Friday, July 9, 2010

The Choice

I know my way around the average bar.

It’s not something everyone would brag about, or even be proud of, or even be cognizant of, but I do; have; and am.

For decades, I even kept a personal coin for the expertise: I called myself a, “saloonist.”

From the setup to the cleanup; the mundane preparations, the hopefully smooth operation, the sadness, the madness, the sometimes electrifying drama, and the often disgusting cleanup after, I have seen, lived, or imagined, in my 50 years as a regular, the way the world works, in a bar.

Try as I might to not star in a untoward bar scene that, as time wears on, grows increasingly unflattering with each re-retelling; or, mindlessly inexplicable; or, downright dunderheaded, I have not been immune.

I have been terribly careful. I’ve been suddenly quiet. I’ve disappeared. I have been clever, cowardly, non-confrontational, apologetic for breathing, for looking this-or-that way, for having a mustache, for drinking a Guinness with ice cream cake, for being a newspaper columnist…

But, still, I have not been immune.

Two of my own bar stories involve hats.

Peter McGowan, who made a fortune in the early 1960’s with PJ’s, on Main Street in Farmingdale, used to have a rule that nobody could wear a hat in any of his places. Pete, who later served time as The Supervisor of the Town of Islip, held that hats caused trouble. That didn’t bother me in the 60’s. I didn’t wear a hat.

But in the 70’s, I did. In the summer I wore a 80-cent, blue, crushable, fishing hat; and in the winter, a standard, warm, Donegal, Irish tweed cap.

The 80-cent hat got me into 80-cent trouble with a Newsday advertising guy. An unwritten rule said that advertising people, the big shot businessmen who made lots of money, drank on the south side of the oval bar at the Garden-City-Bowling-Lanes and Restaurant. We poorly-paid editorial employees gathered on the North side.

One day, an advertising guy named John wandered over and stood next to me, talking, violating the rule. By-and-by, he took my fishing hat off my head, put it on his head, and declared it to be his hat, now.

I couldn’t remember for the life of me what Pete McGowan had said twenty years before, but it sure seemed important, now. Had I remembered, I would have bequeathed the advertising salesman the hat. He had it, anyway.

Instead, I said, “Give the hat back.” He said, “No. Do what you gotta do.”

Not having any expertise with this sort of enterprise, I hit him rather harmlessly in his ample, and strangely firm stomach. My fist bounced back so fast, I had to step out of its way.

“Is that it?” he said, incredulously.

“Yeah.” I said rather glumly. “That’s pretty much my whole show.”

“Good,” he said. “I’m keeping the hat.”

That was in the 70’s. I should have remembered it.

One day in Garrity’s, in the next decade, while I was busy ordering lunch and trading stories with Bernie Tanzillo, a tall man entered to my left. He whisked my Donegal Tweed cap off my head as he passed me and placed it on his own head. He then took the far left barstool in the U-shaped bar, and commenced conversing with no-one-in-particular about nothing-in-particular, as if he hadn’t done what I knew he had. He laughed, when somebody said, “Well!” like comedian Jack Benny.

My first reaction was laughter, too, but I still don’t know the reason. I looked at him; acknowledged his existence. He didn’t seem to care what I acknowledged. I said something to Bernie, but I have no memory of what I said, or what he said, or even whether he said anything. I think I was feeling alone.

Bernie resumed his story, I think, while I looked attentively at him, having no idea what he was saying. The head waitress, Laurie, served me my opened fresh ham sandwich on a hard roll. I looked at it as if to say, “And what do I do with this?”

Thinking only of my hat, I managed to eat the sandwich, and wash it down with a 7 oz. Budweiser. I also think I convinced somebody that I was listening to Bernie. I finished and said, loudly, “Joe, I think I’ll have one more of those little beers before I go back to the paragraph factory.”

It was Joe’s Gavitt’s place. He gave the beer to me. I drank it slowly. I said aloud, to the guy in the corner, in a surprisingly steady voice, “I’ll be going back to work soon. I’ll want the hat.” And I raised my beer to him.

“Naa,” he said. “The hat’s mine, now. I’m keepin’ the hat.” He showed no emotion.

“Well, just so you know.” I said, returning my attention to Bernie, who was talking to Laurie, ignoring me, as if my life weren’t on the chopping block.

What had gone wrong? This didn’t happen in Garrity’s, certainly not to me. I was a trouble-free customer. I hadn’t said, “Boo,” to this guy.

When the moment to leave came, my mouth operated absent direction. It said to the man, “Can I ask you a personal question?” My face showed nothing.

My brain suddenly said, “Mouth! What are you doing?” My mind began telling my mouth muscles to stop it, stop the mouth. “The mouth is operating without supervision!” some part of me yelled. My mouth prepared to keep moving.

“Sure,” said the tall man, who had gotten taller.

“No! No, mouth, no!” my brain pleaded.

“Okay. Are you willing to die for the hat?”

“Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. We’re dead.

The question came out clear and slow. I heard it. The questioner sounded seriously curious and inquisitive, not daffed, not plum crazy. Several surrounding conversations stopped. The man looked at me with a new expression.

Quick, Joe Gavitt grabbed the hat off the man’s head, saying, “You crazy sonofabitch,” and put the hat in front of me. I didn’t know who was the crazy sonofabitch, but I stared at the guy as if I did. I didn’t look at the hat. The whole thing took maybe 11 seconds and with the argument going on inside me, it seemed like an hour.

I saluted and walked out to a really ridiculously large, body-rotted, 440 cu. in. Chevy Suburban. I locked all the doors before heading back to the paragraph factory, shaking uncontrollably.

1 comment:

  1. Talk about moments in time.. If it DIDNT go down that way, that afternoon.. where would you BE today??
    You make sense out of the ridiculous, you make crystal clear, what fear makes opaque, you melt the resolve that makes us do something that would normally be perceived as regrettable.. but is really courage in disguise..
    You are what life SHOULD be.. and WILL be.
    THANK you, edlowe*