This is Mike and Paul. I met them a decade ago, when Oslo, the first really great coffee shop in Williamsburg, opened down on Roebling Avenue. By 9 am that joint was jumping—still is, even with the many artisanal-almond-milk-interplanetary-bean-drips that have opened in the years since. But at 7 am, we were often the only ones hunkered down over our coffees. Paul drank a latte, Mike drank a regular brew with one of those sugary cakes masquerading as a muffin, and I drank an Americano. On the days I’d woken up enough to apply lipstick before leaving the house, the men made a big show of buying my drink for me. “I love a blonde with red lips,” Paul would say with his irresistible grin. I’d bat my lashes.
Paul is a Vietnam War veteran who worked in a florist shop for 55 years down by Wall Street. Mike worked in a printing press for 50 years with, as he never fails to tell me, Martin Scorsese’s fucked-up brother. “Lise, he was so fucked up,” he always says.
It is a testament to how much I love Mikey and Paulie that I let both of them call me Lise. (Go for the extra syllable, I tell everyone else. My college nickname was “Sa.”)
Both men have lived in Williamsburg their whole lives and for sixty-odd years lived across Metropolitan Avenue from each other. Paulie is much more well-read; when he came back from the war he educated the shit out of himself to make sense of the horrors he’d experienced. Mikey is significantly less fettered by intellectual concerns. Usually he’d regale me with stories about back in the day while Paulie would correct him without looking up from his four newspapers. When he was done reading, he’d begin to speechify. I loved it.
They’re old school. They warmed to me slowly but became my fiercest advocates—told everyone to watch my NY1 show and watched it religiously themselves. “Lise, they gotta stop interrupting you,” they’d say. (I agreed.) When an ex-boyfriend socked me with a GPS (truth), it took a lot to keep Mike and Paulie from setting him straight. Mikey and Paulie know people, you see. I was glad I stopped them but also glad I had to. I didn’t grow up with anyone who looked out for me like that.
In the last few years our coffee klatsch has broken up. Paulie, who’d not seen a doctor in 57 years, in quick succession had a heart attack, discovered he was diabetic, and was in and out of the hospital with a blood infection. He’s doing okay now but has an official “Agent Orange” diagnosis. “I’m on disability, what a bum,” he says. When Mikey’s wife lost her long struggle with lung cancer, he sold his house, moved in with his kids on Long Island, got busy dating all the widows in the area. Without my Muppet critics as I called them, I started making my own coffee in the morning. I miss my friends, miss being their whippersnapper instead of an old-timer in my increasingly young neighborhood, miss their joshing and big hearts. Even when Mikey was saying the worst shit—and lord he’s of a different generation—or Paul wasn’t letting me get a word in edgewise, I just felt good around them.
This morning I woke up early because I was too hungover to sleep. After shuffling to the laundromat, I hit the coffee shop to reward myself for fortitude in the aftermath of cruel tequila. As bleary as I was, something made me slather on red lipstick before I crawled into Minerva. Sure enough, when I walked into Oslo, the boys hollered: LISE.
Paulie was out of the hospital, Mikey had driven over for the morning, and I was up and at’em, John Quincy Adams. We caught up, talked about health and hopes and this brave new world we’re suddenly occupying.
Paulie is notorious for not letting his picture be taken. He’s told hilarious stories of his first wife Camilla’s family not believing she’d married since they lived in Italy and there were no pics to prove his existence. But when I asked today, both men submitted to a photo. All three of us knew that what we’d taken for granted wasn’t here to stay.
Oh, and you know I didn’t pay for my Americano.