I’ve never been much for bars, but my friend Jack loves them. So every time I visit him in Delaware, we invariably end up in a bar.
And I don’t mean some quaint pub, or a slightly run-down hole in the wall, the kind of bars I favor in New York. I mean a packed, blaring, pick-up joint with big hair, a cover charge, ear-splitting dance music and flashing lights. I hate these places with a passion, couldn't care less whether they’re “in” or not because they’re always out with me. Not Jack, though. He likes two things in life: drinking and women.
We’re both the same age, went to high school together back in Pennsylvania and find ourselves at roughly the same place in our lives – tired of our jobs, single, sensing no real future in the things we’re doing and not sure what to do next. Even though we're in our early 30's, I still feel much like the protagonist in Neil Young’s song “Powderfinger,” who “just turned 22 and was wondering what to do,” right before getting shot between the eyes.
We walk to a bar in a small township where he just bought half of a rowhouse. He had to move from his old apartment complex, one of those unsightly cookie-cutter jobs one sees all over suburban America with silly names, this one being the Golf Club Apartments. He and his roommate Rich had been kicked out a few weeks back for blasting music too loud on a regular basis. Rich found an apartment in another grubby complex, but Jack held out, living in hell with his parents and their insane german shepherd Sid for a few weeks before finding the row house, actually a sweet deal in a clean, quiet neighborhood.
The bar is the usual for Jack – crowded, attractive women all done up, bored-looking guys who don’t want to dance unless they have to, people clustered in small groups, not wanting to communicate with anyone else. He’s going to meet Rich there, even though Rich and his new girlfriend had ditched him a week earlier in another bar, leaving him to wander the streets of Wilmington looking for a ride home. It was all an innocent mistake, but Jack is still angry over Rich’s irresponsibility. Rich is divorced and has been dating all kinds of folks since, one of them a transvestite with a five o’clock shadow.
“What’s Rich’s girlfriend like?” I scream at Jack as we settle in near the pool table. He doesn’t hear me, so I have to scream it again.
“She’s white trash. Used to be on heroin and snorts coke with him. I can’t stand her.”
“So how many women have you slept with?” Jack asks to make conversation. This is an old joke with us.
“Counting your mother?” I ask. He smiles and nods.
“One,” I answer. He laughs.
“Ahoy, there, assholes,” a woman’s voice wails behind us. Jack’s posture stiffens, as if a doctor has just plunged in a rectal thermometer. It’s an ugly voice. I expect to turn around and see Margaret Hamilton in a black mini-dress riding a broom. I turn to see Rich, and for the first time, his girlfriend.
Jack’s right. I can’t explain it, but some white people simply look like they’ve spent serious time in a trailer park. With her, it was her hair, a bad dye job, a lying shade of blonde, and her mouth. Frowning with a slight dent in the right corner, no doubt left there from years of bogarting econo-brand cigarettes. And of course, those trailer park eyes. Hard and unforgiving, too much mascara, older than I’ll ever be. Intelligent, but in a stubborn way that learns unwillingly from hard times and abuse.
Introductions are made, and we spend the next hour or two slowly getting drunk. I’ve always liked Rich, although I recognize he's troubled, and has bad taste in women. I met his ex-wife once in Dewey Beach, Delaware, the asshole of the universe in my book, at a lawn party where she pronounced herself a dancing queen and spent the rest of the night pulling dozens of embarrassing, white-bread moves that made Don Knotts look like Don Cornelius. The woman should have stuck to the twist and the bunny hop.
Rich and I always talk baseball together, and we did so for most of the night while his girlfriend banters with Jack. I’m not aware of it, but as we grow more drunk, she and Rich are exchanging those bad vibes that couples often do, certain looks and motions to let each other know a fight would be imminent. We’re all fairly drunk, not dangerously so, but enough to be silly and loose. After awhile, Jack and I find ourselves next to each other while Rich and his girlfriend start yelling at each other. The only line we could make out is her screaming, “Motherfucker, it took you eight beers to look at me. What’s wrong with you?”
“This happens every time,” Jack says to me behind his hand. He looks at the clock and informs me that the bar would be closing in 15 minutes. Rich throws up his hands and stalks outside. His girlfriend comes over to us with a hurt look on her face, slightly angry but a hint of tears in her eyes. The mascara hasn’t started running, but it has that sludgy look, like the mud around a damn’s wall getting ready to give. For a moment, I feel sorry for her, knowing that feeling of a drunken lover’s argument, where one person starts it, but both realize they want it, and that the fight is somehow necessary to carry on.
But that moment of sorrow ends quickly.
“Jack,” she says in her sad, cracked voice, “we got to stay at your place tonight. I’m too drunk, and you know Rich lost his license.”
Rich got DUI-ed two weeks ago coming home from a party. He claimed not to be drunk at all, but he came in just over the limit and had his license suspended. Delaware is a rough state on drunk driving. All weekend long I saw small signs on the roadside that memorialized scenes where drunk drivers had killed themselves or others in accidents. Just another hard-luck story for Rich, though – one of many from the point he blew out his pitching arm as a high-school prospect.
“Now, Jack, me and Rich are fighting, but I’ll go get him, and we’ll go back to your place. You wait right here.”
As she walks away, Jack rolls his eyes.
“Bill, there is no way those assholes are staying at my place tonight. I won’t allow it. They don’t know where I live yet, and they stood me up last week. Now it’s their turn.”
“But what about all this DUI stuff? It sounds serious.”
“Fuck them,” Jack says, “all they’re going to do is fight and screw all night and then hang around all morning. It ain’t happening. They only live five miles down the road anyway, for christ’s sake.”
Frankly, I wasn’t in any mood to have them over either. I only visit Jack a few times every year, and I like to avoid little snags like this with people I don’t really know. And I didn’t like the fact the she had invited herself without asking.
As one of the bouncers passes, Jack asks him if there’s a back door. The bouncer nods and points at a small screen door behind the pool table. Jack looks up front to see Rich and his girlfriend outside the bar screaming at each other. He grabs me by the arm and leads me out through the kitchen, where the workers stop to look at us and then go back to their dishes.
The alley behind the bar is a small dirt road that leads from one end of the parking lot to the other. The bar is in the middle of a small strip-mall that has a deli and two small clothes stores. Beyond the road is a field of tall elephant grass, the kind I associate with open sewers, snakes and mosquitoes.
“If I know Rich, he’s bound to drive his car back here on the way out,” Jack says, “he’s that kind of guy. Meticulous when he’s fucked up. He thinks like me, and that’s what he’d do. We’ve got to hide in the bushes until he leaves.”
At this point, I’d put on a halter top, mini-skirt , Jackie-O sunglasses and a platinum wig to avoid those assholes. So we crouch a few feet into the bushes, picking out a nice spot where we can kneel down and not be too conspicuous. We’re both drunk and feeling like jack asses, which is fine by me. We talk about old times, a friend who’s lost his mind and become an Amway salesman, but mainly just sit there in silence enjoying the charged feeling of pulling a fast one.
What does a man in his early 30's think about when he’s crouched down in elephant grass behind a bar waiting for unwanted freaks to leave the bar? Naturally, I think about the insanity of the situation, how silly and childish it makes me feel, and I enjoy every second of it. Every passing car causes us to crouch lower, every voice carried by the wind makes us stop a conversation cold. A worker from the bar’s kitchen tossing water into a near-by bush has the impact of a gun shot.
Maybe it’s because of the woman’s eyes, but I think about the raccoons camped out right above my neighbor’s drain pipe back in the Bronx. Strange but true -- a family of raccoons has somehow found a safe haven in a small crawl space beneath the awning of the roof of my neighbor’s house, only reachable by a long drainpipe.
This being the Bronx, it’s a single mother and four baby raccoons who only come out at night, usually right after sundown around nine. The mother shimmies down the drain pipe, a huge animal, must be at least two feet long and burly. I bark at her through my screen window as she clicks her way down the pipe, only a few feet away. (Young raccoons often make a stuttered purring sound, while full-grown raccoons will hiss and bark.) She turns to look at me, stopping, and we stare at each other, sometimes for up to half a minute, and she then continues down to the alley between our houses, no doubt to forage in the garbage for that night’s dinner.
The cubs are more apt to crawl up and down my neighbor’s slanted roof, frolicking and nipping at each other’s ears. Most times, they simply hang their heads out of the crawl space, one right after another, as if they were a comedy troupe in a Little Rascals short.
I don’t expect the situation to go on much longer. The neighbor has already been served one ticket by the police, and apparently he could get into serious trouble with the health department for having wild animals on his premises, even if he’s not responsible for them being there. This being the Bronx, I fully expect something stupid and violent to happen, but I hope the raccoons somehow stay alive and get the hell out of there.
Just then we see a woman come stalking around the corner of the bar. She looks angry, a short woman wearing a halter top and jeans, page-boy blonde hair, in good shape. Jack and I tense up and crouch as low as we can.
Unbelievably, she stops right in front of us, unzips her jeans and drops them to her knees. She’s looking right at us. I’m wearing a white t-shirt with the letters “U.S.A” printed on the front in blood red. Jack has a blue-and-white striped knit shirt. All this against the dull greenish yellow of tall elephant grass – we must look like neon signs.
She squats down, and we realize that since the bar must have closed minutes ago, she’s out here to relieve herself. When she crouches and reaches to pull down her panties, it finally registers that she’s staring at two grown men hiding in the weeds. I see terror flood into her eyes, stand up immediately and speak as fast as I can, extending my hands, palms up.
“Don’t scream. We’re hiding from two people in the bar who want to come back to our place. We don’t want them to, so we’re hiding in the weeds. We don’t mean you any harm. Sorry if we scared you.”
She hikes up her panties and her pants, looking at me all the while. At this point, I figure we’re screwed, at the least she’s going to get her boyfriend and his friends to come back and beat the shit out of us, or if we’re unlucky, she’ll call the cops or the bar owner and cause a tremendous scene.
Instead, she smiles and stands straight up. She has really bad teeth, like Keith Richards, but a friendly face.
“Dudes, don’t sweat it, I do it to my ex-husband all the time.”
Jack lets out a hard laugh, and she joins in. Jack and I stand up and come out into the alley. At this point, Jack can’t stop laughing.
“But, guys, for a minute, could you look away while I go piss behind the bush over here?”
“Sure, sure,” Jack chips in as we turn towards the highway for a few moments and hear the slight tinkling sound a few feet away.
“All done. You know, you don’t have to worry about nothing. I know all the cops in the police department around here.”
From being raised in a small town, Jack and I know that this is a bad sign. The only people who claim to know “all the cops” tend to be either creepy law enforcement groupies with every episode of America’s Most Wanted on videotape, in which case they wouldn’t be in a back alley late at night, or people who know all the cops because they’ve had repeated experiences with them, like small-time dealers who know their nemeses on first-name bases. Sure enough, the woman pulls out a joint.
“Dudes, have you ever been to Buffalo?” she asked as she tries to get her lighter to work.
Jack and I say no.
“You know, pot is legal in Buffalo.”
Jack and I exchange puzzled glances and try not to laugh.
“No, dudes, really. It’s legal in Buffalo. I walked down the street there smoking a joint the size of a hot dog, I’m telling you, and no one blinked twice.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s legal,” Jack says, glancing at me in a way that says, “she’s crazier than we'll ever be.”
“Well, dude, if it ain’t, then I must have been invisible.”
She passes around the joint, which Jack refuses. I’m not big on pot either, which tends to hit me like a strong dose of Niquyl, but at this point I figure, what the hell. The joint has absolutely no effect, pencil shavings, I’d imagine. It doesn’t even smell like pot – it smells like Pine Sol. We talk to her awhile longer, and she seems charmed to deal with two grown men silly enough to hide in the bushes. I can’t get over her teeth, incredibly bad, like those natives who chew betel nuts all day. The conversation has that “concert parking lot” feel, like we’re sharing a joint before going into the stadium and buying over-priced Ozzie t-shirts to prove we were there. There’s a feeling of anticipation, although the only thing we’re anticipating is Jack’s ex-roommate and his new girlfriend to come tearing around the corner at any second, full of fire and accusations.
Just then a man walks around the corner of the bar. He’s in his 30’s, short black hair, wire-frame glasses, dressed like us. He stops when he sees us.
“Honey?” he calls out, not wanting to come any closer. She rolls her eyes.
“I’m coming, Joey, don’t sweat it. Nothing wrong here, just hanging out.”
Joey waves and walks back as if this happens all the time.
“Well, dudes,” she says as she kills the joint, “I wish you luck with your little situation, I know how it feels. I’d hide in the bushes behind my neighbor’s house every time my ex came around.”
Jack asked her if she could give us a report on the status of his ex-roommate’s car before she leaves. He gives her a description of the car. She runs to the bar’s corner and peaks around the edge. She stands still for a long time, simply staring, as if she’s already forgotten Jack’s description and is trying to piece it together again. She trots back halfway and calls out to us.
“Bad news. That car is still there, and there’s a couple fighting in front of it. Not hitting each other, just talking real loud and waving their arms.”
“Shit,” Jack grunts.
“Sorry, dudes,” she calls out, “I got to go. Nice meeting you.”
Jack and I both call out thanks and take our places back in the tall grass.
“I know Rich,” Jack says, “and we could be here all night. If he doesn’t come looking for us, then he’s bound to stay there for hours bickering with that bitch. It’s not really his fault. He knows how to pick them.”
“Screw this shit, man,” I finally say, “I understand if you don’t want to confront the guy, but we’ve got to get out of here. Look, if we run along the edge of the weeds here onto the side road, I’d bet we could find our way to the main highway and make it back to your place.”
“Yeah,” Jack answers, “I know we could, but you can see that side road from the front of the bar, and we’ll get caught.”
“Don’t bet on it. If those two are having a fight, they won’t be noticing anything else. Unless they’re both staring at the side road when we break for it, there’s no way they’re going to catch us. And either way you cut it, you’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later.”
It was agreed then. We’d do it single file, me first. As I walked down the alley behind the bar, I asked myself which would be better, a sprint, or casually walking. Sprinting could draw attention, but I’d get out of sight quicker.
I walk halfway, hands in my pockets, still drunk and pretending to whistle casually, then tear ass across the far corner of the parking lot, timing my sprint so I catch the red light on the side road and make it across. I look back, panting and sweaty, and see that the car isn’t even visible from the side road.
Seconds later, I see Jack, pumping like an Olympic sprinter. The sight of him makes me laugh hard – I realize how rare it is to see an adult running full speed like that. I haven’t seen Jack run since we played full-court basketball in gym class. He reaches me on the other side, and we stand there, hands on knees, laughing like maniacs, our voices carrying far into the small-town night, echoing down the quiet black streets. We find our way back no problem and avoid a much longer night.