SOAPBOX: Small talk

By Deborah H. Sussman
Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2022 - 11:23am
Updated: Wednesday, September 28, 2022 - 11:34am

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On KJZZ's SOAPBOX, The Show turns over the the mic to listeners. For the fall 2022, writers tackled the theme SORRY.

Deborah Sussman
Deborah Sussman
Deborah Sussman at age 21.

It has to have been a Monday night, because it was slow enough for the man to start talking to me. Thursdays and Fridays at the club were always madness, only time to take a customer’s shouted order from the crush of bodies pressed against the railing, push the drink across the bar, slam their money in the till, then NEXT.

But Monday was Jazz night. Paul the DJ showed up in a sharp suit, with his hair slicked back, and spun old records that sounded fresh: Miles, Art Blakey, Weather Report, Dinah Washington. I was 21, and it was my first real exposure to a rich history I had to come thousands of miles from home, to this night club in London, to fully appreciate.

I was American, but I didn’t look like an American, at least according to most of the Brits at the club who hit on me. Hair too dark, skin too pale, nose too ... exotic. Wasn’t I Italian, they asked? French? Nope. American. And Jewish, but I didn’t say that part. Let them revise their version of what an American was. The club patrons loved American stuff — in theory. The young men, in their new Levis, ordered Boodveisers. I didn’t have the heart, or the time, to correct them. And anyway, this was London’s version of American cool — who was I to disagree?

The man at the bar was on the shorter side, and about twice my age. He was wearing unfashionable slacks and a button-down shirt, and he was out of place among the other customers in the dimly lit, low-ceilinged room behind him. I took his order, and then, because whatever Paul the DJ was spinning wasn’t loud enough to render conversation impossible, I listened to the man make small talk while I made his drink. I was probably feigning interest, because that was how you got tips, if you were lucky enough to get any. But I wasn’t really focused on what the man was saying — until he started complaining about doing business with Alan, the manager of the club, who was also my boss’s boss. He said something about Alan being tightfisted and about Alan being Jewish. He said it like the two things were connected and like I’d know what he was talking about.

Alan was not Jewish, in fact, although he was pretty tightfisted. But before I could think that thought through, something happened.

I know I was putting the man’s drink on the bar in front of him at the time, and I know that my hand — slipped? Or the drink slipped? I just know that there was a little snap in my brain and then the drink was all over the bar between us and down the man’s front. It was an accident that wasn’t an accident but wasn’t intentional, either, because if I’d stopped to think about spilling a drink on a customer, I wouldn’t have done it.

I remember the man’s shocked face, probably because the drink was wet and cold. I remember turning away quickly to get a rag to wipe the bar.

I remember not feeling sorry.

Deborah H. Sussman is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Tempe, Arizona.

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