SAN DIEGO DARK BAR

tom briggs

The sun had just come up and I needed a beer.  Lot’s of canned Coors,  mostly empty, were left over from Saturday. Warm, but with a few  in the refrigerator. No Winston’s left either,  just butts.  Still two hours until that place on University Avenue opened.  I don’t remember the name. They opened at seven. I had twenty bucks in change left. Remnants of last nights McDonald’s lay on my desk and on the floor. How much did I piss away the night before? How much did they steal off the bar? But I had enough cash until the Coo Coo Club opened. There I could tab it.

I entered through the front door that was cracked in the lower left corner.  It had several decals on it. One said Golden State Alarm Systems. The place was dark except where the seven am light, which came through the high small windows, entered. A light that seemed to be here against its will and was wanting to escape. It  caught the glasses, bottles, ashtrays and drinkers, casting  long shadows across the bar and walls. I ordered a beer. The bartender was a ham-fisted ex navy guy of about 50 named Chappie. He was big, wore glasses and was heavily tatooed. This was a California Dark Bar. Countless joints like it from LA to San Diego.

Indeed, the dank  interior seemed intent on swallowing any light that entered. Because this was a place for a certain kind of vampire. The Budwieser and Coors  neon signs, a large NFL schedule with excessive scotch tape,  yellowed glossies of race car legend Richard  Petty and countless San Diego Charger’s logos adorned the paneled and grimy walls. All this and the cigarette scarred bar and stools fitted perfectly with the collective hopes, dreams and aspirations  of the misguided, delusional and remorseful  lot of early morning alcoholics, drifters, con artists,  sociopaths and wild eyed sign artists in dire need of a moral compass.

I started talking with some wise old bastard. Bukowski, I think the name was. I’m starting to remember.   But I’d seen this guy before. I think he’s kind of an incarnation that appears in many places at different times. Like Poe’s Man of the Street.  Only this guy was The Man of The Bar. I’ve seen him at the coffee shop at 241st Street in the Bronx 35 years ago talking with the local addicts, bookies and hoods. I’ve seen him in Los Angeles shooting pool, with his drink on the table rim, ranting away.  And here now. All those lines and scars. The laughter and sarcasm masking the inner torment. The anger advertising it. The courage to fight and rage only after the alcohol sedates any fear.

The  guy  knew a thing or two, I’ll tell you. Talked about a book he wrote a few years previous. Ham on Rye, I think.  He went on about  growing up in Los Angeles. and about his primary school  teacher Mrs. Fretag. A cigarette was permanently attached to his lips as he rambled on. This guy was hilarious, but always ready to fly into a benign rage.  About writing, he said the line (the sentence) was the thing. The only line I knew was at the 7/11. How many people were before me was my concern. The only sentence I knew was the alcoholic’s self imposed sentence of self alienation.

I recanted an old story.  “I used  to walk along Venice Boulevard from Hughes to the Ships diner on Overland in Culver City. I loved that place. Especially seeing the giant Ships neon logo against the setting sun as I was getting nearer. One day a ponderous  psychotic black guy, with a Sonny Liston-like menacing scowl,  was walking along Venice showering everyone  with curses, threats and voices from Satan. I ignored him then and several times afterwards.  At one point, I even walked on the other side of the street . But I was mad at myself for that and resumed the original route.”

I continued. “Returning from the diner one evening, I walked past him on Venice, and as I continued walking, I turned around and yelled “FUCK YOU!” Loud enough to reach the collective ears of those in Santa Monica. As 225 pounds of belligerence started towards me, he asked “what did you say?”,  I said loudly “Have a nice day man!” I kept walking. He didn’t follow. My heart was pounding. I saw him only once thereafter”.

Bukouski’s hard  laughter caused a coughing jag.  When recovered, he explained that  he  was in San Diego to gather material for another book. I think he was going to call it Bar Fly. Brother, was he in the right place for that material. I could barely see his pock marked and deep lined face through the intermittent cloud of smoke we both made.  But then, he could barely see my ugly disheveled countenance.  And, just like that, he was out of there, heading back up to LA.

There were a few descendants of Dust Bowl  Okies near the front. Fixed income types who drank Coors on a budget and invariably wore pants that were too short and shirts that were too long. Always with a ballcap on. Probably wore it with a suit at their weddings. No doubt had a car on concrete blocks in their front yard. Long of neck and short on imagination. Could nurse  a beer for an hour and answer any inquiry with as few words as possible. They’d “yep” and “nope” you into a stupor. If the topic was  a busted carburetor or the superlative merits of an Oklahoma Sooner football legend named Joe Bobby Somethingorother,  they  might offer a response of several consecutive words.

That’s all who was there that day. On other days I might run into drifter types, who usually had small prison-style tattoos, sinewy arms and large imaginations. They always tried to work a deal.  They needed money  to fix their car. Or they needed bus fare to San Francisco for a job interview. Yeah right. Sure. And I’m in this dark den of despair with fistfuls of cash because I’ve seen the light and have an obligation to help my down and out brothers.

Then there might arrive ex-fighters like Manuel. A pushing 60 burley black coated round-the-clock drinker (who  fought 50’s welterweight sensation “The Golden Boy” Art Aragon at the famed Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles) who was always asking for drinks or money. Still had the moves, drunk or sober, and  25 years after his last fight, could fake to the body and uppercut to the head before you could finish your eye blink. “Give this guy a drink on me”.

Women who frequented this rank environment included a past 50 Mexican who resembled Dorothy Ramirez, the infamous Sacramento boarding house serial murderess; A southerner who always uttered statements with question marks. “ So I was born in Georgia? And my papi was in the Navy, stationed in San Diego? And we all, the six of us,  upped and moved right here and stayed here?”; And a sullen faced if-only-I-could-catch-a-break-in-life type  who wore no makeup to hide  the hard edges and who was busing up to Folsom to see her boyfriend.

A full gamut of pop music, with emphasis on country western, was  offered  on the  juke box. A 70’s era machine layered with a billion fingerprints and tinted with the nicotine of a million cigarettes.  Country western laments by George Jones, Ronnie Milsap or Patsy Cline, wafted through the stale blue air. (Similar to the bar in Fargo where Steve Buscheme consummates the phoney kidnapping deal with William Macy amid the refrains of  Merle Haggard’s Big City). Occasionally, an incongruous sound from Journey, The Cars or Elton John would be heard. When I had enough money, that is. Don’t get me wrong, I played plenty of country too.

Then I was out the door to the  blinding solid volume ten o’clock light of University Avenue.  Time for the Coo Coo Club.  A better place populated by mostly  locals including University of San Diego professors disguised as long and high bottom alcoholics.  A place where I could   postpone the marauding  inner demons who wished to slaughter what remained of my sanity.  I could drink and relax at the Coo Coo.  if I was still sober enough to fake it and not get the “you’ve-had-too-much” wave off, a salutation more common than a hand shake with a smile in those balmy, stormy, hanging-on-a-cliff,  threatening, hopeless days connected in a six year  blur smack dab in the hood of borderline madness.

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