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Bar Tales, Part One

“So there’s this guy I know,” says the man on the bar stool, his elbows resting on the scarred wood between us. “Let’s call him Frank. And last year Frank went to the White Party.”

It’s the man’s birthday, and he’s sitting with some coworkers, two women and another man, and I’ve just served them a dollar draft, a Corona with lime, a Newcastle, and a glass of Cabernet. His coworkers smile the way you do when you’ve already heard the story.

“Anyway,” he continues, “at some point during the weekend Frank meets this hot Frenchman, and the two of them go back to Frank’s hotel room. But of course Frank’s spent all his money on drugs and a plane ticket to Palm Springs, so he’s sharing the room with a couple of friends, who are trying to get some sleep. So Frank and the Frenchman slip into the bathroom to have sex.”

The man at the bar takes a sip of his draft. After his coworkers call it a night he’ll stick around, like usual, for a few extra hours, hanging out in the back room, having a smoke, bullshitting with the other regulars, watching the occasional blowjob, appearing every so often again for another pint.

“So after only five minutes, Frank’s friends, who aren’t yet asleep, watch as the Frenchman slips out of the bathroom, and out the front door. Frank emerges from the bathroom with a sheepish expression.

‘What happened?’ they ask Frank.

‘I’m so embarrassed,’ Frank says. ‘The Frenchman got down on his knees and was about to blow me when he got this strange look. Then, still kneeling on the floor, he looks up at me and says, “I am sorry to tell you, I don’t know how to say, you have…er…leetle animals.’”

The man and his coworkers laugh, repeating that last line to each other, “leetle animals,” one of their running jokes.

A moment later they’re laughing at the video playing on the front bar’s televisions, some tape I’d thrown into the VCR, of oiled musclemen in unitards and cowboy hats, working out on gym equipment in what looks to be someone’s unfinished basement.

“Yeah,” says one of the girls, deepening her voice, “after I put up some drywall in my unitard, I like to do a few dips on the machine, you know, get a pump going.” We don’t get too many women in the bar, and their energy changes the place, shedding a harsh and comical light across everything.

It’s only my fourth shift back at the bar where I worked nine years and another lifetime ago, and I have yet to master the VCR/dvd player, let alone get a sense as to what’s on each tape scattered on the back shelf, half of them with torn or missing or outdated labels. “Each tape is a new surprise,” I tell them, and they like that enough to want to buy me a drink.

But I gave that up nearly eight years ago, and despite the qualms I had about throwing myself back into the fire, I hadn’t once craved a drink. I only realized this later, after I’d left the bar after each shift. The thought to drink had never occured to me, despite being surrounded there by the gleaming bottles of Jack, Stoli, and Absolut.

I’d run into my old boss during IML, and told him I’d been thinking about bartending again, just to make some money while I worked on the book. Freelance writing hadn’t worked so well, using up the same kind of energy that I applied towards the book. Bartending used a different energy. And though he didn’t have any regular shifts for me, he hired me on this past week to help out during Dore Alley, and for Folsom in September, and now and again one of the guys would call and ask me to cover a shift.

I’d forgotten how nice it is to make money. Throughout graduate school I’d lived off savings and some money my mom left me when she died. Which should have been like heaven. But the burden – the guilt – of not working wore me down, and got in the way of a lot of pleasure.

But now I had a tall stack of twenties on my desk at home, and looking at that stack, and counting through it, and sorting them until all of the Jacksons faced the same direction, gave me immense satisfaction. Each shift I could literally watch myself earn money, as my tip bucket filled up over the course of the night, as I changed out a stack of ones for a crisp twenty during a lull. I earned that money, I’d think to myself, and that knowledge gave me a solid satisfaction that lasted throughout the next day.

Nine years ago, when I first started working the bar, the alcohol board cracked down on us because of our notorious back room. So the back room closed, and our clientele went down the street, to another bar whose back room stayed open, and my tips went with them. Those early shifts, from 4 to 10 pm, were long, dark, and lonely. The meth I snorted back then didn’t make for the best company.

But nine years later that bar down the street is gone, and our back room is open again, and I’m making good money. Still, the first few minutes are always a little strange, one or two lone figures shuffling through the black leather curtains, pausing while their eyes adjust to the dark, quietly ordering a dollar draft from me, then shuffling to the back bar, where real porn – not the musclemen in unitards – play on the screens, or to the back room, where they smoke and wait for the other regulars.

But sometimes they linger at the bar, like my first customer last night, an elderly Asian man in a raincoat who, I imagined, had stumbled into the wrong place. But he ordered a Seven-Up and sat down at the bar and watched the television screen, which showed a dvd someone had made, a slideshow of thousands of photos taken at the last Folsom Street Fair. Watching those slideshows – there must have been a dozen of those dvds on the back shelf – was always a little surreal for me, as I realized how many of those guys I knew, either by name or face, San Francisco growing smaller and smaller by the year.

I asked the man how his day was going.

He smiled and said, softly, “it could be better.”

I asked him what he meant.

“Oh, you know…” he said, smiling wistfully. “When you live alone, it can get very lonely. There is no one to talk to.”

Shit, I thought. Some lonely old straight guy wanders into a gay bar and I’m going to have to listen to his bullshit.

Of course I kept that to myself, and told him that I understood what he meant, and I stayed there with him, pulling out a bag of limes and a cutting board, because bartenders are, if nothing else, companions to the lonely.

He told me he lived just down the street, in a home for the elderly. I had to lean over the bar to hear him over the house music blasting over the speakers. I asked him how long he’d been in San Francisco. Nearly twenty years, he told me. He asked me where I was from. Minneapolis, I told him. His eyes lit up, and he told me that he went to med school at the university there. Turned out the guy’s a retired radiologist, who also taught at Harvard. I could tell from his smile that he liked to talk about those days. Less so the present time. I asked him if he had any friends where he lived and he shook his head.

“We always say that there are only two places you can go after living there,” he said.

I smiled and told him that I could guess those two places.

“Yes,” he said, watching me slice up a lime, “the hospital or the funeral home.”

A moment later my second and third customers of the day walked in, and the next time I looked up the man in the raincoat was gone. I imagined that he had slipped back out onto Folsom Street, but nearly an hour later he appeared again from the back room, his glass of Seven-Up now empty. He placed it on the bar and extended his hand, which I shook. He asked me my name, told me his, and thanked me for talking to him. He told me he hoped to talk to me again someday soon, and then he buttoned up his rain coat and pushed back through the leather curtains, out into the dusk.