Rated PG (Language, situation.)
Street of Rogues, Chapter 10—The Chinese Bar
“I don’t like jail, they got the wrong kind of bars in there.”—Charles Bukowski.
Wedged between those glory days of hardy-partying, I tend to overlook how bored we felt most of the time in those, ‘The Blunder Years,’ of my youth. School was busy teaching us to fall in line, shut up, and memorize. Parents left us alone and time seemed to hang heavy on our hands. Playing cards and handball pretty much filled in the blank spots—and drinking cheap beer and wine (which created a few blank spots).
If I combine all the long, boring days and divide them into equal parts, I find a Chinese bar with free hors d’oeuvres. We hung there many a night, mainly because they served us, but also because the clientele was slightly less seedy than Mitchell’s bar up the street (which was mostly old men in trenchcoats and one guy wearing an ascot who liked young boys)—the bar where Frankie the Bum fell asleep, was tossed outside in the cold and never woke up.
On a cold night, the Chinese bar was warm. On hot nights it was still warm, but had a soft spot for your butt at least; and it cost you a buck and a quarter for a draft pull of Bud in order to stay. It also had a juke box, which turned out to be a non-essential luxury item when you were already grubbing change for beers. With my ten-dollar-a-week allowance—a pittance, barely allowing me a few nights worth of pot, three packs of butts and four quarts of beer (or two nights of acid)—I had no hope of maintaining a ‘budget’ to last the week. If I wanted a five-dollar concert ticket and a tab of acid, I was broke the day I took the bill out of Pop’s hand and rifled through his coats for more change on my way out the door. In all cases, I was begging and borrowing by Sunday.
We’d start on cheap, store-bought quarts of beer—or screwtop bottles of wine—before going inside and taking up space for hours at a time with our one or two 12-ounce bar beers, listening to Levon and Billy Preston’s Outta Space with every extra quarter and trying to gigolo local patrons into buying us a beer every so often. It didn’t matter that I was fifteen and most of my close friends were no more than sixteen. We all looked older than our years, and a little run-down at times. I had the moustache going for me and the rules were lax. Except the titty bars—they were strict.
Sammy, the barkeep, looked out for some of us. I don’t know why, since we hardly bought anything, spilled a lot of what we did buy, barfed occasionally in the stairwell to the bathroom (Chuckie always blamed me) and never tipped. He was the greatest barkeep I ever knew.
“No mo’ fo’ you! No mo’ fo’ you!” he said to Lorraine, waggling his finger in her face while he wiped the bar clean of her beer spill. Chuckie, Lewis and I sat at the bar and watched Sammy’s slitted eyes disappear into two thin lines. “You spill two and no mo’!” Most of us illegals were quiet and respectful, so he’d let us stay. We didn’t want to risk blowing a good gig with the free hors d’oeuvres. To this day, I can’t find a shrimp toast that compares.
Sammy replaced Lorraine’s beer (who was now down to her last strike), gave her a fresh glass of ice, and ambled over to our end of the bar—clearly disgusted. Lewis and Chuckie had their heads together, scheming about how to get some pills while I concentrated on the beer nuts, only half-listening. Sammy spoke to me, “See her at the end of the bar?” He nodded in ‘her’ direction. A pale, sixty year-old grandma sat behind a mixed drink, smoking a cigarette and nervously swizzling her stick. “She pays,” he said. “She gonna reave soon, too.”
I watched Grandma’s jerky movements and darting eyes. She didn’t look like a happy, normal, well-adjusted person should look. Psychotic, neurotic alcoholic. That’s how I wrote her off in my head, especially if she hung out in this place—which was populated mostly by droopy barflies. I was more of a barfly on the wall, still in the cocoon of invulnerable adolescence. I knew this wasn’t the long-term me.
“Pays for what?” I finally asked.
At first Sammy looked taken aback, but quickly recovered and flashed a big smile. “Ha-ha! You funny-man! I see…” as if I had made a joke. He looked back at Grandma, who was stubbing out her smoke. “Seriousry, man,” he whispered to me on the sly, “she gonna reave now!” Grandma was putting her Salems in her handbag. “Yes?” Sammy wanted to know of me.
“Nah, I don’t think so, not this time. Maybe next time. Thanks anyway,” I told him, replying politely but generically enough to cover up my naiveté. At the rate we were tipping, you had to thank him for everything at least once anyway—even if you didn’t understand what he was talking about.
Sammy looked disgusted as Grandma got up to leave. “Ach! Don’t unnerstan’ you. She pay if you go with her!” He wanted me to gigolo her! Oh, god… No! I admit to being a horny teenager, but I wasn’t that desperate. Sammy knew I had the most gorgeous girlfriend in the neighborhood, Margaret, but this one paid for it! I almost had to gag in the stairwell and blame Chuckie for it.
“Nah, kinda tired tonight…”
He shook his head, grabbed the bar towel and muttered his way to the other end of the bar.
There were some pretty cracked cases at Sammy’s bar. Cracked case in point: Chuckie and I were sitting at a table when this big guy teetered over and just stood there, peering down at us. Solemnly, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket, pulled out some change and a matchbook and held it in his giant, outstretched hand. I was hoping he was offering us the loose change (I didn’t need the matches), but didn’t trust the black, vacant look in his eyes as he stared down at us—as silent and unmoving as the Lincoln Memorial. We waited cautiously for him to say something until he finally challenged us with how he didn’t have anything to do with our money, and that he’d knock us down to our knees and kill us if we thought he did. He looked deadly serious, too. We had no clue where he was going with this, but we didn’t have any money.
“Hah?” we tried to reply. Then Chuckie got his fight-or-flight thing going and, pissed off now, screamed at the guy: “Hey man, we’ll pull you outta here by your fuckin’ hair, man, and stomp on your fuckin’ head! Get the fuck outta here, prick!” It took a lot to piss Chuckie off, but I was glad to see it just then. The big guy looked slightly chagrined, then turned and teetered out the door like a blank clone.
Chuckie and I looked at each other. “Shit,” I said, “I think Lurch had his body snatched.”
Just then the door flew open with a Bang! I jumped and looked over to see a dwarf stick his head inside. “All right,” he bellowed, “all you people in here owe me money!” It shut the place up for a second while all the barflies wondered: What the fuck? “All of you!” he screamed, pointing at all of us in a wide arc. Then he left, exit stage right.
I turned to Chuckie, “Is it my imagination, or did he sound like Sinatra?”
“What is it with people tonight?” he wanted to know.
“Remind me why we hang out here, man.”
“Because they let us,” he reminded me, shoving another shrimp toast in his mouth.
Rosie came in and took her place on a stool by the juke box. She laid a pack of cigarettes on the bar, put her purse at her feet and smiled at Sammy, who immediately went to fix her usual gin and tonic. Rosie was pushing forty-five but in a friendly, sexy way. Her favorite book was The Carpetbaggers and we both smoked Marlboro, back when they only came in one color. I slid next to her at the bar as she took a smoke out of her pack.
“Hiya Rosie,” I said, flipping my lighter open.
“Hello! Why, thank you! Care for a cigarette?”
I smiled. “Well, since you’re offering…” I took one and sat down.
Lorraine was silent at the other end of the bar. No longer a spring chicken and already three sheets to the wind, she staggered off her stool and walked unsteadily toward us, eyeing me lasciviously. Using several empty stools as well as Chuckie and Lewis along the way for balance, she wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me off the bar stool. I knew what was coming and smiled weakly at Rosie. Lorraine enjoyed pronouncing to all and sundry that I “might be young,” but I “knew how!” I did know how, but not with Lorraine. For her I suddenly drew a blank. With her arm draped around my shoulders, mostly for support, she said for all to hear, “He might be young, but he knows how! Ha-ha!” and put her face close to mine. “Wanna hambugger at my place?”
I stalled. “Uh… On a bun?”
“Any way you want it, honey.”
“I’m kinda stuffed on shrimp toast and peanuts right now….” I told her, squirming onto my stool.
It was sad, but the barflies accepted us for what we were so we owed them the same courtesy. Especially since Lorraine bought me a beer from time to time and taught me you could put an ice-cube in it if it wasn’t cold enough. Plus, it’s hard not to like someone who likes you. Life for these people was essentially an ongoing nothing-going-on syndrome. Ask any one of them a serious question and you’d find they had dozed off, dreaming of a holiday someplace nice.
Lorraine wobbled back to her stool by Richie, a grizzled regular, and continued talking loudly while straightening her tight skirt. In the process, her blouse slipped a little at the shoulder, revealing a dingy bra strap. Lewis and Chuckie slid over with their glasses of Bud and sat next to me and Rosie. Rosie watched Lorraine, who was chattering about Yankee the horse to a very bored-looking Richie.
Rosie scowled, “What the hell is she talking about?”
“Ha?” Chuckie rarely said more than one word in public, but ‘Ha’ had several meanings. With a question mark, it meant ‘What?’ On the phone, ‘Ha’ meant ‘Hello.’ With an exclamation point, it meant ‘Bullshit!’ A plain ‘Ha’ could either mean he was agreeing with you, or wasn’t listening.
I leaned closer to Rosie, trying to be conspiratorial and cozy, “She’s telling the story of Yankee the horse.” Rosie smelled good, too. I enjoyed being cozy with Rosie. “Unfortunately for Richie, he’s already heard it several times.” Rosie laughed, a deep one that reeked of sensuality. I wished she would make me a hambugger. I’d put it in her cleavage and eat with no hands. Then I’d ask to see her buns. I chuckled.
Rosie smiled, “Is it funny?”
I shook my mind out of Rosie’s cleavage and summarized the story of Yankee the horse, as told by Lorraine. “Yeah, actually it is. She shwears it’s true.”
“It’s bullshit,” Lewis said.
“Ha,” Chuckie agreed, and sipped his king of beers.
“Still, it’s a pretty good story, ya gotta admit.” I told Rosie about Yankee the horse, who lived in Scotland and loved two things in life: mash and kids. Every day, Yankee saw the kids off to school, and was there to greet them when the bus returned. One day he got out of his field and went to the brewery, where he found large piles of mash, got pitifully drunk—”
“Sheeeee… pish-ass drunken ol’ sot. Yep. Drunker anna… anna… sumpin’,” Lorraine yelled in Richie’s deadpan face, loud enough to be heard a dozen stools away. Richie was in faraway Barbados, thinking about tan women in white bikinis carrying buckets of Bud.
Lewis was adamant, “That’s bullshit. Horses don’t get drunk on mash.”
“Yeah, and you’re an expert, I know,” I said. “Eddie’s the one to ask.”
“Ha!” Chuckie laughed.
I continued in Rosie’s ear, “Yankee was waiting when the bus arrived, allegedly drunk. When the kids saw him, they begged him to come over so they could pet him through the windows.” Rosie nodded, appearing still interested, but glanced at her nails.
Richie said something to Lorraine. “Fuckiff I know!” she screamed.
“But,” I went on, “Yankee decided he’d rather board the bus! And before the driver could close the door, he walked inside.” I could sense another Bullshit! coming, this time from Rosie. “Wait, it gets better. He walked up some of the steps, but he couldn’t make the turn into the bus, see?” Rosie could understand that it might be a difficult maneuver for a horse. I couldn’t see how even a sober horse could make the turn. “So Yankee went to sleep right there on the steps, sorta half in and half out. What a pain in the ass, huh?” (Moral: never let a drunken horse attempt to board a bus.)
There was a predictable pause before Rosie spoke the inevitable. “That’s it?”
Lorraine fell forward onto Richie, who saved his beer from tipping over in the nick of time. “Ha-ha-ha! Moofed him to Louisville! Yep-up!” She was hanging onto his arm while he tried to keep his beer steady and change hands.
I had to laugh. “Don’t you think that’s funny?” Rosie was politely amused but no, not really. “It’s better when Lorraine tells it,” I said, looking in Lorraine’s direction. Richie excused himself and headed toward the bathroom.
Lorraine was animated. “Hey! Less go skiing!”
Rosie turned on her stool, “I’m gonna play the juke box.”
I told Lorraine that we couldn’t go skiing. It was June. Besides, none of us could ski.
Lorraine looked crestfallen. “Aw, yer so cute…. I’m pretty-goo-too!”
“What?” I turned to Lewis and Chuckie for help. “What did she say?”
Lewis translated. “She said you’re cute.” He and Chuckie laughed. “And, she’s ‘pretty good, too.’”
“Yep-up! I went down this REALLY BIG MOUNT’NIN!” Lorraine shouted down the bar, out the door and halfway across Queens Boulevard. We had to cover our ears it was so big! She stared at us, each eye wandering off in different directions. “I cudden see SHIT, my gog-ules were fudsing…”
I appealed to Lewis for another translation. “Her wha? Was wha?”
“Her goggles were… fudsing, I guess.”
“Oh.” I figured it was a skiing term.
“I went ZING!” Lorraine thrust her hand down the slopes, knocking over Richie’s beer.
Sammy wasn’t too happy. “No mo’ fo’ you! No mo’ fo’ you!” He hurried over with a bar rag. We shook our heads. What a waste of Bud.
Lorraine looked sufficiently contrite. “Fuckin’ fondaloop…”
“What’s a fondaloop?” Lewis wondered.
“It’s a skiing term, like ‘fudsing.’” I said.
The juke box fired up with a Perry Como song, “It’s al-l-l-ways fair weather, when hep cats get together…”
Rosie returned and sang along. “A hubba-hubba-hubba, hello Dad….”
Lewis nudged me with his elbow and leaned closer, his eyes big and bright, “Tomorrow’s Chuckie’s birthday. We’re gonna rob a drug store. Want in?”
“Well-a hubba-hubba-hubba, let’s shoot some breeze. Say, what-ever happened to the Japanese?”
I peeked across Lewis at Chuckie. “Ha?” He raised his eyebrows and took another sip of beer, indicating his blessing of the idea.
I thought about it. We had no idea how to rob a drug store. Still, it was his birthday… “Of course,” I told Lewis, and took a sip to seal the deal. My logic was simple. If we couldn’t figure out a way inside, then nothing was lost. However, if I didn’t go with them and they succeeded, I wouldn’t get a split.
Lorraine dropped her cigarettes all over the floor and was fishing around on her hands and knees for them. Richie got back from the bathroom, looked at the bar and said, “Hey, where’s my beer?”
The juke box blared, “It was might-y smoky over Tokyo…”