Wednesday, August 02, 2006

VFW – This was published in the Rambler a couple of months ago.


Someone is waving money at me. I serve the next drink while Jim makes kissing noises at me from across the bar and mumbles something about my beautiful eyes under his breath. Jim's friend calls me over and says, "Look at all that hair you have! It's so pretty."

Even with my hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, it's still a wild mane of thick, dark curls. About ten times as much hair as my cousin Lisa—with her short, fashionable boy-cut—who works the other end of the bar.

Still staring at my hair, he asks, "What are you? I mean, your nationality or—"

"I'm Jewish," I say.

"What does that mean exactly?"

I consider the wisdom of having a discussion about the difference between race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality with a man who's on his third whiskey and water. I look around the bar hoping somebody somewhere needs something and am saved by Charlie, who's just put an empty beer bottle on the bar.

"Another Beer of the Month, Charlie?" I ask while sliding the bottle opener out of my back pocket, popping the top, and putting the bottle on the bar in front of him.

Jim's friend yells, "Hey! Jewish Girl! C'mere!"

I walk over, stand in front of him, hands on my hips. "What?"

"Oh," he says, looking at my face. I feel my lips pressed together in a tight line. "Is it offensive for me to call you 'Jewish Girl'?"

"I'm forty years old," I say.

* * *

It was Lisa who convinced me to give bartending a try: "We need more bartenders. The tips are great." And I thought, What the hell. Isn't this what starving artists and writers do to supplement their incomes? Although I spent eight years on the wholesale side of the wine and liquor industry, I had never mixed or served a single drink. After a three-minute interview, I was hired. Two days later I hopped into my Honda and drove to Hopkins, a small blue-collar town about twenty minutes from Minneapolis, ready for my first night of work.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed an old, white-haired man patrolling the parking lot. His yellow shirt, with the VFW emblem embroidered on the left breast, marked him as an employee. When I got out of my car, he ambled over.

"You're Lisa's cousin, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm Ellen. Nice to meet you," I said, extending my hand.

"I'm Clark," he said. shaking my hand; his grip was firm. "You and Lisa look alike."

"Everybody says that."

I didn't tell him that Lisa is adopted because she likes to be the one to say so. When people comment on our strong resemblance, a mischievous grin always crosses her pixie face as she says, "That's funny because we're not actually blood relatives."

I closed my car door and Clark escorted me through the doors of the VFW.

* * *

My decision to bartend seemed strange to those who know me—I'm not much of a drinker or very social either.

My lover was the first person I told—over the phone. His giggle fit was completely unexpected because I rarely hear him bark out more than short guffaws. "You? A bartender?"

"Why are you laughing?" I asked.

"It just doesn't seem like something you'd do. So where are you working?"

"The VFW."

I heard his deep belly laughs as the phone clattered to the floor.

Next, I told my friend Rox.

After she finished laughing, I asked, "What's so funny?"

She said, "Here's your fucking drink!" doing an imitation of me serving alcohol. Apparently, she thinks my New York edge (everybody is convinced I am from New York, no matter how many times I tell them I'm from Berkeley) precludes my being polite to customers.

"My daughter, the bartender," my father repeated over and over, while silently telegraphing his thoughts: Nice Jewish Girls do not bartend.

* * *

A mug three-fourths full of Southern Comfort, one-quarter Coke, lime bobbing on top—a "Southern Screamer." Hank—bad skin, greasy hair, 5'6", 200 pounds, drinks four of them over the course of three hours. Says he's on foot, so I keep serving him. Tells me as a bartender I need to learn jokes. He ought to know, he says, because he used to bartend at this very VFW. He then shouts a joke at me. Louder and louder over one of the few sober patrons who is on the stage, singing "Only Make Believe." I pray for someone to rescue me before this sloppy drunk asks me to go home with him.
I am rescued. Justin needs another Greyhound. I make it the way he likes: vodka on ice with a splash of grapefruit.

"How's the writing going?" he asks, head tilted to one side, smiling at me.

"Writing's going well." I give a rare smile to my favorite customer. Black hair—streaked with gray, clear, alert, brown eyes—even after downing three drinks in the last hour. And even in his paint-spattered work clothes he carries himself with a kind of quiet elegance.

I am not rescued. The red haired buzz-cut man who says he bartends at the American Legion is trying to hook up with me. He says we are perfect for each other—what with all we have in common—though all I've ever said to him is "Another beer for you?" Tells me he's a great catch. Been married three times. All three wives cheated on him. Tells me he has a master's in psychology. Three small stacks of quarters are on the bar in front of him, almost enough for three Pabst taps at $1.75 apiece. He's two bits short. Wants to borrow a quarter, which his friend loans him. Doesn't leave me a tip.

* * *

Beer of the Month or cheap well drinks, pull tabs or bar dice, karaoke on the weeknights or live bands on the weekends—often polka. The regulars are here at the Hopkins VFW nearly every night. Vets and nonvets, from the very young to the very old. Men and women. The V, as we call it, feels like another world to me. A darkened, cloistered world I am sometimes relieved to step into. After a sedentary day in front of my computer, I'm glad for a stretch of mindless physical activity. At 4:45 when I turn into the V's already packed parking lot, and I see the squat building and the sign that announces "Bingo Tonight," I know that for the next nine hours all that exists in the world is this place. I walk up the concrete stairs, through two sets of double doors and onto the red industrial carpet, into the smoky bar. People are sitting on red vinyl barstools—not backless though: we want the customers to lean into their chairs, stay awhile. Bottles of beer and mixed drinks sit on the high, round, wood-laminate tables. The dark, fake, wood-paneled walls have flat, gold metal pieces screwed into them, with names engraved on them. The Members' Wall. "But you don't have to be a member to drink here," we always say.
The main room has a small dance floor with a linoleum floor (we keep the dance wax behind the bar), a stage, and the "pull-tab booth," which is a room with a long, chest-high, glass counter that holds six different kinds of pull tabs. The customers can look through the glass to see not only the game they want to play, but also to check if they're playing from a new or nearly empty box. The players tell me there's a science involved in pull tabs: "First you see how low the box is. Then you ask around and find out if anyone has hit big today. If the box is low, and nobody's won yet, if you buy enough pull tabs from that box, you're sure to be a winner." The metal rolltop gate, unfurled and locked at midnight, prevents anyone from breaking in after hours. Losing pull tabs are piled high on the bar, in ashtrays, under barstools, and worse—every time I use the restroom, I see piles of pull tabs lying on the stall floors, and I try not to imagine a life that includes sitting on the toilet peeing and pulling tabs.

The V has a kitchen run by Chris Cook (he says he comes from a long line of Cooks who cook for a living) and also a dining room. Two steps down from the dining area is another room with electronic dartboards, video games, and a couple of pool tables. But I rarely have time to come out from behind the bar, which is U-shaped with chairs on all three sides. The space behind the bar is so narrow that the two bartenders brush up against each other as we cross paths. Usually a "right behind you," or a hand on your coworker's shoulder is enough to prevent a collision.

* * *

It's karaoke night and the place is packed. I run back and forth serving customers, my feet bouncing on the thick antifatigue mats behind the bar.

"Clark!" I yell. "Can you please get me another keg of Pabst?"

Clark, the bouncer, is old school. Doesn't think women should have to lift kegs. Although I'm grateful not to have to wrestle and roll eighty pounds of beer in metal from the cold box, I feel guilty asking Clark because he looks so old. Not that he's frail—he appears thin and fit. I suspect he's a World War II vet, though he's never said. He never says much of anything and mumbles through bad teeth when he does.

Clark returns with the keg on a dolly, rolls it off, and hooks it up for me. I thank him, and he goes back to watching the customers. Vigilant. Making sure nobody is going to get too drunk and violent. It happens. Every night, I cut at least two people off. Sometimes I have to ask them to leave. Sometimes we call the police.

Tonight, I see a familiar form walking through the doors. It's Rox, her unruly hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing what looks like a pink sports bra, over which she's got on a sleeveless lime green shirt—unbuttoned but tied at the waist—and her outfit is completed by green plaid shorts and flip-flops on her feet.

"Hi, Elle," she says, sitting down next to Jeff, who is ripping through a large pile of pull tabs. "I rode my bike here. Do you think it's safe?"

I stare at her. "Fifteen miles? You rode fifteen miles—in flip-flops?"

"It was a great ride. Such a beautiful day."

It's humid as hell, I think, but instead I ask, "What can I get you?"

She orders a Sea Breeze. I make it weak—although a weak drink at the VFW is twice as strong as a stiff drink at any other bar. Rox settles in and starts chatting with Jeff.

I get Wanda, a heavyset brunette, another Pabst tap. I've seen her signal: empty glass on the rail, two dollar bills underneath. Should I make the cardinal mistake of pouring the beer in a clean glass, she will not drink it. And if she has to wait more than a minute before I notice the empty glass, I hear something like, "Uh, Ellen? Hello? Can I get a little service down at this end of the bar?" Even though she never tips me, I have never once purposely made her wait. Until the night of the meat raffle. The single busiest hour on a Friday night is between five and six, and because the second bartender was late, I was working alone. A little old lady from the Lady's Auxiliary was circulating with raffle tickets. A dollar for a chance at a hunk of beef, a vacuum-packed ham, or a free drink. While Randy, the manager, called out the winning numbers, I poured drink after drink for a solid hour and a half. I had run out of glasses—no time to wash them—so when Randy finished with the raffle, he came behind the bar to help for a few minutes. I was making a Whiskey-7 Press for a man sitting a few stools away from Wanda when I heard her say, "Finally! A good bartender!" Now I'm not as attentive.

Simon and Maggie walk in. I have his Beam 7 and Maggie's Beam water—with an extra tall glass of ice water on the side—on the bar before they have their jackets off.

"Thanks, Ellen," he says, shrugging off his jacket, rearranging his ponytail, and settling his bulk into the chair.

Maggie says, "You always remember my ice water," and tips me a dollar.

Every once in a while I glance at Jeff and Rox to make sure he's not bothering her. He has a habit of saying strange things. Once when he was watching two women across the bar, he said, "Wouldn't it be cool if a bitchy-broad, psycho-woman catfight broke out right now? What would you do?" But he's intent on whatever he's writing on a napkin. Later Rox tells me that he lost the napkin and asked her, "I left a note for the bartender on a napkin. Because I love her. Did you take it?"

* * *

It's Saturday night. Bob Allen's Polka Band has just begun to play. I groan. They're playing "Roll out the Barrel."

A woman with a missing tooth calls me over. I don't know her name, just what she drinks: Grain Belt. She turns to her husband (also missing a tooth) and says, "You tell her, Honey."

He tells me, "That woman down there? She's bothering me and my wife. Pointin' at us and callin' us names."

I know who he's talking about. The woman—mid-forties, overweight, frowsy with frizzy hair—came in about an hour ago, sat down next to Charlie, snuggled in next to him, laid her head on his shoulder, and said, "I just want to be close to you." He moved. So did anyone else sitting anywhere near her. She wandered off to a table where she sat talking to herself, laughing every now and again, and yelling "Bitch!" at the woman with the missing tooth.

"Can you throw her out?" he asks me.

When the crazy woman comes back up to the bar for another drink, I refuse to serve her. She throws a glass of water at me before Clark takes her by the arm and escorts her out of the bar. When he comes back, he says, "See that guy at the end of the bar with the baseball cap?" He points to a blond man in his forties—I think his name is Sam. "Quit serving him. He's had too much."

He seems sober enough to me, but I trust Clark's judgment and say, "Okay."

After a few hours, the steady stream of people has slowed to a trickle, and I stop to chat with Raul, the Bingo set-up guy. Every Friday night for the past seven months I have practiced my bad Spanish on him because he's fluent.

"Brandy and I broke up," he says.

"I didn't even know you were together."

"Yeah. Can I call you sometime?" he says, picking up a pen to write down my phone number. He pauses, "Hey, what's your name?"

Before I can answer, I hear a commotion from the other end of the bar. I turn toward the noise. A barstool has just crashed to the floor. I see Sam on his feet, being jerked in a backward shuffle toward the door. He looks like a puppet, but I can't see who's pulling the strings. It takes me a second to register the arm around Sam's neck, because Sam's thick body is hiding the slight figure who has him in a headlock.

Sam yells, "Get the fuck off me," and jerks to one side, trying to wrest himself out of the thinner man's grip. Then I get a glimpse of the man who's got Sam in a chokehold. Lips set in a thin determined line, Clark's pointy VFW hat is still perched atop his white head. Clark kicks his leg between Sam's, and Sam loses his balance and starts to fall to the floor. Clark yanks him upright, pulls his body in closer, and drags Sam out the door.

I come out from behind the bar, grab Sam's baseball cap and coat off the floor, and follow them outside.

I hold out the coat and cap to Sam. As he reaches out to take them, I step back because he looks like he's about to lunge at me.

Clark tells him, "You get going now, hear?"

Sam stumbles off and we watch him go.

"Guess I'd better get back to work," I say, and Clark opens the door for me. I walk into the bar, turning back to see if Clark is behind me, but he's still watching

the parking lot.

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