This story started with Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2.” I used to commute 70 minutes to work each way, and so I spent a lot of time on the road, listening to music, trying to piece stories together.. And, with Cohen playing one morning, I got hooked on this one line in that song: “Those were the reasons / and that was New York.” The line comes not long after the more infamous line about what went down in the “unmade bed,” but this “reasons” line stuck with me, since there are no reasons, not clear ones, anyway, to describe to the exhausted ache at the heart of that song.
Which all got me thinking about spaces I’d been in that suggested bad behavior, but were maybe just places where one could disappear. A minor Chelsea Hotel, if you will. Like I said, 70 minute commute, a lot of time for the mind to wander.
And it wandered to an establishment in Greensboro, North Carolina named Suds ‘n Duds. It was a Laundromat/bar. I’m sure it’s not the only one of these around, but when I first found it I thought it was the most fascinating and worst possible place to clean your clothes. For one, when I first moved to Greensboro, smoking was still allowed in bars. So even if you did bring your clothes to Suds ‘n Duds, they were more likely to come out smelling like Camel Wides than All Free ‘n Clear. So I tried it once in those early days, and the scent I carried around on my clothes kept me away.
But years later, after they stopped allowing smoking, I found there were worse places to pass a spring afternoon, sipping a beer and watching a ball game, while I did some laundry. The bar was small, in the back shadows, all dark wood and round high-top tables, TV in the corner, a bathroom where the walls looked like they may have been stapled up just minutes before you walked in. Thinking about that place, as I drove to work one morning, I was struck with Cohen’s “reasons.” If I put someone at that bar, what would his “reasons” be for being there?
What I first tried was something like “no reason,” or no reason we would learn. The story was purely an avoidance at first. This man, sitting with another man, telling a fake story, and avoiding the real at all costs. I really like stories about story, about the ones we tell ourselves, each other, and that’s what I wanted here. It’s seemed like something Cohen did from time to time: the voice in the song that tells one story to avoid another. In “Chelsea Hotel #2”, his line about how “that was New York” is — at least partly — a pretty sly evasion of agency.
But what works for Cohen didn’t work here. We needed some mosaic of what he was avoiding, just enough shards to see the picture. My first thought was some kind of anniversary, or commemoration of something bad from his past, and I dismissed it. Because to mark an anniversary at such a place seemed too depressing. Which was wrong headed. If this was his place of comfort, his sanctuary, the place where everyone knew his name, why wouldn’t he go there? Why couldn’t this be his shelter from that long-off but still pressing storm?
And so two men sit in a bar, one of them telling one story to avoid another, the other listening. Nearby clothes roll and tumble, cleaned, for now.