Spicy Hot New Year’s Eve at The Cat

Unleash the amateur drinkers!  Watch them crowd up the bars, slow down service, raise the cover charge, and put unreasonable expectations on the evening, along with more cops out on the street.  What’s not to love about New Year’s?  I am so excited.  It’s going to be a new date on the calendar!  That rarely happens.  Besides, what could ever go wrong when you desperately make too much of a big deal over nothing?

When I worked the door at bars, I knew I was in for it that night.  People are under such pressure to have the best night of their lives, they wind up making it their worst.  The sudden influx of novice drinkers also insures a fresh supply of punching bags for the already surly and sodden veterans.  Imagine boy scouts setting up camp on a penitentiary recreation yard.  Nothing good can come of it.

Working a big crowd is a stress fest.  Having more women around is as bad as too few.  When drunk men see their chances of scoring slip away, they get irritable.  Sometimes a jump-up-on-the-pool-table-while-ripping-off-your-shirt-and-trying-to-kick-anybody-that-comes-near-you-in-the-teeth kind of irritable.  Whenever I’ve witnessed these animated displays of irritability, my first impulse was never to go over and deal with the person.  I would’ve prefered to have found a defendable corner, perhaps barricaded by a tipped-over table, from which I could egg the maniac on, with impunity.  Unfortunately, they don’t pay you ten bucks an hour to do that.

It was my second New Year’s Eve at The Catamount Bar and Grille in Santa Fe, NM.  That year, T-Bone was working with me, which was good.  He was a lovable lug from Boston.  He played hockey, knew Aikido, was level-headed, and didn’t have a whole lot to prove.  We were friends so I knew he’d have my back.  He had never worked a New Year’s Eve before so I warned him.

“They’re going to build a corral out of plywood outside to help control the crowd,” I explained, “but we’re still going to have our hands full trying to keep them from pushing past us, not to mention having to deal with anything that erupts inside.  I’m going to wear my big boy underwear that night. I suggest you do, too.”

He nodded, and then I nodded back.

The next night we had a couple of beers and went to work.  It was already crowded by eight o’clock.  T-Bone reached into his pocket, pulled out two things of pepper spray, and handed one to me.  I commended him on his foresight.  I never minded an edge.  I had used them all: pepper spray, Maglites, high-voltage zappers, brass knuckles, spring-billy batons, whip-chains, lead-shot sap gloves, rubber truncheons, pool cues, salt shakers, door jams, and even other people’s heads.  Like in any video game, there are strengths and disadvantages to each weapon.  I would soon learn a major disadvantage to the weapon T-Bone had procured for us.

Management had hired a couple of guys to help out.  We all knew each other.  We had worked together at some places, as well as thrown each other out from others.  Ours was a small world.  They would be upstairs at the second bar.  T-Bone and I would be outside by the door.  I would take cover charge and he would check IDs.

That night started memorably enough when a drunk girl threw up on me.  She was trying to push past without paying, so I put up my hands to stop her.  She looked down and puked on them.  Bravo!

“Uh, I don’t think I can let you in,” I told her, “You seem to have had too much to drink.”

“But I feel better now,” she tried to explain.  She was a warrior alright.  I wiped my hands off on her sleeves and sent her off.

I was even more impressed a half an hour later when she returned, and tried to get in again.

“You think you can still come in after barfing gazpacho on the bouncer’s hands?” I asked.  She nodded.  “You’re an amazing woman,” I told her, ” And I could see falling in love with someone like you, but tonight you need to go throw up somewhere else.”

There were the usual hassles: no ID, don’t want to pay cover, friend already paid cover, swear they were in before, just want to look for someone, need to use the rest room, forgot my girlfriend, etc., but no major shit storms.  Still, my nerves were getting frayed.  I was getting irritable, especially as I watched my own chances to score slip away.  Ladies don’t respond well to your advances, if they can smell another woman’s vomit on you.

About 11:30 pm I heard yelling.  I ducked inside and saw some guy raging at the bartender.  He was red-faced and rough.  Tough and chewy trucker trash.  Shop class hero burns out.  His messed up hair and bushy unkempt eye brows made him look like Oscar the Grouch, but more desiccated and raw.  This grouch had spent years drinking whiskey and smoking Marlboro Reds in the hot desert sun.  Now it appeared that his evening wasn’t unfolding to his complete satisfaction.  We all want New Year’s Eve to be special.  I would make sure his was.

The bartender motioned to him, made the throat-slitting sign, then pointed to the door.  Oscar was cut off.  I went over to him and politely inquired as to the reason for his distress.  He went on about not being served, how the place was full of uptight bitches, and there were no more seat liners for the men’s toilet.  I acted like I couldn’t hear him.  I apologized and leaned in.  The deaf doorman bit has two purposes.  You can use it to get in closer range for the sucker punch, or as an excuse for needing to talk outside.  He didn’t seem to warrant a cheap shot yet, so I asked him to follow me out to where I could hear.  Get them outside first, then deal.

He didn’t fall for it.  I asked him again, but he just snarled.  I noted major tartar build-up on the teeth he had left.  His swaying was making me seasick, so I reached out to steady him.  He smacked my hand off his shoulder, and then suggested I do something to my mother.  That was it.  I grabbed him around the neck and dragged him towards the exit.  I made sure to bang his head against The Pillar of Shame on our way out.  “That’s from my Mom,”  I told him.

T-Bone and I each grabbed an arm. We carried him out into the street and tossed him.  He caught some good air before landing in a crumpled pile of worthlessness.  He got up slowly, straightened his cheap, foam cap, and disappeared.  “I hope he’s not going to get a gun,” I said, but T-Bone was already back to checking ID’s.  I went over to my post and started taking money again.

Tick…tick…tick…Boing!

A scarlet blur shot up from behind the plywood fence.  Holy Shit!  It scared the piss out of me.  Oscar was back.  He looked like a demon as he tried to scramble over the barricade.  T-Bone and I kept pushing him back, but God bless that mad muppet, he kept coming.  Because he was on the other side of the plywood fence, we couldn’t get a good hold of him.  Ah, the pepper spray.  What an ideal time to give this bastard a little Binaca blast.  While T-Bone grappled with him, I pulled out my can.  I took aim, and from very close range, shot our assailant in the face.  I gassed out every drop of that canister into his stupid eyes and mouth.  He got the full experience.  Napalm aromatherapy.

Man, if I thought his face was red before.  One night I had slipped a bunch of niacin to my friends, telling them it was a new designer drug.  A cruel hoax, perhaps, but it made them all look like boiled pigs, and that was worth some solid laughs.  Anyway, that’s what this guy looked like now, a parboiled little piggy, except with streaming mucus, saliva, and tears.  He stumbled around holding his face, then bolted off into the night, trailing body fluids. “Happy New Year!” I yelled after him, and that was that, I thought.  I went back to taking cover charge.

A few moments later I noticed some people inside the bar coughing.

The windows were cracked an inch for ventilation.  The pepper spray cloud had drifted into the bar.  A guy tried to explain something about thermal currents to me, but I didn’t care at that point.  I just looked on in horror as more and more people started hacking and crying.  It was like watching the outbreak of an epidemic.  I quickly opened the doors, but that made the gas blow deeper into the bar.  Now the band started coughing, the waitresses, and even the cooks.  People were groping  for the exits.  I directed some of the victims to our bar upstairs, but a lot of people were just leaving.  Happy New Year! Come back soon!

It was a disaster.  Who was responsible for this?  Nevermind that, it was up to me to save New Year’s Eve.  It was fifteen minutes before midnight.  I had to refill the place fast, before the owners, Anthony and Tom, came downstairs.  I dropped the cover and told T-Bone to bag checking IDs.   We drove them in like cattle.  I even helped hand out party hats and horns.  Champagne was opened and passed around.  Finally, at one minute to midnight, the band retook the stage.  Thanks to the residual effects of the chemical agent, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place when they struck up Auld Lang Syne.  It was a moving scene to witness, and I was glad to have played a part in making it happen.

Here’s what really happens on New Year’s Eve: The illusion of time is perpetuated.  That’s it.  It’s done by making one arbitrarily chosen point on a looping continuum more significant than the others.  This moment is special, and now it’s gone.  Nobody blows horns at 7:32 am on New Year’s Day (for valid reasons), but should any moment be less worthy?  Why not really blow-up the party bell and make every tick of the second hand as joy-injected as the one that strikes midnight?  If that’s what you propose, dear friend, I’m down.  I may not drink that way anymore, but I’m more than willing to get joyously excited over what is essentially nothing.  As long as I get time in for a nap, I’m fine.  Besides, I don’t have anything better to do on New Year’s Eve, or ever.  Happy Eternity, fellow creatures.  Celebrate safely.

Whoop-dee-fuckin'-doo!

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The Ghosts of Christmas Parties Past, Volume 3, “The St.John’s Incident.”

The party was festive enough when I got there.  The place was mostly packed with students from St. John’s College, in Santa Fe.  Classes had ended, and this was a little blow-out before people went home for the holidays.  The music was loud, people were dancing, drinking, and laughing.  Good cheer was in the air that night, but the mood would take a decided turn by the time I had to leave.

I guess if I had been more aware, I would’ve picked up that she was with someone, but I was on a mission to blot out anything even remotely resembling awareness.  I also wanted to find a special friend to celebrate the warmth and joy of the season.  The prospect I had chosen was a busty, bespectacled, little brainiac in a button down sweater.  The combination cat glasses, cardigan, and cleavage is a personal kryptonite for me.  But, when a guy stepped in and told me she was with him, I backed off and apologized.  Even at my worst, I tried to honor The Code.

That should have ended it right there, but he had to give me this shitty smirk.  It said, “Yeah, a proletarian sack of lug-nuts like you wouldn’t even have a chance with a woman like this anyway. You probably haven’t finished a book since Charlotte’s Web, and we Johnnies pride ourselves on the high intellectual caliber of our literacy.”  I might have been projecting, but it sure looked like that kind of smirk.

In Lithuanian, we have a phrase, “Ot snukis, kuris plytos praso!”  It translates roughly to “Now there’s a snout just begging for a brick!”  His was begging for a whole backyard barbecue’s worth.  I looked him over.  He was about my height, a few pounds leaner, more handsome, secure, smug, and self-satisfied.  He was cologned, well-groomed, and nicely coordinated in a wool pullover and pleated slacks.  I suddenly felt ashamed of my work pants and sweatshirt ensemble.

“I’ve never even read Charlotte’s Web,” I told him, “but there’s a lot of other books that I have read, and not just about Stalingrad either.”

“What are you talking about, Duuuude?”

I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about.  I was talking to his previous smirk.  “Nevermind,” I said, “Enjoy having sex with your girlfriend.”

I think he thought I said, “I’d enjoy having sex with your girlfriend,” because he got right up in my face.

“Why don’t you get your drunk ass out of here?” he yelled, poking at my chest, “Before you embarrass yourself anymore!”  I don’t like anybody telling me when I should stop embarrassing myself, but I really don’t like to be poked.  A poke is so demeaning.  Hitting a man in the face is more respectful than poking at him.  He was saying that I was not even worthy of the expenditure a beating would require, that a few forceful thrusts of his finger would be enough to cow me into submission.  Between the smirking and the poking, I could feel my insides tearing up the social contract.

I grabbed his finger and twisted.  He dropped his egg nog.  Over the years, I learned that in a crowded situation like that, you can’t excite the herd too much.  The more people that realize a fight is breaking out, the more will eventually swarm you.  At this point, the guy was going to his knees, but he might’ve been just getting down to the funky beat.  So as I twisted his finger, I acted like I was dancing with him, to sort of camouflage it.  I waved my free hand in the air like I just didn’t care.   Here we all are, just shaking it loose to Oasis.

Anyone who was actually watching wouldn’t have been fooled by my pantomime.  The girl saw what was happening, lunged at me, and began clawing my face.  Now, I had a problem.  Although I had the guy under some control, (it’s not like I could walk him across the floor like a pedigree, but he wasn’t going anywhere) the chick wrapped around my back, shredding my face with her garden rakes, was seriously hampering my dance moves.  I couldn’t seem to shake her off.  We crashed backwards into a Christmas tree.  Now, nobody thought we were dancing.  However, nobody was entering into the fray, just yet.

There’s a pause before other people join in a fight.  It’s only natural to take a moment to size things up and see if you want to add to the merriment.  How long that pause is depends on the crowd.  It doesn’t take long for an Irish bar crowd to rush in.  Country Western folks don’t tend to over think things either.  But these were St. John’s students, and they were going to wax philosophically about cost versus reward, one’s duty to society versus self-preservation, savage warlord glory versus possible ass-kicking and jail time.  They had some heavy things to sort out before joining in.

I had a small window to act.  The she-bitch on my back was the main problem.  I couldn’t get her off of me without hurting her, and the way I saw it, we had something once, before he showed up.  I was getting desperate.  I was alone at this party, with no back-up from buddy boys, and I knew the crowd would eventually come to defend one of their own, especially a boyfriend/girlfriend combo.  There wouldn’t be time to take to the podium and explain the passive-aggressive nature of the poke, or how certain social cues can be misread by the overly sensitive, so I decided to give her my Banshee War Cry.

This is a form of psychological warfare.  Like the rebel yell, or the Japanese Banzai, the war cry is used to demoralize one’s opponent into paralysis.  If done properly, it also makes you look like a total psycho- one that nobody wants to deal with.  But you have to sell it, and in order to do that, you have to sell a piece of your soul’s self-respect.  I turned around, looked right into her face and unleashed the most demonic, possessed-by-a-wraith, crazy-eyed shriek I could summon.  It’s funny when I think about how earlier in the evening, I was hoping  we’d be kissing each other’s naked bodies, and now I was screaming in her face like some tortured mythical monster, and not in a good way.  What a steep trajectory our relationship took.  How fickle the flight of love’s arrow.

She quickly disengaged.  I got up and bolted for the door.  Only when I was clearly in retreat did the crowd finally decide to jump in.  Now, everybody wanted a piece of me.  Saving face at that point was futile, so I ran like a villain in a silent film, out through the yard and down the street.  I was being chased by an angry mob of young intellectuals.  How absolutely, fucking embarrassing.  I really legged it and managed to get away.  I barfed a bit, waited in the bushes until it was safe, got in my car and drove home.  I stayed up a few hours that night feeling weird about things, then passed out.

The Christmas parties I attend now are pretty tepid.  They start early and end early.  Sober people only say things once, so their get-togethers don’t last as long.  The highlight is usually coffee and cake.  That may not be some people’s idea of a party, but that’s what I prefer these days.  My idea of a good holiday party was a brutal experience, an endurance contest that destroyed the victor and vanquished equally.  Peace and goodwill towards men, got trampled under foot in the stampede for kicks and oblivion, and somebody usually got hurt.  Now, I’d rather have cake and coffee, and not get poked or smirked at. Cat glasses still kill me.

Christmas on The Western Front

Jumping Through Hoop Rides

Hello Dad! Hello Mom! Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch Cherry Bomb! Santa Fe, '92

I left The Green Onion, looked around, and couldn’t find my car.  This was hardly new, but this time it really wasn’t where I left it.  Someone stole my car.   She was a ’73 Olds Omega, a beater, with bald tires, bashed-in bumpers, a cracked windshield, coat hanger antenna, cigarette-burned interior, and a body rotting with leprous rust.  Underneath all the shame was a Rocket 350 V-8 that could propel me into or out of trouble quickly.  Her rear-end was light, so she fishtailed in the snow.  I’d drive around all winter with a boxing heavy bag and all my weights in the back to give her traction.  She was a Gulden’s yellowish-brown, so I named her “The Mustard Bitch.”  Except for over-heating all the time, and bleeding a quart of oil every three days, she was a great car.  Now, she was someone else’s great car.  I went back into the bar.

My buddy, Doug, was bartending.  I handed him some needle-nose pliers, and then told him what happened.  He handed me the phone to call the cops, then started pouring me a beer.

“Can you believe someone stole The Mustard Bitch?” I  asked him.  He couldn’t.  ” I’m pissed that someone took her, but flattered that anyone would want her.”  Doug nodded and set the beer down, “No charge.”

I didn’t get it.  Why her?  It’s still grand theft auto, whether it’s a Lexus or a Leper.  It helped that you didn’t need a key to turn the ignition, but how did they know that?  I finished my beer, and Doug poured another one.  He was a good friend.  It would be a while before the cops showed up.

I guess it comes with the lifestyle, but I’ve always had crappy cars.  If they weren’t too bad when I bought them, they seemed to age faster than a president.  I gave them nicknames.  There was The Silver Fish, Shitty Shitty Bang Bang, White Lightning, The Beast, Cherry Bomb, Ol’ Smokey, Creeping Death, Compostula, and a bunch of others that died before I could name them.

My favorite was Cherry Bomb.  She was a red ’61 Ford Falcon, that Marko and I bought for $100.  She was edgy.  She was seatbelt-free.  She also didn’t have a rear window, or a muffler, or wipers, or a backseat (you sat on milk crates).   Somehow, she still managed to turn heads.  Unfortunately, most of those heads belonged to cops.  I had painted on some registration tags, and paid a guy at Kinko’s to forge us some bogus proof of insurance, so that was no problem.

The trouble was the steering.  It was so out of alignment the car would swerve while you held the wheel dead center.  You had to, not so much steer, as counter-swerve.  This made you appear to be driving at a higher blood alcohol level than you really were.  The roar coming out of the muffler-free exhaust made sure to call attention to it, too.   We’d be zigzagging along the street, setting off car alarms as we passed, leaning out to wipe away the rain or snow with our hands, or gripping the dash, yelling “Oh fuck! Oh shit! Oh shit-shit-shit! Oh fuck! Oh Shit! Oh fuck this shit-shit-fuck!”  It was an all-hands-on-deck ride.  We only drove her to the liquor store, and to get to work and back.  It was a lousy date car.

It was closing time and the cops still hadn’t showed up.  I called to let them know I was leaving the scene of the crime, and that they could take my information back at my house.  I thanked Doug for all the free beers, and promised to help him haul his massive album collection the next time he moved.  A waitress named Sarah Jane drove me home.  I waited for a while, then went to bed.  My sister woke me up that night.  “The police are here.  What did you do now?”   I said I was the victim, this time.

I sat at the dining room table and gave the cop my report.  He seemed earnest, but with cop-earnest you never know.

“I know they didn’t get too far,” I told him.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“You can’t pull the lights on without needle-nose pliers,” I explained, “and I don’t keep any in the car,”

“Where do you keep them?”

“At home. Otherwise I lose them.”

“How do you turn the lights on when you’re not at home?”

“I borrow a pair from Doug.”

“Who’s Doug?”

“The bartender. He’s my friend.”

He started to write something down, then looked up.  “You seem to have been drinking tonight. You didn’t drive home did you?.”

I stared at him.  “No, my car was stolen.”  I got up to get a beer.  “Are you going to be the one heading up this investigation?”

It looked like I was going to have to get another car.  That was okay.  I was used to things coming and going by then.  Cars, jobs, money, places to live, and soul mates all came and went. You couldn’t get too attached.  It would kill you faster than the drinking.

Creeping Death was Volkswagen Sirocco that could take you out pretty fast.  The car had brakes when I bought it, but they disappeared shortly afterwards. At that time, brakes were a luxury I just couldn’t afford.  I relied on my parking brake and psychic intuition.  “Magic 8 Ball, will that light remain green much longer?”  I kept it in first gear, and if necessary, gently tapped parked cars to slow down.  True fact.  That was Creeping Death.

Shitty Shitty Bang Bang was a clattering Chevy Chevette (diesel!) that leaked radiator fluid, regardless of how much Stop-Leak I added.  I quit wasting money on that shit and anti-freeze.  I just added water every other time I drove it.  One morning, I was in a rush to drive this girl home before her parents woke up.  I forgot to add water and overheated on the way home from Pecos.  I walked back and forth a mile or two looking for water.  No luck.  I did have to pee though.  I couldn’t find a container to transfer my fluid, so I whizzed directly into the radiator.  The funny thing was, I felt clever, or at least as clever as you can feel while pissing into a car engine by the side of the road.  It didn’t work.  I abandoned Shitty Shitty by the side of the road, and hitchhiked home.  It was a pain in the ass looking for diesel anyway.

Ol’ Smokey was a Ford Bronco that torched oil.  It spewed dense, cumulus smoke, in power plant-sized clouds.  This became a problem when I moved to Los Angeles.  It seems L.A. motorists are more uptight about air quality.  They would drive up beside me and angrily point at the smoke, as if I didn’t see it.  I would act surprised, and thank them.  “Oh my gosh, time for a valve job!  Do they cost more than a case of beer?”

I was stopped at a light on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica one night, when a cop pulled up behind me.  Here we go, I thought.  I watched in my rearview as the squad car disappeared in the cloud of smoke.  The light changed, and I left him there.  That was a great moment.  My luck held until one day in Hawthorne I finally got pulled over and issued a fix-it ticket.  I drove Ol’ Smokey around for 29 more days, then called the junk yard.

The Mustard Bitch could be one.  She was hot-headed and thirsty, like most women around me then, fast but unreliable.  One October night, she left T-Bone and me stranded at a rest stop at the top of La Bajada.  The car was at the bottom of the hill, along with our extra clothes and mobile party supplies.  It was freezing, with a nice wind driving the cold into all our cracks and crevasses.  We had to take turns warming up inside the men’s restroom. One guy would go in while the other guy waited for the tow truck.  T-Bone was wearing a buckskin cowboy jacket, and I had a black leather biker one.  We looked like half the Village People.  We had no idea what we were in for that night.  Men circled, whispered, and disappeared around us.

“Dude! What the fuck is going on here?” I asked him, “How long does it take these guys to stretch their legs?”  Some of them had been hanging around for almost an hour.

“Everyone is friendly enough,” T-bone noted, “But something weird is going on around here.”   When we figured out what was really going on, we stopped taking turns warming up inside the restroom.  We both stood shivering outside, trying hard to not look like guys who wanted to blow strangers.

The cop finished his report.  I got up and walked him out.  He said that they would do their best.  I knew what that meant.  I always did my best, too.  I told him to watch out for drunks and closed the door.

The next morning, Marko and I went looking for the car ourselves.  We drove around with a baseball bat and some beers.  We saw a lot of cars up on blocks, but no Omega.  We gave up when we ran out of beer.

We were driving home when a smear of mustard caught my eye.  My baby.  She was sitting in a small parking lot.  That funereal “waterfall grille” never looked so beautiful.  I was right, they didn’t get too far.  Not keeping pliers in the car turned out to be genius.  I got in, turned the ignition, and she started.  Good girl.  They stole my leather jacket, a pair of sap gloves, and my David Lindley, “El Rayo” cassette, but I could let that stuff go.  I was resigned to lose everything someday, but I was grateful it wasn’t all at once.  One loss at a time.  I had Marko follow me home.  I was low on gas, and almost out of oil.

h

Have you seen me?

A Pawn in the Pawn Shop of Life

I called my friend, Dave.  “I have a new job, and I get to carry a gun,” I told him.  “Are you working as an armed robber?”  “Sort of. I’m working as a clerk at a pawn shop.”  I could hear him hiss out his bong hit.  “Sounds like a new low.”  I told him that new doesn’t always mean worse. “I get to carry a gun.”

A guy named Blackie offered me the job.  Strange creature that one.  He was bug-eyed, with lots of nervous habits that could drive you crazy if you paid attention to them.  He was a toe-tapping, key-jingling, hair-flattening, shoulder-shrugging, eyes-darting-around mess.  He looked like he just snatched a purse and was now blowing the line-up because he was too coked-up.

I met him at the bar I worked at.  He would show up every Wednesday night, when we featured Pearl beer for a dollar.  It was a total gyp.  Pearl was the worst.  Imagine beer-piss distilled in a dusty church organ, then filtered through hospital laundry.  It had an acrid bouquet of nervous sweat, and a strong lead solder finish.  Even I didn’t drink Pearl. Blackie was on his fifth one when he told me about the position at the pawn shop he worked at.

“Do you know how to use a calculator?” he asked me.  “I think so,” I told him.  “Come by tomorrow and fill out an application.”

I put another check mark on my seedy jobs list.

Being a pawnbroker was okay.  It beat laboring hands down.  I was indoors, and except for lugging TV’s back and forth, didn’t have to exert myself too much.  I also got to wear a gun.  That was the best part.  Give anybody with low self-esteem a gun and watch their self-importance balloon.  I began to understand why cops were the way they were.

Having a gun strapped on just murders your customer service skills.  I’d get to work, still flammable from the night before, put on a holstered .357, and just wait for the first customer to give me shit.

“We don’t take TV’s without the remote,” I’d tell someone. “Why the hell not?” they’d ask.  My hand would lower to my hip.  “Because God told us not to, Shit-pants. You want to go ask him…personally?”  They’d see the gun, call me a faggot, then drag the set back to the car.  Since I wasn’t sold on peaceful acceptance back then, I opted for the next best thing, resigned submission, from the other guy.

When I lived in New York,  I worked for Nat Sherman’s, a fancy tobacconist on 5th Avenue.  I had to bow and scrape, ass-kiss and bootlick the snooty clientele.  I ate their snide comments with a forced smile, and had to strain out some sincerity while doing it.  Wearing a gun was definitely better.  Right away it established who the shot-caller was, and kept the lippy backtalk to a minimum.

Being snotty to the help is the dubious luxury of those who can at least pay their utility bills.  Not so for those not whose luck has been strung so thin it can slice government cheese.  The pawnbroker can be the last hand to reach for before you bounce through the hole in the social safety net.  We were happy to help (at 15% interest and $7.50 minimun charge per transaction) but still some people came in acting like they were the ones doing us a favor.  They saw it as an honor for us to hold on to their holy relics until they broke the bank at some Indian casino.

I remember this one freak who used to come it to pawn his swords and knives.  He had bought them through a catalogue featuring the fantasy bladeware so popular with the socially impotent.  He’d be clad in psuedo-swashbuckler attire, with the ponytail, the puffy shirt, crystal necklace, seventeen earrings, leather pants and fringed buckskin boots.  I named him “Gaylord, the Fantastic.”  The routine always went something like this:

“This is a ‘Knight’s of Zardoz’ special edition, 440 tempered steel, onyx-inlaid, Royal Battle Sword,” he’d inform me.

“The owner says the most I can go on any blade like this is seven bucks,” I’d inform him.

Outraged, Gaylord would go on about how collectable Carl Buckler Signature Blades were, the limited number produced, and the fantasy folklore behind the design.

“Look dude, I don’t care if you pulled it out of a magic dragon’s ass, the most I can go is seven.”

“But I paid 149 dollars for this sword!”

“And you will get seven dollars for it if you choose to pawn it, and ten bucks if you sell it straight out.”

He’d sputter something about the box office records of “Zardoz; The Harkening,” the world-wide following of “The Zardoz Trilogy,” the sheer, cherished collectability of all things Zardoz!

” Why don’t you take it to Zardoz and see if he’ll give you more for it?  Because we have better things to kill evil trolls with around here,” I’d say, tapping on my holster, “than some glorified letter opener for emotionally-stunted geeks.  Now, do you want to pawn or sell?”

“I’d like to pawn it.”

I would hand him a clipboard with a form to fill out.  A magical sword may be a valuable treasure in role-playing games, but it’s worth about a burrito lunch and a beer in the real world.  He never seemed to get that.

People coming in with fake jewelry was always fun.  They were either trying to hoodwink us or had been hoodwinked themselves, but either way there was a lot of ‘splaining to do when the diamond tester didn’t beep or the gold bubbled acid on the scratch test.  Blackie would fuck with people he knew were trying to run him.  He’d test it, see that it was fake, then ask “Would you take $500 for it?”  Their eyes would widen, and trying to contain their excitement say, ” I guess I would.”  He’d hold the piece up to a jeweler’s loop and go, “I bet you would, but I’m seeing it’s a little flawed.  Does $4oo sound okay?”  They’d agree it sounded okay, and then he’d put it on the counter.  “I’m sure it sounds okay, because this is fake shit.  You’re not getting anything for it.”  Whah-whuh-whuh-whaaaaaaah!

Generally, we were kind to the downtrodden, all of us having been trod in that general direction ourselves.  If somebody really beat came in, and set out a bunch of shitty cassettes, a souvenir Las Vegas (New Mexico) ashtray, a broken clock radio, and some plastic coat hangers (stuff they obviously found in a dumpster) we’d reach into our coffee money jar and give them a few bucks.  We figured that crap should be worth at least a 40 ounce malt liquor and a hot dog in the real world.

You’d see some sad things.  One couple would come in on payday every Friday night.  They’d pay back the loan on her wedding ring.  We’d polish it up for them.  He would slip it on her finger, they’d kiss, and we’d all cheer.  Monday morning, he’d be back to pawn it again.  They did this every week.  She only got to wear her wedding ring on week-ends.  Cue the Country Western music…

Some criminal masterminds would try unloading the swag they stole.  Since they needed identification to pawn or sell it, they would soon be caught.  Most of them violated their parole and went back to prison.   One guy got sent back to the penitentiary for pawning a stolen kid’s bike.  I wouldn’t be bragging about that shit when I went back in. It hardly reveals the enterprising Scarface you thought you were when you took it.

What was the most interesting thing I ever saw being brought in to pawn?  Nothing.  There was never anything interesting.  It was all dull, stupid shit.  TV’s, electronics, jewelry and guns were what we were looking for.  Stuff that moved fast in pawn shop resale, and that’s pretty much what we got.  It was numbing in its banality.  To this day if I see an electric drill or a turquoise ring, I barf a little in my mouth.  Nobody ever came in with a Crimean War Pepper-Box derringer, or the cameo brooch Mary Todd Lincoln wore to the theater that fateful night, or antique bottles of narcotic, children’s cough syrups.  That might happen on the cable shows, but not at our little aquarium of bottom-feeders.

Looking back now I wish I wasn’t such a dick.  People never warn you to be nice to people on your way down.  The fact that I could pay my utility bills and got to carry a gun, went to my head.  It wasn’t too long before I couldn’t do either, and I was the one trying to pawn a German Army helmet.  Hey, now that I think of it, that was the most interesting thing I ever saw being brought in to pawn- a German Army helmet.  I got two dollars for it.  They burned my ass and I took it.  I needed it to drink.  I just remembered that I even did a little song and dance to sell it, like Gaylord used to do.

I hate when that happens, when I realize I’m just like the people I make fun of.  I guess it comes with the territory, with being sober.  Oh well, at least the lights are on, the water’s running, and I don’t have to carry a gun.

Don't forget to steal the remote!

Slow Death by Kwik-Labor

Unemployed and loving it.

It would be the last good summer I would have for a long time.  It started when I broke my hand on some guy’s skull in a bar fight.  Since I was working as a bouncer at the time, I was able to collect disability for a month.  That week I also received a windfall check for a thousand dollars.  In my limited world it was like winning the lottery.  I drank imported beer and ate sushi once in a while.  I could fill the tank to half, instead of just-above-red.  I was able to do my laundry in a coin machine, instead of stomping on it while I took a shower.

Not working was very good.  Not having to steal car batteries to take to the recycler for a dollar each because of it was amazing.

That was a happy season, with plenty of wine, women, and bong.  I got to rest and read, even scribble a few words down.  I hiked and camped around northern New Mexico.  I finally got a break from The Toil, and a chance to breathe and look around.  Things looked okay.

It was short-lived.  As the air started to cool, so did my hot luck.  The good times guzzled up my fortune quickly, and soon I was stomping on my clothes in the shower again.  All the leaves were brown and the sky was grey.  Early one cold morning,  I found myself pedaling a bicycle with a leaking front tire to Kwik-Labor.  It was flat by the time I walked the bike up to the office.

I gave my information to a spent piece of mobile home trash with a beehive hair-do and turquoise eye shadow.  I sat down on an orange plastic chair and looked around.  Here was the cream of America’s  temporary labor force: reeking alcoholics, toothless meth addicts, criminals, sociopaths, drifters, bullshit artists, and a host of other assorted nuts and dolts.  I was now one of them and it felt rotten.  “Well they call me the ‘working man’ …I guess that’s what I am.”

We sat around drinking metalic-tasting coffee until we got our job assignments.  The guys with cars got the best jobs.  The rest of us piled into the Kwik-Labor van.  For two dollars out of our day’s pay, we got to be dropped off at the job sites in the most humiliating way possible, short of a squad car, or a bicycle with a flat front tire.

Company’s that needed people to do jobs they didn’t want to run off good workers doing, called Kwik-Labor.  That van would pull up, the doors would open, and human refuse piled out.  We’re here!  Where’s the stuff nobody else wants to do?

I always seemed to end up digging in a hole somewhere.  It was a cosmic metaphor, I’m sure.  Most days, I didn’t mind the pick and shovel.  Digging ditches was mindless, and I had plenty of other things to think about, like how to get out of the hole I had metaphorically dug myself in.  I tried to stay stoic, but some days the hangover, combined with the stubbornness of the rocks, and the proximity of some blathering idiot,  just beat it out of me.  Despair was always tugging on my sleeve, tapping me on the shoulder, poking me in the pelvis with a trombone.

There were men who thrived under the circumstances.  Jim was one of them.  Jim was fucking gnarly.  He looked like a cross between Charles Manson and a pirate, but more tan.  He had a scraggly beard, and two rotten front teeth.  They looked like burnt corks that hung down like twisted fangs.  On his bicep was a tattoo of a green cartoon hand raising a “fuck you” finger, with stuff dripping off the tip, with the words “Fox Hunter,” underneath.

Jim was a drifter from New Hampshire who drove around in a diesel pick-up with an oil drum to store stolen fuel from farm equipment.  He chased floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes looking for work as an equipment operator.  He was a good operator, a hard worker, and immune to misery.  He got hired on permanently with the same company as Marko and me.  Because operating equipment made him higher on the construction food chain, he became our defacto supervisor.  He rode us like circus pigs.  Having to stop to drink water was scowled at.  Taking breaks was “fah fairies.”  He would eyeball a half-inch rise of dirt you didn’t level out and scream, “Yah left a fuckin’ mountain deh, yah numb nuts! Fix that shit! Keep tampin’!”  We would fantasize about killing him with whatever tool we were using at the time.

One day during a snow storm, Marko and I were tying down heating hose to concrete reinforcement mesh, while Jim sat in the backhoe, barking orders.  The two of us had our hustle on.  We were trying to beat the storm.  At one point, Marko was running up the hill with two rolls of 200 foot hose around each arm.  He was trying to jam a piece of cold chicken into his mouth while running.  The weight of the hose around his arm kept pulling the drumstick out of his mouth while he ran.  Jim looked over and yelled at him, “Fuckin’ Mahko! Whah do you think this is? A fuckin’ picnic?”

Some picnic, indeed.  Marko wasn’t spending A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jaffe, he was running up a hill in the snow trying to cram down some  chicken, with Michelin Man arms.  There was nothing picnicky about it.  It was a snapshot of what sucked.  But, in the brutal and desolate inner world of Jim, this was like playing badminton or croquet at a lake park, and he tried to make Marko feel guilty about it.  We never forgot that.

I can’t remember what natural disaster finally lured Jim away, but we were thanking God for it. (I know that’s bad)  There would be other people to endure, other pains in the ass, one replacing the other, in a never-ending conveyor belt of bummers.  That life had a shortage of a lot of things, but not that.  When you drink yourself to lower and lower worlds, the denizens of those realms tend to be unpleasant.  I knew what I had to do in order to move out of the neighborhood, but I kept balking.  I was scared I couldn’t handle it.  But then again, this shit was no fucking picnic either.

Keep Tampin'!