I got a job during my first year of junior college working in a dive bar. I was eighteen (the legal drinking age in Florida at the time) and up until that point, the only job I had held other than babysitting was shucking clams and oysters in the kitchen of the Oyster Bar. The O.B., as it was known to locals, was a dive of a different sort—one that lured tourists eager to partake of hush puppies and fresh Florida seafood but served them fare that wasn’t all that fresh and mostly not native to Florida waters.
I got the job at the bar because my next door neighbor, Harry, worked there and said I could make better money as the afternoon barmaid than I could working as a waitress at the Steak-N-Egg, an all-night waffle and hash place down the street that catered to all varieties of customers to include fishermen, people who worked at the nearby seafood packing plant, drunks who had enough insight to realize some solid food every once in a while (usually at four a.m.) might not be a bad idea, and cops.
I had moved into my first apartment a few weeks before, eager to be a working college student, making my way in the world. For some insane reason I now can’t recall, I had refused financial support from my parents. I needed a job fast, I told my friendly neighbor, who took it upon himself to act as my guardian. My middle-class parents were horrified by my choice to set up camp in a historic, but declining, neighborhood that had as many seedy rooming houses as it did lovingly restored Victorians and peeling Spanish stucco homes. But everything was in walking distance, and I loved my independence.
I wouldn’t need much in the way of training to work at the bar, Harry said, because the place only served beer and wine. When I stopped by as Harry had instructed, to meet John, the owner, he looked me over and asked if I’d ever been arrested. When I said no, he told me I could start the next day. He yelled over his shoulder to Harry “She’s your responsibility. If she screws up, it’s your ass,” as he headed to the stock room.
The bar was not a neighborhood place with a familial feel; it was a study in despair. It was an establishment inhabited by apparitions who spent their days affixed to stools covered with garnet faux leather. It stank of stale beer and popcorn mixed with cigarette ash and disinfectant. The padded vinyl runner that acted as an armrest for drinkers to lean on was pocked with cigarette burns and rips, and without exception, every stool in the bar was torn in places, the tears shaped like arrowheads, butter-colored foam oozing up from them whenever they were unoccupied.
The apparitions—the regulars—were what remained of the men who had come to live in a new land unoccupied by wives or children or buddies from the bowling league. There was no talk of lawns in need of mowing or screen doors to mend. There were no family dinners to attend, no phone calls that required returning. This was the end of the road. There was only this bar and oblivion.
They sat slouched over their elbows, arms stained by faded indigo tattoos. They did not exchange names or make small talk. Their hands encircled smudged, filmy glasses half- drained of beer, ink-bottomed shot glasses to the side, free of pretense of anyone or anything to answer to—all of that long ago relinquished.
John kept a crock pot on the bar that he filled with cheap hot dogs that floated in a soup of water and beer, which he plugged in each morning at eight. Customers were welcome to the hot dogs, no charge, if they bought a fifty-cent draft. This entitled them to sit all day, as long as liquid remained in the glass in front of them.
The regulars who shuffled in wordlessly each morning when John opened up and remained until we closed—nearly sixteen hours later—subsisted on the hot dogs, which I grew to think of as John’s attempt at atonement for running an establishment in which men came every day to commit slow, incremental suicide. Once, he made chili. But the regulars seemed disappointed when they lifted the lid of the slow-cooker and saw beans instead of the distended dogs that resembled colorless driftwood. He stuck to dogs after that.
Harry was conspiratorially cheery, tending to the patrons as if he fancied them guests at a festive gala, every drink he poured was cause for merriment, no need to acknowledge the death knell—of the edging closer to the abyss. He approached his work like a hospice worker-cum-circus performer.
Harry made great, Chaplin-esque show of ringing up each sale, cracking his knuckles, fluttering his fingers as if playing a piano, then poised, conductor-like, about to cue the orchestra, he punched the number keys, and a final flourish—bringing the heel of his meaty hand down on the flesh-colored total key. The bell rang, the drawer shot out. We have a winner.
The bar sat in the center of a listless city block; the sidewalk in front of the planked wooden door was a collage of hexagon pavers, pink, green, yellow, gray with faint sparkles you could sometimes make out in the daylight. A rooming house around the corner that once housed middle-class Northerners for the season now let rooms by the hour, the day, or the week. Most of our patrons slept there, often helped to their rooms late at night—which stank of sweat-soiled laundry, hair tonic and deterioration—by Harry.
Not all of the regulars were men. Sometimes Bunny, the vivacious 50-something daytime barmaid, came in on her days off and flirted with the same two men I later learned were both her ex-husbands. Bunny was a little over six-feet tall and wore her hair in a platinum bob. She always wore the same outfit—tight stretch pants and a billowy, psychedelic nylon blouse, bright blue eye shadow and pink lipstick. She resembled an Easter egg on a stick. Bunny worked nights in another bar in town and her ex-husbands apparently followed her from one gig to the other. She reveled in their attention and told me they were good men. She still loved them both but they had the same fatal flaw—they couldn’t let go of the bottle.
Sometimes we were joined by Sue, a pixie of a woman, who quietly occupied the same stool nearest the register on the nights she stopped in after her job waitressing downtown. Sue was diminutive, with silver shoulder-length hair she usually wore in a bun tight to her head. The long-sleeved denim shirts she favored were too large for her tiny frame, giving her the look of a woman dissolving.
Sue smoked Kools, which she kept in a silver case that was inlaid with turquoise and coral and had a matching lighter that slid into a sleeve on the side of the case. I was fairly sure her name was Sue because once when she went to the restroom I reached over the bar and turned the cigarette case to get a better look at it. I noticed engraving—“Sue”—in curlicue script. I never called her by name because it occurred to me that maybe the case wasn’t hers—maybe it had belonged to someone who had meant something to her. She always lined the case up on the bar alongside her wallet and glass, a neat little row she occasionally adjusted, ensuring the items were arranged just so. She rarely spoke but clearly followed the action, her dark eyes darting from person-to-person, following the movement of glasses lifted, the swing of the front door, the crack of a pool stick against a freshly racked triangle of balls. Sometimes she looked up to catch my eye and offer a wry smile or a wink—acknowledgement of the shenanigans of the other patrons.
Her two sons showed up at the bar a few times. They were both blonde and tanned, good-looking surfer-types, but they wore heavy work boots and painter’s clothes and always looked tired. They never said much, they just appeared and gently tapped her on the elbow, one scooping up her things from the bar, the other helping her from her perch. “C’mon, Mom,” one of them would murmur quietly. Sue never argued.
I got to know the younger of the two sons a little bit because they lived in a garage apartment across the alley from me. One night after closing he and I climbed the fire escape ladder on the side of the elementary school across the street from the bar. We sat on the tar roof for hours, looking at the stars and smoking cigarettes. He was quiet, like his mother, and much too serious for a kid his age. About 15 years later, his body was found in a lake not far from downtown. It’s a tiny neighborhood lake with a gazebo and swinging benches. People take their kids there to feed the ducks and sit on the swings. The obituary carried an old photo of him just as I remembered—young and handsome, with light eyes that squinted when he smiled. It didn’t mention surviving family members.
Once, one of the patrons died in the bar. He pitched backward, falling suddenly and gracelessly from the barstool like a sandbag someone had flung off the side of a barge. The other customers gathered around as a plume of blood blossomed around his head. Harry said at first it looked like a halo, a deep, dark red that matched the vinyl of the barstool seats.
He had knelt next to the dead man before the blood pool grew, forcing him to step away. The man had an expression on his face, as if he were about to say something, and Harry waited expectantly, but the man said nothing. I was in class when this happened and was glad of it.
Everything about my job was completely foreign. The only drinking that took place in my family was social. I had never seen either of my parents—or any adults in my family for that matter—so much as tipsy. I was at turns repulsed and fascinated by the macabre spectacle that unfolded each night at work. I lied to my parents and told them I was waitressing.
Sometimes younger people came by for beers—welders mostly, from the machine shop a block away. They wore work shirts, their first names embroidered just above breast pockets in which packs of Winstons and Zippo lighters nestled. They pulled tables and chairs together and formed a knot in the corner of the room, laughing and yelling at one another as they played pool and sang along to the J. Geils Band on the jukebox. They took no notice of the abandoned wrecks of old men at the bar, didn’t allow that perhaps one day they might sit on one of those stools. They didn’t want any hot dogs from the crock pot. They didn’t like the music we usually played on the jukebox. Sometimes they got in fights and we’d have to call the cops.
When the interlopers left, we would go back to Willie Nelson singing about angels flying too close to the ground, Tammy and George dueting about their two-story house, and Billy Joe Shaver singing about knowing he was a chunk of coal but would someday become a diamond, because, you know—all that stuff about pressure and time. Only he didn’t really mention that part.
We closed the bar at two each morning, and spun our own songs on the old juke box, played some pool, and danced a little as we cleaned up. Sometimes the cops stopped by to check on us, tapping on the door, speakeasy-style. They sipped beer and scribbled out the night’s report on the bar as we swept and mopped and ran glasses, piston style, up and down soapy bottle brushes fixed in the sink, then rinsed them with scalding water and plopped them into drying racks. The cops stood watch as we attached the padlock to the front door and walked the cash bag across the street to drop into the bank’s night deposit chute.
Then Harry would set off to his second job cleaning supermarket parking lots. In the mornings, we sometimes passed one another on the stairs that led to the side-by-side garage apartments we lived in, mine sunny and filled with plants and the giddiness of a girl’s first place; his dank and smelling of wet dog and dirty socks. I headed to class as he was coming home from work, usually with a white waxed paper bag containing a jelly doughnut for me. In the afternoon, we’d meet up again at the bar and do it all over again.
One January night, a regular careened through the door cawing “Fire!” We spilled from the bar, Harry and I and our shambling wards, and ran around the corner, following the smoke and the wild-eyed gestures of the more alert residents who had staggered from the lobby into the street. “Everybody’s sleeping up there!” one of them shouted.
We ran up the stairs to the second and third floors, then down hallways, banging on doors, calling “Wake up!” and “Fire!” Those we shoved and dragged out into the night sat in bewildered heaps on the curb or wandered in their nightclothes down the sidewalk, bed sheets draped over their shoulders like stoles.
We heard the sirens of approaching fire trucks in the distance and skittered back to the bar, breathlessly congratulating one another, feeling heroic and daring, not thinking about what exactly it was we thought we had saved anyone from.
That spring I decided to take a break from school. I quit my job at the bar at the end of the semester. Harry helped me put my stuff in storage, and I bid him a tearful farewell before taking off to travel with friends for a few months, eventually returning home and getting a respectable job in a hospital. Harry would parlay his parking lot-cleaning side jobs into a thriving business, meet a nice girl named Dixie in the parking lot of the Albertsons, and move with her to Texas, where they married and started a family. John sold the bar and became a fulltime guardian ad litem, taking care of the elderly who were all alone in the world.
Every once in a while when I’m in that part of town and alone, I drive by the bar and slow down as I approach. The memories drift by me like whispers and I can see the faces of the men who lined the bar each night, bent resolutely over their drinks. The bar changed hands and names several times after John sold it in the early 1990s, and I read an article in the newspaper once about a shooting that took place outside on the hexagon-paved sidewalk. The neighborhood has been tamed by gentrification and the presence of young couples and families who prize the bungalows and craftsman-style homes. The rooming house around the corner has long been torn down and the squat, deco building that housed the dive bar has not been a bar in a long time; it’s had incarnations as a surf shop, a yoga place, a real estate office, and an exercise equipment store. It was an Oriental rug shop for a long time, but that business closed recently. For now, it’s deserted.
Lorrie Lykins is a longtime correspondent with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) and an adjunct professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The nostalgia for that time in my life really kind of snuck up on me. I learned so much about who I wanted to be during that period. I drove by the old neighborhood a few months ago and felt a palpable wave of sorrow for those lost people who drifted in and out of the bar the year I worked there. It overwhelmed me and I had to write about it.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I took a seminar from Pinckney Benedict during grad school and he had us do an exercise in which we each wrote a letter to someone that told the truth. This had to be something that had never been said—a secret or deeply held conviction—one that, were it to be sent and received, would irretrievably change our lives and those of the recipients. I remember noticing that some of my peers seemed uncomfortable and hesitant. The whole point, Pinckney said, was that “… you have to be willing to tell the truth. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. If you’re not willing to tell the truth you have no business calling yourself a writer.” That really stuck with me. I ask myself that question—usually when I’m sitting in front of a blank screen—am I telling the truth?
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: It’s an eclectic mix. I love David Sedaris. I find him inspiringly, poignantly witty. I reread The Great Gatsby and Winesburg, Ohio every year. I read a lot of biographies and memoir. I have been most inspired by Jacqui Banaszynski, who wrote “AIDS in the Heartland,” and the journalists from my hometown who write with incredible passion and conviction. Long-form narrative journalism is an art at our newspaper (the Tampa Bay Times) and I’m in awe of the work of Jeff Klinkenberg and Craig Pittman, who do a phenomenal job of writing about Florida and the environment. They are my literary heroes.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: It depends on my mood and the project. I have a massive writing desk in our den that alternates between neat and organized to stacked so high with research materials I can’t find the keyboard. I’ve been traveling a lot this year, and I have done some of my happiest writing in airport coffee shops.