“The Older I Get the Better I Was”

Waiting for the streams and rivers to be freed of winter’s snow and ice (I’m within a day or two of fishing once again!), I recently got a comment on a post concerning a long hike that began and ended at a country bar, and it made me think back to another interim in life when I decided to drive toward the city from my rivertop home and spend some time in the shadows of humanity. For this DSCN6062 account of life downstream, the names have been changed, but the interactions strive for truthfulness. As always, such a visit is time well-spent, even better at departure.

River Street in Small-Town America is awash with bars. Granted, they are fewer than in that golden age prior to Urban Renewal when such superfluities as parks, trees, bars, and classic old buildings were effectively demolished in favor of plazas, Wal-Marts, funeral homes, and Dollar General Stores. The remaining River Street establishments, though decrepit and of dubious merit in the eyes of many who are comfortable in life, help to reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the casual visitor.

DSCN6056One afternoon you make a sweep through several River Street bars and meet the local talent.

Patti resists analysis. She’s slightly overweight, divorced, alone. When she speaks, her dark hair ripples like a stream. You listen out of sympathy or pity but you understand her with regard. Her kids have grown and gone away. She works long hours at minimum wage for one of the many Convenient Marts in town. All day she’s dealt with a dysfunctional ATM at the store. She’s says that good jobs are scarce; employers don’t appreciate her efforts or experience. She’s worked for 13 consecutive days and now has two days off for getting loose with drink and dancing.

DSCN6069She invites you to see her apartment. The refrigerator’s full of beer. She’ll drink the hard stuff. You can choose. She tells you calmly, “I am lonely.”

You decline the invitation, and you know her pulse to be the beating of a tavern drum in any bar in any land.

Melvin is young, short, and muscular, a black man in a white man’s town. He is incoherent, loud, exuberant, and probably high on crack. He wants you to buy him a beer. You buy him one, and he inquires, “What kind of music you like, man?”

He apologizes for his interruptions but is unafraid to ask for money. He becomes DSCN6057indignant when you won’t give him any extra. You can see the flames of desperation in his eyes like pulsing red lights on a wall. He slides away, a cooler motion, an impassionate approach to another drinker. It may seem as though he’s stolen fire from the gods outside the city but no mortal will accept his torch.

“Buy your own beer, Melvin. Get the hell out of here!”

Melvin’s the kind of guy who, in a moment of rare sobriety, would be the first to tell you there is no escape from whom we are or from the world-at-large, but there’s often a brief erasement of the blues, a relative tranquility, in the din of words and music. Will he make good use of that tranquility and improve himself tomorrow? It’s anybody’s guess.

DSCN6060Jayne is small and frail. In her 40s, with a hollow, wrinkled face. Two front teeth are missing. Her sand-colored hair reflects both pride and vulnerability in an overall portrait of abuse. Like a mollusc with a broken shell, she swims lamely in the shallowest of social waters, driven to the bar to find some ease. She leans on the faces and the voices that surround her, hope and fear at war inside her chest.

She speaks slowly and without the lubrication of intelligence or wit. “Men are all the same,” she says. “Out to get everything they can.”

Martha is a loud-mouthed bar girl who employs her talents on both sides of Mahogany Ridge. She’s round-faced and her body still retains the cleavage of appeal. She knows all the taverns and recalls who you are, remembers your peculiar taste in beer. She’s distrustful of words and language so she turns up her volume and attempts to be crude and macho, like a strutting male. Her toughness rings hollow but accentuates the beauty underneath. She’ll continue punching her way from the prison of self-pity, but she isn’t likely to leave the bar behind.

A man strides in, confused, defiant. He looks nameless, and his face is beaten, bloody DSCN6064and bruised. Even Martha at her vehement best couldn’t have accomplished a job like that. The poor guy’s ejected only moments before two cops call at the door for questioning. Someone mentions that he wronged a girlfriend (his or someone else’s), and another guy had become involved. Victim, or predator, or both, the fellow obviously wasn’t another drinker ready to adopt a barstool.

Joe works for the state highway department but proclaims himself to be a painter and an artist despite the criticisms of his parents. He has earrings, long hair, the demeanor of a braggart. His famous uncle once batted for the New York Yankees. He collects autographs from his uncle to sell, but he’ll give you one for nothing if he likes you or believes that you’ll have something useful for him someday.

DSCN6055Joe could use a book offer or a movie deal about his life’s accomplishments, something for the world that shows himself at one in mind and body, full of creativity and wonder. As for you, no Yankee autograph today, and you might have to pay for your last beer.

You hear someone shout, “The older I get, the better I was!” Another fellow says, “One fer… everbody here!”

You don’t even have to pay for your last beer.

 

 

 

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About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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15 Responses to “The Older I Get the Better I Was”

  1. stflyfisher says:

    I like what you write, Walt. Perfect for the winter blues.

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    This post made me think of the old country standard “The Wild Side of Life.” “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels…” What’s that in the last photo – a literary collaboration between you and your brother?

    • There might be an interesting connection there between Hank Thompson’s “wild side of life” and the wild side in the hallucinatory Paradise B&G but it kind of leaves me speculating on the definition of “wildness,” which is a good thing, isn’t it. As for the photo, yeah, Pete and I collaborated on “Glass” way back in ’85. I’ll give you a copy next time we share a brew. Thanks!

  3. Brent says:

    There are bars and then there are bars. One kind has people out for a good craft beer or a happy hour sandwich: professionals and locals alike, but the crowd can certainly be more or less upscale. I generally like these bars, unless they become too pretentious or filled with snobs/overgrown frat boys. The other kind is the “third place” for the dispossessed, the abused, the downtrodden, the henpecked, the alcoholics, or merely the curious. They might not be the most uplifting or pleasant to sit in, and you might be faced with Yuengling as your de facto craft beer, but these are the places where you find people at their most honest and vulnerable…Americana at its most raw.

    • Yes! There’re bars and then there are bars, absolutely. The “third place” is definitely not the Sports Bar/frat boy scene, although it can be a lively mix of folks at times, not always the downtrodden. The beer is often less than optimal but the honesty delights. I like your phrase, “Americana at its most raw.”

  4. Pete says:

    Nice Walt. I enjoyed it.

    • Thanks Pete. Glad you liked it. Meanwhile, I’ll be making another attempt soon to see that old thresher that you mentioned, but the snow was mighty deep out there behind the house.

      • Pete says:

        I remember your annual hike with brother Pete and Tim. You guys were out in your front yard having a well deserved beer. I stopped and you filled me in on your adventure.
        I always wanted to do that trek. Sorry I never did.
        Also, where do you get to go trout fishing this early before April first?

  5. That reminded me of a dive in Panama City called the Beer Haven (no kidding). It was an old gas station with its name in black letters on a Coca-Cola sign of all things. The crowd inside was pretty much as you described, but likely more redneck. Owing to my older brothers’ Johnny Horton 8-track, I was able to sing along with the lone musician sitting in back. Probably the only thing that kept me from getting my college-boy ass kicked.

    • Oh yeah, I know what you mean, Jim. Years ago, I had to learn some quick ways to adapt to the local ambience in certain dives– for survival sake. Singing along to a country tune was a good strategy, in your case.

  6. Mike says:

    You met my aunt Martha?!

    Great stuff, Walt. It’s been awhile but I’ve been there. Thanks for letting me take up a stool on a workday…

    • She bragged about you all the time, Mike; I know more about you than ya think! Glad to have you sittin’ here, casting a fly, drinkin’ a beer, whatever, any time of the week.

  7. Pete,
    Thanks for your above comment. I recall that roadside chat as well. You would have fit in with our crazy upland hump, so I’m thinking we should have had you initiated at the next opportunity. Damn. As for fishing, certain waters are legally open all year-round, rivers like the Genesee and Cohocton and Spring Creek, plus the Great Lakes tributaries, with limited or no-kill regs. Yesterday, with fair weather, I finally got back to some catch-and-release at Spring Creek en route to Rochester. I didn’t catch any but it felt good to be out.

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