" Hello candy pants." he answered, his fluid and usually optomistic tennor oddly flat. "How are you?"
"The reviews have been good", I replied, catching YJ's eye over the top of his glasses and winking, "Jimmy and I are taking up valuable space in 'Zandoh'. "
"Where are you? I'm not wearing my glasses."
"The center of the long side, the honeymoon table, I'm waving now."
He squinted and waved back, then raised an ankle to his knee and fiddled with the lace of his shoe. The soles were tan, smooth and polished from the box.
"Come watch us ignore each other."
"Uh... no. I can't. I'm meeting someone."
"Is that so! Gotta date, fancy guy?"
"No. I've got a client."
TJ was raised in spare circumstances by a single mom upstate in coal country.
Intellect and drive had landed him in a U of P graduate program with a hefty scholarship, right out of State College.
Unlike the majority of his Penn classmates( we called them "the over privledged children") he was on his own financially.
Even with the various temp jobs he juggled, and the late night coffee house shifts he spent perched on a stool at the counter reading dry and weighty tomes between lattes and decaf espressos, it was a constant exhausting strugle to make ends meet.
Often as not, I bought the rounds as we trolled the bars of the Locust Street corridor. (Drinks are cyclical draw. When you have it, you throw money in the pot. When you don't, your buddies carry you, knowing that it'll be your turn eventually. )
He could but the drinks after he got that Ivy League paper. Lots of 'em.
One Sunday morning he called me is crisis. The handsome silver beard he'd spent the night with had learned of his plight during the previous evenings conversation. The man insisted on giving TJ a hundred dollars. A 'gesture'. Because he could.
TJ needed the money.
TJ took the money.
"Look," I counseled, "any time we take compensation in exchange for services ,it's a form of prostitution. I've been whoring my body and soul out to the Philly art establishment for almost ten years now. At least you got a kiss afterwards. You do what you need to do. You do what you need." And so he started his apprenticeship in a noble and ancient trade, an even exchange with all parties satisfied. Besides, TJ would be slinging his prize piece around Washington Square West anyway,'gestures' notwithstanding. We didn't see him much for awhile.
"So what's the deal?"
"An hour. For $150."
" One fifty? You know you're giving it away, dont you?
Aw rite, gimme a call when you get off. Uh, I mean AFTER you get off.
I mean when you're free."
"Nothing is ever REALLY free, is it?" He questioned, flatly, almost stating it.
"OK handsome. I'll buy drinks later, OK? Here he is! Gottago! Gottagobye!"
A silver Jetta glided up to the corner, the dark tinted window lowered half way. TJ smiled his familiar, boy-next-door dimpled smile and ran his fingers through his auburn hair. He unbuttoned the jacket, hopped in , and the car sped away.
James had closed his book on the table top, his page marked by the paper straw wrapper I'd blown at his forehead when we'd sat down earlier ("bullseye!").
"Who was that?'
"It was TJ, I saw him on the corner."
"What? TJ! Where the hell has he been? I havn't seen him in forever."
He picked up the last brownie fragment from my plate while looking out at the now vacant spot by the light. " Is he gonna join us?" He Popped it in his mouth.
I dabbed some crumbs off the plate and licked them from my finger,
"He doesn't have the time tonight."