Two guys walk into a bar: a Christmas story

Our plans were set. We would leave early for midnight mass on Christmas eve.

We were 16, juniors at a Catholic high school, and in possession of newly purchased fake draft cards. And we weren’t really going to mass. Mickey and i planned to go instead to a bar a couple of blocks down the alley from where Mickey worked and conveniently in the same general direction as the church.

Dressed like little men wearing jackets and ties and displaying a shaky air of confidence, we arrived at the bar around 11 and went in through the alley entrance – just like one of the regulars.

We walked over to the bar where the bartender was busy washing glasses. There were only two people in the bar when we arrived – a man way down at the end and a bit in the shadows, and a woman about half way down. I sat at a stool. Mickey stood to my left. He leaned into the bar, placed his elbow on its worn leather edge, and glanced at me. I heard him quietly say, “OK. We’re in, everything’s cool, so far so good.”

Just then the bartender looked up at us and asked for our id.

We gave him our recently purchased draft cards.

He looked at us, then at the cards, and then again at us and with a bit of a smirk asked, “What’ll you have.”

I asked for a beer.

As the bartender started to pull my beer he asked Mickey what he wanted. Mickey answered, “Gimme a Sloe Gin Fizz.”

Just then the bartender let the tap slip from his fingers. He looked straight at Mickey, paused for a moment, and asked, “What are you, some kinda pussy!”

Uncertain of where this was going, i looked away. I turned to my right and caught the eye of the woman sitting two stools away. She was obviously listening to what was going on. She smiled, raised her glass an inch or two and said, “Merry Christmas.”

Christmas 1968

Mum Freeze

People to whom i describe the game of Mum Freeze refuse to believe such a thing.

Here’s a description of the game from someone who grew up in New York City’s South Bronx. The same brutal game we “played” in our neighborhood in Queens.

From STREET STORIES: Growing up in the South Bronx

When I tell people about this “game”, it never fails to elicit a few looks of disbelief. As always, we would choose to determine who would be the first victim. Then the rest of us would gather around, with the victim in the middle. After a tense count of three, we would all start to pound mercilessly on our selected friend. Punches would rain all over the unlucky person in the center as he quickly counted to ten and shouted “mum freeze”!

At the shout of mum freeze, everyone would have to freeze, like a statue, in whatever position you found yourself. Any movement or sound by you (hence, mum/freeze), and you would immediately become the next “victim”. At this point, however, the original victim is still in the middle of a bunch of living “statues” whose arms are suspended in mid-punch. As long as he was facing away from you, you could sneak in another punch, here and there. Once he extricated himself, however, he would walk slowly around the group, throwing simulated punches at their faces. If someone flinched, he became the next victim. It was hard not to flinch because at any point, the victim could just call your name and you were the new victim, whether or not you flinched!

On the road

Yes, that’s right. It’s another story with references to Kerouac’s novel. [Yawn]

When i was 19 (that would have to be in 1971) i lived for a while in a small apartment on east sixth street on the lower east side of Manhattan. A fire in the empty building next door resulted in the death of two of the three dogs belonging to the young man and woman squatting there at the time.

And during the time i lived there, i had the opportunity to attend a poetry reading at St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery, a few blocks away. Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and one or two others were there to read from their works. But mostly they giggled and poked at each other. They looked like they were having a lot of fun. I think a lot of the young, dark-haired hipsters sitting in the pews intent on being enlightened were disappointed.

It was a couple of years after that that i found myself hitchhiking across Nebraska with my dog Buck. I was headed to Wyoming where i hoped to find work.

Near Grand Island i got a ride from a guy driving a big Pontiac. One of those real big ones, a hard top. And all the windows were rolled down. It was like riding in a convertible.

It wasn’t long after Buck and i got in and got on our way that the driver lit up a joint. He lit up using the cigarette lighter from the dash. And we traveled west towards Wyoming talking and listening to the radio.

We hadn’t quite reached the Interstate 80 split when the Pontiac quit running.

We rolled to a stop on the side of the road. And we just sat there. For what seemed like a long time, nothing was said.

And then the guy tells me that the trunk is full of weed and that he thought i probably should get out and get as far away from the car as possible. Before i could say anything he was out the door and leaning into the back seat gathering his stuff. He said he was going back the way he came and headed across the road, thumbing for an eastbound ride.

Shit.

I got out, grabbed a hold of Buck’s leash, and together we trotted down the highway. Then we walked. And then we ran. And then, out of breath, we walked again.

We never seemed to get far enough away from that car.

Missing

This morning, while walking back from our daily trip to the coffee shop, Matilda disappeared. That’s the way it looked to me. If you ask Matilda, she may say that it was me who disappeared.

Like so many times before, i had let Matilda off leash in a large empty lot behind a large shopping center. With little vehicle traffic in the area and a lot of room to get some exercise, Matilda enjoys the opportunity to stretch her legs a bit and investigate new scents there.

This time she caught the scent of a squirrel and she took off as if she was late for a steak dinner. And it wasn’t but a few moments before i lost sight of her.

Fortunately, we have been practicing with a whistle and clicker as an indicator that Matilda was about to get a treat and her response to the whistle or the clicker usually resulted in her running over to me to get it. It wouldn’t be long, i thought to myself. She’ll hear the whistle and she’ll come running. And everything would be fine.

Until today, all that practice clicking and whistling had paid off. This time, nothing. No Matilda. I didn’t see her head pop up to figure out where i was like she had done in the past. She was gone.

I diligently searched the tall brush as i walked in the direction i last saw her headed. And i whistled and clicked, and whistled again and again. Still nothing. My whistling stirred all the dogs in the residential area north of the lot we were in and i listened for Matilda’s bark from among the many. Still nothing.

At this point i made the decision to walk back to the house without her and get the car to expand my search. I thought to myself that being in the car would help me find her and that i could respond faster if someone should find her and call me.

With a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, i drove back to where i last saw her – delaying only to turn off the new (and unfamiliar) “do not disturb” feature on my phone that prevented phone and text notifications while i was driving. And it was a good thing i did. After fumbling with the phone trying to determine how and if i had properly set the phone to receive calls while driving, one came in.

The call was from a young woman named Victoria. She introduced herself and said that she had found Matilda and that she would hold on to her until i could get there.

She was at the Starbucks where Matilda and i were earlier – about a quarter mile or so from where we lost each other. Matilda had found her way back, crossing a wide street and the very large parking area of this very large shopping center to the tiny corner of the complex where the coffee shop sat.

I was already imagining a life without Matilda when Victoria called.

Thank you, Victoria. Matilda is a magical dog. And you did a wonderful and blessed thing by bringing us back together.

A new friend

I lost someone in my life twenty eight years ago. When he died i hardly knew him. We worked together but we weren’t friends then. That would be unlikely, if not impossible, because i was his supervisor. 

Regardless, i liked him and enjoyed his company and his occasional bit of helpful advice. Soon after i got the supervisor’s job he came into the office, looked down at my desk and said, “Ya know, a clean organized desk is a sign of mental illness.” 

I don’t remember how i responded or even if i responded. But i did think to myself that in my case, he could very well be right! I am not unfamiliar with obsessive compulsive behavior. 

“Not much of a memorable encounter,” you’re probably saying. But given all that has passed and all i’ve learned, those brief encounters have stayed with me.

It wasn’t until after he died did he become my friend. It wasn’t until then that i learned so much about him. About his easiness, simplicity, honesty, wisdom, and life. All learned from and through his family who hold him in their heart and then shared him with me.

On this day, twenty eight years after that shitty day in September, I honor my friend and his family.

About fruit tramps, work campers, and a book

In 1971 (or maybe it was 1972) i found myself in central Florida camping at Buck Lake in Ocala National Forest. I was by myself, no car, just a back pack, sleeping bag, and a small tent. I had been dropped off there by some people with whom I hitched a ride from New York City.

Back then, Buck Lake was a primitive campground with no restrictions, only one road in or out and no amenities except a hand pump for drinking water. Now it is a group campground with a boat ramp, vault toilet, six picnic tables and a group campfire ring – and that same old hand pump for drinking water – requiring a reservation for a minimum of two nights at $50 a night! I imagine all these improvements did a good job of keeping away any tramps, hoboes and wanderers like me.

Close to my little place in this paradise were camped a married man and woman and their long-time friend. The couple lived out of a van and their friend lived out of a car. They worked picking fruit. They referred to themselves as “fruit tramps.”

For the two months or so that i lived on Buck Lake, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone else camping there. It was just me, a blue tick coon hound puppy (who i named Buck) that i adopted from a veterinarian in Leesburg, and my work camping friends.

As odd as i may have seemed to my camping neighbors, they often looked out and cared for me – giving me lifts into town for supplies and warning me about things such as coral snakes, and scorpions (one of which i found under my sleeping bag one morning) and the alligator that would lie quietly in the evening just a bit off shore from where my tent was pitched. They said the gator was looking for an opportunity to catch and eat Buck.

Over the next few years i had many experiences meeting folks like these. Experiences that no doubt explain my desire to live simply and modestly. Roam place to place. Quietly. Slowly. Thoughtfully.

Yet as profound as these experiences were for me, all the special memories they engendered were wrested from my thoughts and hidden for a very long time. But now, after having lived several lifetimes that clearly didn’t belong to me, i am finding something old that was lost along the way.

And i’m finding it in the stories by a new generation of wanderers, work campers, and rubber tramps – the poets, scribes, and technicians of the road. A writer whose travel log i read has written a book called Confessions of a Work Camper – Tales from the Woods. I really enjoyed reading it. There’s something for everyone in it. And some good opportunities to see ourselves in these delightful little stories. The author describes her book in this way, “Follow the adventures of a campground worker as she chronicles the delights and disasters of working with the public away from all the conveniences of modern life: electricity, running water, internet access, or phone service. Join her on the top of a mountain, as far from civilization as she’s ever lived, in this collection of creative non-fiction essays.”