“I have saved the lives of two people,” I said. ”The first time I was in the gym sitting in the hot tub when I noticed this attractive Asian girl holding onto the edge. She was in her late thirty’s but still looked great. I wanted to talk to her but didn’t want to be that guy. You know the kind that bothers any girl in his reach. I’m not clever when it comes to picking up girls so I just watched her as she was moving around the side of the pool and periodically dipping her head under the water. I was trying to figure out what was going on, why she was acting so strange. When it hits me. She is trying to teach herself how to swim. She’s crawling along the wall moving into the deep end. This is not a good plan. She is now standing in the five and a half -foot deep side and this girl has got to be under that. Maybe five feet but I think she was shorter then that. I look around the room. The lifeguard had gone. An old woman is swimming in the lane next to the girl, but she looks lost in her own world. The Asian girl pushes off from the wall. She’s doing good, kicking. It’s kind of a dog paddle, but she loses the rhythm and her head goes under for a moment. She starts to panic and kicks and splashes trying to reach the wall again. The lady in the lane next to her keeps swimming. The girl starts to cry out. Help! Help! I stand up calmly and walk over to the pool and leap over the lady swimming. I come down in the lane next to the Asian girl. She is in a real panic now, splashing and crying out. Her eyes were filled with terror. I moved closer without letting her grab me. I heard if you let them grab you, you might get drowned trying to save them. So I’m careful not to get too close. I gently put my hand on her back and give her a push over to the edge. She grabs onto the side like a cat catching its fall.”
“Have you seen her again?” asked a customer with a pint of Stella in front of him.
“Yes, I showed her how to swim,” I said.
“Did you date her?” He had a European accent, and was in his thirties. I picked up his three dollars and rang it in the cash register.
“No. I guess I could have asked her out and she gave me the vibe like that would have been fine if I did, but it didn’t feel right. Like I did something right for once and asking her out would have ruined the good deed I did. Maybe she planned on that? Maybe she wanted me to save her. It was kind of hot teaching her how to swim. She had a tight little body. I had her lie down in the water and I held her afloat by gently lifting her under her belly with my hand. I got her to kick and that’s how she learned how to swim.”
“Who was the second life you saved?”
“Hang on,” I said. “Let me get some things done first.”
4pm and I had just opened the bar. I counted in the bank. Took out my twenty-five dollar shift pay and put it in my wallet. I pulled the juices from the refrigerator. Lined them up next to the well and soda gun. Cranberry I used the most so it was the closest to me. Grapefruit on the far side, with orange juice in the middle. I turned on the lights, making them bright for the daytime. The neon light outside flickered on. A man walked in carrying a bucket with a brush stuck in it. It looked like tar or grease. He didn’t have to say a word for me to know he is trying to scam me. I read it his dress, and posture, even his stink. My eyes bumped up against him with a cold stare that made him look at his shoes.
“I’m here to grease the gates,” he said.
“Get the fuck out of here,” I barked and pointed to the door. He made a little hop as if he was a bunny and I was a wolf.
“What?” he said moving back toward the door. I pointed outside again and he got my meaning.
“What’s that about?” asked the customer.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “You get all kinds of scam artists trying to get some money out of the bar. That’s an old one. They find some bucket with crap in it then go around to all the bars looking to make a few bucks, but if you put that stuff on your gates you’re really going to be screwed.”
I sauntered to the other end of the bar and took out a box of candles. Filling the jigs with a squirt of water, I dropped the candles in and lit them. I spread them out along the bar and windows. I put three over the cash register so I could see the keys. A girl came in and headed straight for me. I knew what she wanted from the smile on her face. Customers don’t smile like that.
“I can fill in,” she said as she slid her resume towards me. “Waitress, anything you need.” She had a nice body so I didn’t mind keeping her in my orbit for the moment.
“They haven’t hired outside the bar since December 19th, 97,” I said coyly.
“Why’s that?” Her smile vanished.
“It’s the day we opened.”
She picked up her resume and walked out the door. I lined up a row of chairs to cut off the back room. I couldn’t watch the back from the front, and I didn’t want people going downstairs to steal from the basement.
“Do you get a lot of people looking for jobs?” asked the customer. His foreign accent was thick and I couldn’t place it.
“Mondays are my only day shift. So yes, on Mondays I do.” I walked over to the DJ booth, looked through the CD’s. I took the least scratched and put it on. T-Rex’s “Rip Off.” I raised the volume. I looked around the room for the chalkboard and found it behind the trashcan. Old beer and other bar crap had spilled on it from the night before. I wiped it clean with a rag then dried it off with napkins. Finding a small piece of white chalk I wrote.
$3 beers and well drinks.
Outside, I chained the sign to the bar gates, then look down the street for pretty girls. No one worth a second glance. I could hear the bass notes of the T-Rex song coming from inside. I ambled back in the double doors. The two sets of doors were meant to keep the music inside and the complaints from neighbors to a minimum. Walking behind the bar I grabbed the lemons and limes on my way to the other end. There was already a stool there. Its seat was beaten and had cigarette burns. I pulled the cutting board out from under the bar. The first lime was rotten and I threw it away. The second looked good. I cut off its ends, being sure to curl my fingers under so I didn’t cut them too. I cut the lime in half and sliced it down the middle so it could rest on the edge of a glass. Then I divided the lime into four pieces big enough to squeeze juice out of, yet small enough to fit in the neck of a Corona bottle. “Logical Song” by Supertramp came on and it reminded me of beach trips when I was a kid. I looked up to see the door opening. I watched everyone who came in the bar. Sizing them up. Are they looking for trouble or a drink, maybe a job? I recognized this guy. Skinny, dark skin, he was from South America, but I wasn’t sure what country. Ernie was a junkie low life and worst of all he never tipped me. He looked poor but his family had money. The word in the neighborhood was that they paid to keep him here, in America, and to keep him from embarrassing them at home.
“Get the fuck out of here!” I was on my feet and walked fast around the bar to meet him.
“I’m friends with the owner,” he said under his bowl cut. He looked like the last Ramone. “They let me in here all the time.” I grabbed him under his arm. “I don’t care. You can’t be in the bar when I’m here.” I manhandled him outside, took a step back and locked the door. He flipped me the bird. I smiled and waited until he was down the block before I unlocked the door.
“Is this how your Mondays are?” asked the customer.
“Pretty much.” I grinned. “Where are you from?”
“No. I live here.”
“Welcome to New York.”
“I’ve been here for close to four years.”
“Hey, I would take as much welcome as I could get.”
“I guess that’s true… Thanks.”
Keep them smiling, keep them tipping, even if you’re not really saying anything. But that’s only if they need it. Sometimes they come to the bar just to sit quietly, to get away. You have to wait for that look. The look of loneliness that begs for conversation. Giving bar advice is the same and I will only give it when backed into a corner. I’m not your therapist even if I know more than you. I finished cutting the lemons and placed them in the trays next to the other ones on the bar top. The cherries and olives were from the night before. I didn’t know if they are a day or a week old, but since I didn’t want to get the cherry dye on my hands I left them. The German saw a pretty girl walking outside the window and his head turned to follow her. I caught the end of the show as she made the corner. “What Is And What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin came on. The German looked at a map. He’s been here for four years and still needs a map? Tourist. The best way to make you a target in this city is to pull out a map. The second is looking up. New Yorkers never look up, they have seen it all before. I sat at the stool and slapped down my notepad and begin to write. The German was watching.
“Are you a writer?” he asked.
“No. I just write sometimes.”
I reached behind me and grabbed a copy of my fanzine, Psycho Moto # 21, and handed it to him. He flipped through the pages. The white paper reflected a soft light on the German. It was as if the zine was glowing. “It’s kind of a magazine I do. I write and put it together, then have my friends make copies at their work.”
“How much is it?”
“It’s free. Most people read it in their bathrooms.” He smiled.
I looked at the clock on the microwave. It read 5:30, but it was on bar time meaning it was really, 5:15. Every bar in the neighborhood had their clocks set 15 minutes fast so at the end of the night the customers would be done with their drinks and out the door. The bartenders could call last call 15 minutes early, but rarely did. If a customer complained about being rushed out the door, he always got the same speech.
“I follow the bar’s clock and when it says it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
-from Bar Stool Prophets by Ethan H. Minsker