he President of the United States is asked at halftime of the NCAA basketball championship, showcase of our nation's finest student athletes, although he is an acknowledged rabid basketball fan (nod, smile, nice haircut), whether, uh, what with all the turmoil in these...turbulent times, he is able to concentrate on the games he has attended three days running, or does he have other things on his mind.
"Oh, no, when I'm here, I'm just thinkin' about the game." The young guy in long shorts and hiking boots looks at me across two rather high empty vinyl stools along the chestnut bar, and scoffs. "Can you believe this guy?" "What guy?" "The guy up there." Pointing to the mounted 35" Mitsubishi. "Vern Lundquist?" "No, the other guy." "I don't think his two predecessors would have admitted that they're just thinking about the game, but for different reasons than this one does admit it. I think his Bubba accent is Real." "Fuch (Germanic ending, signifying a distinct level of drunkenness) it! Fuch it! I just pay my fuching taxes and fuch it. Fuch those Niggers asking me for money. Don't get me wrong (palms extended downward), I'm not a prejudiced, or nothin', it's got nothin' to do with skin color, but a Nigger's a Nigger." "Wouldn't you like to be a Nigger, too?" "Huh?" "It's like the Dr. Pepper jingle." "You're a liberal, aren't you?" "I haven't shat since yesterday." "Where you from, boy?" "Other parts of this planet." "What you call home?" "Where I can sit down and shit." The President is sending a sober shout out to coaches who graduate most of their players. His face is always so red. Just then, "The Conspiracy Song" by the Dead Milkmen kicks on the jukebox, pre-empting the First Lady's husband. Debator #2's voice raises to an unacceptable pitch in the pre-rush bar. "YOU CAN'T LIVE IN NO DREAM WORLD. I EARN WHAT I EARN FROM HARD WORK. NO ONE GAVE ME NOTHIN'. WHY SHOULD I GIVE SOMEONE SOMETHIN'? I'M WALKING DOWN TCHOUPITOULAS; FUCH YOU, GOT ANY SPARE CHANGE FOR ME ? DON'T GET ME WRONG, I GIVE MONEY TO SOMETHIN' I AGREE WITH, LIKE GREENPEACE OR SOMETHIN'. HOW YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT AT AGE FUCHING 19? I DIDN'T KNOW. I DIDN'T GO TO NO COLLEGE. MAYBE THERE'S A LITTLE BITTERNESS IN THERE ON MY PART. BUT, FUCH IT..." The distracted jukebox says, They own the workers, they own the boss, they know what goes in the Secret Sauce. I rock slightly in my stool, struggling to audio-filter through the bar noise. "YOU GOTTA JUST EARN THE BUCKS, LOOK OUT FOR NUMBER ONE. THIS IS AMERICA, WHICH MEANS DO WHAT YOU FUCHIN' WANT, MAN. THERE'S MONEY TO BE MADE OUT THERE. JUST GOTTA KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN. GET UP IN THE MORNING AND JAM, YA KNOW? BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, YOU GOT A COMPANY AND 12 GUYS UNDER YOU." "I'm not ready to completely give up." (Sneer implying oversimplification) "DON'T GET ME WRONG (sad, understanding guy expression). BUT THOSE BASTARDS (waving up at the President) ARE GONNA DO WHATEVER THEY ALWAYS DO. THERE'S NOTHING YOU'RE GONNA DO ABOUT IT, AND YOU MAY AS WELL FORGET IT AND DO WHAT YA GOTTA DO. JUST LIVE YOUR FUCHING LIFE. YOU CAN'T LIVE IN A DREAM WORLD. YOU UNDERSTAND? JUST LIVE YOUR FUCHING LIFE." "Even if they steal half my paycheck to finance their corruption? That affects me. That's not no save the seals." The bartender, rubbing his forehead with a handkerchief and catching my eye, seems used to Debator #2, who suddenly asks me, "You smoke cigarettes?" "No." He bums a cigarette off the female half of a couple snuggling in a caddy-corner booth. "That was welfare," I say when he returns. "You smoke pot?" "Madonna invest in Mutual Funds?" "Wanna smoke some now?" Again a little loud for me, and he sees my eye glance 'round the place. Analyzers analyze a 19-year-old's three point shooting above us. "Like a Hurricane" is the music. "AIN'T NOTHIN' WRONG WITH A LITTLE REEFER, IS THERE? PHIL? PHIL, WHAT YOU THINK? THAT YOUR NAME, PHIL?" "Bob," the bartender says, wiping a glass or something. He appears well-tipped. "I'M JUST ASKING," Drunk says to me, though not looking. "Sure," I say. Nice night outside. Breezy. We head out, me with a leading hand. A little quieter along Magazine Street. Debator #2 is in better spirits. The table and setting are comfortable, except for a large cockroach forcefully evicted which scurries into a crevice. The felony is committed. Passing cops cars frighten no one. They're engaged pushing street dealers from one neighborhood to another. The first flood of the season has dumped and receded the previous day, and the roads are flushed clean, though a refugee garbage can lays mangled like a corpse near a storm drain across from us. Creep, creep, the swamp weed creeps. Conversation moves to bigger topics, or, more likely, it just seems that way. Drunk starts obsequiously agreeing with everything I'm saying, interjecting role-playing exclamations to accent whatever sound comes out of my mouth. He's suddenly no longer debating. Example, as I exhale rancid smoke: "To think, there are places where people have to be secretive about this." "Whoops, I'll just be hidin' that!" The instant my words are public, he simulates throwing the joint into the bushes. I resist the urge to say, "Yes, you understood the context of what I was talking about." Over the next twenty minutes, he imparts that his fine Ante-Bellum house is in a dangerous neighborhood, that he's in town three months now. Born in Chicago. Hopped a Greyhound to the Left Coast. Didn't like Lake Tahoe. Thought he'd try New Orleans. In construction. Father dead of alcohol. Somewhere, a star explodes (as I read in the next day's newspaper, which comes complete with twelve page color insert singing the "world class" praises of Arkansas: the Natural State.) I'm chilly. Back inside, Debator #2 pulls out a $100 bill. "WHO NEEDS A DRINK? You need one? (to me). HEY! (to poseur-Nirvana Heads playing pool). "WHAT YOU FOOLS DRINKIN'? (To me). LIBERALS, DON'T YOU THINK? HEY PHIL, 3 ABITAS, 2 PITCHERS, AND A SHOT OF JAGERMEISTER FOR ME. THANKS, BOY." Arkansas wins on the Mitsubishi. What will these players be doing in five years? I wonder. I look carefully into their eyes whenever the camera allows. This is the highest point in their lives, no question about that, and one or two assistant coaches seem to know it. A couple of starters will get school nothing administration jobs. One'll sell cars. One'll go pro. Two'll deal coke. One reserve'll coach. Two'll play in Italy. One'll die. One'll get a job in his major. Bukowski, who I've moved from respecting to understanding in the last few months since hitching here, would wonder if their asses stink. The nets are jubilantly cut down, one strand at a time. The baseball season has begun. The Cubs fans are saying, "wait till next year." The rest of the night, Drunk just stares ahead and yells his empty observations as the bar fills up. "WHAT JA STUDY IN COLLEGE?" "Mostly fucking and sleeping." "WHAT'S THE PAPER SAY?" (rubbing fingers together, meaning diploma). "Didn't get no paper." "Opens doors." "So they say." Someone keeps playing "Stop That Train," over and over again, which is OK with me, and I realize he must've seen my Stanford sweatshirt. I drink till one or two, then bike home and write some, read some. Almost call someone, then don't. As I am undertaking the backpack slinging-on process, I ask Drunk what his name is. "Jeff," he says softly and soberly, turning for the first time in the second half of the debate. "Want one more?" "Nah. Gotta split. You come here a lot?" "I like this hole," he says shrugging, head tilted. "Fuck it, I come here three or four nights a week. What the fuck else I'm gonna do?" I extend a hand and tell him I'll see him around. Haven't been back yet.
[ FICTION INDEX | ISSUE CONTENTS | XCONNECT COVER | E-MAIL ]