Another Long Island Ice Tea. Christ, get an imagination.
Deep into the glum residue of Saturday night, the going-nowhere Lakers on the tube, I cackle inside as I observe the men at the bar twisting around like lemon zest, deluded, hoping, wishing for a honky-tonk angel who might meet their boilermaker glances and hold them tight to keep them from slipping away.
Not happening, brothers.
In my ear, a cat called The Doobster, for obvious reasons is going off on his favorite subject. Dressed in black leather from head to toe, three silver studs in each lobe, wearing a felt hat reeking of thrift shop—not Robinson’s—he rambles on about how Michael McDonald sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks: “Why the hell did Tom roll over like that—just hand over the lead vocals to that screeching falsetto dude? We got enough listening to the Bee Gees?” He stares at me, the bartender, as if we mixologists always have a secret insight into the realm of the rhetorical. He isn’t finished: “Took them in a crap direction. Might as well be a new band.”
“You do know that Johnston was too sick for the tour, and McDonald filled in?” I add.
“No shit? Well, it still don’t mean anything.” He contemplated this as if poised to speak at a session of the U.N. General Assembly. “‘Take It Easy’ and ‘China Grove.’ That’s the Doobies.”
Meanwhile, peripherally, I am being hailed by the usual frat boys. “How’s your drink? I asked him, ignoring the USC lounge lizards.
“I’m cool. Go ahead, give ‘em hell,” prompts The Doobster, sipping his Löwenbräu.
Slowly I meet their beady eyes, fingers wagging as if I were their dog. I step toward them, past the ashtrays that I methodically empty and clean with my rag, grab a fiver left by one of my many locals, a suit named Wynn, to eventually arrive and take their orders. My hands on my hips and an expression of scorn say everything.
Baby Face: “Hey, man, we come in here a lot. You know that. How about you put some giddy up in your step? I know snails that move faster than you.”
That one must have strained his neural pathways.
Two other heads nodded, semi-snarls with looks of disgruntlement.
Serpico lookalike: “Yeah, man, if we were those hot chicks over there,” he indicated Lanie, Frankie, and Penelope, three young women who they had already approached earlier, the result being green Grasshopper stains splattered on their collars, “you wouldn’t shine us on.”
Hercules: “You know how much green we spend in this joint?” He channeled some inner Stevie Wonder which resembled something more like Fat Albert. “You owe us, my bro-o-ther.” The last word was stretched into three staccato syllables. Arms crossed, there in his frat house tee, I am reminded of studying igneous rocks in elementary school.
“I’ll take a—”
Before Baby Face could order—scratch that, command me to do his bidding—I explain: “How about you leave a tip, Phi, Beta, Kappa? You see, that’s how it works.” I figured they didn’t attend many lectures but hey, I was the man with the access to the booze. Their piggy ears pricked up. “Look around you, man. Half the folks in here are pissing away their paychecks. Those three over there? Can’t find a job and they’ve got their union cards. Others are nursing their Slow Screws against the Walls over the course of ten songs on the jukebox.
The ladies? The pretty ones smile, just like the Eagles song and drinks are delivered to them, gratis.” I noticed Larry, Moe and Curly twist uncomfortably at the last word, clearly never a Latin word the twain had met. “But not all women. Most are treated like crap if they try to get jobs typically done by men, um, like the jobs you probably already are guaranteed when you “earn” your diplomas. See those guys? Yep. Your hardhats, your everyday man, coming in for happy hour which actually becomes happy hours until last call. All walks of life, my brothers, and they all leave fifteen-, sometimes twenty-percent for yours truly.” The taunting was lost on them, as witnessed by expressions so completely blank that I flash on the Outer Limits episode where time freezes and a pilot, the only one who exists, has to rig up a seatbelt to a steering wheel of a car in a garage positioned to slip into reverse, where it will plow into his young daughter frozen on her trike. When time returns and she survives, all is well. With Tom, Dick and Harry, my subtle commentary that they are privileged and might consider others besides themselves is simply the circulation of wasted, and stifling Hollywood air.
“Roland!” It’s Dez just grabbing a stool and settling in. He can wait a minute.
I pour their drinks without asking.
“We wanted top shelf,” berates Serpico.
I shake my head from side to side. The whole purpose, as every vapid drinker knows, is the damn drink is all the white well liquors, Triple Sec, sour mix, with a splash of coke or soda, garnished with a lemon wedge. To mix it with Tanqueray or Cuervo or Stoli or Bicardi is breaking a bartender’s code. Or . . . I can charge a ridiculous amount, as Sherm made clear to me several months ago: “If them schmucks want to put the best liquor in a pansy-assed drink, then they can pay through the kisser.” My boss was not only old-fashioned, that is his drink.
“We sure as shit aren’t paying for these!” argued Hercules, approaching the bar and bumping against the shoulders of an intimate couple.
Didn’t even need to make eye contact.
“Fellas, time to leave. This nice young couple don’t need to be bothered. Plenty of other bars along the Strip.” It didn’t hurt that Godfrey stood six-foot-eight in pumps. But more than that, he was masterful with his delivery; the man always found something tender to say—in this case, regarding the couple—to make the expulsion more palatable for the offending party or parties. Even if—as these dim bulbs had in spades—one possessed a serious lack of anything close to understanding that others have feelings too. His coup de grâce was leaning down and in, breathing in just enough, then exhaling his well-known halitosis thereby sealing the deal.
On my break, I sit on the milk crate in the shadows of the back lot next to the rusted green dumpster. Sunset roars with screams of young kids out on joy rides, the music of live bands edging out onto the boulevard. By now my hands are sticky lemon, smoky ash, rag, and the traces of the last few drinks I poured. Unfortunately, two of my older regulars, Mrs. Blanton and Mrs. Fish wanted Brandy Alexanders, known throughout the Western World for their almost immediately sugary and serious buzz followed by the bowing to the porcelain throne. Hey, it’s their digestive system. I just stir and shake, blend and pour.
Later, an up-and-coming female band graces our humble establishment—a place well-known for those to hang out where they wouldn’t be seen. Or, at least not mauled by overzealous fans and their cameras. My boss? He could give a shit. The Whisky, the Troubadour, the Roxy and the rest—what each does is serve a purpose. We . . . here? We’re a neighborhood joint. Regulars. That’s where the dough is. His point was pudding, proved nightly, including Mondays, notoriously a dead zone for any other place. In fact, I could count on it being one of my busier nights with kickass tips to boot. Since it’s Friday, seeing them brought with it the assumption that they were gigging later. This was a stop along the way to get loose.
Carey returns with their first-round order. Not a Long Island among them. Light beers and shots of vodka. Fairly harmless. Didn’t take long for several customers to slip over and get autographs. They were happy to oblige. I only knew one of them from sight, from their debut LP cover, the one called Lita Ford. It was a new age, women bringing it with the axes.
“It is so damn cool that they’re here. I mean, man, they’re sitting in my section,” Carey whispers to me as she collects the drinks. For a moment, she transforms into a teenager with posters of bands on her wall and LPs scattered on the shag carpeting. “Ro, do you think it’s be cool with them if I ask for their autographs?”
“Feel them out. Your tip is bound to be righteous. I’d give them your customary excellent service and as they are heading out, catch up with whichever one you hit it off with. Don’t force it.”
She smiled and nodded. “Got it.”
When comrades-in-arms Dick and Ed pull up, coasters are flipped, greetings are brisk, and stocky Ed announces, “The usual.”
As I pour their Johnnie Walker Black and sodas, I admire their easiness together. As if every encounter was the continuation of a life-long conversation. Occasionally, they’d invite me in to their discussion. But mostly, I’d overhear stories of battle scars and hard-fought victories in what newsmen have referred to as “The Forgotten War.” They’d take one hill, only to lose it to the North Koreans or Chinese. “A bloody war of attrition,” they often muttered. Were they still waging it all these years later? I wondered: Was Korea the sole reason Dick and Ed were friends?
No, not I. You could find me in Chicago in ’68. Different war, same us versus them, thank you, Pink Floyd. Got my head bashed in pretty good. I recall glaring into the cop’s eyes as his club was hitting its marks. I was an insult. We were an insult. How dare we not support ‘Nam? Oh, the reasons I could list. “Unfortunate Son” by CCR is a good place to start. They handed out deferments like candy to the sons of Congressmen and Senators. Most of the infantry were either poor, uneducated, or had no concept of what conscientious objector meant, or how to receive counsel. You boarded the bus and came back in a flag-covered coffin.
The White House and its allies kept sawing the old piece of wood about the “Domino Theory.” That right there was worth thousands of lives. What of hubris? America is not used to losing wars. To avoid the largest stalemate of them all, they nuked Japan twice to bring them to their knees and in the process, began the Cold War and the Nuclear Age. Hell, it saved thousands more American lives; forget the fact that thousands of civilians were barbecued in the blink of a bright flash.
Therefore, I gave my military regulars distance. I often feared if asked, how I might respond to the “’Nam Question.” I was born in December 1952, therefore missing the My Lai, Tet, the Cambodia bombings, and most of the aftermath and eventual embarrassment of not winning. By then, tie goes to the runner, and we were running. How would they feel about this Carter candidate—for Christ’s sakes, a peanut farmer governor—discussing amnesty for draft dodgers in Canada? What of all the families who lost sons, brothers, cousins, fathers?
I am abruptly returned from my reverie when Carey’s stunning and familiar green eyes are bulging wide open in front of where I stand, in front of the register, just down the bar from Doobie, Dez, Dick and Ed. Behind her is a tall, beefy man, wedged to her in a way so unfamiliar to me that it takes an instant to register what the hell is going down. His eyes are narrow, his blonde hair wavy and unkempt, and cigarettes have etched its odious stench into his flannel shirt. Since I appear to him to be clueless, he makes a slight lifting motion with his left hand where there is a gun of silver. Revolver? .44 Special? I think to myself They’re shinier on TV.
“Empty it, asshole!” Loud, but not too loud.
Carey is terrified. Every signal from her eyes, hands, body, exclaim Ro, please do what he says.
It’s then that the entire time I’d failed to notice that his accomplice waited at the door, just inside, with one foot keeping it slightly ajar. Why do these weird thoughts enter my head? The shit is a dead ringer for that actor who played My Favorite Martian. Just as subtle, he too has a gun pointed directly at me. Sherm had installed a silent alarm just under the bar counter near the register that was within my reach. It contacts the LAPD. If I could only reach it and then stall as I counted out the bills.
To keep sane, in my head I anoint Carey’s assailant the name Marlboro Man. My guy by the door: Martian. I slide my right hand furtively to the right. Marlboro jams it smack in the middle of my her back, causing undeniably excruciating pain. Strike the idea of sounding the alarm. Even Martian gives me a look of contempt as if to say We’re pros here, let’s move.
Both she and I are mortified when Dick and Ed, curious about the strange man behind Carey, noting that she was in some kind of distress, approach us carefully. Ed, more blowhard than his combat friend inches forward with all the hubris of someone who actually thinks he can talk down a thief who also out-guns him.
Others begin taking notice. I catch Doobie standing up, loaded and swaying, carrying swagger like Samsonite luggage. Dez, who works as a Dodger Stadium concession guy walking up and down the aisles while carrying heavy frozen malts rises up. Thankfully, Lita and the band left over an hour ago. For all I know, she would’ve tried to kick Marlboro’s ass.
I’ve reached my breaking point. Time is like that Outer Limits episode. I am the pilot. I take the wheel.
“Ed, Doobie, Dez, I need you to stand back. Sit. Back. Down. Now. I’m moving slowly to empty the till.” They regard me with different expressions. The only one that concerns me is Carey’s.
The men, however, have enough bravado for WWIII.
“Why don’t you let the girl go,” firmly orders Ed, staring down Marlboro, who does not turn toward him.
“Ro, just give them what they want!” shrieks Carey.
As I gather the money, my back is turned, but in the mirror’s reflection I scan vaguely spot Dez and Doobie circling toward the large screen TV in our darkest corners. Martian may or may not notice but seems unaffected. He continues to eye me like a spider watches a fly trapped in its web.
I can’t deny that if I don’t act quickly, people will be killed. And for what? A thousand bucks and change? It’s the principle I can hear men like Dick and Ed ranting.
“Everyone in this bar, listen to me very closely. Do. Not. Move. I mean it!” My voice was dredging up shit from Christ knows where. I was furious, deranged. When the sun splashes down over that stunning Pacific, what counts the most is that we are alive to see it. “We are being held up. Stay calm. They are leaving.” I steady my gaze past Carey’s and into Marlboro Man’s. I pile up the twenties from under the tray—they would have known they were there—and when I notice the hundred-dollar-bill staring at me like a rogue animal that escaped from the zoo, I send it on its way with the stack of twenties.
What felt like hours to me, was actually under thirty seconds. How did I know? In her absolute horror, Carey stayed calm by counting slowly to sixty. She never made it that far. Thirty of the most precarious seconds in her life. She elaborated on this particular fact after we woke her from falling dead away after Marlboro and Martian dashed off.
Moving everyone back, allowing a doctor who happened to be there attend to her, one by one I thanked the men for not acting irrationally. “This isn’t Fort Knox,” I said to the room. I called in the LAPD and gave them my statement. They took other statements.
Outside, I pulled out my secret, spare milk crate, used for special or unusual situations. This evening certainly qualified for the latter. I leaned back in to the wall.
“I don’t even know what to begin to say.”
“Words really don’t matter at a time like this.”
“No, probably not.”
Leaning back like me, I notice. We both stare at the rear side of the restaurant two parcels over. A middle-aged man wearing a white apron lugs trash to the dumpster, gazing down, unaware of our presence.
Then I was surprised to hear: “I’ve never seen you so damn pissed off . . . ever!”
I started laughing. Lightly at first.
“People are lizards.” We both were laughing a bit louder now. The man is smoking, gazing over, no doubt wondering how on earth we could find anything funny in a parking lot next to a dumpster off Sunset on a Friday night.
“Hey!” she calls out.
The man appears irked.
“Come on over! I could use a smoke.”
“You don’t smoke,” I question.
“There’s a lot you have yet to learn about me, Mister Bartender.”
“What’s your name?” she asks the man, as he hands her a cigarette—yes, a Marlboro—and lights it with a match.
“Kwang-jo, from South Korea.”
“Nice to meet you, Kwang-jo. I’m Carey. And this guy with the mullet, that’s Roland, my husband.”