Back Doors

There was a famous asshole at the Two-Way. His name was Carl and he was being kicked out on the regular. The Two-Way was mighty forgiving, but even it had it’s limits and eventually he was banned for life. But Carl was a terrible alcoholic and didn’t live too many more months after that. He had a big service and all the regulars came to tell him off one last time and afterwards they filtered back to the bar. Sean sat down put an urn on the bar and ordered a beer.

“Now what’s that?” the owner asked sharply.

“Well, it’s Carl.”

“Get him out! Get him out of here. No back doors. No one back doors their way back in.”

Gutter Punks

The gutter punks were transients. They were the seasonal vagrants who came to Chicago in the summer. The city was exciting and the handouts came easy. They all had dogs because the police never arrested anyone with a dog. With a dog, animal control had to get involved and the paper work was doubled. And city departments disliked working with each other. No animosity. They just weren’t their people.

The gutter punks were in the doorways in the daytime and the parks at night. The bars would be generous with their bathrooms for most people. “I see a kid doing the pee dance, and what am I supposed to do?” But not with the gutter punks because they abused the situation and tried to hang around and bum a beer. They were always signing up for open mike nights because they were inside and had access to a bathroom. They all sang Grateful Dead covers. But it was only once or twice before they would be scratched off the list. Everyone had a low tolerance for their talents.

The Two-Way

The Two-Way was a dive bar. In the hardest sense. Half the patrons were homeless and the other half were hipsters slumming it to feel a taste of the edginess. But it wasn’t edginess that the place had, but a palpable desperation. Sarah loved that bar. The people there were the most real that she’d ever met and she adored every one for the story they had to tell.

There was a guy with a ripshaw bullet scar erupting from his cheek. He’d tried to kill himself but only blew out a couple of his molars. It was the most beautiful day of his life. After that every moment had meaning and importance for him in a way that it never had before. Ask him about it. He will tell you.

There was the time a fight broke out right behind my stool. Literally two feet behind me. A redneck jumped on a black fella and beat him senseless inches from me. I didn’t have time to put my beer down, but just stared not knowing what to do. It finished quickly. It took maybe 30 seconds and the redneck was gone. A puff of dust by the back door. The bartender ran over and raised the black guy’s feet to keep the blood flowing to his head while we all waited for the ambulance. The next night they were both drinking again best buddies. Laughing at a table in the corner. These things got sorted out quickly and life moved on in the bar.

But beyond the fights everyone was homeless. There was a building across the way which had an access door that didn’t lock. People took up residence on each of the landings. It was a point of prestige to be higher up. It was quieter and warmer. Less foot traffic. Sometimes someone would disappear and everyone would ascend a floor. It was a strange social hierarchy, but one that was clearly recognized. Top floor was a lady in her early fifties, but she was a lady. She had perogatives. The bottom was the gutter punks who were often seasonal and would huddle under the staircase. They moved on with the warm weather, but sometimes one would find themselves sticking out the winter. The bar, the crash, the crowd would be too familiar to leave. Even the most uncomfortable of places will grow on you when faced with disruption and unknown. And it got colder by degrees until you were used to it. And then one day your sleeping bag was on one of the landings. And then you started moving up.

Sean the Bartender

Sean the bartender had a heart of gold. Rumor had it that he had come into a large sum of money at one point and for years bankrolled the patrons at the Two-Way. Good natured and rough around the edges he was happily broke now. He had an apartment across from the bar, could drink all he wanted and only had to mop up a little bit at the end of the night.

The hipsters used to come slumming to see the true destitution. “She asked me for an Appletini. An Appletini. I said, your bartender has a do-rag and a black eye. Do you want Old Style or Schlitz?”

One time we were watching the Bears when there was a tornado warning that came through and everyone was evacuated to the concorse. And us sitting in a bar watching an empty stadium. Sean always had a story.

“This one time I was partying in Indiana and my friends ditched me. No way home. So I walk over to the gas station and ask the guy how to get to Chicago. ‘Why the highway is right there,’ he said. ‘Will take you straight to the city.’ He musta thought I was driving or something, but I got up on the highway and started walking on the should all the way back to Illinois. Hours of traffic rushing by. But no problem until I hit the Steel Bridge. There’s no shoulder there. And I’m standing around thinking about how I’m going to time my run to try to get across when the cops pull up. I told them I was just trying to get home, but they said I had to get off the highway. Pedestrians aren’t allowed except in case of emergency. So they packed me in the car and dropped me off in the residential area. Except on the wrong side of the river. And I”m looking at the Little Calumet River thinking, ‘It can’t be that deep’. So I started swimming. With my coat and boots on and everything like a dumb ass. And I’m sinking like a stone, soaked through and barely keeping my head up thinking this is how your dumb ass is going to die. But I made it across. And I’m walking through Altgeld Gardens soaking wet and smelling of sewage. And the sun is starting to come up at this point in time. And there was a beautiful black lady standing there at the bus stop with her mouth wide open. She’d never seen such a thing. And she was scared for me. “Son, you best get out of this neighborhood fast. People are starting to wake up and they aren’t going to be happy to see you.” I tried to explain to her, but she just shook her head as the bus pulled up. She went ahead and put in the full fare for me and told me not to look back. And an hour later I was being dropped off in my neighborhood. Miserable and smelly and wet. Oh, and check it out. The storms have passed the Bears game is back on. How about a shot of Malort.”

Sean was the best people.

I don’t want to die

Sarah’s roommates had been encouraging her to see the doctor. They wanted her to have a checkup to see where things were. “We’ve already had one roommate drink themselves to death and we don’t want to have another.”

Sarah spoke of them very kindly. “They weren’t preachy. They weren’t pushy. They took me aside for a talk and explained things. Your life doesn’t change in huge blocks overnight. Change comes by small degrees and tiny actions. And the first thing I needed to do was to have a checkup at the doctor. To see where things are. To know where we’re starting.”

A few weeks later I got the text from her.

“Well, it looks like I need to begin my farewell tour. I should make plans to visit Denise.”

I was at the bar, but I told her I’d be there right away.

She was at Humble Bar. A short ways away. And I came in very aggressive. “What do you mean ‘farewell tour’. What did the tests say?”
“My liver levels were off.”

“What do you mean your liver levels were off? How off? How serious is it?”
“They’re just off. That’s all.”

“I’m your best friend. You have to tell me. What do you mean they’re off?”

“They’re just off. That’s it.” She took a sip from her shot of Jameson’s and collected herself for a second. “Look,” she said. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I promise you. The liver levels are off. I have a follow up to work on putting a plan in place to address this. I don’t want to die. Trust me. I just got back from the doctor. If my life was in danger I would be in a hospital. They don’t let dying people walk out the door. It’s going to be fine. Trust me.”

And with that she smoothed me over. Like a professional. Nobody lies like a drunk. Their lives are built on the structure of their lies. Nobody can hide it better. Nobody can smooth it out like they can. At a point it becomes a way of life.

We had a beer. We talked about other things. And after I’d calmed down she said she had someplace else she had to be. She hugged me goodbye and promised one last time, “I don’t want to die.” And then she left.

Busting Windows

Sergio and I had been arguing about music.

Can you judge a person’s character based on their record collection?

“Hardly a good a good reason,” I said.

“Exactly.” Sergio shouted as he jumped up, “It’s the ONLY reason!”

Cricket was over, monitoring the situation from the comfy chair to the side. It was good naturedly antagonistic. Heated, but arguing for the sake of it.

Things went south when the beer ran out. Unwilling to end, I started pouring coffee cups full of LaCroix and knockoff gin. And I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it must have been golden because he told me to “Fuck off.” And he threw his coffee mug at me. I knocked it aside and it glanced off my arm through the front window.

You expect windows to shatter, but it doesn’t work like that. The coffee cup just busted a hole about as big as it was. With spider cracks running to the frames.

I shouted out, “You dickhead! You just threw a coffee cup through my window!”

Sergio paused for just a second. “No I didn’t.”

“I threw it at you.”

Which sort of stopped everything.