Marching to the Beat of a Different Bummer

Don't be scared, ladies. We're fun.

The phone rang.  It was the kind connected to a wall.  The wall had a clock connected to it.  The clock said it was 7am.  I got up and connected myself to the phone, and subsequently to 7am.  It was Dave.

“What kind of disease makes your shit fluorescent green?” he asked.

It was always something.  “Do you know any amateur surgeons?”  “How much prison time do you get for…?”  “Where’s a place that delivers drywall and windows at this hour?”  “Do you remember where I left Karen last night?”  “Can a penis get pink eye?”  He always had a cup of crisis brewing in the morning.  I have to admit that it helped my early AM outlook.  A quick survey of my bomb-blasted landscape would reveal a few more houses standing than Dave’s, and I would feel a little better.

He would get up at six in the morning to start hitting the gin.  I should say gin-flavored grain alcohol.  That’s what generic store brand gin actually is.  Read the label sometime.  The ingredients list “Neutral grain spirits, gin flavoring.”  It isn’t gin, but a gin-flavored treat.  Either way, it’s a brutal way to start your morning.

I went to the fridge to get a beer.  “I don’t know, dude, fluorescent?”

“Yeah, bright fluorescent green.”

I turned the television on, and laid down on my mattress.  There was a half a can of bean dip with cigarette butts in it on the floor by my head.  It smelled bad, so I used a shoe to push it further away.

“Well, whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like you’ll be around too much longer,” I tried to console, “So don’t worry about it ruining your future.”

“Yeah, there’s not too much left of it to ruin,” he said, then belched.

At the rate we were going, we weren’t going to have to endure anything for too much longer.  We took a strange comfort in this.  We took comfort in strange things, like each other.

Every morning Dave and I would talk while watching TV.  He’d be at his apartment, and I’d be at mine.  Sometimes we’d be watching the same channel, other times different ones, but our commentary was always, brilliant, poignant and insightful.  We were pundits.  Pundits of Reality.  Pundits who drank and watched TV, while everyone else was earning a living.  It was easy to feel better about ourselves while watching daytime television.  Compared to the cretins showcased on Jerry Springer, Cops, and Judge Judy, we were towers of intelligence and wisdom.  Twin towers.

I was a semi-employed alcoholic bouncer/laborer, who sometimes wrote things.  Dave was a drunk, ex-heroin addict (and then current fugitive from Texas justice) who could play the drums.  What cruel irony that even with these stellar resumes, the world hadn’t bowed before our majesty.  Actually, the world had bowed for Dave once, but when Dave bowed back, he fell on the floor and couldn’t get up.  He lived the rock and roll myth for a brief time, then plummeted faster than an oil-soaked Texas Mallard.  He splashed into a pond of gin-flavoring and had to tread water, instead of being able to rely on his natural buoyancy.

I didn’t need success to ruin me, failure was doing just fine.  I’m not sure which is worse, being a has-been or a never-was.  I’d like to try being a has-been sometime.  I know the other gig blows balls.

I adjusted my pillow and found a pink plastic barrette.  I reached up and dropped it in the lost and found jar.

“Hey dude,” I said, “I’ve really been getting The Fear a lot more.  I’m wondering if the drinking has anything to do with that.”


“See, I was afraid you’d say that!  My fears are real!”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Everything,” I said, “I’m afraid of the spatula on the counter, the mailman, traffic signs, weather, phone calls, getting a disease that makes me shit fluorescent green.  The only time I’m not afraid is when I’m watching a war documentary.”

“About Stalingrad.”

“It seems to help more if it is.  Anyway, do you think there’s something wrong with me?”  I asked, more earnestly then I’d like to admit.  I could hear Dave swallow some gin-scented crazy water.

“Nah, there’s nothing wrong with you.  Everybody is like that,” he reassured, “I mean everybody is fucked up.  You’re brand is just more…unique.”

I thought about it and felt slightly better.  We’d do that for each other, throw out straws for the other to grasp at.

“Let’s watch Mexican TV,” I suggested.  Dave and I liked to watch telenovelas with the sound off.  We added our own dialogue and took the characters to places only the hopelessly depraved would dare to tread.  It kept our minds sharp.

We turned to the station, but it was a game show.  Mexican game shows are a phenomenon as mysterious and baffling as the stones of Ollantaytambo, Peru.

“What the hell is this all about?” Dave laughed, “Renaissance Fair escapee runs amok?”

We watched a midget, wearing an Elizabethan gown, run around with a broom.  He was swatting at couples trying to dodge him. They each had a leg tied to each other with what looked like an Ace bandage.  It was some sort of sack race/Pinata hybrid the producers had improvised, but they forgot to include a point to it all.  He wasn’t swinging at them hard, there didn’t seem to be any penalty for being hit, and there was no finish line.  Afterwards, no winner was declared or prizes awarded.

What was the purpose of all this labored chaos?  It wasn’t funny, at least not the way they intended it to be.  These zany antics were worth a dry cough and glance at the wristwatch.  Even the clowns they had standing around to add merriment to the scene, looked like guys that were rounded up while loitering at a bus station.

“Maybe it’s a pride thing,” I offered, “the pride of knowing you got hit less often by a midget than other people.”

“Yeah, pride is a big thing in that culture,” Dave said, “And so is having some of the hottest women on Earth. Check out that carne ass-ada!”

While the midget in damsel-drag chased the conjoined couples around in a circle, and the shot-out clowns performed their vagrancy, something else was going on. Long-legged Latinas, dressed like mid-priced hookers, jumped around the sidelines, cheering, blowing whistles and party horns.  We understood this.  This was actually okay entertainment.

“Do you think all the bullshit with the midget and the broom is just an excuse to have some boobs bounce around?” I asked.

“I think all Mexican TV is just an excuse to have some boobs bounce around,” Dave said, “And that’s sad, because you don’t really need to have an excuse.”

“You never need an excuse to have a good time,” I pronounced, and got up for another beer.  We didn’t need an excuse.  That was our problem.

We had gone out together the night before and had gotten ugly drunk.  At one point our group was waved off by the bouncers upon on our approach.  We were thrown out of the bar ten yards before getting there.  That takes skill.  So does getting 86’d out of a bar you still have to work at.  I have to give Dave the assist for that one.

We all wound up at Dez’s house.  I remember a zoftig Brunhilde sitting on my lap, pushing her amber necklace into my face while I drank.  My legs were going to sleep under her weight, but I didn’t care.  Let them sleep.  I figured they could use the rest.  I finally had to ask her to get off so I could take a leak, but by then my legs had gone into a coma.  I could not get up.  I was about to piss my pants and had to beg for help.  Dez and another guy carried me to the bathroom, my legs dragging uselessly behind me.  When Dave saw this he howled with delight and shouted, “Medic! Medic! I need a chopper!  Gustaitis has been hit by a blonde bombshell!  He’s paralyzed from the neck up!”  Everyone had a good laugh.  My troubles always seemed to be good for that.

After drinking up all of Dez’s beers, we scavenged around for anything else.  Dave found some green creme de menthe liqueur in a cabinet.  I took a hit, and Dave finished it.  Wait… that was it!

“I think I have the diagnosis for your alarming symptoms this morning,” I announced, ” The glowing green stool sample you produced, my friend, was caused by acute alcoholism, a condition exacerbated last night by your ingestion of half a bottle of green creme de menthe.”

We got a good laugh over this.  The big har-dee-har-har was on us though, because a few years later, Dave’s guts gave out, and he died.  It wasn’t a shock, but it was.

I have some survivor’s guilt, and a lot of regret.  You see, when I got sober, I left Dave by the side of the road.  We were bound to drift apart, but I shut the door on him.  At the time it was easy to rationalize.  I needed to focus on getting better, but I could’ve done that without avoiding him completely.  Instead, I stopped answering the phone.  I let him drown, while I went off to seek a better life.

They say you can’t help an alcoholic if he’s not ready, but somebody should be around if that time ever comes.  Who better than an old drinking buddy?  Besides, you never leave a man behind, and I did.  I am deeply ashamed of this.

I hope you can forgive me, dude.  I am really sorry.  I hope I’ll get a chance to make it up you in the next life, when I’m a midget and you’re a long-legged Latina.  In the meantime, I want to tell people how funny, talented, and smart you were.  What a good heart you had.  How hard you tried to be a good dad to your little boy, and how often you were.  How you were a life raft on my stormy seas.  How in spite of all the bullshit, what a great friend you were.  And how I miss you, and would give anything for a call from you… at 7am.

Photo by David Tatge

Dave, 1967-2008

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!