BAR STOOL PREACHER

I wrote this more than a year ago but have condensed it down to just under 3000 words. I thought it appropriate at this time…

 

I tended bar at Jimmy’s. Corner of Washington and Cedar. Couple of blocks away from the big money places. Not that any of that money came into our bar. Wasn’t that kinda place. It was mainly construction workers that drank at Jimmy’s. We had a pool table, a juke box and a TV up high behind the bar. Apart from a few tables and chairs and a dozen bar stools, that was it. Nothing fancy. We didn’t do food. No kitchen. We let the guys bring in their own stuff as long as they washed it down with our beer.

I came to Jimmy’s in June, 98. I grew up in Boston. Never knew my Dad, he disappeared when I was four. Mum never spoke of him, so neither did I. No point. Why talk about something you’ve never had. Mum raised me best she could, but I was always a bit of a handful. I got in some scrapes and petty crime but nothing serious. When Mum passed in 96, I was nineteen. I took the eleven hundred dollar savings that she kept in the gravy tin, put a few things in a bag and left Boston to see the world. Eighteen months later I’d only got as far as New York.

I walked into Jimmy’s Bar looking for work. He took me on there and then. Even let me have the backroom to sleep in. After a while he trusted me enough to run the bar on my own. After six months I rarely saw him at all. Maybe once every couple of weeks. The business was worth nothing, but the land it stood on was worth a fortune. Jimmy was just waiting for some developer to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Till that day came, he left it to me to tend bar.

I opened when I wanted and I closed whenever the last person left. Then one day I met Mike.

Can I remember when?

You betcha. It was November 17th 1999. Why can I be so exact? Because it was the day after my twenty first birthday and I was nursing one mother of a hangover. The lunchtime trade had gone and the bar was empty. It was four in the afternoon. It would now be quiet until around five thirty when the same old faces would come in to have a few beers before heading home. There were times when some never made it and had to sleep it off in the back room. It was THAT kinda bar. I was clearing one of the tables and when I turned round he was there, sitting at the bar. I hadn’t heard him come in which was strange as this guy was big. Six five and around two hundred and fifty pounds. He was wearing a black padded jacket, blue denim jeans and work boots. He had short dark hair with a few specks of grey. Difficult to say how old he was. Could have been any age from thirty to fifty. He had stubble on his face. Two days growth I’d say. I walked back behind the bar.

“Sorry, didn’t hear you come in. What’ll it be?”

He looked up at me and I know this is gonna sound weird, but he had kind eyes. See, I knew it would sound weird. But he did. Big… blue… eyes.

“Jamesons. Straight. No ice. Large.”

I poured his drink and watched as he swirled it around in the glass. Staring at it all the time. Then he took a sip and sighed. I tried to make small talk.

“Haven’t seen you in here before. You in construction?”

He looked at me as if he was trying to make sense of what I’d just said. Then he nodded.

“Oh yeah. Construction. Yeah, that’s it. I’m in Construction.”

After that I left him alone. He obviously wasn’t the talkative type.

An hour later and the bar started to fill up. I better re-phrase that because I might be giving the wrong impression. It was a small bar. As soon as there were twenty guys in there it was full. They were all big guys, wearing big heavy clothes. So although it was filling up there were probably no more than a dozen guys.

I knew them all by name and I knew what they drank. So serving was easy. That’s why there was only ever me behind the bar. I was in complete control. People came and went and by eight o’clock there were only four of us left. Me, Louis, Billy Mac and the new guy Mike.

Louis was reading aloud from a magazine.

“Hey, listen to this. It says here that seventy eight percent of Americans believe in Heaven.”

I noticed Mike sit up and down his drink. He looked over at Louis.

“Statistics should be used the way a drunk uses a lamppost. For support not illumination.”

He gestured for me to re-fill his glass.

It was the first words he’d said in almost four hours. But it was smart, clever and somehow profound. I liked it. I have to admit I didn’t really understand it but I liked it.

By eleven there was just me and Mike. He’d drank best part of a bottle and a half of Jamesons but looked completely sober.

“What time do you close?”

I smiled.

“Whenever the last person leaves.”

“Well I aint planning on going anywhere yet.”

“In which case I aint planning to close up yet.”

For the first time in seven hours I saw Mike smile. He left the bar at four in the morning. He’d sat on the same stool for twelve hours and drank two bottles of Jamesons. Yet walked out as sober as a judge.

Now you’re probably wondering how I knew his name was Mike. Well, I didn’t, but I was a skilled bar tender. Asking someone straight out what their name was could be seen as being intrusive, nosey and the kinda guys that came in this bar were the kinda guys that didn’t like nosey people. So I used a technique that had never failed. Let’s say some guy comes into the bar for the first time, he has a few beers then leaves. He comes in again a few days later, keeps himself to himself doesn’t offer up any information. The third time he comes in. I begin to pour his drink before he gets to the bar. I then say.

“Hiya Davey, good to see you. Usual?”

I’ve just pulled a name from nowhere. He looks at me as if I’m mad.

“Who the fuck’s Davey? My name is Bob!”

Bingo! I now know his name. I say something like.

“Sorry Bob. You look just like another one of my good looking regulars called Davey.”

I give him his drink and then continue with something like.

“So Bob, hard day?”

Suddenly we’re talking and he feels at home. I tried it with Mike. He didn’t come in for three days then just like before he was there, outta nowhere. The first name that came into my head was Mike.

“Hiya Mike, didn’t see you come in. Jamesons?”

He nodded.

“Yeah thanks.”

I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me call him Mike. So I did it again.

“Large, straight, with no ice. That’s right Mike?”

“Yeah thanks.”

What were the chance of that? Of all the names that I could have chosen I’d got his name right first time. Unbelievable!

He stayed until four again that night. Once again the last to leave. He paid his tab and then slipped me twenty bucks as a tip.

“That’s for you for keeping the bar open.”

Twenty bucks was a good tip back then.

“Thanks Mike. When you next back in?”

He shrugged his shoulders and left. He came back two days later. Same time, four o’clock, and sat at his regular bar stool.

“Hiya Mike. Good to see ya.”

I poured him his Jamesons.

“Thanks.”

George Bush was on TV giving a speech about American morals. Mike tipped the drink down his throat, sat up straight on his stool and took a deep breath. I knew he was about to say something. He did.

“I honestly believe that no one from Texas should ever be allowed to become President. One day people will think of that man as a joke.”

There were six or seven people in the bar and it fell silent. Now there are two rules in a bar. Never discuss politics or religion. I waited for someone to speak up. No one did. Instead they all nodded in agreement.

Mike then continued.

“This man who insists that core moralism is what drives him will bring this nation to its lowest moral standing in history.”

He pushed his glass forward and gestured for me to re-fill it. I did.

After that. Everyone called him the Bar Stool Preacher.

 

He became a regular over the next year or so. Three days a week. Usually Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You could set your watch by Mike. At one minute to four he wasn’t there but sixty seconds later he was sitting at his usual stool sipping his first Jamesons of the day.

Yet, after all that time the only things I knew about him were his name and his profession. And, to be honest I kinda doubted both of them.

I began to notice certain things about him. He always wore the same clothes. Black padded jacket over a blue check shirt. Denim jeans and work boots. He always had two day stubble on his chin and his hair never grew. He never used the rest room. NEVER. He’d sit on the same stool for twelve hours drinking Jamesons and never once got up to take a leak or have a dump. How weird is that?

But he kept coming out with his profound statements.

One night Irish Dan was complaining that he never seemed to get a break in life. Good things always seemed to happen to other people. Mike sat up straight in his stool, knocked back his Jamesons and took a deep breath. The bar fell silent. We knew we were in for some of Mikes words of wisdom.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

Everyone nodded. The guy was right.

Usually by midnight it was just me and Mike in the bar. I’d be doing all the talking and he’d be doing all the listening. I’d try to engage him in conversation but the man was as tight as a clam. I was bored and decided to flick through the TV channels. I stopped when I came across some obscure cable channel showing back to back repeats of “I Love Lucy.” It was one of my mom’s favourite shows. Mike looked up and smiled as if he was remembering something from way back. I seized the opportunity.

“You like this Mike. You remember this from back in the day?”

He shrugged his shoulders and looked at me with those big baby blues.

“Maybe. Maybe.”

Here’s another strange thing about Mike. Everyone liked him. Now, no one knew him or anything about him. But everyone liked him. When the early evening crowd came in after work around five thirty the first person they said Hi to wasn’t me. It was Mike. You’d hear things like. “Hi Mike” or “Hi Mikey” or “Evening Buddy”. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE said hello to Mike. Mike never said Hi back. Just looked up and nodded. Guys would also buy him drinks. I’d serve them their beer and they’d say.

“Get one for Mike” or “Large Jamesons for my friend in the corner.”

Once again he’d just look up and nod his head.

Three nights a week he’d stay till four in the morning. Pay his bar tab, slip me twenty bucks, then leave. But where did he go? Where the fuck did this guy live? Did he go straight to work or have breakfast somewhere? Was he married? Did he have kids? I’d known the guy for well over a year, spent hour after hour with him, considered him a friend, and yet I knew absolutely nothing about him.

 

Can I remember the last day I saw Mike? You kiddin me? How the fuck could I forget it?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For the best part of two years Me and Mike had our routine. He’d come in and sit on his usual stool. I’d serve him up his large Jamesons and he’d knock them back. When I noticed his glass was empty I’d fill it up. This would go on all night. Around midnight I’d stick on the cable channel and we’d watch “I Love Lucy” or sometimes episodes of “Bilco.” I’d laugh out loud at these shows and if I was lucky Mike might crack a smile. At four in the morning he’d pay his tab, slip me twenty bucks, then leave. Until the day everything changed.

It was a Monday and it was four o’clock. There was no Mike. At four thirty there was still no Mike. When the early evening crowd came in around five thirty there was still no sign of Mike.

The guys were concerned.

“Where the fuck is he? What if he’s had some kinda accident or somin? We should call someone. The cops maybe?”

I could see how ridiculous that would be.

“And say what? That a guy who we think’s called Mike and works maybe on a local Construction site. Hasn’t turned up for his glass of Jamesons today. Anyone know where he lives?”

There was silence in the bar. Everyone shaking their heads.

“You see. Not one of us knows a goddam thing about him. So what chance do we have of finding out where he is?”

The atmosphere in the bar was strange that evening. No one really said much. One by one they left and by eleven thirty the bar was empty. I could have shut up for the night but I was hoping that maybe, just maybe Mike would turn up. Every Monday for almost two years I’d closed the doors of the bar at four in the morning. Tonight, with or without Mike, would be no exception.

The next few hours passed slower than a snail carrying a sack of concrete. Eventually with the clock showing just two minutes to four I opened up the till and started to cash up. I took out the notes, counted them and put them into a small brown envelope ready for banking later on in the day. I turned round.

“Jesus H Christ Mike, you scared the living crap out of me!”

There he was. Sitting on his usual stool, looking at me with those big blue eyes.

“Where the fuck you been Buddy, we’ve been worried sick aboutcha.”

“He did what he always did. Shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

“Couldn’t get away. But I’m here now. How about that Jamesons?”

“Yeah sure Mike. No problem. After the scare you gave me I think I’ll join ya.”

And then we did what we always did. I talked and Mike listened. But I noticed he kept looking at the clock on the wall. It was as if he was expecting something or someone. At seven forty five he stood up.

“Wanna join me for some breakfast?”

Wow this was a first. At last I’d get to find out where he went, maybe find out where he lived. Get to the bottom of this Bar Stool Preacher.

“Yeah sure Mike. Where?”

“Little place I know, not too far away. You’ll like it.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

I locked the door and we stepped outside. Mike waived down a cab.  He gave the driver fifty bucks.

“Brooklyn Bridge Park. Hurry.”

“Really Mike,  all that way just for breakfast?”

“Sure. You’ll like it. Trust me.”

The traffic wasn’t too bad for that time of day. Most traffic was heading towards Manhattan and not away from it as we were. Mike spoke quietly.

“I won’t be coming into the bar anymore kid. Time to move on. Been good to meet ya.”

My heart sank. I didn’t know him well but he felt like the closest friend I’d ever had. I struggled to find the words to say.

“That’s too bad Mike. But never say never. Maybe come back sometime in the future?

“Maybe, maybe.”

We were soon across Brooklyn Bridge and stopping at the park entrance.  We walked into the park and stood on the pier looking across the river at the beautiful skyline of Lower Manhattan. It was a glorious morning. Mike kept looking at his watch.

“You okay Mike, you gotta go somewhere?”

“No, I’m fine just for a few more minutes. Like the view?”

“It’s the best view ever, you wanna know why Mike?”

“Sure.”

“Cos I know that at the bottom of those two magnificent Towers is a little bar that I call home.”

Mike was standing behind me. I felt his hands on my shoulders.

“Listen to me very closely kid. Stay here. Do not go back. Understand?”

I turned round sharply to find out what the fuck he was talking about. But he was gone. In fact there was no one within fifty yards of me. I looked back at the skyline. It was 8.46 and a plane crashed into the North Tower.

 

So when people ask me if I can remember the last day I saw Mike. I say yeah, I can. It was the day that changed the world. By the end of that day, Tuesday 11th September 2001, Jimmys Bar was gone. Destroyed in a carpet of dust, concrete and debris.

Oh and by the way, did I mention about my Dad. The Dad I never knew, the Dad who disappeared when I was four?

His name was Michael….

 

 

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