A Cup of Joe

Originally published in F Magazine, Issue 8, this story is also part of the memoir manuscript I’ve been crafting into (hopefully) publishable form for the past several years.

“Hey Lance, we got a dead rat. Where’d you put the dustpan?” It hurt me to realize how blasé I could be while saying those words.

Joe’s shiny bald head popped out of the box office. I hadn’t even realized he was coming in to work today. “Rat?” he boomed, a gap-toothed grin spreading over his mug. “In a trap or just dead?”

“Uh… just dead. In the aisle.” I didn’t really want to know where this was going.

“Fan-fuckin’-tastic!”

Lance handed me the broom and dustpan with a better-you-than-me expression as Joe steamed past me into the main theater. It always took my eyes a couple of seconds to adjust to the hazy dusk of the big auditorium, but Joe drew a bead on his quarry instantly. The deceased party lay sprawled in the middle of the aisle between the first few rows of seats, as if the rat had decided that if he was going to die, he may as well do it as publicly as possible. Joe hustled down the aisle, kneeling down when he reached the body. It was a small one, maybe six inches. It lay on its side, paws curled under in some kind of defense mechanism. The mouth gaped open slightly, exposing a pair of long yellow tusks. The hairless tail curled away at an odd angle, forming a macabre question mark against the stained burgundy carpeting. Unpleasant as the rats were in life, this unmistakably dead thing looked even worse.

For a moment I thought Joe was going to scoop the wretched body up with his hands, but instead he just giggled, “Have a nice dinner, ya dirty motherfucker?” then turned to face me. “See, the traps haven’t been working. We get a couple every week, but you have any idea how many of these little fuckers come in here every day? Especially this close to the river?”

He stood again, rolling his head around with an audible crackle. “Dirty fuckers come up through the toilets. Don’t ya, buddy?” He nudged the rat with his sneaker. I looked away, gripping the broom and dustpan impotently. “So last week I took all the leftover hot dogs we had, injected ‘em with rat poison. Then I cut ‘em up and left little chunks all over the theater. And it looks like this little fella,” he kicked the carcass a little harder this time, “bit into more than he bargained for!”

My etiquette books hadn’t covered what say to a grown man gloating over a dead rodent, so I just asked the primary question on my mind. “So… that means we’re going to be finding dead rats all over the theater?”

“I sure as hell hope so!” he beamed, then cocked his foot back and gave the rat a hard boot, sending the stiff body arching up into the air, tumbling end over end, the half-stiff tail flopping about lazily. The body landed with a clatter in a third row seat. Joe admired his kick, then turned to me, grim victory written in every crease of his tough-guy visage. He reached for the broom and dustpan. “Here, give me those. I’ll take care of this little fucker myself.”

For Joe, killing the rats was a kind of redemption. A way of telling himself, “I may have bottomed out in my career, my art and my personal life, but I will not, by God, be made a fool of by sewer-dwelling vermin.” It was hard for me to begrudge the man that, because really, what else did he have? Joe was a brute, and brute force was his preferred course of action.

In his way, Joe was a textbook New Orleanian, a beefed-up embodiment of the aimless bohemian exiles who simply couldn’t make a go of it anywhere but in this incomparable town. A full-blooded Italian formerly hailing from Brooklyn and Philadelphia, he’d made his way to the Crescent City a few years previous, his fireplug frame and propensity for violence landing him bouncing gigs at a couple of Bourbon Street’s less reputable nightspots. He never explained to me exactly how he came to be head manager of the Deep South’s most notorious ghetto theater, but it didn’t take me long to learn that no road ending at the Downtown Joy was a happy road.

My first night on the job, Joe greeted me in the lobby, his magenta dress shirt and baby blue tie making him look like a second-rate prizefighter on his way to an arraignment hearing. It was a Friday night, and the lobby was abuzz with teenage hormones. Boys in baggy jeans and Fat Albert gear huddled around girls in Bebe tops and ass-hugging denim. Middle schoolers jostled each other for position in front of the “Alien vs. Predator” video console. Behind me a pretty boy in corn rows burst into song, crooning an off-key rendition of some Brian McKnight slow jam, making a knot of girls erupt into a high-pitched squeal of laughter. If any of them were here to watch a movie, you certainly could have fooled me. It didn’t take me more than two seconds to realize that I was the lone caucasian in the building. Except, of course, for the energetic mauler pumping my hand.

“Hey, good to meet ya!” Brooklyn was still thick in Joe’s voice. “So you’ve managed people before, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I managed a few people at my last job,” I half-lied.

“Well, ya ever manage total fuck-ups before?”

Thus was I welcomed to the first stage of my post-collegiate career.

In hindsight, I should have had my suspicions about the Downtown Joy from the first phone call, when Joe referred to my heavily padded but still frightfully skimpy résumé as “very impressive.” But then again, empty flattery has always been the surest route to my heart.

I think what impressed Joe more than any of my dubious managerial potential was the prospect of having another artistic type on the premises. The other manager, Mike, was a sad, spineless guy in his late fifties, just ticking off the hours until his social security kicked in. The employees were almost all residents of the nearby Iberville housing projects, high schoolers, community college students and middle-aged mothers, all happy to have landed even this miserable, minimum wage job in the crushing New Orleans economic climate. Good, fine people, but not, in Joe’s mind, appreciators of the finer things in life. Not people like him, and, apparently, me.

Despite his pugilistic exterior and rat-stalking tendencies, Joe considered himself an artist first and foremost, a musician/cartoonist/actor/filmmaker constantly hovering just on the edge of his big break. It was hard to know just how much of the legend to believe. He proudly spoke of playing a soldier in an ambitious stage adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” although he dismissed the poem itself as unreadable bullshit, himself preferring the likes of Bukowski. He allegedly spent his weekends on what he termed “guerilla filmmaking,” shooting a digital splatter flick about a homicidal ice cream man (played by Joe, of course). Most noteworthy – and suspicious – was his claim to have been a founding member of Gwar, the seminal shock rock band better known for wearing six-foot phalluses and dousing their live audiences with synthetic body fluids than for any musical accomplishments. Joe spoke wistfully of how he quit the band for the sake of a girlfriend just before they hit it big. “A year later, I’m sittin’ in Philly in my shithole apartment, watchin’ my friends on the Joan Rivers show, and I’m just lookin’ at this girl, thinkin’ ‘you fuckin’ bitch.’”

If half of Joe’s supposed artistic exploits were genuine, I would have been impressed, save for one thing – no matter how you cut it, he and I were both making our living at the Downtown Joy theater. Facts don’t come much colder or harder than that. Some men would deal with a kidney punch of reality like that by hitting either the bottle, the girlfriend or the pavement. Joe dealt with it by poisoning sewer rats with hot dogs. All I can say is, I’ve seen worse coping mechanisms in my time.

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