The Tao of Sharkey
by Eric Williams
Among the staff, Sharkey was somewhat of a folk hero. He was the only person that seemed to be able to do it right, work at the restaurant without any side effects, without needing to abuse something or someone, without, it seemed, a care in the world. He was a talented street photographer and would ride his bike around all day taking photos on his medium-format film camera, and at night, he tended bar.
His first name was Geoff, but everyone called him Sharkey. In his younger days, he was a pro skater, never famous enough to be well-known, but someone that if you followed the pro- am circuit you would have seen around. According to him, he quit skating after a tournament in Tampa where he fell off a ten-foot vert ramp and hit his helmet-less head. He never wore a helmet, even later when he rode his bike all time through the city, not exactly a frolic around the park or a ride down the boardwalk. “I don’t like things on my head,” was how he explained it.
His girlfriend Diana was a chef. She took a job at the Bon Appetit test kitchen in Union Square, which is what brought them to New York. She was an incredible cook, and Jenny said that if she hadn’t taken that job, Diana could have opened her own restaurant, no doubt to considerable acclaim. But the test kitchen job was stable, and by professional chef standards, easy. She worked normal business hours, and while her peers were grinding out fourteen-hour days, prepping all day and cooking all night, Diana brought home gourmet leftovers from the kitchen and waited for Sharkey to finish his shift so that they could eat $60 steaks and watch The Bachelor, a guilty pleasure they indulged together.
Sharkey didn’t care for New York. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t see it through any romantic lens, didn’t attach any greater significance to it. To him, it was silly and overpriced, the theme-park version of what was once a gritty, unique haunt for outcasts and artists. And so unlike the rest of us—Shea and music, Carla and acting, Stephanie and dance before she was injured, me and writing—he didn’t have any illusion about “making it.” He and Diana were both from the Midwest, and as soon as was possible, his goal was to get back there and settle down. Milwaukee, if you can believe it.
When it came to restaurant work, there was just something about Sharkey that made him immune from the typical day-to-day bullshit that weighed the rest of us down, that crawled into our skin at night and was only remedied by a careful mix of weed, nicotine, alcohol, and over- the-counter sleeping pills. Something in his temperament allowed him to bypass all of that and do his job without a second thought. That’s not to say that he didn’t have any vices, only that he indulged them freely and without anxiety, since for him they were simple pleasures and nothing more. It’s hard to say exactly what it was about him, some insight or understanding about restaurant work that the rest of us lacked, but naturally, everyone had an opinion.
Jake, who bartended with him, had a simple answer. “He smokes a ton of weed, man. Every time he comes to work, he’s high.”
But that didn’t quite seem enough to explain it. It’s true that Sharkey did fit into the typical stoner archetype. Laid-back, carefree, prone to giggling, but I refuse to believe that taking a toke before work was all it took to set Sharkey apart from the rest of us. I tried it myself and got so paranoid I was afraid to talk to my tables. Then, after I finally did, on every subsequent return I apologized profusely for bothering them again.
“Um, you don’t have to apologize,” one of them finally said. “We are happy you brought our food,” which brought me great relief.
Roman was also known to experiment with different combinations of edibles, a more gradual high than smoking, meant to diffuse the calm evenly throughout his shift, and yet he consistently blew his top and melted down.
Jenny, who co-ran the kitchen and was friends with Diana, saw her as the source. “What do you have to eat after work?” she asked me.
“Pizza,” I said. “Or bread and olives from the restaurant.”
“Exactly. Imagine going home every night to a delicious meal made with the highest quality ingredients.”
“You mean love?”
“No, dumbass. I mean do you know what the food budget is for Bon Appetit? The limit does not exist,” Jenny said.
“Did you just quote Mean Girls?” I asked her.
“Sometimes I forget you’re only half-American.”
Sid’s view was somewhat more enlightened. “A lot of people think Sharkey is dumb.
He’s simple but not dumb. And not only that, he’s aware of how people view him and so he leans into it, you know? The dumber people think he is, the lower their expectations for him. So, he just skates on by, pun intended, dude.”
It’s possible that all the years on the road as a pro-skater made everything kind of seem easy and almost meaningless by comparison, the way I imagine life after military service might be. Or maybe it was that when he fell on his head, instead of damaging his brain, it knocked it into its right working order. Whatever it was, we started calling it The Tao of Sharkey.
Not everybody felt that way about him, though. The other bartenders, for example. At first, I thought they were just overreacting, maybe like myself a little jealous that Sharkey seemed to be above it all. But when I started bartending, I understood their grievances.
The bar was an entity, something to be maintained and cared for. Almost like a car that we all shared. Cleanliness was part of it, but mostly it was about keeping it properly stocked. Liquor, beer, wine, and operating supplies. Juices, syrups, fruit, garnishes, and all the different types of glassware. As far as that went, Sharkey wasn’t exactly a reliable ally.
“As soon as he gets to work, he’s already two steps out the door,” Lucy said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy. But you gotta stay till the work’s finished.”
On the weekends, there were either one or two bartenders scheduled, depending on the weather. Whenever Sharkey was scheduled for the brunch-only shift, he would do everything in his power to get out of it. Once he offered me $40 to take it. But his most reliable strategy was to lobby Michael, who managed brunch, to just go with one bartender. Once that one bartender was me, early on in my bartending career, and before we even opened, I was drowning. Michael had to call in Lucien, who lived close by, to come rescue me. I thought Lucien was going to be pissed at me, but instead he blamed Sharkey.
“This is bullshit, man. I’m going to talk to Stephanie. He never wants to work? Fine. Done.”
Roman, who took his job bartending very seriously, was a notorious Sharkey-critic. “He never juices. Like ever. Only if he absolutely has to. And then if he does, he never strains the god damn lemon and lime juice,” he said. “Do you know how annoying that is? That’s like going to grab the milk out the fridge and finding it empty. Every time you need milk, it’s in there but it’s empty.”
And then there was the schedule. He never traded shifts unless it benefitted him. In other words, he wouldn’t ever do you a solid by taking a crappy shift so that you could do something in your other life, maybe make an audition or a show, or maybe just take a day to do nothing but smoke weed and sit on the couch. There was something unapologetically selfish about him, which I both admired and resented.
After all, there was something selfish about all of us, at least those of us who were trying to live other lives. As much as possible, those lives came first, were top priority, and whatever the restaurant needed came second. But it wasn’t a hard rule, more of a strong preference, a complex game of give and take. Stephanie, the matron saint of the restaurant, was the giver. She gave us our schedules, our permission to live other lives, and she gave us access to the restaurant, which gave us enough money to work two jobs on only one paycheck. It was important, we all thought, to recognize this and to honor this, such that if Stephanie were ever in a bind, even if inconvenient, you did your best to help her out.
But Sharkey didn’t understand that. Or if he did, he ignored it. He took the restaurant for granted in a way that maybe bordered on disrespectful, and meanwhile went on reaping all the benefits. The bar was its own tip pool and so made even more money than the floor, and while the hours were longer, the labor more physically taxing, it was its own island in the greater country of the restaurant, an island where if you did your job well, for the most part you were left alone.
But the work that Sharkey produced, his photos, I mean, were a testament to his philosophy. For someone who just stumbled into film photography, the work was incredible. All of us aspiring-artist types had our own delusions about making it, about someday working only one job. I don’t know enough about music to know how well Shea played, or enough about acting to know whether Carla was going to land a lead on a sitcom. I spent all my time writing but most of the time, it felt like I was going in circles, and besides a few early publications, nobody was knocking down the door to hear what I had to say. But seeing Sharkey’s photos, I thought, okay, okay. This is something special.
Sid was right in a way. There was a simplicity to Sharkey, a gentleness, too. He was unaffected by all the glitz and glamour of the city. While the rest of us soaked it all in, bought into all the hype and desire about NEW YORK FUCKING CITY, he remained unmoved. His photography exemplified this.
I don’t know how he even picked it up. I think it started as a hobby, something to occupy him while he waited for Diana to get enough of whatever she needed so they could get back to the simple life. But what started as some tooling around, quickly became an obsession.
“New York City is so over-photographed,” he told me once. “It’s become a cliché. Think about every postcard, every iconic photo of the Flatiron or the Empire State Building. Those were someone’s photos before they became mass produced dribble. Like that picture of the guys sitting on the steel beam? That was something once before we all started seeing it everywhere.”
“I think I agree with you. But there must be something left worth shooting, right? Otherwise, what are you doing here?”
“I can’t wait to get back to Milwaukee, man. There was this strip club. Did I show you the photos? It was wild. Not sexy ladies at all, you know. Middle-aged, kinda fat, smoking cigarettes outside on their break. Very sweet woman all around.” “And they let you take their picture? Just like that?”
“Oh, sure, yeah. You know, I just go up and start talking to ‘em. Nobody probably ever talks to them, not like that anyway.”
From what I saw of his photography, I was right, there was plenty left to photograph in the city, but like the middle-aged strippers from Milwaukee, it wasn’t what you expected. There was a series that featured his neighbor, a semi-homeless man who lived in the basement of his building, and another about this woman who sold churros on the Coney Island boardwalk. That was part of his Tao, that he could talk to anyone and make them feel their own worth.
The story of how Sharkey ended up bartending at Early Birds maybe best exemplifies this Tao.
“Did I ever show you the photos I took at the Halal Live Chicken place?”
“The what?” I asked.
“You know, over on Classon? In Crown Heights? There’s that place where they sell live chickens.”
I told him I’d passed by it before on my bike. “You took photos there?”
“Oh yeah, man. It was wild. This was right before I started at Early Birds.”
At the time, he was bartending at this place called Meme’s, famous for its meat. They served chicken, steak, and pork in huge portions on tiny plates, plates barely able to contain the juice-oozing mass, the meat-to-plate ratio pushed to the absolute max. That was the gimmick, carnival-sized portions of meat. But the restaurant was wildly popular, especially among food influencers.
“I called them the ‘phoodies,’” Sharkey said. “You know, the people who would come in just to take pictures of the food?”
Every night he worked, the phoodies flocked to the open seats at the bar where the light was just right for capturing the glistening fat-cap on the pork belly, or for a no-filter shot of the herbaceous green salsa on the bone-in chicken. When one of them ordered a steak, Sharkey asked them how they’d like it cooked.
“And they would ask me, ‘Do you think medium-rare will best complement the pink- hued pomegranate seeds on the spinach salad?’ That was a real question I answered all the time. No kidding.”
It was a ridiculous place, but the money was great. The guests had a lot of dumb questions, but for the most part, they were easy.
“You know the craziest thing, though? They didn’t eat it. The meat. I mean maybe a bite or two for the shot, but that’s it.”
“What did you do with it?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya, I tried it myself. I mean these were like $90 steaks and so I figured it would be delicious. But it was complete shit. I brought one home once for Diana to try and she took one bite and that was it. Something about the way they fed the cattle, I guess. Anyway, I would bring home leftovers for our dogs but after a while Diana wouldn’t even let me feed it to them.”
So, one day, Sharkey was on his way to work, riding his bike as always. He turned the corner and there was this small crowd of people outside, which was strange since the restaurant didn’t open for a few hours. As he approached, he realized that they were protesting. So being Sharkey, he just walked up to one of them and asked what’s going on. “We’re from PETA,” the protester told him. “We’re protesting the inhumane animal practices on display at this vile restaurant.”
“Oh,” he said. “How’s it going?”
He shrugged. “It’s an uphill battle. The restaurant has a strong social media presence.
So, everything we say is drowned out by comparison.” “Yeah, I hear ya.”
“We need an image, something visceral, something to counter those abhorrent meat- fetishizing images everyone ‘likes.’”
Without a second thought, no consideration to the fact that PETA was protesting at his place of employment, potentially putting his job at risk, Sharkey started showing the protester his most recent work from the Halal live chicken place. Some of them were quite good, mostly shots of the men standing around in their bloody aprons laughing, some of them chasing the chickens, a few actions shots where they had the blade raised, their lips soft with prayer, the neck of the chicken pinned down. But something was missing. The full context maybe. On their own, the photos didn’t tell the story of what specifically PETA was protesting. But then towards the end of the roll, there’s this one photo, I mean, it was a one-in-a-million shot and it happened completely by accident, at least the way Sharkey told it.
Sometimes at work, when it was slow, Sharkey took pictures of the phoodies. You know, a photo of a photo of a photo, and so on. He was genuinely curious, too, to capture them at their work, maybe curious to see whether something could be gleaned from their still- life. When you saw the photo, you almost felt bad for them, the two phoodies who were the subject. They were the epitome of social media posturing. They were both white, late twenty-somethings, and looked as though the only time they left the city was to go to the Hamptons. The woman was wearing one of those trendy fashion hats, really just a cowboy hat with that special millennial spin (and price tag), with aviator sunglasses and a pearl-white shirt that said, “Yes Way, Rose.” The man, about the same age, late twenty-something, was wearing a t- shirt that said, “Brunch is my Religion.” His hair was thick and black, stylized in a way that made it look intentionally messy, like some sort of abstract art version of hairstyling. They were both staring through the lens of their phones, taking a picture of the whole chicken, which was one of the popular dishes at the restaurant. One whole chicken is a lot, but this was on a whole other level. It was so big that first timers often mistook it for turkey.
But the photo was a double-exposure. Two shots superimposed onto one another. Apparently, Sharkey had run out of film when he was at the Halal place and so reversed the film all the way back to the top of the roll so that he could keep shooting. The next shot he took, the one that became the background of the two phoodies, was of the bleeding room. In the Halal preparation, the animal had to be bled out before further processing. So, there was this room where they hung all the dead chickens upside until they were dry. The photo was of rows and rows of dead chickens, blood dripping down in mid-shot, pooling all over the floor.
The protester recognized its genius immediately. He called over a few other people, maybe his boss or something, and everyone agreed this was exactly what they were looking for. Sharkey gave them the photo and his contact info, and then surprised everyone by walking into the restaurant and setting up the bar as if nothing had happened.
PETA posted the photo to their social media page and of course, it blew up. If PETA had commissioned the photo themselves, they couldn’t have come up with something better. It was raw, it was visceral, and it articulated their grievances better than any protest chant or open letter.
Naturally, when the restaurant found out Sharkey was immediately fired. Which was just as well, since the restaurant, at least in that iteration, didn’t survive the ensuing firestorm. They stopped sourcing over-sized meat, went dark for a few months, and re-opened as a vegetarian-friendly restaurant. The vegetables, like the meat, were enormous and devoid of flavor, but no animals were harmed in their harvest, so PETA left them alone. Not long after Sharkey found his way to Early Birds, a new man, having finally sold, completely by accident, his first photograph.
Five years later, after the original Early Bids closed and was re-opened in a new location, I heard that Sharkey was fired. This seemed impossible to me but since I was no longer living in the city and working in the industry, I was somewhat out of touch.
After helping Jenny open My So-Called Restaurant and sticking with her for the first few years, I’d finally taken the leap and applied to graduate writing programs. I was living in Iowa, of all places, surrounded by corn and soy fields, haunted by winds that regularly brought the temperature twenty degrees below zero. Now that I was finally out of the restaurant industry, free from the pressure of living two lives, free to go to bed before the third turn and wake up with the first sun, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Ironic, since for all the years I spent working in restaurants, I often soothed myself to sleep with the story that it wouldn’t be much longer, that any day now and I’d be out.
But the restaurant industry had followed me to Iowa. I was powerless to think or write about anything else. At first, I resented it. I’d come to Iowa to get away from the industry, not to keep obsessing over it. But then I recognized what was happening. The industry, to which I’d given ten years of my life, was giving back in the form of a gift. I hadn’t known before coming to school exactly what I wanted to write about. But there was no doubt now.
Which was how I got to thinking about Sharkey. I made a few phone calls to get to the bottom of what happened. Surprisingly, it was Jake who told me the story.
“Well, we re-opened in the new location, but Sharkey didn’t understand that the old rules no longer applied,” he told me on the phone.
“Sure, it’s a new restaurant now. You have to treat it like it’s opening night.”
“Exactly. I mean, everything has to be on-point. Okay, there will be spillover from the original, but you have to assume you’re starting from scratch. And even though we kept the name it wasn’t the same restaurant at all.”
“Yeah, I saw the pictures. Two floors. Satellite bar. T-shirts out, black button-ups and black ties in. Higher price-point.”
“Much higher. I mean, Chef wanted this to be what Serene’s failed to be, this white- table cloth place that was gonna get him his Michelin star. But like I said, Sharkey didn’t get it. He didn’t know the menu, didn’t bother to learn any of the new cocktails. He just kept carrying on like it was the old Early Birds. To be fair, he was in a sort of rough place. Diana left him and he—”
“Wait, what? Diana and Sharkey broke up?”
“Oh, yeah dude. You didn’t hear?”
“No. What the hell happened?’
“She was traveling all the time for work, I guess, and Sharkey wanted to move out of New York and settle down. I don’t know exactly, but they split.”
“But they were together for like eight years. I thought that was solid.”
“You and me both, brother. Apparently, Sharkey initiated it but then he tried to get her back and she wasn’t with it. He went to pieces after she was gone. Started smoking cigarettes again. We’d be in the middle of service and he’d say, ‘I think I’m gonna go have a smoke.’ I’d say, ‘Not right now, dude, we’re gonna get slammed any second.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I hear ya, man,’ but then next time I turned around he’d be gone. And I mean, we were still only two bartenders and I’d been telling Stephanie, ‘No, don’t put a third one. We can do it with two.’ But then Sharkey would disappear for twenty minutes and I’d get walloped. Finally, it was just too much. I love the guy, but he just wasn’t with it, anymore. There was just too much at stake to keep someone like that around, especially behind the bar, and so Stephanie let him go.”
After I hung up, I felt sort of stunned, like it had been me that had been dumped and fired. I sat in my chair a long time trying to make sense of it. Finally, even though it was winter, I took a long walk to the gas station and bought cigarettes, Marlboro Reds, the same kind Sharkey used to smoke. Or I guess still did. For hours, I walked without any clear direction in mind, smoking one after another, trying to put it all together in my head. But no matter how I tried to figure it, I just couldn’t understand it. I still don’t.
Eric Williams has an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University, where he was managing editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. His work has been generously supported by the Art Farm Artist Residency in Nebraska and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. He splits his time between New York, Iowa, and Texas.
Image: Yoann Siloine/Unsplash