This was in the days when nighttime used to mean something. At midnight, the television stations all played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then went dark until time for the Farmers’ Weather Report at dawn. You couldn’t go to the grocery store after 9:00 p.m. All the other stores closed at 8:00. It might be hard to find an open gas station. Last call was taken seriously at all the local bars – people had been known to get ticketed running red lights, trying to make it in time.
In town, the only all-night restaurant of any kind was Clyde’s Chicken, a brightly-lit fried chicken joint that usually had only one thing on the menu – fried chicken and biscuits. There was sometimes a hand-written sign taped up on the wall announcing the temporary addition of “fried livers and gizzards” to the menu. I never saw anyone eat them, although I have heard some, such as Stinky, claim to. He felt it gave him an air of distinction.
Some men lure women with wine or with roses or with dates to see movies in which the heroine, despite being movie-star beautiful, is only saved from a loveless future by falling into the last-chance arms of the sweet and quirky hero, who is inexplicably available despite also being movie-star beautiful.
These men show a lack of imagination.
Danny lured me with a handful of early-spring violets and a 2 a.m. trip to Clyde’s Chicken.
“Are you going to eat the gizzards to impress me?” I asked.
“Lord, no,” he said, and shuddered.
The Cavern Tavern was underground. You entered the front (where the bar was) down a dingy flight of concrete stairs from the street above, breathing in an updraft of cigarette smoke, dampness, stale beer fumes, and subterranean cool. You entered the back (where the pool tables were) down a set of wooden steps jutting out of the wet alleyway asphalt next to the dumpsters. Over the back door, there was a sign that read “Ballroom Entrance.”
The Cave should have been a sad place in the late afternoons when Ishmael, the weary first-shift bartender, opened both doors to try to let some air in while he washed out all last night’s dirty ashtrays in the tiny cold-water sink next to the toilets. It should have been happy – happiest – at night when the red-colored lightbulbs strung across the ceiling were turned on and the place was packed tight with tipsy, laughing people who had come to hear the bands play. We passed the hat and, on a good night, the band made sixty dollars all together, plus the right to stay around after closing and drink free beer.
But in the afternoons, before opening time, if Ish liked you, you could sit at the bar and smoke cigarettes and read the newspaper or listen on the radio to the call-in shows or to the radio preachers who made me laugh out loud and made Ish grin and shake his head in disbelief, which was the closest he ever got to laughing out loud himself. Sometimes, if you felt like it, you could help Ish out by taking the green plastic covers off the pool tables and folding them and brushing the tables down with the pool table brush and then, while Ish had their cash boxes open and was busy raking out all the quarters and counting them and putting them into rolls to take to the bank, you could play a free game of pool. In the summer, especially, it would stay light so long that sometimes the afternoon didn’t end until late at night.
I used to hang around with Ish when I first came to town and I was on hand when the regular weeknight bartender, Herman, quit unexpectedly after passing the bar exam. It was his fourth stab at it – his final time using his own name – so everyone was caught off guard. The next thing we heard we heard of him, he had been elected to Congress and moved to Washington.
The afternoon when Herman came in with the happy news, I was there and took the job because I didn’t have another one.
Danny said, “Why don’t you skip work and just stay home in bed with me?”
“Cause I’ll get fired and I need the money, that’s why,” I said.
“What can money buy you that would be better than a long afternoon with just you and me together right here in this room?”
“Well, just for instance, maybe the money to pay the rent to stay underneath this roof.”
“It’s mighty romantic to sleep under the stars,” Danny grinned.
“What about when it rains?”
“You just have an answer for everything, don’t you sugar?”
“Maybe I do.”
“Well, that’s a relief. A smart woman like you can surely figure out a way to keep the rain off us.”
Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.
Socrates imagines that the chained prisoners in the cave talk with each other, discussing the shadows they see on the wall in front of them. They can’t turn their heads to see each other in the gloom, but even in their chains, they feel one another’s presence and seek out the sounds of each other’s voices. They converse on all manner of topics, he says, suggested to them by the shadows of themselves and of the objects behind them and by the echoes of the voices of the bearers of those objects. Chained immobile in the flickering firelight, they reach each other with their voices and together they construct a conception of their world and a philosophy of their own. It is built only on shadows, but I think that is beside the point. At least they had each other.
Maggie, who owned the Cave, had a good heart, but took no shit from anyone. She tended bar on Friday and Saturday nights, when white college boys came downtown to drink obscure Scandinavian or Dutch beer and she needed two bartenders to handle them and make sure they threw up outside. Maggie paid almost all the bartenders under the table with money from the cash register at the end of the night plus the tips in the goldfish-bowl tip jar set prominently next to the cash register. Only Ish and Maggie herself were on the books – and then only as a strategy to avert the suspicions of the Internal Revenue Service. In addition to wages and tips, bartenders could help themselves to a pack of cigarettes from the rack behind the bar whenever they wanted and could drink free beer any time, except supposedly not until after closing time on nights when they were working. The cheapest beer was National Bohemian – called Natty BoHo – at seventy-five cents a can, but the bartenders, like royalty, drank two dollar beer in bottles. People mostly tipped a quarter or thirty-five cents. Sometimes the bartenders would make change out of the tip jar, just to get some folding money into it. When I got hired, Maggie told me that if trouble – real trouble – ever broke out, the first thing I should do was grab the tip jar.
Despite Maggie’s precautions, the undeniably suspicious minimalism of Ish’s economic life did eventually draw the attention of the local IRS field office. After a series of written exchanges equally impenetrable on both sides, Ish was invited to present himself to a man in a windowless office and explain how his claims of Thoreau-ian simplicity could ever possibly be true. He was instructed to bring receipts.
Ish sat with a shoebox full of little scraps of paper on his lap while the IRS man, with the usual contempt of the barely-middle-class toward those they suspected of harboring bohemian tendencies, slowly and thoroughly established that Ish, indeed, had no other income, no car, no mortgage, no savings account, no retirement account, no stocks or bonds, no life insurance, no real or personal property of any significant value at all.
“Don’t you own anything?” the IRS man yelled finally, halfway between despair and disgust.
“Well,” Ish said, after some thought. “I have a baseball glove that was signed by Mickey Mantle.” This was true, but it made the IRS man so indignant that Ish was audited every year for eight years in a row until finally one audit showed that he had overpaid his taxes by almost forty dollars, which was eventually refunded to him by government check, and after that he never heard from them again.
If you went out the back door of the Cave, you could go either right or left along the alleyway past the closed back doors of the drug store and the used book store and a store that sold area rugs. Or, if you went straight ahead, you could thread your way along a narrow passageway and come out on Thornapple Street and be standing next to a Mexican restaurant called Tijuana Fats that also had a bar. In those days, state laws were such that establishments could only serve hard liquor if at least fifty-one percent of their receipts were for food. It was always a near thing at Fats (where the food had nothing to especially recommend it and where the pork dishes in particular were always a little suspicious) and, to make the fifty-one percent quota, shots of tequila sometimes had to be rung up as french fries. Without fifty-one percent in food, bars could only serve beer and wine. The Cave only served beer, although someone had once brought back two single-serving screw-top bottles of airplane wine from a long vacation. They were kept in a special place behind the bar in case of emergencies.
Because of the proximity of the Cave and Fats, regulars went back and forth between them many times during the course of the evening so that they were almost one bar. You couldn’t pay your tab from one in the other, but the bartenders in Fats would let you leave with a water glass with two fingers of tequila in the bottom of it to carry back to the Cave to buck up the bartender there if it was looking like it was going to be a long night.
Some regulars, especially the older ones who were troubled more by their aches and their livers and were, therefore, somewhat sour of disposition, moved only once in the evening, from the Cave to Fats when the bands started up at the Cave. They hated to have to do it because there was no seventy-five cent beer at Fats and every now and then an especially stupid customer would complain about the noise to Maggie. We never had one stupid enough to complain to Maggie twice.
Hank and Stinky wanted to complain, but didn’t have the nerve to do any more than grumble behind Maggie’s back. “Maggie,” they would snort to each other, with lots of conviction and very little volume, “she has no idea how to run a bar.”
“If I ran this place,” they would say, puffing out their chests to each other, “it would sure be different.” Then they would deflate and glance around nervously.
Hank was a big man, with a big belly that poured out over his big silver belt buckle and a big walrus moustache long enough to almost meet his sideburns down low on a stubbly chin. Stinky was tall-ish and skinny-ish and tightly-wound, with a little toothbrush moustache and a little pointy goatee. Hank was losing his hair and opted for the traditional stringy comb-over, which he kept well-plastered down. Stinky was losing his hair, too, but went instead for a three-quarter-inch buzz cut all around that made him look like a cue-ball dressed up for Halloween as a hedgehog.
Stinky’s real name was Jefferson Davis Smithfield, Jr. He tried to get everyone to call him J.D., but instead we called him Stinky because we could come up with no other explanation for his perpetually pinched up look. We had numerous theories of what had crawled into his moustache and died, but none of them could ever be proven.
Hank had an invisible wife who lord knows did not mind at all how many hours he spent sitting in the Cave. Stinky was divorced and went every April to Thailand where he apparently enjoyed the company of a very young prostitute who said her name was Mary and who assured Stinky that although, of course, she occasionally knew other men, her relationship with him was different; he was the only one she truly loved.
Even Hank was skeptical.
Stinky would protest and bluster. It was different. She did love him. He was a real man, the only man. The best lover ever. She meant it. None of us pathetic losers could even begin to imagine the delights they tasted during the long, neon-lit, paid-by-the-hour tropical nights, the soft breezes, the palm trees rustling and the full moon glowing right outside the whorehouse door.
“I dunno, Stinky,” Ish said once, wiping up a wet patch on the bar, “it seems like an awful long way to go just to get laid.”
“Shows what you know, my friend,” Stinky said. “I don’t know why I waste my time even trying to elucidate certain facts for persons such as yourself who clearly lack the mental insight to even conceive of what I’m talking about. I’m telling you that this girl is special. You should just see what she can effectuate with a ping pong ball. The problem with you is that you have no sophistication.”
“I dunno, Stinky,” Ish said again, shaking his head. “Maybe so.”
Kathy Giuffre is a writer and academic born and raised in Arkansas, educated at Harvard, and now living in Colorado. Her previous books are An Afternoon in Summer (a memoir of living in the South Pacific as a single mother), Collective Creativity, and Communities and Networks. She writes an occasional column, “My Hillbilly Heritage,” for Ohio Edit. You can see her TED talk about her academic work here.