Coney and Wings
In those early years of Bob's Flint existence, our social pattern was much the same as it was in graduate school. We'd start with cocktails somewhere atmospheric and trendy, then move on to dinner somewhere authentic and loud; we'd follow that up with heavy drinking until closing time somewhere crowded and smoky, and we'd follow that up with what was by that time an absolutely necessary stop-and-scarf at a Coney.
Why necessary? Partly because we believed the drunkard's mythology--eating a carbo-protein load after massive quantities of alcohol staves off a hangover (it doesn't, really); partly because there isn't anything else open that late and we were never quite ready to go home, never quite ready to end the conversation, to stop the literal or figurative dancing, to finish the night. God, the energy we had back then; it exhausts me just to think about it!
We made 3:00 a.m. visits to too many Coneys to count, but the one I remember most was to Angelos. It had been a long night. I won't speak for Bob, but I know I could neither see nor walk straight. I probably couldn't think straight, either, but that never seems to stop the conversation, does it? My stomach felt something like a Tilt-a-Whirl at a county fair, and I was pretty sure a ham and cheese omelette was the one thing that could help. With hash-browns. Crispy hash-browns. And toast. Maybe extra toast--more carbs can't hurt. And a large glass of ice cold milk. Yeah, milk...that's like throwing bricks in the Grand Canyon...
(A food note: at 3:00 a.m., the quality of the food doesn't much matter. It's all about the quantity and the temperature. Lots and hot. Greasy doesn't hurt either.)
But this story isn't really about the food; it's about our fellow diners that early morning, and one in particular. It was a kid. A little girl, maybe six years old. What on earth a child of that age was doing in that grimy diner at that hour, I'll never know (and for years Bob and I actually wondered if we'd hallucinated it, but since we can both remember so many of exactly the same details, we've concluded that we did not), but there she was--and here comes the truly impossible part: she was wearing bright pink tights, a pale, sea-foam green tutu, a white shirt with a fake fur collar and cuffs, and on her back were a pair of iridescent silver wings. Not painted on the shirt or something: real wings. Well, not real-real, like she was a bird or an angel or something, but actual three-dimensional wings. They were no doubt left-over from a Halloween or Christmas pageant costume, and sure, little kids will wear any crazy thing they can put together if you let them--but that outfit, on a girl of that age, in a 3:00 a.m. Coney? It was crazy! It was impossible!
It was just plain wrong!
And it was just plain magic. It was as if she was a gift or a portent--a reminder and a caution to stay young and to hold fast to dreams and to ever indulge the imagination. She was a living, dancing (and she did--she danced all over that diner!), impossible dervish that brought our night of debauchery to some kind of poignancy, and hope.
And then she was gone.
And nothing remained but the wings. A sad, limp set of wings, that, without the girl, looked shabby and cheap and as if they could portend nothing but poverty and shame and desperation. Just lying there, underneath a counter stool, on a dirty floor.
And so we took them. It was wrong to do so, but impossible not to. Maybe they held some magic after all; maybe they were left by one person just so another person could find them, put them on, and... But, no. We did not fly home, but only weaved and skidded, like all drunks do. And in the morning, the wings were just a sad, lank relic of our bright and weird night.
As I write this, I am forced to acknowledge that even though I am about 1,000 miles closer to Flint now, I still only get to visit once a year. This makes me unhappy. What makes me unhappier still is that we almost never go to a Coney anymore, and if we do, our trip is of the Sunday morning variety, not the 3:00 a.m variety. I know, I know: we just don't party like that anymore, and while our livers and brains and waistlines are probably the better for it, I wonder if our sense of wonder and joy, our ability to let loose, to put the world down, our desire to live in a kind of magical realism are the worse for it. The memory of the little girl with the wings reminds me that we have to put ourselves in the position to experience wonder to receive joy, to put the world down. We have to create or make or actively seek that places and spaces where those things can happen to us.
And, OK, maybe it doesn't have to be at 3:00 a.m...but 3:00 a.m. is a seam-time: not night, not day, an in-between time when things can happen...and Coneys? Well, one credo of magical realism is "lo magico es lo real:" the magical is the real--and it doesn't get any more real than a Coney.