The bartender turns off the light, checks around to see if there are any hanger-on’s outside of the establishment. It’s 4:30AM in New York City and there are bound to be still drunken vagabonds listlessly wandering the streets outside the bar. Some nights this can be a harmless thing. You just flick them off as you would circling flies. Other nights they might take a swing at you from the darkness. Or worse.
But tonight, there’s no one. The bartender can take a deep long breath and lock the door behind him. Most of the dirt is clean from the surfaces. The beers are stocked for the coming bartender in the daytime realm. It’s a kind thing to do, prep for the next person coming in. Sure, nine times out of ten, the person wouldn’t do back for you. But you don’t care.
What is the great lesson in Salinger’s classic Franny and Zooey? Do beautiful things even if there is no one there to see them. Right?
“It ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings,” Zooey says. Then Zooey tells Franny who the ‘Fat Lady’ really is. (If you don’t understand these references, please do yourself a favor and read Franny and Zooey. It is short, sweet, and will change your life. For real.)
But wiping up all the rinds of the lemons and limes and making sure the little pieces of glass are out from the mats won’t change anything in this world. It’s the right thing to do, but a noble one?
It doesn’t matter. The money is in the register. The till is even. The bartender walks slowly behind the bar, picks up a clean pint glass, and pours himself a draft. For himself. He’s poured at least 500 in a night, but this one here, now, is his.
The bartender sits down on a stool in the darkness and reflects. The air pipes creak and rattle in the corner of the dark bar. Some steam hisses and twists to the ceiling. It could have been a strange ghost, or a demon for that matter. Anyone one unfamiliar with these weird sounds that emit from a bar room floor would first assume the place was haunted. After the reckless and relentless stomping and yelling of hundreds of intoxicated people just in one night, imagine for a moment they leave a residue perhaps; of their laughter, of their anger, of their sadness and their lust.
Maybe there is some kind of musk left behind from human moments, especially the inebriated kinds. Maybe it’s all in the bartenders mind. He takes his first sip from the cold beer. Nearly half the glass is gone when he puts it back down to the wooden bar.
Slowly, wearily, he brings out a little tattered and beer stained notebook. It’s been in his pocket all night, now folded and pressed in ragged ways, and some of the pen ink is smeared, now doubt from the sweat and the alcohol. In fact, he realizes his whole shirt is soaked with the same, his pants covered in water. The night was insane. People holding bills out in gusto, eyes of want, some smiling, others with some bored irritation. People open their mouths and yell: “Bartender!” More start yelling the same word, like a mantra chant. Like a nightmare.
Soon all the ‘bartenders!” become one hollow echo tone through his ears. The bartender has dealt with crowds before. He moves like some preternatural creature, turning, spinning around, church key popping bottles, beer caps fly everywhere like stray bullets. Two well bottles raised up in two hands, pouring drinks four at once. People get what they want. The bartender is on auto-pilot, not even there. Just one continuous flow of alcoholic movement, a gymnast delivery of intoxication. That was earlier. Now there is only silence.
The bartender puts the pen down to the wet paper. The words don’t come immediately. So many things, so many memories of the day, before the trove of wolves rolled in on their Friday night war path. The bartender raises the pen to his mouth, a nervous habit. It even reeks like it was soaking in Gin.
The words. They are there, floating amidst with the steam from the bar room floor, circling above the bartender. If only he could just pull them out from the ether and put them down, like intricate diamonds laced into a necklace, with the right kind of precision and honesty.
What does he want to say? How does he describe all the people he had met standing behind the wooden bar. Some have been old men, muttering about their dreams as they stared down into the melted ice of their glass. How can the bartender immortalize these men? One with sad, drooping eyes, cheekbones with wrinkles cut from both laughter and grimace. He, giving the bartender advice:
“Live it now, because life is only smoke,” he tells the bartender. Less than a year later he was dead. They found him living alone, in practical squalor. No living relatives. No money to his name. A wisp of smoke, gone by the morning light.
The bartender presses the pen down hard on the paper. And what about the woman he convinced not to kill herself? Crying after one beer, using bar napkins to dry her cheeks. They took her away too, when she tried to use the fruit cutter to slice her own throat right their at the bar at 3 in the afternoon.
How does one write about these people? Or all of the things the bartender has seen. From the back of the bar, more steam demons hiss. They may know what happened too, but they are not speaking a language the bartender can understand. No, their language is far more murky.
This isn’t the first time the bartender tried to put down the words that could illustrate all the things he has seen through the bars. The moments of triumph and celebration when someone gets a job and buys the bar a round of shots. The anguish of the heart when another finds their girlfriends cheating on them and it was the bartender who had to tell them. The casual days of listless nothing, watching B movies while no one speaks to each other, only the clank of the ice cubes stirring around in circles.
There would be days when the bartender would sit at the end of other bars, not his, and put, yet again, some words to paper. People would jeer and laugh at him, some would approach:
“What the hell are you writing in a bar for?” His face wanting no answer. Not that he could understand the language back. “What, just writing about us?” he asks.
The bartender would set his pen down, look up slowly.
“You don’t want to know what I'm writin' buddy,” I say.
The man’s face twists with some whiskey anger. He might do something, like throw a punch. The bartender might throw one back. But no one does anything. The man goes back to his group of hounds, the bartender goes back to his pen.
Some women approach too, also confused by the stack of papers at the end of the bar. “Let me guess, you’re a writer?” she says. It’s not a question either, and when she says the word, writer, she spits it out like it was a new disease. It’s known in America the writer is the lowest of the low. Unless it’s for espisodic TV or a hot new screenplay, writers are regarded as nusicances and drunkards.
The girl has her hands on her hips. She’s chewing gum, which is a weird thing to do while drinking Vodka Sodas. The bartender answers:
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Are you published?” Again, the word is spit like snake venom.
“Maybe,” the bartender says. She goes away too. The group looks down the bar, both judging and shaking their heads. Their question is a good one.
Why are you writing in a bar?
The night moves on. Now the creaking of the floorboards grow stronger, like hooved footsteps coming closer, out from the darkness of the room. The bartender finishes the cold pint, stares down at the paper. There are no words there. They are still floating.
The bartender is tired. People have worn him down. If its not the questions of why to write or the shoving of money beyond yells, he places the notebook back into his back pocket. He gets up, pulls out the bar keys and steps outside. There are no wanderers on the street waiting for him, but the cold five o’clock in the morning blowing February winds are.
He buttons up his coat all the way up. It’s going to be a long walk. He looks up at the empty sky, not a star in it, only a half sliver of the white moon. He nods to himself.
He will write all of these stories. And he will be honest. Because that is the only weapon he has left. Because the bartender knows about humanity, from the beer flooded floor to the steamed, dirt-caked ceiling. The residue of humans he wears like a suit. The musk is in his lungs.
He moves down the sidewalk, and a little smile, a hopeful one, crosses his face. He realizes:
The only thing to put down on the page is the honest truth. The pen is mightier than a thousand armies. It cuts all the grass to expose all the snakes.
The wind blows hard against his face as he reaches the corner.
But it does not take the smile away.
THE EMPTY BAR...ALONE WITH THE STEAM...
ONLY THIS BETWEEN LIES AND THE TRUTH...
ALONE...INTO THE NIGHT...