"It makes you thirsty living in hell. Love your enemies as yourself, someone said on the stony hell of Golgotha." F. Durrenmatt, Suspicion
The early morning sunlight is a shock after twelve hours inside a bar. I mean, you know what to expect, but the actual fact of it is rude. Rude, as in hard on the eyes.
Even a good pair of Dollar Store sunglasses doesn’t take the edge off the way you might have liked. You definitely need something in total, sun-inhibiting, black. The kind of ray blockers that turn back emanations from a Planet X would probably do the trick, but they didn’t sell those in any Dollar Store I ever heard of.
For years, I had been mocking the regular night guy about how, when he went on vacations, that he cultivated his pallor, instead of working on his tan. It was true, he was the only guy anyone knew, who could go on a Caribbean cruise for eight days and never see the light of day. Of course, he wasn’t going to any of those places for the sun. His travels always involved night life, preferably night life that never ended. With gambling, if possible. And other forms of entertainment that didn’t involve going outside.
I had called him Nosferatu for years, as he had been working this trick for so long, and spending so much time in artificial light, I suspected that the real thing would probably turn him into a pillar of salt. Now that I was actually experiencing his kind of morning, I might have to re-evaluate my jest. There was something painful, something untoward, about direct sunlight. It wasn’t just the physical pain; it was the people out in it. They were doing weird things in it. Like going to regular jobs, or attending school, or, heading for their places of worship. It was all foreign to me, totally alien, and it wasn’t something I wanted to make a habit of.
Normally, the walk over to Central Avenue was no more than ten minutes. I was used to humping to my stop, at something approximating full speed, under the assumption that who knew what kind of creeps, perverts, and garden variety scumbag/ muggers, would be lurking along the unlighted corners of Quail Street, personal assault central, mid-town Albany. I was mildly surprised no one had waited for me to leave the bar or had jumped me, knowing bartenders always carried a certain amount of cash with them. Hell, I’d been threatened enough times inside the bar, it seemed almost inevitable that one of the clowns would actually follow through with their threats. That I never left directly after closing, probably frustrated most would be assailants. I carried cash, but not That much cash.
I took my time, pretending to enjoy the warm morning, the novelty of fresh air, sunshine, singing birds, and people, without the weird glow of drugs and alcohol. It was serene, and more than slightly surreal, like being stoned in church, or an acid flashback at a revival meeting. There were enough store front churches, and revivalist prayer meeting places, burrowed among the failed businesses and student ghetto housing on Quail, you could buzz in and sample the weirdness for yourself, day or night, if you were so inclined.
I was somewhere in that nebulous liquid state between smashed and stoned, where life is glorious; pain and suffering remote. I was willing, ready, and able, to maintain my mellow glow as long as it could be milked. In short, I was hand pumped, primed, and ready, for happy hour in the morning.
Or so I thought.
Once inside, I discovered, I would never be completely attuned to what awaited me there. It might have been the way my eyes took a while to adjust to their being reintroduced to the false glow of bar light. There is something indefinable, something timeless, about a bar that never seems to actually close; the denizens inside inexorable, omnipresent as furniture, animated, but resolute, in their purpose of blending in, becoming a function of the bar, of time, of life here.
The bar shifts here seemed to seamlessly merge one with the other. One barperson exchanged for another, without the tone of the place altering at all. The stale fog of cigarette smoke wafting up to the high, real tin ceiling, stained a sick rust color after over a century of uncirculated air. The pervading odor of spilled beer was so ingrained into the wood and the floor nothing could ever remove the scent, short of a fully involved conflagration.
The dim, low wattage houselights were covered by thick glass globes that may have once been ornamental but were now buried in dirt and dust and cobwebs. Perhaps the strangest thing of all was the creaking of the bar stools, as a body shifted its weight to better view whatever the tarnished, full-length back bar mirror might reveal, that and the dripping faucet in the bar sink, a leaking tap, the silent images on the twin televisions on opposite ends of the bar that no one paid any attention to.
Once inside, I felt as if, in a way, I had always been there. Would always remain there, squinting, looking about, a small pile of money before me on the gouged and cigarette burned wood, a drink on a cardboard coaster before me. I would always be involved in this almost intimate conversation with an off-duty nurse, still in her uniform, a below the waist black cardigan sweater partially buttoned, hugged to her breasts. And I’d be lighting her cigarette with a heavily scuffed Zippo lighter, watching as she inhaled and we’d be saying something like this,
“What’s with the sweater.”
“I’m cold. I’m always cold.”
“It’s a beautiful, warm Spring Day.”
“Cold comes with my job.”
“Your job. As a nurse?”
“What do you do? As a nurse.”
“I’m a morgue nurse.”
“A morgue nurse. Can’t have much to do there.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Who do you think cleans the bodies up? Applies the toe tags? Wheels them around from one place to another for viewing.”
“Orderlies. Yeah, sometimes. I’m special.”
“Special. How so?”
“I belong to the union and I piss people off.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Ok, I don’t. Fill me in.”
“You asked for it. Who do you think sews up the bodies after the autopsies? Disposes of the diseased organs? The spare parts?”
“It was your call.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. Are we actually, like having this conversation?”
“No. It’s all your imagination.”
“Good. I was worried there for a minute.”
I reached for the drink I didn’t remember ordering, that sat on the coaster in front of where I was standing. I always stood at a bar. Once you sat down, you were in danger of getting too comfortable. Of settling in. Of never leaving. Come hell or high water. Or a terminal shortage of funds. And there were always ways to get around the last problem.
“ATMs in hell, what a concept!” I thought. “What will they think of next?” The question a lot scarier than it appeared on the surface. Is this the beginning of one of those binges’ alcohol counselors warned you about? Or worse, the middle of one? Or the end?
“What do you do?” She asked.
“I’m a bartender.”
“I thought it was something like that.”
“How can you tell?”
“You have that half-dead, perpetual flush/air, of someone who has been seriously drinking for far longer than is good for you.”
“That obvious, huh?”
“Plain as day.”
“What else to you see?”
“Care to share some of your infinite wisdom?”
“If you insist.”
“I’m insisting. You’re dry. Let me get you another one.”
“I’ll have the same then.”
“Bartender. Give the lady whatever’s she’s drinking. And give me whatever I’m drinking. What am I drinking?”
“You don’t know?”
“Very funny. Fill it up and take it out of this pile.”
I watched as he poured the drinks. He was pretty slick about it. Pouring the cocktails well down the bar and out of sight, as if he has some sort of special reserve hidden on the speed rack that I couldn’t see. I thought I was drinking beer. Once upon a time, I was drinking beer. Maybe I’ll switch back. Next time.
I looked around the bar. There was a whole slew of pensioners here. Men who spent the bulk of their waiting hours in places like this, spending their social security checks, going on the cuff when the funds disappeared toward the end of the month. Some of them probably had their checks sent directly here and spent it on account. No need to worry about money actually changing hands. Kept things nice and clean and simple.
They drank like hand-wound machines running out of steam, body parts moving in slow motion, hand around glass, always around the draft beer glass, rising through the thick air, rising, the, reaching the lips that opened just wide enough to receive a sip. Then the wide, described arc, back toward the bar, as if in strange dream of life among a rediscovered, lost tribe of the besotted, in their natural habitat. The scene as oddly beautiful as it was disturbing; all those purposeful hands, continually rotating mechanical parts, winding down like a room full of clocks without face plates.
“What I see is you’re as gone as they are. What separates you from them is that you haven’t realized it yet.”
“I don’t see how it could be.”
I turned away from the nurse, looked down the long expanse of the bar. I could see why it was advertised as the longest bar in the city; it most certainly was. And it seemed to be growing longer the more I drank.
And there seemed to be more people than just a minute ago. I didn’t actually recall hearing the door open, or see people cross from the entranceway to their given space at the bar. Maybe they just appeared there. Nothing seemed sequential, the way it was supposed to any longer. The only obvious connection between these people, and what was happening with them, was that they were the regular morning crowd, and everyone knew everyone else, as much as that was possible.
The troubling thought occurred to me that I was dropping in and out of a deep fugue state. Another part of the binge phenomena. At least, that’s what I hoped it was.
And she was saying, “You don’t have the look of a cop. Not even an undercover one.”
“What do cops look like?”
“Like they’ve seen it all. Know it all. And no one can ever tell them different about what they’ve seen and done about it. They just know and that’s all there is to it. You’re still seeing things. And they’re always playing with their guns; either the one they’ve got strapped to their body or the one in their pants. It doesn’t matter which. They’re both the same thing.”
“That’s the dicks and the uniform guys. What about undercover cops?”
“They’re always playing at being something they’re not, trying to fool you into believing that they’re cool and, normal, and your friend. Which, of course, they never are; you trust one of those guys and what happens after that is your own fault.”
“And I’m not like that?”
“Well, you’re not carrying a gun for one thing.”
“What about the one in my pocket?”
“I’m not worried about that one. I can take care of that one. I’m a professional.”
“What if it’s loaded?”
“It better be. Or, we have no business talking the way we are.”
The man to my right was talking to the bartender. Was saying,” Bar fellow, give me a vodka and water no ice. Better make it a double, I’ll supply my own fizz.”
I let the last part slide for a moment. Scoped out his dressed-for-a-day-at-the-office gear: a not half-bad suit, a matching hat, and a conservative tie. Then I wondered about the fizz. I’d never seen a vodka and whatever fizz, in all my years behind the bar. Not yet. But I was open to a new form of entertainment, especially when it wasn’t mine to clean up after.
“Thank you, kind sir.” he said, and, whipped out one of those little individually wrapped Alka Seltzer tabs, and dropped the tab into the drink. It sort of fizzed. Not like it would in water, but it tried like hell.
Our man fired it down like it was the most natural way to start the day. “Señor, bartender, better make another one, same way.”
It too disappeared down the chute, then the man slid his glass forward in the universal signal for yet another drink, same way.
“Jesus,” I thought, “I wonder how many of these things he’s good for?”
“Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with it.” She said. “Jesus won’t help you at all here.”
I wondered if I hadn’t just thought that to myself, but the phase had actually been spoken out loud. I hoped it had. When I turned to look at the Fizzman, he was gone. Another man was bellying up to the bar. This guy looked as if he had just stepped out of a Graham Greene novel set-in Southeast Asia. He was wearing a Panama hat, and a seersucker suit, blue stripes on white cloth. I didn’t notice the artist’s portfolio he had with him, at first, distracted as I was, by the call he made to the bartender, “Mate, I’ll have a double scotch in a highball, no rocks, just the naked scotch. I’ll add my own mixer, if you don’t mind.”
“Depends upon what it is.”
He extracted a plastic bottle from his inside jacket pocket and showed the label to the bartender.
“OK, pal, your funeral. Any particular kind of scotch you want for that?”
The barman’s voice lacked inflection, such as sarcasm or opprobrium, but I sensed he was busting the Panama’s chops. Once I saw what he was going to pour into the scotch, I knew he was.
“Make it a double Johnny Walker Red.”
“Cost more than the no-brand stuff.”
“It’s what I like, mate.”
“There you go, pal, double trouble.”
“No, mate, double your fun. Like the old advertisement.”
The bartender’s look told Panama Red that he had no idea what he was talking about.
“Before your time, Mate. It was a chewing gum advertisement. Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, identical twins, chewing identical sticks of gum. It was cute once upon a time. I had the account. When they used commercial artists.”
I noticed the portfolio, then. A big brown thing with straps around it tied in bows. Maybe he fancied himself as an English Gauguin.
I couldn’t resist a comment. “Taste good, does it? Scotch and whatever crap that is in that bottle you just put in it.”
“Tastes like shit, mate.”
“So why do you drink it?”
“Doctor’s orders. Used to be they told you to drink scotch and milk. Which was marginally better tasting. Then they discovered milk had all that acid in it. Not good for the tummy. Not a rotten one like mine.”
“I give up, what are you adding to Mr. Walker?”
I suppressed a gag.
“It actually tastes worse than it sounds. But if you want to keep drinking…”
“So why bother with calling a brand if you can’t taste the difference?”
“Memories, mate. I drank McGillicuddy’s Peppermint Schnapps and milk for years.
Reminded me of the Wrigley’s account in a way. Except there is way more proofage in that stuff than in gum. You might be surprised how much proofage.”
“Some people would be surprised, but not me. I won’t have it in my bar. Not that, nor 151 Rum, nor Ouzo.”
“Wise man. Almost broke my heart when the Doc told me it was scotch or nothing. I used to like scotch too. Join me, Laddie?”
“No thanks. I’ll stick with what I’ve got.”
“You can skip the Maalox, and, just have the scotch.”
“I really don’t think I should mix…”
“What are you drinking?”
“Ask the bartender, he knows.”
I watched the bartender building another double Walker for Panama Red. I wondered what he was going to pour next when the nurse placed her hand on my arm and spoke, “Do you like tattoos?”
“Depends upon what they are and where they are.”
“I have a tattoo.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me what it is?”
“What is it?”
“It’s a spider.”
“Any particular kind?”
“A black widow.”
“Figures. I suppose the next question has to be, where is it?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Actually, I would.”
“If you play your cards right, I might show you.”
I turned to see how Panama Red was making out, but there was no sign of him. Not even a white coated highball glass to mark where his place at the bar had been. I wondered what the bartender had poured for me, on Red, but all I could see was an empty pair of shot glasses face down and empty on the bar.
Instead of Red, now there was an older, much seedier guy leaning over the bar holding an incredibly wrinkled, filthy, twenty dollar bill out toward the bartender. Our barman saw the old coot standing there, gave a look as if he wished the guy would evaporate, or be repossessed by the demons of hell he had temporarily escaped from. Eventually, the barman accepted the inevitable, and began mixing the drink he knew the old guy would be wanting.
It was an off-color, vaguely bloody looking thing, made with Clamato juice, tablespoons of horseradish sauce, and a liberal dose of Tabasco plus the requisite double shot of below the rack vodka.
Once the drink was placed before him, the old man began speaking to no one in particular. Every once in a while, he would look in my general direction to see if I was listening.
“There was a time when I have been reduced to drinking dishwater. Bilge water, my son. You know how it is, any port in a storm. You have that look about you, that you know what I mean.” I vowed to do something about that look of mine. Though, what I might do about it, or intended to do about it, escaped me.
“When you’ve lived the kind of life as I have, you learn not to be too choosy when it comes to your potables. You wouldn’t think an old rum dum like me would know a word like potables, would you?” Actually, I didn’t. He had that grizzled, weathered look of someone who had spent more than a few years curled up on heating grates and park benches, with a copy of the Sunday New York Times as the only thing between him and the elements. And he smelled liked it too.
“Lots of things I know might surprise you. And all it would cost you to find out would be the cost of a few of my specialty cocktails. You strike me as the curious type.” I noticed that his change had disappeared from the bar and been hidden safely away in whatever secret compartment he had for such things. No doubt about it, he was a crafty old fart.
“I’ll bet you never thought you’d be getting an invitation like that first thing in the morning, now, did you?” The answer was too obvious to bother with. I bought him a round and let the show go on. It was fairly obvious that he was programmed to talk, whether anyone was listening or not, and there was nothing, I or anyone else could do about it. Feeding him drinks was like shoveling coal into a bottomless, burning pit.
I had to admit, his tale about translating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow into Seagull, was a unique project, even for a delusional half-dead alkie. I was going to suggest he tackle someone a bit more modern like Vachel Lindsay, whose poem “The Congo”, might make an interesting vocal companion to Hiawatha in Seagull, when the nurse interrupted my train of thought.
“How about “General Booth Enters into Heaven’?”
“Vachel Lindsay. Poetry. Not the usual intellectual pursuits of bartenders.”
“I’m not your usual kind of bartender.”
“Good. I like unusual.”
I wondered what unusual meant to her. She motioned toward the bartender.
“I’ll have tequila.”
“Something with a worm at the bottom.”
I asked. “Do you eat the worm?”
“Always. It’s what they’re for.”
I looked into her eyes. There was something deep and inscrutable, something impenetrable and determined there, I couldn’t fathom. There was no way I could out-stare those eyes. Once she had seen you, there was no way to escape them. Not here. Not anywhere. I paid for the drinks. We weren’t going anywhere. Not for a long, long time.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.