a slacker romance

by Kevin Rush

Emmett R. Dorsey emerged from the brownstone and planted his feet on the grey slate stoop with a renewed sense of determination. He wore the maroon double-knit tracksuit he’d bought back in the early days of his Sopranos infatuation. Those were the days! Newly liberated from a soul-sucking job, he’d charted his own course. Now, after a long time at sea, having endured countless setbacks, he’d finally found his harbor. Emmett descended a couple of stairs and stretched his stiff legs. Then, stepping gingerly from a slight cramp in his right arch, he opened the wrought-iron gate and gazed down Hudson Street. Yes, Emmett thought, as he pushed onto his toes and began jogging south, Hoboken, New Jersey, was the right town at the right moment. It was the birthplace of baseball, of Sinatra and of Emmett R. Dorsey. Emmett took pride in having been spawned in the same tidal pool as America’s most enduring pastime and her most enduring entertainer. As he pulled up — only slightly winded — at the corner, Emmett reflected on his own endurance.

As a kid in this neighborhood, Emmett had played stickball with sawed of broom handles and Spaulding super pinkies. He’d played stoopball and box ball. He remembered the older kids holding onto his legs and lowering him into the sewer to retrieve an errant pinkie. Typhoid, diphtheria, they never gave it a thought. All that mattered was that the game would go on. The neighborhood had meant something then: the stoops were always full, alive with chatter and activity. Today, oh, there was plenty of foot-traffic, as people left their flats to stroll, bike or jog down by the waterfront, but nobody ever just hung out. Things had changed, starting with when the yuppies came.

Emmett recalled the first time he saw a BMW sedan parked on Hudson Street. It looked innocent enough. But when a popped up super pinkie quite harmlessly bounced of its windshield, an alarm blared as though Red China had invaded. And even though it only took one click to silence that monster, the yuppie owner insisted on making a huge stink about it, then and whenever he had to leave his flat, clicker in hand, to restore the peace. That was when the neighborhood started to die. There was no more stickball, football or street hockey. Hudson Street belonged to the cars. Yuppie cars. Little by little, the yuppies drove the families out. By the time he’d enrolled in college, Emmett was the only minor living on the three block stretch of Hudson Street he called his neighborhood.

Emmett grew to hate yuppies the way cats hate dogs, Al Capone hated Eliot Ness, and Hollywood hates America. Then one day, he woke up to discover, he’d become one himself. This cruel epiphany came as he and some college friends, now making their bones on the trading floors of Wall Street, were wandering away from a drunken debauch at several Washington Street pubs. He watched his Wall Street buddy unzip his fly and take a whiz on a neighbor’s stoop.

He didn’t need Mrs. Alonzo leaning out the window and yelling, “Emmett Dorsey, I’m calling your mother!” to alert him to the fact that he’d gone down a sordid path.

Fortunately, fate intervened. Later that spring, out of the blue, his employer had offered Emmett a golden parachute, so Emmett pulled the ripcord and jumped. But although his severance had granted Emmett sudden emancipation, it had also cut him off from his peers. Emmett flailed, a victim of gravity and its ever-changing whims. Oh, yes, he’d show up at his favorite watering holes for Happy Hour, but the feeling just wasn’t the same. When every day was Saturday, Friday had no meaning.

It was then that Emmett met Rauf. Rauf had come from India with his family, who’d opened a restaurant on Washington Street. He’d slaved as a waiter there for two years, but figured he’d make better money at one of the upscale places, so despite his loyalty to his parents and their threatening to send Shiva after his skull, Rauf had basically told them to bug off. Emmett admired that audacity, given that he still shared the brownstone he grew up in with his own meddlesome parents. To Emmett, Rauf seemed to be the most ambitious American immigrant since Tony Monero. Rauf was the fuse Emmett needed to ignite his entrepreneurial genius.

They’d meet every night after Rauf’s shift, grab some caffeine at the Coffee Stop next to the Copy Shop and stay up most of the night, strategizing, searching for the startup project that would take the country by storm. Late one July night, sitting on a bench in Sinatra Park overlooking the Hudson River, Rauf had an idea.

“Who would ride a train under the river, when they can jet ski across?”

“No one,” Emmett declared. “Only wussies.”

It took several months to raise the capital to put the plan into motion, and in retrospect, February had been the wrong time to launch the Hudson River Jet Ski Ferry. But that project, which a pessimist might call a failure, was a steppingstone to the next.

“Dude, we’ve got to stay on dry land,” Rauf insisted. And Emmett knew just the thing.

“You know what’s hot now? Literally?” he asked. “Global warming.”

“Literally, it’s warm,” Rauf nodded. “But, in a global sense.”

“Which makes it hot, hot, hot!” Emmett explained, “Everyone’s looking for ways to act locally and think globally. So how ‘bout this: you know how there are yellow cabs? We should start a green cab.”

The logistics were simple. They’d buy two used Mercedes E-Class diesel sedans, paint them up sharp and retro fit them to run on cooking oil. The oil itself they could get free from local restaurants that were currently paying to dispose of it. Win-win! They’d just filter out the junk and have free fuel. What could go wrong?

Well, there were some issues. Apparently taxis need some special license and you can’t just go in and apply for it. You have to wait for about eighty guys ahead of you to die, or buy one of them out for around half a million dollars. So, they decided to sell their idea to an existing cab company. The afternoon of their demo run, Rauf stopped at The Happy Wok and got several gallons of used oil. All was going well as they drove the manager of the Hudson Cab Company through downtown Hoboken, until seven pedestrians went into anaphylactic shock.

“Peanut allergies?!” Emmett cried. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “We’re out of business because of…?”

“Yes,” Rauf nodded, skimming through the court injunction. “We’ve been Tesla-ed by a pack of nerds.”

So, the would-be moguls went back to the drawing board. Rauf studied successful businesses and briefed Emmett over java at the Coffee Stop next to the Copy Shop.

“Successful businesses offer a unique service or combine services in a unique way.”

“Combine services.” Emmett repeated it like a mantra, marveling at the possibilities.

“Yes,” Rauf continued, “you know, like massage and…”

“Acupuncture? I can’t do that.” He shivered. “Needles.”

“No. You have a pretty girl, she gives you a massage and then…” Rauf closed his eyes and smiled blissfully.

“Napping?” Emmett slapped his forehead. “Dude, that’s brilliant. The Hammock Cafe.”

Rauf cringed and took another sip of coffee. “You know why we come here?”

“Because if we drank booze instead of coffee we’d never get anything done?”

“The Coffee Stop has the best coffee. Down the block, April’s has the best desserts.”

“Oh, I love April’s cheesecake.”

“And Happy Wok has pot stickers. Charrito’s has guacamole, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” Rauf leaned across the table. “Now suppose you wanted the best of the best of Hoboken dining. What would you do?”

“Do like a progressive dinner, but that would take all night.”

“Unless the progressive dinner came to you.”

Thus began the next great project, where Rauf and Emmett set out to become the Amazon.com of Hoboken cuisine. It was simple plan: build a website aggregating every item on every menu in the restaurant district. Take the orders over the web and relay them by phone to the individual restaurants. Have the restaurants deliver the food to Emmett’s house, repackage it and deliver. Collect a ten percent surcharge. The website took three months and tens of thousands of dollars to build. The business lasted one night, when the average customer wait time was three and a half hours.

“Did not see that coming,” Emmett had groaned.

“I told you we should have got Segways and done pickup ourselves.”

Emmett couldn’t argue. When Rauf was right, he was right. Emmett promised to keep working on the “combining services” idea until something came to him. It took weeks to germinate, but one evening as they were walking along Washington Street, an idea struck him. He grabbed his friend and confidante by the shoulders and shouted, “It doesn’t have to be new or innovative, as long as it’s limitless.” Then, pausing for effect, he uttered the fateful word, “Radio.”

Rauf tossed his head dismissively and turned into the newly refurbished façade of their favorite late-night haunt. Emmett noted the new décor, that a wall had been busted out and that the café floor now extended all the way to a bank of self-serve Xerox machines. A new sign hung over the conjoined businesses: The Copy Cup.

Emmett slapped his forehead. “That could have been us!”

But, today he harbored no regrets, because from that moment, Emmett had known that radio was the answer. Like baseball and Sinatra, radio was enduring. And with the Internet, anyone with a computer and wifi could be the next Larry King. They wouldn’t have to slave as interns at some low-rent radio station, fetching coffee for shock jocks, just to learn the business. They could dive right in and spread their creative wings.

As Emmett returned again to the wrought-iron gate, he gripped the metal pickets and stretched his calves for good measure. Yes, radio was the medium; through radio Emmett could conquer Hoboken, the home of his youth, becoming the voice of its neighborhoods…

Emmett froze as he looked up from the sidewalk to the top of the stoop. The living room windows were plastered with signs: FOR SALE.

His mouth dropped open, emitting a reflexive utterance of primordial despair, “Mommy!”

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