Jan 31, 2014

The saga of a day at the ‘R’ Bar: Standing, sitting, being called ‘hon,’ more pool table drama and snow

The bald guy’s report:

Like Hemingway, Baldo wrote standing up (at least until he was too drunk) -- Hemingway, that is, not Baldo.  However, thanks to an un-Hemingway-like affliction that made sitting for any length of time extremely painful -- like writing a blog or playing Candy Crush -- Baldo had to. 

Further unlike Hemingway, another affliction made standing for any length of time -- like for writing or playing Candy Crush or doing domestic chores -- likewise extremely painful.  In between, he either stood and rocked back and forth from foot-to-foot or took a couple laps around the living room.  He was like a shark, had to keep moving. A big ol’ slow-movin’ nurse shark.

Then why embark on a quixotic adventure like finding the soul of a city through visiting bars, much of which involves sitting and standing?  Why, indeed?   

Only two activities enjoining the soul and a sit-stand regimen came to Baldo’s mind: bars and church (raised Catholic; they do a lot of standing, then sitting and, of course, soul stuff).  But there you just can’t walk around.  And since there probably wasn’t any church with services in the middle of the day, certainly none that serve burgers, (all that sitting, standing and rocking works up an appetite), and most churches were now locked during non-service times anyway, that left only one logical choice: bars.

That or probably because he started doing it when he was only mildly afflicted and now, like the athlete he once was, Baldo knew that sometimes ya gotta play hurt.

Washing and drying his hands, he mused: Y’know, it used to be a heckuva lot easier to go anywhere.  He remembered when it was, “The R Bar 11:30?”  Grab a coat and hat and off you went; five minutes later, you’re sipping a cold one. 

Now there were separate protocols for dog, cats, food, water, indoor shoes/outdoor shoes, arm security, lock house,  unlock barn, open big barn door, back vehicle out, get out and close the barn door -- and speaking of closing “barn doors” (a metaphor in Baldo’s youth for “zip up your pants”), before all that:  the leak.  First and foremost the leak, which is why, in the aftermath, he was drying his hands.  As the saying went (which Baldo knew to be tried-and-true):  After 60, you never pass up a bathroom, never waste an erection and never trust a fart.

So he was a little late.  OK, 15 minutes.  Since the “R” Bar was half-way across town, he’d be there in another 15 at most,  10 or less if he made all the lights which, of course, he wouldn’t because he refused to.  Still, for him, not bad.   His wife always bitched him out for being late and making her late.  She said, and rightly so, that it was rude.  But no matter how early he started preparing to go out, he always seemed to end up being late.  Everything just took longer nowadays.

Locking the final deadbolt and talking to no one in particular, “If you young’uns think things get simpler as you get older, listen closely:  They don’t.”

And off into the cold to meet Harry and Doc at the “R” Bar and, unbeknownst to him, be “sexually harassed," witness an epic “fail” and find an answer to two of his burning questions. One was why the bartenders at R Bar work in a gully; the other one was something staring him in the face the whole time.

It was definitely going to be a white Christmas.  An in­­­ch-and-a-half of overnight snow sat on the neighbor’s Buick LeSabre.  This on top of a 6-inch base and Christmas only four days away.  Both thoughts made Baldo feel good.  He loved the holiday season; it was bright and festive and seemed to him that people were actually happier and nicer during that time.  Which to Baldo was the whole idea of Christmas, that people should be nice to each other.

That’s the real gift, but then Baldo sometimes lived in a fantasy world inspired by that nefarious opium-eater and poisoner of children’s minds, Walt Disney. In a world where the good guys win, the bad guys get theirs and people are nice and friendly and helpful to each other year round.  Oh, he wasn’t that naive he thought that was reality, he merely wished it could be that way longer than just the holidays.

Speaking of the Buick LeSabre, it was unusual to see a car there at all -- when Charley was alive, his vehicle was always in the garage and there wouldn’t be any snow, he being always the first to clear.  Charley’d do his drive and then the widow woman’s across the street (much to the consternation of Angeline, his wife, who didn’t like it at all; though in their 80s, she and the widow woman were jealous of each other).  Later in the day, Baldo would do his own and the sickly woman’s next door to the widow woman.  That’s how he and Charley talked.  You’d think they’d be wearing coonskin caps or something.

But both Charley and Angeline died this summer past and now their son and daughter-in-law were going to move there in the spring.  The car was a deke and though they came frequently to check on the place, or switch vehicles or move the car, they needn’t have worried too much because a pair or two of eyes always watched.  The year after Baldo moved there, an old guy froze to death in his house in an area not far away because no one in that neighborhood ever checked on him. Baldo vowed, “Not in my neighborhood,” and went around to his nearest neighbors selling the idea of “neighborhood-liness” and now they all watched out for each other, exchanging information if they were going to be gone for awhile.

Not surprisingly, that idea came from the widow woman who, when she wasn’t at church, was watching the neighborhood.  Baldo and his wife had gone to Vegas.  They told Charley and Angeline but not the widow woman. “Y’know,” she said, cornering them as soon as they got back, still pulling suitcases out of the trunk, “if you’re going to be gone you should tell more than one person.”

It wasn’t being nosy -- well, maybe in her case -- but anyway, it was a reasonable suggestion.  They were neighbors, they were all in this together and truth be known, over the course of Baldo’s residence there, the count was “widow woman two, bad guys zero." Her interest so far resulted in two arrests, one of them a kid who burgled Baldo’s house.  So Baldo was grateful to have a neighborhood watchdog.

He drove the speed limit, which is why he’d never make the lights. Five miles over and he would, but he refused.  His friends and family were already sick of hearing his crusade on how to save America by everyone driving the speed limit.

What he said made sense. Nobody could refute his logic but nobody flat wanted to do it.   Worse, nobody even wanted to hear about it.  Of all the “cockamamie” (their word, not his) ideas he’d ever been accused of coming up with, this one got the most push-back.  Undaunted, Baldo would continue to press the idea to anyone he could buttonhole.  But not today.

Of course Harry and Doc were already there, but then they didn’t have as much to do to leave.  They hadn't ordered lunch yet and Baldo thought that was nice of them until he
Becky the bartender
realized Harry and Doc could’ve cared less.  It was obvious they were and had been embroiled in lively conversation with the bartender Becky, tall and slender, and the manager Tina, an attractive brunette, firing questions at them about the bar, its history, its relationship to City Hall across the street, can you make a Manhattan and who knows what-all during the time he was missing.

As soon as Baldo sat down, Becky disengaged from Harry and Doc and, with a million-dollar smile, “What’ll ya have, hon?”

She called him “hon.” At the utility company he retired from, “hon” got you in serious trouble for sexual harassment.  But he liked it.  He liked it then (but was astute enough to toe the company line) and liked it now.  It presupposed a convivial relationship.  He knew he could call her “hon” back if he so chose -- and he didn’t and actually wouldn’t, until she got to know him better maybe, which she never would. But he could call her “hon” and there would be no big stink nor any thought beyond two people being friendly, so he supposed nowadays his stance would be called BITD (Before It Turned Daffy).

“Well, um, Becky, whaddya got?”

Draft beer was geezer-priced, however he could see the four taps, three of them light and one an amber which, while Becky listed them, touched a nerve.  His wife had a peeve that tacos should only be made with ground beef, Baldo’s brother believed meat loaf should
Tina the manager
only be made with meat, Harry’s peeve was that fruit had no place in beer (and all except Baldo agreed fish especially had no place in tacos; Baldo loved them) and his peeve was that “real” beer -- non-light beer -- should be on tap in a bar and be yellow.  Beer that tastes like beer and leaves a tang on the tongue.  Beer made in places with great American names like Kenosha, Frankenmuth and San Antonio.

Of all the places they visited so far, only one had Budweiser on tap but otherwise it’s a raft of lights and a token non-light, usually Killian’s, an amber.  At one time, Baldo drank Miller Lite exclusively, when he was young and trying to stay trim, before it was even available in Bay City.  He “imported” it from Detroit where he worked for the IRS and commuted to BC on weekends.  And more than once got called “pussy” for ordering/drinking light beer.  When Doc was doing some business consulting with Labatt’s in Toronto, the Canadians told him what they thought about American light beers:  “Like making love in a canoe … fuckin’ next to water.”  Baldo agreed.  So when did they take over?

Killian’s it was, and when it came it was nice and cold; he took a couple sips, it settled him down and it was all good.   He was here, food was here, his guys were here, Becky was here, and with a tilt of his glass of non-yellow horse piss to his reflection in the mirror, “To ‘hon’.”

Lunch ordered, Baldo looked around.  Rather than Harry, who was interested in bar particulars, Baldo was more interested in the “ambulance” (what other people called “ambience” -- he thought it was funny).  One of his central questions when he started this venture was, “What draws people to a bar?  Alcohol?  Food?  Decor?  A chance to get lucky?  What’s there that can’t be got elsewhere?"

And today specifically the “R” Bar, because the place was packed.  Not sardine-packed but busier at this time of day than any other they’d visited.  The tables between the karaoke corner and the
An "R" Bar T-shirt for sale
bar were filled with tradesmen in boots and Carhartts and the eight bar chairs from Baldo’s left to the end were all occupied by folks in everyday dress.  As the day wore on and the rush dissipated, the people at the bar changed from workers to seniors coming in for the quieter atmosphere and the lunch specials.   And everyone seemed to know each other.  Tina certainly, as Baldo watched her move from group to group, bursts of laughter following wherever she went, working the room like a pro.

Nor was it probably, no definitely not the decor.  A karaoke set-up in the street-side north corner opposite the bar, pool table in the south, chairs and tables with Formica tops between.  Requisite beer signs and posters lining the walls.  In homage to the season, a single strand of multi-colored LEDs in garland ringed the pool table half of the place and over the bar mirror and, next to the front door, a sad-looking Christmas tree Baldo immediately recognized as a “bag tree” -- the kind you unplug and put a bag over and stick in a storeroom until next year.   Decor-wise, with the exception of the chairs, nothing of note.

The food?   Baldo had one of the lunch specials, grilled ham-and-cheese on sourdough bread and a cup of homemade vegetable soup.  But a big cup, almost a bowl.   It was okay, nothing to knock your socks off but then it didn’t have to be.  Nobody came here expecting "gourmet" at $5.75.   It was good pub grub, high-carb, gut-stickin’ food to fuel the machine for the workers who had to go back out into the cold, good-value food and an aid to keeping warm for the steady stream of seniors, more women than men because, of course, they outlive ‘em.

The loungey-ness?  Unlike traditional bars with high stools and not much padding, the “R” Bar had normal-height upholstered seats Baldo found kind to his afflictions and later, when Doc urged them into a pool game, Baldo hated to un-ass. (“But sometimes ya gotta play hurt.”)

The reason they could sit at regular seats was because the floor behind the bar was below ground level.  In essence, Becky and Tina worked in a gully.  It was pointed out that everything had to be
Behind the sunken bar
customized to accommodate this feature.  The coolers, for instance, had to be taller than the usual coolers so anyone working back there had to bend over less to deposit/withdraw a brewski.  While discussing this phenomenon, Baldo advanced the possibility that the original owner was way ahead of his time and wanted to make it as user-friendly and ergonomic as possible.  This idea got no traction at all, but then as noted, Baldo sometimes lived in a fantasy world.  So then he theorized maybe the original idea was to make this a quick-lube place.  Now he was joking.

Greg Hayward, the affable owner who, judging by the size of the crowd and the fact he only re-took the place four weeks earlier, proved he knew a thing or two about running a bar, didn’t know precisely why the gully but had the most plausible explanation.  The original idea was to give it that “lounge” feel:  Comfortable chairs at the normal height, bartenders at or slightly below eye-level, low lighting, perhaps smooth jazz playing unobtrusively in the background.  Greg didn’t say all that.  He just said “lounge” feel; Baldo plugged in the rest.

Right now, though, the light was bright for the last of the lunchtimers and the only sound in the background other than the buzz of conversation and now and then Tina’s laugh, was the click of pool balls as some little nippers, Greg’s grandkids, delighted themselves rolling the balls around the table.  But the bar chairs were definitely “lounge-y”.

Even before lunch was done, Doc was making noises about playing pool.  It seems that a little friendly competition had become a staple of their bar forays.  They played a game Baldo, with his business background, dubbed FIFO -- First In, First Out.  The balls were separated into 3 blocs, one through five, six through 10 and 11 thru 15.  Money breaks and whatever you get in first is your bloc.  Should Doc and Harry get something in first, then Baldo got the bloc left, which is what usually happened.  You have to hit one of your balls first and the first one to sink all of his balls wins but you must win two games to claim the Grand Championship.

The snag was, as stated, nippers were playing on the table, Greg’s grand-nippers and hence, nippers with “juice.”  However, they were about to learn a valuable lesson in life if they didn’t already know it. To wit:  Big people rule.

Doc tried sweet-talking the kids off the table with no success but Greg intervened and called them away, which gave them another valuable lesson they could probably put into words later in life:  Money talks, bullshit walks.

As you may recall, Doc had a pool table in his basement growing up, hence the moniker Basement Fats.  Harry, cuz he came from Detroit and was of slight build, became Detroit Slim.  (It was Royal Oak, actually, but to most Bay Cityans everything south of Clawson is Detroit.)  Baldo, because he was such a crappy pool shot, wasn’t deserving of a nickname though Beetle Bomb had been tossed around.

The score was Fats 1 game, Slim 1 game, Baldo 0, and the trash-talk was flying.  If either of the first two guys won the current game they win the Grand Championship and bragging rights until their next contest.  Slim was ahead in ball count when Fats suddenly got hot.  He had the highs.  He made a table length shot on his 11 into the right corner pocket and then a cross-table bank shot on the 15 into the same corner pocket.

“Nice shot,” the boys acknowledged. “Now shake your pants leg and let it roll out.”

Which only served to make Fats cocky. You could see it in his walk as he lined up his next shot, a table-length bank shot back on the 14 into the left corner pocket from where he was shooting.  And Blam! Made that one too!

“Whee!” the boys hooted.  “I’d rather be lucky than good.” 

Doc was now one ball away from winning and on a tear.  With even more swagger, he stepped around to the “break” end of the table to line up his next shot.  The good news:  Cue ball and target 13 were perfectly geometrically aligned for the bad news:  The only shot he had was another table-length banker.  Undaunted, with an expansive flourish of his stick ending with pointing it at the corner pocket by his right elbow, Doc boldly proclaimed, “Watch this!”

The next sequence of events happened in a blinding flash, and in retrospect Baldo recognized it from golf when he would step to the tee determined to rip it for the longest drive in history.  There were only four possible outcomes, three of them bad.  Terrible odds.

Flush with success, Doc hunkered down and drew his cue back in almost one simultaneous move, much too fast, then brought it forward with force meant to be just shy of what it would take to turn both balls to powder on contact -- much too hard, much too not enough control.

Everyone’s expectation, especially in light of Doc’s recent prowess, was there’d be two distinct clicks and a thunk as stick meets ball, ball meets other ball, second ball meets back of pocket and rolls down chute.

Except … when Doc’s stick made contact, instead of the clean “Click!” of his previous shots, came a sickening, splintery “Scrink!” Miscue!  But not merely a miscue, because of the force Doc put behind the stroke, a massive miscue.  For about 5 milliseconds, the cue ball headed toward the intended 13 but, spinning on its axis from all the miscue English, started curving, curving and, gaining momentum, took a hard right and Plook! like a white rat diving into its hole, squizzled itself right into the side pocket for more than just a “scratch” -- “Watch this” --  EPIC FAIL!!

Harry and Baldo doubled over in laughter and even Doc had to join in.  People in the bar looked over to see what the three of them were hooting about, some even laughing with them without knowing what they were laughing about, just enjoying themselves watching the boys enjoy themselves.  In between laughs, a chastened Doc mumbled something about “pride” and a “fall,” which only elicited more laughter.

Detroit Slim eventually won the match and the Grand Championship, but it was lost in the glee over Basement Fats’ errant shot.  They now had a new watchword, pun intended, for any future hubris:  “Watch this.”  Indeed.

They didn’t stay much longer, only to finish their beer before leaving.  While jawing about the upcoming Super Bowl and impending grand opening of the refurbished City Hall, Baldo looked around again.  There was something different about this place, something special, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.  Setting it aside, he gave another little tilt of his glass to his reflection in the mirror and silently toasted,  “To Doc. Watch this.”

It was already late in the day when he got home and the snow on the LeSabre reminded him he still had his own to clear.  So with a nor’wester blowing a steady 10 mph with gusts up to 25 and the temp hovering low enough to freeze exposed flesh in less than an hour, out in the garage Baldo donned his snowmobile pants, boots, coat, gloves (could be mittens), hat with earlappers but under that, most importantly,  the black balaclava.  It didn't have to be black, but did they even make different colors?  Picking up the single-most valuable tool in his yard arsenal-- his trusty Stihl leaf-blower -- he dragged his accursed body outside to battle the forces of nature.

The snow was light and fluffy, perfect for removing by leaf blower, but Baldo knew from experience always blow with the wind and be ever vigilant lest you be caught in a swirl and have it dump a cloud in your face.  Eyes. The trick was to anticipate and avoid.

Which made it easy for Baldo, a lemonade-making kinda guy, to view his chore a challenge, a winter version of his spring game, “Real Geezer Olympics,” in which the only event was cleaning a winter's load of 70-pound Belgian tervuren dog crap from the natural quarter-acre of his backyard.  Stepping in any pretty much took you out of that day's competition and there were style points and difficulty factors and other little wrinkles, none of which were necessary for this evening's task.

This evening, the only rule was not getting blind-sided by a blast of snow as he imagined himself and he alone aligned against not only the forces of nature but also shyster lawyers and sue-happy delivery people and religious zealots who might take a flop and have him by the short-and-curlys if he didn’t keep his place clear of ice or the occasions of ice.  Plus it just looks nicer. 

And so, with only a pair of eyeballs peering into the outer world, Baldo turned to the Stihl, gave a prime and a choke and with a single pull on the starter cord, the trusty Stihl  roared to life and he became (imagine here the swooshing sounds of a sabre or a staff, whatever Ninja's "whoosh" with, maybe those two sticks chained together that his nephew kept hitting himself in the groin with -- numchucks he called them, and Baldo thought aptly named because whack yourself there a few times and your “chucks" would be numb).  So imagine, as Baldo did, swooshing sounds as he stepped forward and became Winter Ninja.

In all, Winter Ninja had a double drive to clear, sidewalks to front and back doors, a 40-by-20 deck, a 6-foot concrete apron on three sides of a 60-by-40 pole barn and pathways to barn, backdoor and bird-feeders.

As he worked, he thought of the many winters he and Charley were out here blowing snow at the same time, acknowledging each other with a wave of a glove or mitten.  And sharing the summer talks over the fence.

Winter Ninja had to break his stoicism to chuckle out loud thinking about the time he and Charley were comparing meds.  Of course, you couldn’t notice this lapse because all that was visible was his cold, steely eyes … and the puff of condensate that came thru the balaclava when he COL’d.

One time comparing meds, Baldo took a handful but Charley said he took only two.  “One for my memory,” and here he paused and scratched his head, “and I can’t remember what the other one’s for.”  Baldo waited for a punch line about cutting his drug bill in half but could see Charley was serious as a heart attack, evidenced later by the fact Baldo heard all of Charley’s stories four, five times a year.

Like when Charley was a kid, he swam across the Saginaw River west-to-east where Vet's Bridge would eventually be, only to reach the other side and get chewed out by a big cop who then made a fairly-spent Charley walk back home.  Or honeymooning across Europe with his young and beautiful bride Angeline (he in the Army in Germany, she a gutsy small-town girl from Bay City).  Or, moreso lately, Angeline's failing health.  (Charley was really worried there, he'd mist up and say, "What would I do without her?")  But Baldo didn’t mind re-hearing them because they were buddies and, except about Angeline, Charley delighted in telling them.

It was dusk when he finished, not a moment too soon.  Winter Ninja wasn’t sure he could go anymore.  He trudged to his back door but before going in had to set the Stihl down and rest his aching back by supporting his upper body on his forearms across the white vinyl fence.  The weight removed, he became aware of just how sore his back was and the first thing that came to his mind was "Ach Bozie swieti," repeating what his ex-mother-in-law said as she tried to catch her breath after walking up the steps from the base of Iargo Springs.  Polish for "Holy Christ!” (loosely translated).  Winter Ninja finally understood how she felt.

He stayed suspended like this for several minutes to let his back calm down.  It was evening-quiet and he could hear the steady breeze soughing through the ash trees at the end of the subdivision, reminding Baldo of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”

Fortunately he had neither promises nor miles to contend with.  In a couple minutes, Winter Ninja would morph back into Baldo and be in the warm, sitting on the sofa atop his home-built two-cushion seat covered by a slick, silk scarf so he could slide on and off easier (for that one thing, you know), enjoying a fresh cup of decaf and waiting for a 5/500 Vicodin APAP to kick in while watching the weather to see what was in store for Bay City.  Odds on it was cold and snow, to which Baldo happily would append, “followed by a little Christmas.”  He was getting pumped.

His back relaxed, Winter Ninja let down his guard and as he turned to go in was completely caught unaware by a huge swirling blast of wind-driven snow that got caught in the fence in front of him and the only way for it to go was back around and thru WN.  By the time it was done, Baldo was now Frosty the Winter Ninja, covered with white from head-to-toe, even the eye hole.   The shock and cold from its ferocity made him audibly suck in his breath.

And then, as he cleared the snow from his eyes, it hit him smack in the face like that blast of snow, the answer to “Why do people go to bars?”   It’s what drew him out to explore the unsung bars of Bay City with Harry and Doc, it’s what he felt in the air at the “R” Bar,   It wasn’t the drinks, the food, the “ambulance,” it wasn't the journalistic pursuit of the next bar, the "thrill of the hunt" so to speak, none of these.  It was the company.  He simply enjoyed spending time with Harry and Doc -- they went back 40 years or more -- sharing stories and viewpoints and a laugh or two, like “Watch this!” It's what he and Charley had shared during their many years as neighbors:  It was fellowship!

Ninjas can’t be stopped by mere mortal tribulations.  One short pull of the cord, the trusty Stihl fired and, knowing full well he'd pay for it tomorrow, Winter Ninja was back in business.

Slogging through the snow between the yards to the Buick LeSabre,  all the things he’d thought of before, playing hurt, building the neighborhood, the Christmas spirit, came flooding back to him.  Baldo knew that if he did Charley’s kids, he’d have to do the widow woman’s because that’s what Charley would’ve done so that’s what he had to do.  And if he did the widow woman’s, he’d have to do the new neighbor next door or it would look like a slight and the only thing he knew about her yet was her name.  Still, she was a neighbor and it was Christmas. Winter Ninjas are hard-wired that way.

But before he blew another flake, because he was too tired and sore to continue the game, he morphed back to Baldo and, giving the Stihl a little rev and a tilt of the barrel to the stars peeking out, saying to no one in particular, “All in all it’s been a pretty good day … and this one, this one’s for Charley."

See the hairy guy's report on the "R" Bar: It's their place again (they hope it;'ll be yours), and they're back to doing the old two-step

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