Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mercy Is A Form Of Thanks

Some of the best advice I've ever gotten came from drunks. Serial boozers see life a certain way, and given what's playing on-screen, it's no wonder that many drunks end up on the street, sipping from bags, feeling their skin and hair stiffen with every unwashed day.

Still, there's a peculiar wisdom in their heads, and in their eyes I've seen heartbreak, compassion, sweetness, and betrayal. My earliest exposure to this came when I helped my father open his bar one morning. It was his first place, connected to a bowling alley, pins crashing constant and loud. Dad was his own janitor, and we'd clear off the tables, wipe down the bar, pick lipstick-stained butts out of dirty glasses. Burnt tobacco and scotch blended horribly in my young nostrils, but the romance of being in an adults-only zone was stronger than any morning-after stench. To this day, whenever I'm in a bar, that and dozen other smells immediately throws me back to my father's lounge, and I fight the urge to crawl along the floor, looking for money dropped the night before by loaded patrons.

On this morning, Dad took some trash out to the dumpster. When he came back inside and re-locked the door, a man suddenly appeared, slamming against the glass, his weathered face staring in. White foam dripped from the corners of his crusty mouth, and he scratched at the door, moaning, grunting. My father knew his name, which I've since forgotten, and apparently this was a daily ritual. Dad calmly told the guy that the bar wasn't open, that he'd have to wait, which drove the drunk into a fit. He stomped the pavement, gesturing as if talking to an invisible friend. Perhaps he promised his friend a drink, and was explaining the delay. It was a weird but touching performance. I stared through the glass, lost in his movements. I'd never seen a real wino before. He seemed in pain. Maybe toss him a beer to take the edge off? Not my call. Dad didn't give the guy a second thought.

Since then, I've rarely brushed off drunks who had something honest to share. A few became poets when the booze hit their brains, and I understood their need for chemical assistance, despite the physical damage. Fuck, physical damage was often the point to all that drinking. Insight doesn't come free; bills must be paid. Drinking just to get smashed is like revving a Jaguar's engine while in park. A waste of fuel and time. Serious drinkers understand this distinction and zoom down the road spread before them. I've taken my share of these rides, and the results aren't always happy. Numerous bodies line the track. But those who manage the twisted course return with tales worth hearing.

A few days after the election, I ran into an old drunk who sits against a stone wall near a local liquor store. He's called The Pilot, "'cause I've seen everything from the air. That's where you see the real shit." The Pilot was happy about Obama's victory, "gotta give the brother props," but added that becoming president was probably the worst thing to happen to Obama.

"Now he got everybody wantin' somethin', diggin' at him, pullin' on him all the damn time. He's gotta be somethin' for everyone, and no man can do that, I don't care how smart he is. And he got crazy motherfuckers lookin' to kill him, you know that's for sure. So he gotta be guarded like no president before. Hell, the man probably can't take a shit without two guys standin' over him with guns. That fucks with your head. He more a prisoner than anything else. Shit, I got more freedom than he does!"

The Pilot laughed, coughed, laughed some more. He offered me a swig from his bottle, some cheap gin I didn't recognize. I gently declined and gave him a few bucks. He blessed me, then said, "One thing for sure -- Barack's gonna be on some money. They should put him on the twenty. White people can have them dollar bills."