Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a depressing, raw, and touching novel, the latest tale of lost misfits and depraved losers from Joshua Mohr. Here we find Owen, the owner of the bar Damascus, who dresses as Santa Claus, a man with a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like a modern day Hitler. There is a man dying of cancer, No Eyebrows, who simply wants to be touched. There is Shambles, the jerk-off queen, who is willing to do just that, her marriage recently ended in divorce, haunting the late night bars with no purpose or goal in mind. There is Revv, the bartender, a tattooed drunk whose last act may be one of cowardice. And there is Syl, a controversial artist who brings a wave of doom upon the bar, stirring up trouble from war veterans by depicting dead soldiers in her painting while nailing fish to the already stagnant walls of Damascus.

A dear friend, we’ll call him Dur, and I like to go around remarking—publicly, unapologetically, unselfconsciously*—on other people’s food. It’s a requirement that these people, our targets, be complete strangers: any old Joe and/or Sally out for happy hour or Sunday brunch with the gang.

Dur: “Those people on your right: tell the woman you really like the color of her drink.”

His halfhearted attempt to conceal is amusing and befitting, his high-octane “whisper” and flagrant nod in the direction of the targeted pair—two of maybe a dozen bar patrons including our group of five—on par with the seriously sub-serious nature of what’s about to go down.

Not that they’re noticing a speck of this, it’ll soon become clear, besotted (of love, not drink) as they will appear to be. But anyway.

Such is the task set before me.

“Sure, easy. Lemme just, you know.”

I’m giggling, suddenly back in sixth grade. I feign the sucking in of one deep, brave breath. Or, I take an actual breath, but it’s not, you know, real. Leaning in a little—

“Excuse me.” I’ve plunked myself squarely in the center of a not-me conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice your drink there,” I chance, nodding toward the sugar-rimmed bullseye. “I just really like the color.”

Behind me Dur titters, singeing the edges of our puny and ridiculous façade and leaving us that much closer to seeing our unsophisticated scheme reduced to an all-out play of juvenilia. But I refuse to lose to laughter; I will him neutralized.

And—

“Yeah, it’s a pretty color, huh? I was noticing that earlier actually. Such a nice deep red.”

Her smitten partner nods enthusiastically. “Totally.”

Our eyes connect, lips form why-not smiles, and that’s that.

Well, then.

Fast-forward ten minutes. A friend of Dur’s, Angela, a woman I’ve just met for the first time, declares herself next up.

“I know—I’ll ask if I can help myself to their nut bowl.”

Angela appears quite pleased with her expressed intent, and the rest of us are happy enough to goad her along.

“Haha, good one!” “Ohh, risky business!” “Yeah, do it!”

What ringmasters Dur and I fail to point out is that the nut bowl in question is a communal nut bowl, a nuts-at-no-cost nut bowl. Peanuts for (less than) peanuts, almonds on spec, a filbert free-for-all. (Know that filberts are basically hazelnuts? But then, when was the last time hazelnuts made an appearance in your bar’s communal nut bowl? Anyway.) 

What we fail to point out is—

Who cares? Angela’s hardly going out on a limb here, preparing as she is to solicit the lovebirds for that which is by definition already hers.

At any rate, the whole operation is fairly amusing, and a not unwelcome break from more usual conversational fare: Brooklyn real estate, Prospect Park’s Frisbee culture, von Trier’s latest throw-up fest.

Angela leaves her seat at the bar, saunters over.

“Hey there. Just wondering if it’d be okay if I had a few of those nuts.”

No surprise, she’s well-received.

“By all means, help yourself,” the flushed brunette replies, quick to pass the nuts. She smiles throughout; so does he.

End of (that) story. What had started with an earnest expression of (the frustrations of) self-consciousness—“I find myself thinking about how hard it is for me to imagine doing anything ‘off,’ anything, you know, bizarre and inappropriate just for the hell of it, and it just seems so ridiculous, like kind of a shame”—had culminated in a couple of flimsy, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at challenging it. And they’d both been flimsy, of course, regardless my grandiose response to Angela’s pass.

As for why they were flimsy, there is some disparity here. Because while Angela’s solicitation was run-of-the-mill, even expected given the bar’s layout/positioning of the nuts, mine at least had the potential for more. For instance, had I insisted on a more straightforward approach, i.e., no surrounding text—simply, craning in close: “I really like the color of your drink, heh”—and if my target had been less, you know, distracted, and if I’d lacked certain physical markers suggestive of innocence, harmlessness, naiveté, maybe then I would’ve had a more solid go at it.

But it played out as it did, which is to say, it played out as it always does for Dur and me: nicely. Good-naturedly. (Drat.)

Part of it, I think, is a default tendency to maintain a sort of social homeostasis—“break the news gently”; “let down lightly”—that desire that people have to present difficult or awkward things in the most pleasant/neutral way possible. And it’s damn hard to override, including on that rare occasion when achieving and maintaining awkwardness is actually sought.

The other week Dur and I, just us two this time, were enjoying happy hour at a quiet Carroll Gardens restaurant. Dur gestures toward the only other occupied table in the place.

“Sit down with them at their table and ask how their dinner was.”

Notice a trend here? Like, that I’m always on the receiving end of these undertakings? Pssh. As if I’m ten years old again: Round Table Pizza dinner with the family, only this time in the shoes of my little brother. (“Hey Kevin, I dare you to go kick that lady in the back of the knee. Do it! I’ll give you the rest of my Cadbury eggs…”) Anyway!

Quite frankly, I’m happy to be on said end. I accept this latest proposal.

With one caveat.

“Hey you guys,” I announce myself, sliding in alongside a big-haired thirtysomething. Almost in the same breath, presumably so as to beat embarrassment: “I’m wondering, how were your meals? See, I’m a food writer [ahem, fib/caveat] and I’m putting together a review on this place,” I finish, sweeping the room with my arm.

Two of the four patrons, their friend-family appearing as five for the time being, chime in immediately.

“I had the lamb salad and it was absolutely delicious, with these olive-y croutons and fried capers.”

Speaker #1, an eager blonde woman, next takes a stab at reviewing her friend’s (lover’s? brother’s?) selection: “He had the Rhode Island scallops and it came with—”

“It was dressed in an apple cider vinaigrette that was just lovely.”

Whoops. Seems someone likes to speak for himself. Anyway.

All four diners weigh in, not one of them questioning, verbally or otherwise, my lack of a notebook and writing instrument. For my part, I channel my inner journalist, affecting an air of inquisitiveness and unyielding concentration while effectively dismissing all mental visions involving the (surely) glinty-eyed, lip-twitching Dur at my back. In other words—

FAIL. Yet again. Damn default.

It’s instructive, I think, to consider the best-case scenario here: I succeed in presenting as “inarguably creepy.” Then what?

The answer: I don’t know. I just haven’t gotten that far yet, and I don’t feel like this is one of those things that lends readily to forecasting. What I do think I know, though, is what’s at the root of these self-/Dur-assigned “challenges,” and therefore I can speculate as to the best-case outcome of the best-case scenario.

Essentially, I think it’s about defying structure: a reaction to the rigidity imposed on us—both by ourselves and by the collective—all as we seek to carve out uniquely satisfying lives. And in my particular case, it isn’t any one thing, but more like an impression: an at-times almost physical sensation of walking with walls on. (Damnit, I WILL discuss my burgeoning spirituality with you, friend with whom it’s never been easy to discuss such matters. Or—bam: wall.)

And re: best-case outcome, though observing out loud the aesthetics of another’s beverage may seem less than germane, it’s really not. Not for me. Because—and this is related—if yelling-slash-singing “You Are My Sunshine” at the top of my goddamn lungs on a packed subway platform** causes the aforementioned walls to bend and bow, even a little bit, well, I’ll drink to that.


*Right.
**Daring my boyfriend, who some time ago came to a sweet understanding of this “thing” of mine, to commit such acts has become a way of projecting my own “stuff” onto another. So like, me: “Come on, babe, if I were to offer you $200 out of hand to go sit on that person’s lap, wouldn’t you do it?” Him: “No.”