“Cheers” by Steven Rosenfeld

Stan Feldstein was having lunch alone at his desk on a bitterly cold and windy Tuesday in early January, absently perusing the New York Law Journal. It wasn’t the press of work that kept him there over the lunch hour; in all honesty, he wasn’t very busy just then. No, he was eating at his desk, as usual, because there really was no one in or near his Murray Street law office that he wanted to spend an hour gabbing with over lunch. Anyone he could think of would quickly get around to asking about his love life and would suggest another “perfect woman” to fix him up with, leading to another of those excruciating dinner dates that couldn’t be over fast enough. If he’d made any New Year’s resolution, it was to be done with that dreary game.

Stan’s lunch consisted of Snapple ice tea and a salad – one of those “create your own” from the salad bar at the take-out deli in the building lobby. It was barely edible. As he munched it, Stan suddenly remembered – odd how things like this just pop into your mind – the cocktail napkin he’d picked up at a dull New Year’s Day open house the week before.   Even if he could find nobody in the crowded room capable of an interesting conversation, at least the hostess had a sense of humor.

The bright blue napkin read:

ALCOHOL!
Because no great story ever started
with someone eating a salad….

Stan looked at the plastic fork, on which he’d speared a slice of pale pink tomato dripping too-sweet honey mustard dressing, and dropped it back into the Styrofoam container. Then he closed the lid and tossed the whole thing into the trash can under his desk. “What the hell,” he said aloud to the empty office. He got up, grabbed his coat from the closet and rushed out.

As Stan exited the building, the freezing wind blowing off the East River and across City Hall Park a block away cut into his face, like shards from an exploding pane of glass.  Turning onto Murray Street, he reached into his coat pockets for his wool-lined gloves and knit ski hat, but suddenly remembered that, yet again, he’d left them in the taxi that morning. He had meant to replace them at one of the cheap shops up on Canal Street during lunch, but then had decided not to brave the cold and get his lunch from the deli downstairs.  Now, however, he was bent on alcohol, not new gloves. It was too damn cold, especially with no hat and no gloves, to walk the five blocks uptown to the Tribecca watering hole where he sometimes stopped for a not-very happy hour martini on the way home. So he ducked into the first place he came to, a joint he’d passed many times on his way to court but never set foot in: Lilly O’Brien’s Irish Bar.

After 2 p.m. on a Tuesday in January, Lilly O’Brien’s was hardly bustling. In fact, as Stan entered the dim pub, blowing into his already-reddened hands, he could make out only a small group of men (Irish, he supposed) drinking beers at a table in the rear, and a woman sitting alone at the far end of the bar, nursing a drink and conversing with the bored-looking bartender.

As Stan’s eyes adjusted from the glare of the winter afternoon, he let them focus casually on the woman at the bar. She was hardly someone you’d expect to find drinking alone in the middle of the day. She wore chic black wool slacks, a turquoise turtleneck sweater and what Stan took to be stylish, expensive boots. Her mid-length brown hair was pulled back and tied with a black ribbon. A simple but elegant cloth coat and one of those large wool pashminas, in hot pink, were draped across the adjacent bar stool.  And she was very  attractive, even beautiful Stan thought , as  she looked up from her drink and gave him an inquisitive half-smile that Stan decided was an invitation to join her.

So he did. As he approached, she moved her coat and pashmina to the barstool on her other side and Stan sat down .

As soon as the words came out, he desperately wished he could hit “rewind.”  Too late! What Stan said (really) was this: “What’s a classy girl like you doing in a dump like this in the middle of the day?”

He expected, deserved, a sharp rebuke. But instead she laughed — so hard and suddenly that she expelled the sip of her drink she’d just taken, and dropped her glass, spilling the rest.

“Jesus!” she said. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear at two in the afternoon!” She turned to face him and flashed pretty hazel-green eyes. “ I’m  Jodie Robbins,” she added, extending a well-manicured hand. “Who might you be?”

“Stan Feldstein,” he sputtered, noticing the simple opal pinky ring on the hand she offered, and the absence of a wedding band on the other. He tried frantically to think of something cool to say.

“Well, Stan Feldstein, you owe me another drink. Ketel on the rocks. Three olives.”

He’d never met a woman who drank straight vodka — certainly not at two in the afternoon.  He ordered her another Ketel on the rocks and, rather than the glass of red wine he’d had in mind, the same for himself.

“Cheers, Feldstein,” she said when the drinks came, and took a healthy swig. “So? What brings a guy like you to a place like this at two in the afternoon?”

“Oh, I’m a criminal defense lawyer – my office is just down the block – and . . .”

“And you’re having a tough day, so you thought you’d take a break.”

“Something like that,” he muttered into his glass.

Still struggling to find something cool to say, the best he could manage was to ask, again, “so, seriously, why are you down here? You strike me as an uptown girl.”

“You’re right – I live in the east 80’s.  And seriously?  I’m down here for the rally at City Hall.”

“Rally?  What rally?”

She reached to her left and held up the hot pink pashmina, on which were pinned two large buttons. “BAN THE CARRIAGE HORSES!” cried one; “I LOVE ANIMALS – AND I VOTE,” said the other. “The rally was supposed to start at noon,” she explained, “but the City Council put off the hearing on the carriage horse bill until this afternoon, so they told us to go someplace to warm up and come back at 3 p.m. Most of them went for coffee or hot soup, but not me.” She took another swig of vodka. “This is what warms me up.”

“Am I hearing this right?” he asked.  “You’re going to stand out there in the freezing cold with a bunch of nuts yelling ‘Hey-ho, de Blasio, carriage horses have to go’ or some shit like that?”

She gave him a withering look, but that made her look even more enticing.

“You’re not really such an asshole, are you?” she asked.  “I probably should just tell you to buzz off, but since you’re buying me another vodka,” –  she motioned to the bartender for a refill – “I’ll give you a chance. Just listen, OK?”

Stan shrugged. “You have the floor,” he replied.

Her glare was replaced by an alluring smile, but just for an instant. “First,” she began, “get it out of your narrow lawyer’s skull that I’m some kind of crazy cat lady who has nothing better to do with her time. I have a serious job on Wall Street. Trading commodities, if you must know.  In fact, I’m serious about everything I do, particularly about animals. People can protect themselves most of the time, and if they can’t, they can get lawyers like you to defend them. But animals are totally helpless.”

“The people I defend have a constitutional right to counsel, for God’s sake,” Stan replied. “You’re not telling me that animals should have the same rights as people, are you?”

“Goddamn right I am,” she shot back. “Listen, animals don’t abuse people, but they’re horribly abused by people in ways I’m sure you’ve never thought about.”

“Such as?”

She took a gulp of vodka. “OK, let’s start – just START – with the carriage horses.  It’s not just that they’re forced to work long hours in all kinds of weather – bitter cold like today, 90+ degrees and humid in the summer. They have to pound hard paved streets, dodge potholes that can easily break their legs, breathe in exhaust fumes from cars and trucks – speaking of which, I’ll bet you didn’t know that dozens of carriage horses are killed or injured every year by motor vehicles.  And even when they’re not working, the stables they keep them in – don’t get me started – you can’t imagine how awful they are.”

“Look, Feldstein, I understand. It’s not a black-and-white issue. The drivers are a hard-working group, they have families to support, so you can’t just pass a bill and put them out of work willy-nilly. And, good God, there’s a lot of work to be done to find humane respite for the horses, otherwise they’d all become . . . .”  She stopped herself in mid-sentence and sipped her drink.  Stan thought he could see tears well up in her hazel-green eyes.

By now, Stan had no doubt at all that Jodie Robbins was serious. He was wondering if she had a playful side as well.

“OK, so that’s the carriage horses. But, Jesus, there’s so much more. Just last month, I went on a lobbying trip to Albany with the Humane Society. Cost me a vacation day, just like today, but it was worth it. We had to round up support in the Legislature for the bill to outlaw docking of dairy cows – do you even know what that is? Dairy farmers cut off the cows’ tails, painfully with no anesthesia, just to make it easier to get them into milking machines! It’s so cruel.”  She took another swig of vodka and went on, getting more exercised as she spoke.

“And at the same time – up in Albany? — we were trying to stop some upstate legislators from legalizing snare traps to capture and kill coyotes. OK, I get it, coyotes are becoming a problem in New York, but these traps cause animals to suffer horribly for hours or even days before the trapper returns. And they don’t just snare coyotes – they often trap dogs and cats or even endangered species like bobcats and bald eagles!”

“Do you really think those corrupt clowns in Albany give a shit about bobcats and bald eagles?” he asked.

“Who knows? But none of them would even know anything about this stuff unless groups like ours show up in their offices and demand a meeting.”

She paused for another sip.  Was she always this passionate, Stan asked himself, or was this just the vodka talking?  No, he decided, her passion was real – he could almost reach out and touch it. He wondered what else could summon her passion. Could he?

“And then there’s the food supply – like the way chickens and calves are tortured, yes, tortured, kept for their entire lives in crates so small they can’t even stand up or turn around!  Jeez, big agribusinesses — do you have all day?” She stopped and checked her watch. “Oh shit — you may have all day, but I don’t!  I gotta get back to City Hall.”

She excused herself and headed for the ladies’ room, leaving Stan to stare into his now-watery drink in silence.  She returned in minutes and reached for her coat and pashmina.

“Hey!” Her hazel-green eyes brightened and this time, the smile broadened and lasted. “Why don’t you come to the rally with me? You might learn something – and we might even have fun.” It wasn’t lost on Stan that she’d said “we.”

Stan looked down at his watch.

“Oh, come on – you’re not so goddamn busy, Mr. Lawyer Feldstein, or you wouldn’t have been sitting in a bar drinking with me for the last 45 minutes. Don’t worry about the cold — there’s room in this pashmina for two. Listen, I’ll  even get you your own ‘I LOVE ANIMALS AND I VOTE’ button.”

Stan kept looking down at his watch. But he wasn’t thinking about the time, or even the fact that he was without a hat and gloves. He considered the horrifying prospect of running into a colleague or a judge while he was wearing an “I LOVE ANIMALS” button.  But what he was really asking himself was whether he wanted to take another step with this woman he found so alluring and exciting, but who was so different from him – more fervent, unfastened, impetuous, than anyone he’d met before.  And animal rights – something he hadn’t thought about for two successive minutes in his life?  Stan remained on the barstool.

“OK, suit yourself,” she said as she put on her coat and wrapped the pashmina around her neck and shoulders, taking care that the buttons were facing outward. She reached into her coat pockets and extracted a pink knit hat and mittens.  “Well, guess I’m ready to face the cold. I’m certainly well-fortified.” She nodded at her glass on the bar. “Thanks for that anyway.” Then she picked up her glass, adding “Cheers, Stan Feldstein” as she drained it, and was gone.

Stan sat there for a long minute. Then he put three twenties on the bar, slid them toward the bartender, and left.

Out of Lilly O’Brien’s and back in the cold, Stan thrust his hands into his pockets and turned left onto Murray Street toward his office. But, as he did, he glanced over his shoulder. The hot pink pashmina was already halfway down the block and fast receding toward City Hall Park, fluttering in the wind like the flame of a candle about to go out.

“What the hell,” he said aloud for the second time that afternoon. He turned and ran down Murray Street after her. As he ran, he again remembered the blue cocktail napkin.  “Maybe this will be the start of a great story,” he thought.

There was only one way to find out.

feb-2013-1

Steven Rosenfeld is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and a retired lawyer who has been writing for over 40 years. Until recently, Steve focused on legal writing. He has written numerous briefs, articles in legal periodicals, op-ed pieces and reports. His most prominent published writing includes the public Advisory Opinions of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, which he chaired from 2002 through 2012, and, as Editorial Coordinator and Deputy General Counsel, the bulk of the 1972 Report of the N.Y. State Commission on Attica, which was nominated for a National Book Award

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