Stuff

John at the Bar

I worked at a bar for five years. It was one of those bars that are there to preserve a moment, a state of being, nothing ever changing; crypts with golden sarcophagi, men who can exist as royalty for all eternity.

by John Saward
Nov 6 2015, 2:48pm

Illustration by Amanda Lanzone

Five years ago. Western Connecticut. You get a job bartending because you want to write words for a living. There is a logic in all this, somehow, you promise yourself that. You're in your mid 20s and self-loathing has become a sort of recreational activity. You are prone to the sort of blubbering melodrama that would compel a man to, say, title a Gmail folder "DRINK THE FAILURE." Growth or decay or stagnation, you never know where you are. You write, but for purposes you cannot identify; messy ideas you eject in spasms and never refine. On the backs of receipts and in messages typed into your phone when you're riding the subway. You seek things detached from writing completely. You mow grass. Fold laundry. Shovel snow. For a few hours you are consumed by things you do not like but know you can at least get rid of. You float in a nothingness, a lack of context, a separation from the narrative. The snow is there under the tires and under the stacks of wooden planks rotting outside the garage. It exists in finite quantities; your body repeats the same mechanics automatically until it is gone. It is grueling but in a way that writing is not: it is of no significance beyond the act itself. You can't be good at shoveling or bad at shoveling. If you are it doesn't matter. It is just snow. You get what you can and the rest melts.

So you get this job at this bar. You think bartending is more snow. It is a bar you have been to before, in Dayton or New Brunswick or wherever. The whole place smells like some mix of wet rags and simmering canola oil and maybe-a-gas-leak. The fans hanging from the ceiling spin wildly, permanently on the verge of coming dislodged. The floor is not made of carpet or wood or rubber, just a sort of fossilized grime, a "black." The owner refuses to do anything about any of it, and that is fine, because transporting drunks to an alternate universe requires no deception. It is a place that means nothing to anyone anywhere except to these men, drinking, glazed, killing minutes, hours, and then the last of the daylight, distracting themselves from what is cold and real and being charged a 14% fixed interest rate. Bowlegged men standing at the urinal telling filthy jokes while you wash your hands, taking forever to squeeze their piss out. Men who cough like a fork stuck in a garbage disposal, coughs with an interlude, men who look like they cut their hair in the reflection of a toaster oven. Men with no teeth, men with teeth in the wrong place, teeth that are gray and sharp. They measure their lives in the length of SUV commercials; in halftimes, parking meter clocks, meetings with their probation officers, the time elapsed since they last ignored a call from their wives.

Bars like this one are to preserve a moment, a state of being, nothing ever changing; crypts with golden sarcophagi, men who can exist as royalty for all eternity.

Men who study lotto numbers, looking for order in the chaos, chasing dreams, chasing jackpots but really chasing some other life, none in particular, just not this one. Their faces are Good & Plenty purple, craggy like elephant hide. They smile and grab your arm, dragging you into this moment with them, at three in the afternoon, eyelids peeled back deep into their skulls, ready to reveal their lotto theory, proud to have a lotto theory: 6 AIN'T BEEN THE MEGABALL SINCE FEBRUARY, SEE THAT? IT'S COMING. They are almost embarrassed for you, that you're only now hearing all this for the first time. Everything is imminent. They're one step away, almost there, just waiting on this next one and then I am gone, kid, you have no idea.

Three days later you will see them again, half-awake, faces gnarled by sun and shame, and they will repeat in a low voice those same lies while you pretend to not know any better. Bars like this one are to preserve a moment, a state of being, nothing ever changing; crypts with golden sarcophagi, men who can exist as royalty for all eternity.

A year passes. Two years. You're still there. You buy coconut ice from the bodega next door. The television above the soda cooler is muted and fixed to Spanish soap operas—delirious half-naked women, crying and licking their lips and slamming cabinets. You stand on the sidewalk eating the ice while you listen to the trains behind the building leave the station. You play video bowling in the bar till the sun comes up and you can see school buses driving by. You eat 17,000 jalapeno poppers. A man with thick scraps of pure white hair named Frank tells you about the time he heard "Rainy Night in Georgia" in a bar in Thailand during the Vietnam War, on a night when it was actually raining, horizontal rain, apocalypse rain, but he just sat there, unfeeling, maybe like the way he was sitting here right now, as he tells you this. He survived that war but now he's in this other one, a life adrift. Maybe it's a lie, but you consider that maybe all of it is a lie, everything that anyone could ever tell you. Sometimes he tells you about being a carpenter. Sometimes he tells you about the Red Sox. Sometimes he doesn't tell you anything. Sometimes he just tastes the booze.

You're still here, in these walls, with these same people, them keeping you alive now, because they have felt pain before, just like yours.

More years. You meet a girl here. You love her. You realize after a while maybe you don't love her, it doesn't work out. You meet another girl. You love this one, too. It doesn't work out, but for different reasons this time, you love her too much, she can't handle it, she's gone. But you're still here, in these walls, with these same people, them keeping you alive now, because they have felt pain before, just like yours. They know where the brink is, the edges of the universe, and they came back once, and now they're bringing you back. Old men, hurt men, men so tough they'll let you see them weak and bruised, beaten and forgotten.

"You ever think about how the best songs make you feel better for a little, but they make the wound bigger?" You ask this to an Italian guy named Jimmy who works at the airport. "Yeah," he tells you. He's playing pool by himself. "That's why all the best songs are about women or heroin."

You never get any better at bartending, your legs just stop hurting. You sleep less. You complain less. You tip more. You play "Moonlight Mile" on the jukebox, because it's the middle of January, and seriously, this fucking song. Some guy knows all the words. You never see him again. You stay open late with strangers to wait for election results. Another night, something on the news about a murder in Harlem. A year later; the Mets lose the World Series. "Well this is all bullshit isn't it?" Most conversations end this way. All this usually is bullshit, yeah. All these moments next to the same people, people you've known forever, people you don't know at all, really. They leave. You sit counting change and drinking cheap whiskey, and then you finish counting the change but you keep drinking the whiskey. You play "Moonlight Mile" again, but this time it's just you there.

It is a habitat. An incubator for the mutilated. Bars are noise management facilities. Men making things as loud as they can go, music or impulses or bodily functions, or as quiet as they can go, fears or doubts or debts. Men using their Dramatic Voice, holding the back of her chair, telling her how he got the scar on his lip, straightening his collar, hold-on-just-listen-to-the-drums-right-here, tossing out important-sounding acronyms, because he knows things, he doesn't have time to explain it, he's busy, so let me ask you again do you want to get out of here or not, baby? Brokenhearted men speaking to sympathetic women, resuscitating the men with the maximum voltage of exclamation points, every sentence wired to a socket, transmitting hope so they can get the hell out of there. The men believe in anger or God or the pursuit of pussy. But they all believe in drinking, because drunk is an absolute, it is undeniable; they can see it and feel it and watch the liquid in the glass disappear. Drunk is a sledgehammer.

One night, you meet a man named Patrick with a stomach so dense it looks like it could protect him from a small-caliber bullet. He drinks Budweiser and Gran Marnier, alternating little sips of each. He tells you about his neighborhood growing up, where he came from. He's laughing, he's swiveling. But then abruptly the memories become something immediate and present and he's up out of his chair. It's 1974 again now, it's late, he's at his neighbor's house in Yonkers and his father is coming at his mother with a boot in one hand. His brother Danny is screaming in the corner, the closet door is knocked off the hinge, Patrick's biting a chunk out of his father's shoulder. The sweat and the dogs barking and the smell of the radiators. Every moment of this man's life is on fire, his cheeks are sizzling, he doesn't know you but he will make sure you feel this with him. And you do. Drunk is also a magnet.

***

You will see in the bar, nearly every day of your employment, a kid named Dennis. He's 22-years-old when you meet him. Once, years ago, while his father was taking a shit, his first wife shot herself in the head in the next room. His father sold mozzarella cheese, which Dennis recites as a sort of euphemism for organized crime with Italian people. When Dennis was little he would ride in the backseat and pass beers up to his father from a plastic cooler as they drove to Yankee Stadium. Dennis drinks cheap beer now until he vomits or pees on the sidewalk. He asks for a bucket so he can clean it himself and he tells you how sorry he is. For the six weeks that his jaw was wired shut, he tilted his head back and poured beer slowly through the cracks between his teeth.

Two years ago his father got sick, and then his father got lung cancer, and then lung cancer became a marauding goblin horde that settled in on the soul and memories, raping the women and setting the village on fire just because. His father slept in a chair because he couldn't breathe unless he was upright. Dennis slept on the bed. In high school he played football. He was All-League. His father was never there. Then his father was there, but halfway, less than that, writhing on itchy polyester, asking for a glass of something. His father needed someone to carry him to the bathroom. Dennis needed a place to live. So they half-watched the Yankees, half-living their lives, together but not together.

And then his father died, and Dennis and his brother drank and cried until their faces were swollen, their cheeks stretched and pink. Their father left them $2,000 and they spent it all on scratch-off tickets and beer and massage parlor hand jobs. They didn't cry as much after that, then they stopped crying at all. And then they drank more beer, because beer is always there, even when your father isn't.

When Dennis was younger, he bought his father a Don McLean cassette tape for his birthday. He found it at the Salvation Army on the 25-cent rack. He gave it to his father, but his father told him it was the wrong one. Not that there is a right one; it's Don McLean. Dennis still feels the wrongness anyway. His father's favorite song was "American Pie," and he has spent every stray dollar he possesses playing it on the jukebox. He roams the black floors, unloading during the chorus, spilling his beer, trying to find someone to join him. It is Don McLean, so no one does, except we are all sort of joining him, wailing about Chevys and good ole boys for eight and a half minutes.

Whole months go this way. A lifetime. But then Dennis stops coming by as much. You hear he ran out of money. You hear he joined the Marines. You don't really ask. He was here once but he isn't anymore, and sometimes that's all the logic you need. You can't stay in one place forever. Eventually you have to write some words. Eventually you stop telling lies.

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