It was after you slurred those filthy songs with a sweet voice, eyes rolling up to the colored gels covering the lights, thinking, “FUCK! They can make me beautiful,” that I decided I couldn’t look at you anymore,

The first time I met Tricky, she told me to pour her a double, baby, and so I did. On a good day she drank Stoli and soda, heavy on the Stoli, light on the soda, in a glass. On a not so good day she did away with the glass and drank straight out of the bottle. I had never seen thirst like hers.

She worked in the club’s office upstairs, answering phones all day in a voice clouded by cigarette smoke and dripping with honey, but she wished she could get her bartending gig back. There was a day last summer when I had to go to work, despite feeling like an emotional wreck. As I opened the door to the office and walked inside, Tricky took one look at me and asked me what was wrong. I broke down in tears and words and expressed that I had just left my boyfriend. I typically detest showing any vulnerability, especially at work, but at this point in my life my closest friends were either living elsewhere or just not around that weekend. I have a lot of “friends,” but only a few people that I really confide in. “Oh, boo, it gets easier, but for some of us, the ache never goes away,” she said, tears in her eyes. Her boyfriend had left her several months before, and it sure didn’t seem like it was any easier for her. She hugged me. I hadn’t hugged anyone in months. It felt good.

a frail six-foot tall child who chooses to sleep on tattered, burnt velvet couches in the humid basement, not even caring that rats bite your ripped knees and floured skin falls from your tiny finch-like bones.

Tricky was larger than life, an exaggerated woman, a singer prone to maudlin expression and verse, a bombastic designer with decorations not for the faint of heart. She painted murals in the club with vague images of herself all gussied up like a Storyville whore. She told me that she was going to take her panache for flower arrangements and start her own business. She told me that she could get us front row tickets to Madonna. She told me that a world famous photographer was going to do a photo shoot of her at the club, which is why she showed up to work one day in perfect make up and hair like Veronica Lake. But the world famous photographer never showed.

Or you sit, a defeated ghost of your former self, haunting the corner of my bar.

And then she lost her job at the club. I had a regular who was the head chef and manager of a party boat in Manhattan. He sought my help in hiring suggestions. I recommended Tricky. Chef Ted called me after her interview and thanked me for sending her in and that she was hired. “I told him that he had to wear a shirt and tie, you know, be a boy if he wants to work on this boat, because customers aren’t going to appreciate his other look. I don’t mind of course. But he can’t scare people here.” He nervously laughed when I didn’t.

You make a brutal gesture to me, pour you another, your mother is dying, you miss your boyfriend, you lost your job, you make no money at your new job, you are being evicted, you are disappearing. I do pour you another, but at the same time, I think about how I want to rip your hair out, strand by strand, with my teeth.

I felt guilty for enabling her habit, but sometimes I felt like it would just go away on its own. I know that sounds insane. I didn’t want to face reality, either, I suppose. Whenever I saw her, she knew what to expect, an attentive bartender, a drinking buddy, a shoulder to cry on…how could I deny her that? I suck at tough love and never had to do an intervention either, despite having a fair number of addicts amongst my friends. Sometimes I feel guilty for being able to handle my alcohol, being able to know when I need to stop drinking. I am a heavy drinker, but I am undeniably a responsible one. I don’t drink on the job. I don’t ever drink and drive. I don’t drink during the day, save for the occasional bloody Mary at brunch. I love booze, but I also know there is a right time and place for it.

When you aren’t looking, I take the stolen bottles, greasy from your grab, out of that bag you told me to hold for you. I noticed the plastic seals now slack and ripped back from fat glass necks because you were like an eager child unwrapping presents on Christmas.

I adore this photo because it reminds me of Tricky at her finest. Despite the spur of the moment pose, despite the shitty camera phone and the not famous photographer, she treated it like it was crucial. I will always look at it and remember her with love. That night there was an upcoming big event at the club and she had been decorating the basement bar area to look like the secret cave of a teenaged princess. She had hung pink and red chandeliers, arranged giant bouquets of stargazer lilies in glass vases tinted fuschia, making the dank basement where she slept smell divine. She put glitter everywhere that could take it.

I want to spit on you. I want to hug you, your heart is as huge as a magnum. I pour you another. And this, I vow, this will be the last one, ever.

“Joi, I hear you’re moving! Where ya going?”

“Kansas.”

Kansas?!” they would shriek. “Why are you moving to Kansas?!” As if I had said, “Siberia,” or “New Jersey.” Why, even banshees cry, Kansas, don’t they?

I’d have to go through some variation of the above several times a night in the months prior to leaving New York City. Most often, this would be shouted across a bar. Typically this would be one of the two bars I was tending at the time, but it just as easily could have happened when I was on the other side of the bar, already halfway done with my Hendricks martini, or Hendricks Collins, or hell, Hendricks and tonic if I knew the bartender was inept at making a 2- or 3- step cocktail. I had developed quite the Hendricks habit once I started my drinking-for-free career in New York. It’s inevitable once you are a bartender. Ok, not the Hendricks habit per se, but definitely a top shelf habit.

Sometimes I stuck to Chianti.

I have a penchant for good Italian wines. Actually, I also have a penchant for cheap Italian wines, if it’s on my dime. I truly believe you can’t ever go too wrong with an Italian red (I rarely drink anything other than red wine, so I can’t vouch for the whites). My golden rule for wines: You can always trust the Italians. The French, not so much. And forget the Australians with their far too sweet Shiraz nonsense. California can suck it, for the most part.

You might want to trust my opinion, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you either, as I know I can be bombastically opinionated. I’m not just a drinker with refined tastes. I’m not just a bartender either (no worries. I will not refer to myself as “mixologist.”) I’m all that and more! I owned a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for 4 years and managed or worked in several others after that. This was to supplement my main source of income (a career in social services is my chosen profession, but it’s not exactly going to let you lead a comfortable existence in a city as expensive as New York).

“What the hell is in Kansas?” they’d persist.

Bar customers are a demanding lot and I’ve come in contact with all kinds. I had a remarkable stint at a downtown strip club. I actually worked in the clothed portion of the club, a room with a separate entrance above the strip club itself, where they had a decent sized performance space for bands, etc. By “etc” I mean burlesque shows, comedy nights, porn parties. “Anything goes,” I was told. The catch was, I had to be the “anything goes” booker 6 nights per week. A big part of the job was dealing with my oh so charming Ukranian boss (the venerable owner of the strip club and unintentional downtown celebrity) who annoyingly reeked of salami. He didn’t speak to many of the girls who worked for him. In fact, he usually just referred to his female employees as “The Girl.” He called me by my name from day one, I’ll have you know. On better days he was prone to utter such bon mots as, “I am not a lawyer…but I am very…legal,” and during less jovial moods would sit upstairs in his office glaring at the security cameras to make sure none of the other bartenders were pouring too much, or heaven forbid, stealing (“I once caught a girl stealing from me. I fired her but gave her one more chance. I caught her again. Very bad things will happen to her.”)

I thought I had seen it all after working some pretty crazy nights in my own bar, but working above a 35-year-old Manhattan strip club attracted a whole different end of the spectrum. There was the night I was serving Kurt Russell on one end of the bar, and Moby on the other. They were attending someone’s engagement party. Kurt was very effusive when it came to complimenting the ladies present, including me. At one point he asked me, “Why are you so goddamned beautiful?” and then opened his wallet and splayed out all his cash on the bar. “Take it. Take it all!” he insisted as I rolled my eyes and ignored him. I mean, I’m no Goldie digger. I had a giant little girl crush on him in Junior High. He suddenly seemed so greasy and awful in that moment of indiscriminate generosity. Ok, in retrospect, he was kind of cool. Moby was just quiet and in a raucous environment such as this, it was unsettling. He also complained to the DJ that he needed to play something more dancy. It should be mentioned that my friend was playing 80s pop music. Kids in America, for fuck’s sake. And everyone except Moby was into it! So, deal with it, Mr Grouchy pants who only tips $1 a drink despite having sold all of his songs to various commercials, thereby making him a a billionaire. Yeah, fuck Moby. Not that I’d want to, I assure you. Kurt Russell, maybe. Moby sure as hell wasn’t telling me I was beautiful.

“But, how can you leave this? What are you gonna do in Kansas?”

After leaving the strip club, I got a job as a booker/bartender/Assistant Manager at a world famous drag queen/tranny club/restaurant in the East Village. Here, I was mistaken for a tranny almost every day of my workweek, usually by hopeful “tranny chasers.” In theory, I wouldn’t mind this. In fact, I’d take it as a huge compliment because, hello, have you seen these girls work platforms or stilettos? I sure as hell couldn’t do more than hobble down the rickety staircase to the bathroom in my sensible 5 inch Nanette Lepore sandals. They apply make-up better than any born female I know and they have bodies that would tempt Hugh Heffner out of his smoking jacket. So, go ahead, think I’m a tranny. This wasn’t the problem. The problem was the way these men would assume that I didn’t deserve respect because I was a tranny. And that, I’m sorry, is disgusting. Basic human decency seemed to be a lost art these days in a place such as this. I miss working there, despite the often rude clientele. Sometimes I miss the girls I worked with more than I miss my mom, although, I’ve never had a dysfunctional relationship with a job as much as I did at…Fortunate Chinaman’s. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it. I’d go in on my nights off. That’s typically a no-no in The Unofficial Bartender’s Guide To a Healthy Lifestyle, but when drinks are free and you are surrounded by your friends, why would you go elsewhere?

But, they don’t have Hendricks. Or, a decent Italian red.

Nor did the other place I worked one night a week in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 4 months preceding my move to Kansas. I will plug this bar here, because it is, for the most part, drama free, as far as I’m concerned. Of course you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar or restaurant that is drama free. Hell, I daresay you’d be hard pressed to find any workplace to be drama free! Anyway, I worked at Park Slope’s only full time metal/punk/goth bar every Thursday night, Lucky 13 Saloon and this was my favorite, and easiest experience working as a bartender.

I digress. You probably will notice that I do that an awful lot. This isn’t about Hendricks. This isn’t about Italian reds, either. This is barely scratching the surface of my New York City bar experiences and that is all beside the point. And I’m still not answering the question of “Why, Kansas,” am I?

“You can always come back,” they’d assure me. “New York will always be there to come back to.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hope so. No, I know this is true. I lived through 9/11 (ahhh, no worries, no gratuitous 9/11 stuff here for at least another 3 weeks). If 9/11 could happen and New York could still survive, well, I think it “will always be there.” New York. It’s in my blood. Of course it will always have to be there as long as I’m alive.

Still, how to deal with the ache of missing it. At any point, some tiny memory will hit me. I’ll miss the rumble of trains on the elevated tracks overhead while sucking the dregs of a white fluted paper Italian ice cup in Ozone Park, Queens. I’ll think of my grandfather shuffling along with his beloved old mutt alongside of me on this day and think of how I’d scream as loud as I could to compete with the squeal of the trains. My grandfather is gone. So is most of what I loved about many neighborhoods. Yet, I still get mad when people say “New York isn’t what it used to be.” Can’t you say the same of Rome, Italy? Give New York a break, haters. I love New York. I will always love New York. I’ve traveled the world and I have traveled this country. There is NO place like New York. I grew up privileged and I don’t mean in a material sense.

In fact, I’ve always loved my city. My earliest memory is being in the backseat of my parents’ car. I could have only been 2 years old, as my brother was not yet born. I recall being enthralled with the tall buildings surrounding me. I recall lying down on the floor their car, the hump hurting my back, to try and see the tops of the buildings. As I did this, I remember the commercial playing on the radio. “More Park’s sausages, mom, please?” And I just had a feeling of love swelling up in me for this moment, for these buildings that became the night sky for me. Even for the kid’s whiny voice in the stupid commercial.

I had lived my entire life in New York and traveled to Europe, Africa and Central America. In this country, I’d been up and down the East Coast, to California, Nevada and Louisiana, but I had never been to the Midwest before last September. I admit it. How limited, a life without even a brief fling with the Heartland, and now I fucking live here.

Why, Kansas?

It’s crazy. I do love it here. Part of me always wanted to live in a big old house with a porch, which seems simple enough to anyone who doesn’t live in a big city. I adore my summer nights spent writing or reading to the relentless sound of cicadas outside where it is pitch dark and I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. Hard to think not too long ago, summer nights were spent walking home from work over the Williamsburg Bridge with Jeremy, drinking from a concealed bottle of Montepulciano and admiring the Domino sugar factory sign still lit up, not to mention the half-darkened Manhattan skyline seemingly looming right on top of it. Standing at the edge of the bridge, I vowed that I could swim the East River home on such nights, although I knew the strong current made it next to impossible to swim from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The distance appears to be much shorter than it actually is. New York is chock full of illusions, and many people become disillusioned living here, but that person would never be me. I still sob for such nights.

“So why are you moving to Kansas?!” they would all but demand after I’d ignore them for a while, or try and change the subject. But sometimes when I was feeling more generous, I’d answer.

“For love. I am doing it for love.”

This, the best of them usually accepted.

This past February, at this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, many of the overheard conversations did not involve the usual topics—Where’s the best place in the city to score a discount bottle of Booker’s bourbon?Do you know anyone who brought a bag of weed?Let’s get drunk/stoned, sit in a circle in someone’s hotel room and read some poetry/fiction/creative nonfiction, then seduce our former Russian Lit/Forms/Creative Writing Pedagogy professor.