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 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.
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.
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 indignant 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.
Jayne 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 and 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.
Joe 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.