The Wit of the Staircase

Kathleen Rooney

        i was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.
                  —e. e. cummings

McSorley’s Old Ale House is the oldest Irish pub in New York City. What kind of old? They claim they opened in 1854. What kinds of ale? Two: light and dark.

E. E. Cummings called McSorley’s “snugandevil.” That was 1923. Almost eighty-five years later—January 2007—it is still both of those things. E. E. Cummings says it twice: “Inside snugandevil.”
    McSorley’s is in the East Village. You walk in with your friends, and they seat you with strangers. Snug and evil. Fun and scary. Sawdust floors and newsprint walls, of which Cummings said, “the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows swallowing revolvingly pompous.”

When we are there—Elise, Beth, and me—it is raining, not snowing: wet and disappointing, a slobbery kiss. This is because the planet is visibly warming. We can’t help remarking: Al Gore must disapprove.
    Elise lives in Brooklyn, Beth in Chicago, I in Tacoma. The Chicago Bears have just defeated the Seattle Seahawks, but nobody cares, because we are on the East Coast. The New England Patriots have just beaten the San Diego Chargers, and everyone in the bar is waving their arms and cheering at the TV, but mostly we don’t want to talk about sports.

McSorley’s was one of the last men-only taverns in the city. Its most famous slogans today are “Be Good or Be Gone” and “We were here before you were born.” Prior to 1970, they used a third slogan, “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.” Women were not permitted until then, just ten short years before my birth, when the National Organization for Women sued McSorley’s and won.
    Some men who drank here before I was born? Boss Tweed, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woody Guthrie. LeRoi Jones—before he changed his name to Amiri Baraka—Brendan Behan, and Paul Blackburn.
    Two men who are drinking here with us on this lukewarm night before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Steven and Daniel—Dan and Steve—to whose rough-hewn round table Elise and Beth and I have been boisterously ushered by the Irish barkeep, trying to keep as many patrons seated in the space as possible. Originally, we had seated ourselves separately, but another large party came in, so we got bumped and were told, “Make friends!” If I were to use French to describe the evening, the theme would be l’esprit d’escalier, the wit of the staircase, that handy term coined by Diderot the encyclopedist: the frustration of thinking of precisely the right comeback, only much too late.

At first, this is so much fun! I am good at finding funny stuff to say, moving my bright red lips, speaking interesting things. Dan and Steve both live in Manhattan. They are in their early thirties. They have been best friends since their crazy college days. Steve—swarthy, dark eyed, with swept-back black hair—works in the tech-support department for some boring and prosperous company. Dan—chiseled jaw, dimpled chin, blonde faux-hawk, and blue eyes—is a financial analyst. He works in the financial district. We nod. We see. Beth and I are sisters with a lot of free time this time of year—he is a freelance photographer, and I am a college professor—o we are visiting Elise, an artist, who lives in an illegal squat in Green Point. Elise works in the packing-and-shipping department at Christie’s.
    “We got a bubble-wrap professional in our midst," quips Steve.
    Elise smiles, shrugs her shoulders inside her purple, thrift-store sweatshirt.
    Steve is awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend. Both Dan and Steve are waiting on a call from their good friend Donkey. After that they will all go to dinner somewhere. They invite us, but we politely decline. We have other plans.
    Introductions dispensed with, we all shake hands, and then Steve says to me, “Dan and I would like to invite you to join our boy band.”
    “Oh?”I say, then notice that we three are all wearing some variation on the theme of blue jeans and short-sleeved brown shirts over long-sleeved white tops. “You got the memo about the boy-band color scheme, I see,” I say. We laugh. How innovative to ask a girl to join your boy band.
    Beth has brought her digital camera—her Nikon, the good one—pictures from the day, our stay in NYC so far, still loaded inside.
    “Take a picture of our band!” says Dan, and Beth obliges. She insured her camera last fall, in part for peace of mind under just such circumstances. She places the costly piece of equipment into Dan’s outstretched hands. The picture is great. We all look so nice.
    “Hey, you’re really good,” Dan says, and it’s true. She is. “Now take just mine.”
    She does. I appraise it.
    “You should have her do it again,” I tell him, in my faux-wise voice. “And try to do it with only the left ear showing this time.”
    “What’s wrong with my ears?” he asks.
    “It’s not just your ears—it’s everyone’s. It’s a portrait-photographer trick. People just look more attractive that way.”
    He obeys.

The head bartender at McSorley’s has wide ears, a broad face, and a huge smile that never seems to reach his eyes. He claims in a brogue that he can carry twenty-two half-pint glasses at a time in one ham-fisted hand. He keeps bringing us more and more, darks and lights, and why fight it, we figure. We completely believe him. We decide to try it. We practice with our empties. With her long, pale, artistic fingers, dexterous Elise can do eleven. I can only do nine. Dan’s hands are much bigger. He lifts nineteen. Steve is building an ill-advised half-pint pyramid. Dan’s hands—square with close-cut fingernails—keep moving from the glasses to my thigh. “Snugandevil.”
    The time blurs by. An American flag hangs behind us. There is a war on, boys. The Irish-American Americana on the walls in mismatched dark frames has never been dusted. Memorabilia and nostalgia. We will none of us ever be this young again.

Another of our friends arrives: tall Tom Huffman in his gray and black striped scarf. The barkeep lumbers by and moves us again, to the end of a half-occupied rectangular slab of a table.
    I try to maneuver out of Dan’s way, but he sticks close by my side. Beth is rolling her eyes. “Why don’t you say something?” she says.
    “I will if I have to,” I tell her. But it seems so silly. So déclassé. So uncivilized. So abrupt and without grace to have to interject and say, “Hey, quit breaking the social contract like that. Hey, I shouldn’t have to say this, but your idea of a good time is ruining mine.” A double-entendre graces the T-shirt of the guy now seated across from us, a picture of Cheney, above which is emblazoned, My Dick Would Make a Better Vice President.
    Dan and I discuss the ramifications of this. Does this guy mean his actual unit would make a better vice president? Or does he just know a guy named Dick who would be less of a fascist maniac?

“Hey, Kathy-Kathleen,” says Dan, redoubling his efforts now that Steve’s perky blonde girlfriend has arrived. Poor horny Dan is so sad and lonely. “Give me your number?”
    “Okay, ready?” I say, “It’s nine one one.”
    “Seriously, give it to me,” he says, pressing his face close to mine.
    “No way,”I say. “It’s  mine.” I tell him I’m married.
    “Okay, fine. Then I’ll give you mine,” he says, grabbing my phone off the table and typing his number in.

McSorley’s has a kitchen, but it appears that the only food they serve is the stinky cheese platter referenced by their misogynistic old sign, the ostensibly manly hors d’oeuvres that come on a stark white plate piled with white cheese, a plastic-wrapped white pack of white saltines, and mounds and piles of sliced white onions.
    Elise looks up from the bit she had been adventurously trying with our other new stranger-friends at her end of the table and sighs a sigh of sympathy for me. She cannot believe this guy.
    “Hey, Dan,” she says. “Wanna try one of these?”
    Drunk, Dan is hungry. But I want to mess with him. “You’ll smell so bad if you do,” I tell him. “What if you end up needing to make out with someone later?”
    He declines.

A familiar song comes over the speakers. Justin Timberlake in a high falsetto: “Dirty Babe / You see these shackles baby I’m your slave / I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave / It’s just that no one makes me feel this way . . .”
    “Do you like J-Tim?” asks Dan.
    “Yeah, sure—”
    “Cuz you got a sexy back!” he says, hand sliding up and down it, making his way under both the brown and white shirts.
    “Jesus Christ,” says Beth.
    “Dan, seriously,” I say, cringing and pulling away. “I’m so not interested. Knock it off.”
    At this point, we want to leave, but we are waiting for our other friends, real friends, friends I haven’t seen in years. They are on their way, and they are almost here, so we stay.

Jeremy and Jessica finally show up. We order another round and toast their arrival.
    “You have to look someone in the eye when you cheers, or else it’s seven years’ bad sex,” Dan says, banging his half-pint glass of dark so hard into mine that light splashes out.
    “That’s news I can use.” I smile, like the bartender, not using my eyes.
    “So now, when we’re having sex later tonight, it’ll be awesome.” Grins. Big white teeth.
    “So where did you guys go to school anyway?” I ask.
    “George Washington University,” they reply in unison, assholes in stereo, and it all makes sense.
    “I went to GW,” I say.
    “No way! Didn’t you just love it?” says Steve.
    “Didn’t you have the best time?” says Dan.
    “Oh yeah,” I lie. I loved my time in college, but it was a complicated love. Unavoidable at GW in particular and D.C. in general—as it the politics? The climate? The money?—ere brash, pushy men like these, men with huge senses of entitlement, roving hands, no apparent worries, and no apparent manners. I like my memories, but I haven’t been back to the place since graduation.
    “Hail to the buff! Hail to the blue! Hail to the buff and blue!” they cry, launching into the GW fight song. “All our lives we’ll be proud to say, we hail from Gee Double-u!”
    Jeremy looks across the table at me, eyebrows raised high. I shrug. Sigh. Make a finish-your-drink-and-we’ll-get-out-of-here gesture.

Turns out that Dan and Steve—both of whom graduated before I even got to D.C.—were in a fraternity. They lived in the same red brick frat house where a close friend of mine was date-raped by one of the brothers, the same frat house where lots of girls likely met the same fate, the same frat house with an enormous branching shoe tree outside, pairs of footwear hung over the scraggly limbs, shoes tossed by various brothers in order to commemorate each girl they had banged. In his poem Cummings wrote of arriving at an “instant of semiluminous nausea,” and at this point, I feel there has to be something I can say. It is getting too ridiculous, embarrassing. I am twenty-six. A grown woman. A professor and an editor, and Dan will not cut it out with the hands on my hands, the hands on my thighs. He will not keep away.
    And I hate that he is stronger than me. That he is more powerful and richer and a way bigger dick than I will ever be and that none of this matters to his quality of life, and that he will always be this way and will always get away with it.
    He is huge. I am gamine. He is nouveau riche; I am at best rather pauvre. He is an absolute goober and a crap conversationalist, and I like witty aperçus; I like to accrue them. But sometimes the rate of speed with which I do so, obviously, is inadequate for the situation at hand. That is part of why I am a writer, maybe.
    Sometimes, after I have been mad and unable to think of anything to say, I have that esprit d’escalier:       ,” I say. I say nothing. I am the empty set.
    I am good at being witty when everything is fine. When I am trying to be winsome. When things are going okay. And I am smart. And I am charming. Enchanting! I can make everyone feel so very enchanté.
    But this guy. This guy. This dude in the bar, this frat-boy rapist from GW who keeps touching me. Trying to kiss me. What can one say? Earlier in the evening I had quoted Cummings, but all Dan really wanted to do was be cumming. When he asked, “What have you all been up to in the city?” I told them about my favorite poet, whose old apartments I had been visiting, Beth taking pictures along the way. And I had thought maybe they cared to hear about him: Weldon Kees, I had said. But all Dan wanted were the keys to my crotch.
    Disgusted, dumbstruck, I get up to pee, to escape.
    Beth, in my absence, gets all up in Dan’s stupid, beefy, handsome face and says, “Not everyone in this bar wants to be touched by you, so stop being an asshole. And if you touch my sister again I’ll kick you in the fucking balls.”

Beth has never been one to suffer from l’esprit d’escalier; she says what she needs to say at the party, before the stairs.
    She is the girl who, when she tells a story, will be interrupted inevitably by somebody saying, “No way, oh my God, you didn’t say that. Did you?” And she will reply, “The fuck I didn’t” or, if she needs to be polite, “Oh, yes I did.” Me, not so much. When I come back from the bathroom, I sit down again, far away. And Dan doesn’t try to touch me. And he and Steve and the girlfriend leave. And he pays for all our drinks.
    Elise tries to pay for hers, tries to give him some cash, because she is an independent woman and a total class act, but Beth and I wave her fistful of bills away.
    “No way, Elise, don’t pay. You don’t need to. He doesn’t need it. He doesn’t deserve it.”
    And we are all able to sit at our own nice round table, with only our real friends, and enjoy the rest of our time there at “snugandevil” McSorley’s.

The spirit of the staircase. I suppose for l’esprit d’escalier to be truly the subject of this essay, I would have to tell you now, right here, since I have had so much time to perfect it, the comeback to Dan I thought of later that night, the one that caused me to sit bolt upright on the air mattress in Elise’s illegal loft, where I slept fitfully next to Beth. Or maybe the comeback that I thought of on the plane back to SeaTac. Or the one I came up with at home at my own kitchen table, recounting the night to my husband. But I haven’t thought of anything especially witty to say, except lines in the vein of “Stop touching me, you cocksucker,” or others of that ilk. What can I say? The situation didn’t call for subtlety.
    And anyway, like I was saying, my best bons mots are, to my alternate delight and chagrin, chiefly in the service of charm, chiefly in the service of—were I to be reductive—what one might call the feminine. Even when I am being witty and “mean” with my friends, making fun of other people, present or not, it stems from my desire to amuse, to please, to make sure people like me.
    A friend and colleague of mine, a PhD in religion and all-around smart guy, once said to me at a party, “Wit is the bridge from lens to bitch.” I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but I liked it so much, I stuck it in my notebook. But now I think I see. Wit and comedy are all well and good in men, accepted, expected, but in women, it can be more dicey. You can go from being a fun-time happy party girl, all nicey nice, to total bitch in under ten seconds. And it sucks to think you might have to. I realize that sometimes it is necessary—all too often it is necessary—to go ahead and be a so-called bitch just for the sake of having a voice.
    But I like manners, and I like politeness. I like respect and hate to think that I should have to fight for it, that I can’t just expect it. But sometimes a woman has to fight, and simply expecting things doesn’t get them.
    So in a sense I can’t do things my way. Not totally. Can’t say what I want to, can’t leave unsaid what I don’t want to say.
    So, what, maybe, should I have said to Dan? What should I say to people like him to be all bitchy-polite and in the moment, without waiting for the regret, for the esprit d’escalier?
    Get off my fucking staircase, please. Please, don’t touch me, and get out of my way.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author of Reading with Oprah (University of Arkansas Press, 2005) and Live Nude Girl (Arkansas, 2009). She has poems forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review, Court Green, the Pinch, and Subtropics, and essays in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Southern Humanities Review, and Another Chicago Magazine.

“The Wit of the Staircase” appears in our Spring 2008 issue.