Gus’s is packed. “Tired of Being Alone” croons down from tinny ceiling speakers.
I lift my plastic mug up to the waitress and welcome the watered-down coffee she pours.
…won’t you help me girl, just as soon as you can…
Jesse and I have been chatting about his home life. Girlfriend gone, new dog. He shows me the doggy cam on his phone. And for a minute we watch his puppy sit on the couch by the window and observe the scene outside. He’s waiting for Jesse to come home and feed him.
…I guess you know that I love you so…
Jesse just grins. He’s smitten.
…even though you don’t want me no more…
“To tell you the truth, I am some hungover,” the waitress says, dropping our plates down. She looks it—bags under her eyes, a downturned mouth.
…needing you has proven to me to be my greatest dream…
Before we have time to formulate a response, she’s moved on to the next table, full stride—for a table of regulars, her face breaking into a smile.
You remember playing pick up on the local courts. How it feels to walk up the court. You are in your late twenties. Young men pile out of a low-slung car with its music on so loud and so bass-laden that you feel the beat resonate in your ribcage. You head for the court, the marked spring in your step exposing your eagerness. There’s a group clustered around the bench near center court. Some guys are already shooting, others are out on the grass stretching, serious—and cool—enough to remember their warm-up routine. One young pre-teen sidles up with a ball so worn it resembles a gigantic peach. He stands quietly at the three-point arc, gauging, no doubt, whether he’ll be allowed to play in what is clearly an adult game. “Love & Happiness” seeps from some old man’s Cadillac, no doubt on 8-track. …walk away with victory…
You join the crowd gathered under the basket, waiting to rebound an errant shot, pass out made baskets to the appropriate shooter, or dribble to the corner for an open look. You’re waiting for critical mass, for someone to call out “Let’s play!” or “Shoot for teams!” After a few more warm-up jumpers and some idle talk, teams form, the ball gets checked in, the game starting up like a car on a cold day.
Coming downtown can feel a bit like a ghost walk these days—old haunts replaced by the new-thing boutique, entire buildings razed and a hotel plopped down in their place—(blink) a foundry becomes (blink) a tourist spot. Old memories rise up and walk alongside the distracted tourists. How long back does this nostalgia tripping go? As far as I let it, I guess.
5 Walnut Bistro is nearly empty this early in the day—a few locals at the bar. Nice to be in from the heat. A squad of segues floats by. Two buskers head for their spot. The first out-of-towners tumble in just as I finish my beer. Why not? I walk up to the bar for another.
The white-haired beatnik sits outside the café with his coffee and notebook, and the dark-skinned gentleman with the walker blasts “Let’s Stay Together” outside the library on his old-school boombox propped on the seat. …times are good or bad, happy or sad…
As soon as He steps through the door everyone in the place starts acting as if they are in a movie, or at least trying out for one. We all know He’s in town, has been in town for over three weeks now, shooting a picture, and that One-Eyed Jack’s has become by necessity the evening’s go-to stop, always a little after ten; and we all know He comes here alone, and always takes a corner booth that within three days miraculously stays open beginning around nine and remains that way through last call, even on the occasional night he doesn’t show, either too busy with shooting or just tired from running his lines all the time, we never know but talk about constantly on our squeaky stools…maybe he’s having an affair with the co-star…
But just as soon as He steps through the door, the cameras are running, so to speak, and everyone gets busy playing their part. The title typed on the script: Nonchalance. The soundtrack? Al Green’s version of “I Can’t Get Used to You.” That fabulous aural strut, such a peacock cakewalk…what else? I can turn a river into a raging fire / I can live forever if I so desired…
Gerry, the bartender, makes sure to be at the corner by the pool tables just as He makes his cool way there. The nod is mirror-practiced, the flip of the coaster pitch-perfected, and the “What will it be?” straight out of a dozen westerns. Always “Jack” then, a pause, “with a Bud back.”
No one will ever admit it, but there’s always perfect silence in that moment—or as silent as a bar can be when jam-packed and giddy with expectation—gone quiet in order for the lines to be articulated just so, in the way people pause when a serious golfer tees off; no one wants to be that jerk who throws perfection off with some dumbass remark.
And as soon as He gets his drink, and thinks His way to the always-open booth, a little private smile is paired subtly (but not so subtly I can’t make it out every time from my perch by the jukebox) with that little hitch in the step. Sliding into the plastic bench seat, as if preparing to mount a stallion or slide into a sports car or hop into a cockpit. And just then the place slips on cue—I can change anything from old to new—into a deeper, more natural rhythm, dropping into gear—pure small-town-bustling-barroom aesthetic, back to the way it’s usually supposed to be, though it has never been this crowded on a Tuesday night, and the high school gym teacher never used to sit at the bar with a Coke (being fifteen years sober), nor did Jackie, the town’s notorious divorcee, ever play pool before or show this much leg, etc.
But not until all the above has transpired, with the preselected music coming on (the handler making sure that the Everly Brothers’ song gets removed and this Al Green number added)—the things I want to do the most, I'm unable to do…) not until then do the bar-backs begin their overhead martini machinations, forearms flashing (clearly they never did that before), and all the young high school dropouts start up their dancing audition, hoping for their fifteen minutes, would He turn his oversized head, with its professionally styled helmet of hair, and smile at me, once, like a camera flash, and pat the plastic leather seat, side-nodding his head as if to say, It’s okay, there’s room. And then, but not until then, I would slide down off the sill and grab my sweaty ginger and gin, and make my Kmart Garbo way through the peanut shells, basking in all the jealous adulation, knocking shoulders with the dime-store cowboys, and join Him there inside the gauzy gazebo of cigarette smoke, and offer my one sure move, my patented daffy grin.
Flight delayed, you find the only empty seat at the bar and, when you finally get the bartender’s attention, order a double scotch. The young woman next to you is reading a book on asana yoga. Her legs are pulled under her on the high chair, and she is leaning forward to sip her fruity drink. She’s debating whether she should have another. The bartender comes over but she shakes her head no. The woman looks over at you like you’re stupid.
“In your book or talking to me?”
She frowns. You start to ask her about the yoga book but stop yourself, turning to your drink as if it were a book.
A nearby couple, having paid their tab, walks past you out into the terminal, dragging luggage behind them distractedly. They look like extras on the Brady Bunch. You slip over to the furthest seat from the young woman. She sighs out loud, not looking over, and sticks her nose deeper into her book. You watch the couple until they disappear down a long ramp into Terminal C. Almost imperceptible at first, like a small voice trapped inside a box under a table, if not louder then somehow clearer, you can make out “You Ought to Be With Me” on the terminal speakers. Sit right down and talk with me about how you ought to be…
You can’t help but laugh, which makes the young woman frown even deeper.
Right then an East Indian family walks by, the mother and daughter in full-length saris; the husband wears a traditional western business suit, but the son is dressed in typical American teen sportswear.
You finish your drink, pay up with the barkeep, and ready yourself for the next stage of travel. On the way out you glance over at the young woman, who looks up and stares at you with an easily decipherable look on her freckled face. You give her a salute and move on…turn your back for another day…Singing along all the way down the carpeted ramp.
Three friends in town early morning. In a few hours two are heading home, flying off in separate directions, while the other drives country roads back to work. He’s brought his out-of-town friends to his favorite bagel place. Tucked away in the warehouse district, the joint’s made up of a long counter, a couple of booths and a picnic table. Big stone ovens line the back wall. After ordering, the men sit at a table, talk returning to the last few shared days—of all the projects picked up, discussed, brought forward in small steps. A song percolates on the radio:
Sha la la la, la la la,
I love you,
Sha la la la, la la la,
Thinkin' of you…
Someone looks at a watch. Getting close to time to go.
And I've been feeling this way
for such a long time…
All of a sudden, a bagel appears wreathed in steam—its unexpected arrival signaled by a doughy waft —lofted between the three friends on the end of a ridiculously long wooden paddle. It floats there between them a moment then, with a flick of the baker’s wrist, slides off into a basket. “Try this,” he barks across the counter. The baker smiles broadly, knows he’s just blown their minds.
One of the men tears the bagel into thirds and passes the steaming bread around to the others. Dark seeds fall to the table. When the men step out into the mist, each is happy, for the moment satisfied and full, ready for what the next portion of the day will bring.
The bar opened promptly at four. The bartender dropped his cigarette and propped the door. You’d walked the square twice; still you were the afternoon’s first customer. The interior had to have been carted across the Atlantic, piece by piece, including the old-fashioned ceiling, for when you crossed over the threshold some rough magic transported you back into an Irish pub.
You made the young bartender laugh by ordering a gin martini.
“If something something something, than an Irish bartender can make a dry martini.”
You were not really listening but smiled and, when it arrived, lifted the top-heavy glass carefully, first as toast then as opening gambit. Sitting back with a sigh, the day’s small worries released as dusky light pushed through the bar’s high windows. Now that’s what you were talking about.
All day you’d been roaming the rain-soaked streets, grimly reliving a few lost days in your 20s: fresh off a Greyhound, an afternoon to kill and just enough cash to haunt the cafes, to buy a used paperback; eventually napping in the square among the hippies and bums, the tourists nibbling at their boxed lunches. Such nostalgia made you lonely. Old.
There was a little over an hour left before you were scheduled to meet old friends. The bartender was telling a young couple about the bar’s origins, no doubt the first of a least a dozen retellings. The woman went over to the jukebox, deposited her quarters, selected her songs, then headed back to the booth. “Full of Fire” slunk into the room, floating on its horn section, its parading saxophone…I’m full of fire…you’re my one desire…you can make me cry…
You had enough. Packed up your things—the sun hidden behind a picket line of clouds; the evening crowd’s beginning to surge—hitched up your daypack like a young man in a romantic movie, and set out for the next portion of the night, already hungry for dinner. Life has just begun…
He notices there are no stay off the grass signs on the patch of grass athwart the gazebo. It being the new Biltmore Estate “village,” there easily could be. But, no, this is a frolic friendly zone, as evidenced by the band of youngsters wobbling and careening around the neatly cut lawn.
(“Are we evil?” one asks the other. “No, we’re not evil,” the other replies. And off they slip into the next adventure.)
There are two pairs of elder folk lounging on lawn chairs and blankets.
“Welcome! You’re going to love these guys,” the man says.
Both women nod with big smiles.
“It’s a memorable band,” someone says while another laughs. The way the word “band” is emphasized makes him wonder what’s up.
And, by the end of the first song, he realizes that this may be the worst jazz quintet he’s ever heard. Jack agrees. It’s the singer mostly, who doesn’t quite sing off-key (as she will get accused of); she sings flat and trips around desperately attempting to stay on beat. The guy on electric piano keeps comping in front of her. The bassist seems to be playing along to another song entirely. So many wrong choices it’s comical.
They leave their little blanket to catch some dinner at the English-style pub nearby.
Sally and Marie walk ahead. Jack asks what he thinks of the band.
“It plays as if someone posted a stay-off-the-grass sign on the songs.”
They stop at the giant collar encased in glass in the foyer. Jack reads the plaque.
“It’s supposed to fit a bulldog’s neck,” he announces.
Drinks arrive, orders taken.
He’s just figured out how to tune out the band’s background noise when the singer comes alive on some familiar number he can’t name. Then she really starts singing the next tune—Al Green’s “L-O-V-E”—and all of a sudden she has time and pacing and rhythm. And, in turn, the kids have reformed on the grass, dancing hand-to-hand in a daisy chain, swaying like the trees. And the sunset glints a little in response, and the birds hover nearby. Well, not really. But their table has started listening in between sips of ale and Malbec, and join the terrace in offering the band a polite round of applause at song’s conclusion. Maybe the singer is filling in for an absent lead. Maybe the band needs to pull out the old soul and R&B songbook a little more often. He suggests dipping back into Al Green some more, maybe “Belle.”
Their food comes. It is just what he wants, or expects, and the foursome lingers over a second glass before meandering out into the night, tourists in their own town (inside a fake town). The band has already packed up and gone. The old folks have departed, as well, onto the next hilarious thing. There’s a blanket to pick up, a car to locate. Three young boys zigzag around in the gathering dark, jet-fueled on ice cream.