, laughing at herself, sipping ginger ale. I’ve already put her through so much; being forced to stay sober tonight seems an unnecessary additional punishment.
As the night wears on, the singing gets louder and bolder, the performances more grandiose. Luke, the resident coke addict, stands on a table to belt out “Satisfaction” and Jacob, a genuinely talented songwriter, makes up new, clever lyrics to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” and we all laugh.
The drunker I get, the more peculiar I feel, like a scrim is separating me from the group. They’re singing and laughing like they always did, like we always do, and I left a door unlocked.
It could have been any one of us, every other manager assures me, shaking their heads, no one locks that door anymore. Are they just saying this? Do they actually believe it? Are they walking around picturing the robber putting the barrel of his gun on Emily’s swollen stomach?
Deep into the evening, Rayne pulls a flask of whiskey out of her bag and starts sliding it down the back of my jeans and reaching her fingers up my spine. We get up to sing together, with the whiskey. Others join in. It’s “Rocket Man,” good old reliable Elton John. When we’re done, she pulls me out of the room and into one of the stalls in the women’s bathroom. I’m drunk enough that I no longer care about much — not about the money, about a teenager with a gun, about what everyone thinks of me and my mistake, not even about Emily and her baby. I feel oddly loose and free, uncaring, floating outside myself.
In two months, I will quit the restaurant.
We will never figure out what happened to the rest of the money, though rumors will fly — It was Tom; good for him for stealing it, why else would he have missed the whole thing? He was hiding out and waiting to pounce on the cash. Or: Abby and Emily were clearly out of their minds, obviously the robber took it all. Later — years later — I will become obsessed with locks. It’s no surprise, of course, but the effects take ages to sink in, so much so that it takes me a long, long time to connect the dots. The night after the robbery I walked home in the dark, as usual, with headphones covering my ears, not feeling afraid, probably still in shock, but at least unafraid in my shock.
This is the only way to live in New York, isn’t it? To believe you are safe? Ignore the wild-eyed person walking into the subway car/deli/bar/elevator. Become immune to any passing oddness, anything that seems slightly off.
Now, more than a dozen years later, I am forever convinced I have forgotten to lock the door to my apartment, to my car, that I have left the stove on, the faucet on. That something has gone wrong and it is always, always my fault. I will be dipping into sleep and feel a frantic need to check the car, four flights below, a car I have always, but always, locked. I will be flying across the country and unable to let it go: Did I leave the stove on? Did I turn it off before we left? Did I really? I picture my entire apartment building burning down, all my neighbors dying because of my oversight.
I think of the way I moved through it, the way others pushed me through, my own mother saying, “You’re a real New Yorker now!” As if being robbed were no big deal, a hurdle every New Yorker leaps over, everyone forgetting that a simple twist of a lock could have prevented it all. How desperately I wanted to believe them. How much I didn’t want my life to change; how I didn’t want this to be what changed me; how, for years, I didn’t think it had.
But of course it already had changed me. A few weeks later, I got injured in dance class. Years later, I stopped dancing. I left New York, got married, became a mom, always obsessing about whether I had left something unlocked, something burning, my sense of safety forever in question.
But back then, in the bar bathroom, I leave myself in Rayne’s hands. Fear, guilt, regret; past mistakes, future failures: I lose them all to the sensation of her body near mine. I let her kiss me. Soon my jeans are unzipped and her tongue is tracing the length of my belly, the arch of my hip bone, and is reaching down between my legs. I put my hands on the wall for balance. It’s sticky and red and covered in graffiti. In the stall beside us, two coworkers fuck quietly against the wall that separates us.
* * *
Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Cut, Marie Claire, O: The Oprah Magazine, Guernica, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.
Editor: Sari Botton