Chapter OneRousing the Drunk
In the town of Eau Claire in northern Wisconsin, where my fatherlives, there is an old wooden saloon called the Joynt on WaterStreet, just a short block off the Chippewa River. The Joyntfunctions to this day as all things to all people in that city. It'san egalitarian space by necessity. There is a satellite college ofthe University of Wisconsin there, cheek by jowl with the oldUniroyal tire factory and myriad paper processing plants. The Joynthas been by turns, and sometimes all at once, a student hangout, afaculty bar, a cop coop, the town's only gay bar, the beer hall forall the sweaty workers getting off their shifts at the factoriesnearby, a makeshift canteen for the elderly of the area, the onlyplace in town to see live music, a pickup bar, and a quiet place inthe afternoon or early evening to sit in the dentist's chair upfront by the plate-glass window and read the paper. Beer has gone upto seventy-five cents a tap, from the quarter it was when I wasgrowing up. That will buy you a choice of Leinenkugel's (locallyknown as Leinie's), Point Special, Berghoff Dark, and Grain BeltPremium Lager, the outsider from Minnesota. There is a neon signabove the bar that reads frankly no light beer.
For most of my life I would visit Eau Claire for one week or so ayear, and for the past twenty years, since I could drink in a bar,the trip meant dragging Dad to the Joynt for his annual visit. He'snot someone who likes to go to bars in general, but he will indulgeme and walk downtown to take a stool, so that we might have a chatand a drink out of the house. I think, in fact, he has grown fond ofthis outing. He is an artist and so while we talk and sip and watchthe goings-on, he surreptitiously sketches people in a little bookhe carries with him, as easily as someone else might peel beerlabels or smoke. The walls are covered with photos of all themusicians who have performed there, most of them jazz players fromthe 1960s and '70s, when the Joynt was the only jumping-off pointbetween the larger venues of Madison and Minneapolis. There,unbelievably enough, are the smiles and signatures of DukeEllington, Charles Mingus, John Lee Hooker, McCoy Tyner, WoodyHerman, Taj Mahal, Dizzy Gillespie, and other luminaries who,looking about, you cannot conceive of even walking in here, muchless performing. This is coasting of a sort; there hasn't been musicat the Joynt for many years. A hard-ridden pool table now squats inthe back where the stage was. Above the men's room door is mystepmother's photo, from the time she played a piano recital, alongwith the tenor Richard Drews, for the Joynt's esteemed patrons. Adiminutive woman, she appears in the photo, my dad loves to jokeover and over, actual size.
The Joynt was my first real taste of what a bar could be to people,that it is in fact an important catalyst in creating the bonds of acommunity at its simplest: a place where people meet to talk tothose they like and learn to live with those they don't. It isprobably still the most hermetically perfect example of that socialnecessity I know of. The Joynt is like a microcosm of all humanneeds. Even with no other game in town, it is reassuring to thinkthat, at some end of the spectrum, people still have to go out andmeet other people. It remains for me not only a fond memory oflearning to drink and hanging with my father, but the ideal of whatI would like my bar, any bar, to be.
There is precious little to suggest to even the most intrepidlycurious Manhattan pedestrian a worthwhile detour down the cheerless,industrial block of West 15th Street from Ninth Avenue to Tenth. Thenorth side consists entirely of the ass-end of the Chelsea Market,composed of one long, continuous brick rampart, inaccessible savefor a couple of loading docks, creating an unpleasant funnel downthe street that ushers in grit-filled waves of convection in warmermonths and stinging blasts in winter. On the south side there's alumberyard and hardware store manned by surly, overfed men who drivetheir pickups in from New Jersey, plastered with Devils and Netsstickers. Beyond that a few low, anonymous buildings house awholesale bakery and some young designers' studios. There's aparking garage and a taxi garage shoulder to shoulder whoseshiftless employees litter the sidewalk night and day, vying inmultilingual competition for the most salacious wolfcalls toward anywomen hapless enough to pass down the street. The block ends on acomparative high note with a sparkling new Mobil station-animprobable winner of recent design awards for its sprawling glassand stainless steel walls and mod signage-tucked underneath therusting girders of a slice of the long-abandoned Tenth Avenue Eltracks. From that end the block opens out onto the West Side Highwayand is only an eight-iron from the mighty Hudson herself. In winter,when the days are short, I see on my trek to work the mostsurprisingly glorious sunsets wash across this busy vista, paintingthe Palisades across the river in gaudy tones. Those who complain ofseasonal affective disorder and consider it melancholic upon leavingwork to find the day's light already ebbing should try encounteringthat same ineffable longing on their way to work. It puts things ina whole different light, so to speak.
Wedged in among this low company is my bar, whose anonymous,single-story gray facade is dwarfed by the buildings shouldering it.There is no sign to announce its existence, nor even an addressnumber. Its single window and door giving out onto the street areglazed with deeply smoked glass, creating yet further opacity toinquisitive eyes. The bar is attached to an art gallery, owned by mybusiness partner, and shares with it an entrance hallway. Onweekends and Mondays, when the gallery is closed, the shutters aredrawn forbiddingly over the whole enterprise. Unshackling the blockyAmerican locks and shooting up the louvered steel gates makes anunholy roar that still makes me wince every day. There are three ofthese graffiti-spattered brutes to deal with, one over the hallwayto the gallery, one over the window of the bar, and the third overthe bar's door. It is this last one into which the porter has jammedthe prior night's bagged trash, to keep it off the street duringdaylight hours when city inspectors cruise for infractions to fattenthe municipal coffers. Grabbing each bag by the throat, I drag themfrom the entryway to the street with each one bleeding a thin trailof the mixture of beer, citrus, and ash that has pooled noxiouslywhere they lay. I palm what we call the shepherd's crook, a long,hooked metal rod used for pulling the gates down, tucked inside thefinal gate by the bartender who closed last night, and bring it inso that tonight's screwballs don't make off with it. It's happenedseveral times, though we've always gotten it back. They loseinterest in it down the block somewhere, and I'll spot it poking outof the hardware store's Dumpster or, if the thief's attention spanis particularly long, sometimes as far as the wire trash can on thecorner, with one of my pint glasses on the ground next to it.
Inside the hallway, the universal odor of smoke and beer appliednightly for years in varying coats licks at me comfortingly, like anold, flatulent dog. I unlock the inner doors and wind up the opaqueshade that separates the bar from the gallery in daytime. Mixed nowwith the stale smell of cigarettes and beer is the tang of Mr. Cleanand bleach from Polo, the porter, having turned back the nightlytide of filth. He has left for me on the bartop, stuffed between theupside-down stools lined up like dead trees, a crumpled blackwindbreaker and a Palm Pilot, last night's leavings. On the cashregister is a note in his childlike scrawl, with helpful sketches inthe margin: "Hi Tobe: plese we need/its to old the mop/1 mop mop/1brud vrom/1 pepier hans/1 beach/also is brok the hammel/only no workfor one/Polo." The paper hand towels, mops, and bleach I get, thebroom takes me a moment. The third part will have to be sent to thelinguistics lab for translation by Polo-ologists. Apparentlysomething's broken.
I notice the light blinking on the answering machine and try topunch the play button. It is gummed over yet again from someonecarelessly rimming margarita glasses in the salt next to it andwon't budge. I turn on the fans and the underbar lights, startlingthe resident fruit fly population vacationing in the drains andsetting a cloud of them flitting about me for a moment. After movingdown the line of the bar on the outside, pulling down the upendedstools and tugging them into place, I circle the room flipping onall the industrial toggles. This is the part that feels likecurrying the bar to life, rousing the aching drunk despite itsgroans: the heat, the ceiling fans, the smoke ducts, the dishwasher,the coffee machine, the calculator, the cash register. Out of thedead silence, everything is all at once abuzz, whirring and flashingand blowing. The big red master switch that controls the stereo goeson with a pop as the juice from the amps reaches the speakers. Thesalient feature of my bar is that it is constructed entirely on alighted disco floor, of the variety introduced to public recognitionby Saturday Night Fever. When I snap on the four breakers thatcontrol the floor lights, the crackling and humming of the lightpattern bleeds faintly through the speakers, like the sound effectsfrom the evil scientist's laboratory in a cheap horror flick.
I fish out my keys and head through the locked door to the gallery,which also contains my liquor room. In contrast to the spare whiteof the gallery with its skylights, the jumbled murkiness of theliquor room is comforting, with rows of kegs stacked like oil drumsand my bike hanging from hooks driven into the overhead shelving. Myoffice, inasmuch as I have one, is here. Papers for my perusal andfiles are spread among bottles on a corrugated tin shelf that holdsthe wine inventory. My desk consists of a box that I use for a seat,pushed up against the ice machine, which becomes the backrest. Thechoice of box is very important; it must be one that is anergonomically comfortable height as well as sturdy. Thedouble-walled Stolichnaya boxes make particularly good perches, andthe Prosecco cases, when stacked, are also quite cushy. Balancingthe ledger book in my lap, I go over the bank sheets and the dropfrom the night before and cull from that the opening till. I lockthe safe back up and untie my shoes. I remove the khakis and bluebutton-down shirt I've been wearing and swap them for jeans and ablack T. I layer an extra pair of socks over the ones I'm wearingand pull on the black Red Wing boots I've customized withextra-thick rubber insoles. I fold my daytime clothes and zip theminto my backpack and then stuff my sneakers under the wine rack.
Long ago I learned I need to arrive well ahead of my shift'sstarting time, to give myself ample mental space to pull on thearmor required to weather another night of indignities andinebriation. It has simply become part of the opening process, likeanyone else putting on a uniform to go to work. If you removefiberglass insulation for a living, you don a protective suit to goto work. Although the toxins inherent in my job are not quite astangible, I find I need the same kind of protective remove, and ittakes time to put it on. Drawing a deep breath, I lean back againstthe ice machine and stare up absently at the rows of liquor bottlesextending almost to the ceiling. I sit this way for several minutes,my hands propped placidly on my knees, listening to the quiet. I'llbe sitting back down on this box, putting my other shoes back on, injust twelve or fifteen hours.
Those summer visits upstate to see my dad in Eau Claire provided myintroduction to hard alcohol, long before I was old enough to enterthe Joynt. My brothers and sisters and I had always been allowed atrace of red wine mixed into a glass of water along with our pastagrowing up, quite a goose for a kid. We were thrilled to be sotrusted; it made us feel a part of the adult world. My father wasborn and raised in Italy and so never shared the Americanbinge/purge ambivalence toward alcohol. Wine with meals was hisbirthright, simply a normal part of life for him, the way everyoneelse around us in Wisconsin drank milk with every meal. He saw noproblem with treating his children like real people and includingthem in this custom. I haven't had that pale-pink dilution in almostthirty years, but I can recall exactly its flavor, the burr of thetannins roughing up my tongue.
Speaking in confused wonder still about Americans' juvenilerelationship to alcohol, he told me a story from the end of theSecond World War in Florence. Out walking early one morning, he andhis sister came upon a crowd silently taking in a spectacle soincredible to them that many years later, he still marvels at it.Still up after an all-night bender, some American G.I.'s werelolling on the steps of Santa Croce, bleary drunk, passing a flaskof wine back and forth, singing and carrying on like one wouldimagine G.I.'s might well be doing, away from home for the firsttime and flush from chasing out the Axis Powers. In Italy, though,he explains, wine isn't abused that way. Further, there a manmeasured his masculinity in many ways that might seem odd to us, butit simply went without saying that no man worth being called suchwould ever be seen as unable to hold his drink. You would neverdrink that much to begin with, but slurring? Singing? Carrying onlike silly adolescents who had chanced across a bottle-and on thesteps of a church!? The crowd couldn't conceive of what they wereseeing; it was unconscionable. The G.I.'s had seemed to them theswaggering cowboys who stormed in on waves of adulation to liberatethem. It would be like us witnessing John Wayne stumbling out of adrag bar, then stopping to take a piss on the American flag. But thelonger my dad spent in America, he said, the more he understoodthose sacrilegious soldiers. Our puritanical backbone still heavilyinfluences all of our views, alcohol not the least. Most Americans,he explained, aren't quite sure how to simply enjoy alcohol. Theyare like children, fascinated, so they abuse it, then they're afraidof it. A touch simplistic maybe, but not terribly far from thetruth.