I first started tending bar after college during the Recession of 1973, the worst recession since the Great Depression, a line first used to describe the Recession of ’69, the one in ’71 and ’73, and for every recession since. I worked at The Belden Tap, corner of Lincoln Avenue and Belden Street, in Lincoln Park on the north side of Chicago. The bar was known as Johnny Weiss’s Pub, before Johnny Weiss sold the bar to his two bartenders, Bobby Bright, a lazy drunk who had the money to buy a bar, and Chuck, an untrustworthy man who knew how to run a bar. I never knew Chuck’s last name. I doubt if he knew mine. Chuck never asked for my Social Security Number. Bartenders were paid by the hour in cash from the register, plus tips. Bobby owned the large, multi-unit three-story apartment building across the street, commonly known as Bright Manors, where many of the regular customers at the Belden Tap lived. Bobby had been orphaned and adopted as an infant, and so the story goes, inherited Bright Manors from his adopted parents after they both died in a violent car crash. Now he was a regular at his own bar.
The Belden Tap occupied the first floor corner in one of the three story red brick buildings lined up and down Lincoln Avenue in each direction. The barroom held a mahogany L-shaped bar that ran the length of the room backed by a tall mirror, and considering how rowdy the bar became on weekend nights, it was a miracle the mirror remained in one piece all the years I worked there. The 16 foot ceiling was covered with one foot square tiles of stamped tin repainted countless times. Four medium sized round white glass fixtures the size of basketballs hung from the ceiling by dusty brown cords. The plaster walls were painted the color of sick white flesh and were cracked and stained from years of water damage. Two antlered stuffed animal heads, a moose and a deer, hung opposite the bar. Wooden stools with brown leather padded seats lined the bar. Round wooden tables and matching chairs filled the room between the bar, and the double-door entrance was guarded by the Wurlitzer juke box. A foosball and a nine ball bumper pool table nestled next to the door to the john at the back of the room. Neon signs with their jumble of tubes and wires advertising Budweiser and Old Style hung in the plate glass windows surrounding the room on two sides, offering a somewhat clear view of nightclubs, bars, and pubs that occupied the store fronts in the buildings next door and across the street in both directions.
On my first day, Jerry Dillard, a tall, dark haired veteran bartender with wild curly hair and a trill in his voice when he laughed, gave me instructions how to defend myself should someone threaten me.
“No kidding, it happens,” he told me, “so, you have to know what to do.”
“OK, so, what do I do?” I asked.
“You tell them, think about it. You don’t want to do this. People go to jail for shit like that. You don’t want to go there.”
Two nights later, a full-moon Friday night, I showed up at 6 pm for my first shift behind the bar. The place was already packed. Chuck gave me a quick, five minute instructional; pulled beer in a glass, $.30; pulled beer in a mug, $.40; pitcher of beer, $2.50; bottled domestic beer, $.65; foreign bottled beer, $1; mixed drinks from the speed well, $.65; and top shelf spirits a dollar a shot. If you want a blended drink, go across the street. Backup cases of bottled beer and the big aluminum barrels of beer were stored in a walk-in refrigerator in the basement.
And then Chuck told me to hold the fort, went home for dinner, and never came back.
By 9 pm, customers stood three deep at the bar. Every table and chair in the house was filled, with people lining the walls around the foosball and pool table. The jukebox played swing tunes, “In the Mood,” that sort of thing. Some folks danced. Others stood at the bar calling for drinks and cussing me out because I couldn’t pour fast enough.
I kept pouring drinks and hoping for the best, one eye on the door waiting for Chuck to show up. People shouted and waved empty pitchers. I kept pouring and shouted back. I could not keep up. I could feel the trouble brewing. I tried phoning Chuck at home, but got no answer. I phoned the cops every time a scuffle broke out. People stopped tipping and after a while I got tired of apologizing. More scuffles broke out. The cops never showed up. I kept pouring. The crowd got drunker.
A fist fight broke out between two guys over a woman, and then a minute later hell broke loose over a game of pool. I heard the sound of a pool stick crack and glass break. I looked up and saw a man flung backwards over a crowded table. More bodies went flying. A full-on barroom brawl erupted across the room.
An old woman sitting on a barstool by the door got taken up by the mad angry energy storm and smashed her beer bottle over the head of the young guy sitting next to her. The guy never saw it coming, unconscious and slid off his seat sinking to the floor. The old woman with no front teeth cackled and laughed out loud. I still remember her big, crazy-old-lady grin.
Women screamed and crowds rushed for the door, just like in the movies. I didn’t know what to do, so I climbed up onto the bar, yelled, “Yahoo!” and leaped into the fray, arms wide, diving onto the crowded pack of brawlers leading the riot, and taking the whole pile down to the floor, just like in the movies, end of fight.
Except it wasn’t. One guy, caught in the wild insurrection, dropped a thick wad of new $20 bills during the melee, and was on his hands and knees all over the floor scrambling around between and over the fallen bodies gathering up his bankroll, along with everyone else who had hands and pockets to stuff with his cash.
I may have grabbed a $20, but the guy thought I took more, and came back after it was all over and approached me outside the front door. Only now he had a carving knife in his hand. He wore a dark flannel shirt and brown eyes worked up into a murderous rage.
I went through Jerry’s routine.
“You don’t want to do this,” I told him. “Think about it. People go to jail for shit like that. You don’t want to go there,” I said. “Think about it.”
I kept an eye on the black handled kitchen knife he held in his right hand. The blade must have been a foot long, the perfect weapon for close quarters fighting back in the Roman Empire days. I figured him for a drug dealer out on the town celebrating a big score, too drunk or stoned or stupid to keep his money in his pocket where it belonged. He had me trapped, cornered in the doorway outside the bar with my back to the wood framed double glass doors.
He looked more heartbroken than pissed off, like any other guy who lost his dough, or I would have been dead by now.
I considered making a run for it, maybe give him a quick kick in the solar plexus, making use of my advantage but then thought better of it. I’ve never been much of a sprinter.
He held the knife waist high in his right hand and I watched him shuffle his feet back and forth tapping the concrete step, scraping his shoe leather searching for a reliable position. I stood perfectly still, not wanting to give him an excuse to start. I’d fight my way out if I had to, but he would have to force the issue.
“It wasn’t me,” I told him. “You can have all the money I have. There’s not much because it wasn’t me. I don’t have your money.”
I felt a calm come over me despite feeling my heartbeat thumping against my ribcage like a bass drum score, ba-boom. I waited and watched him weigh his will to kill me. Time bled slowly by. I followed his movements and raised my eyes to his. He must have sensed me drop my guard and faked a thrust with his knife hand to let me know I wasn’t off the hook yet, and then he paused, his eyes, bloodshot and full of anguish, locked on mine, sneering, daring me to provoke him. I did not dare. I stayed quiet and remained perfectly still.
More seconds passed. He didn’t move. Neither of us spoke a word. The night was warm, the air was thick and heavy, and the full moon faded off towards the south west. I heard him slowly empty his lungs, felt the tension ease, and we both began to breathe. He took another breath, called me a punk, and punched my right shoulder with his free left hand. Then he turned on a dime and dashed off to a car I hadn’t noticed waiting for him at curbside, a big, black, late-model Ford Crown Victoria sedan. He jumped into the passenger side door, and the car turned left and sped away, west down Lincoln Ave.
I walked around the corner to my apartment and trudged up to my apartment. I went to the kitchen, flipped the light on, filled a rock glass with a handful of ice cubes and Jim Beam. I stirred with my index finger, took a long, deep drink, and emptied my pockets on the old oak kitchen table to count my tip and salary cash.
My breath stopped. The guy was right, I did have his money. There on the table were crispy $100 bills, all stuck together, not $20s like I thought, a couple grand at least, not worth dying over, but enough to pay the rent and groceries for six months, or buy a car. I lit a cigarette and sat there and finished my drink, and then I had another one. I didn’t move. Hours went by. The sun rose before my heart stopped pounding and I calmed down enough to finally go to bed and sleep.
The following day, when I went in to work, I heard the guy came back looking for me. I heard about it the moment I walked through the door.
“Some guy from last night was here looking for you. He threw a brick through the window because you weren’t here,” Chuck said grinning at me from behind the bar. A large sheet of plywood covered the opening where the brick came through.
I had told Chuck what happened after he finally showed up at 2 am, bleary-eyed, disheveled, and looking like he just woke up. He had taken the cash from the register and went home, leaving me to lock up the bar. Of course I didn’t tell him what had happened once I got home.
“It’s a tough business, bartending,” said Chuck. “Take a couple of weeks off.” A smile raced across his pale, bloated, shit-face, like it was all some big joke: he passed out after dinner and forgot to come back to relieve the new guy.
“Heh, heh. Trial by fire. You pasted the test,” Chuck chortled over a beer back sneer. Then added, “I didn’t hire you. Bobby hired you.”
So, what did I expect? Bobby never showed up either.
I went on to tend bar there weekend nights for three more years, and no one had more fun there than me.
“You’re a regular Mr. Personality,” Chuck would say.
Chuck was a hard guy to like, and I never gave him any more thought than that. We worked together until he found someone to take his place, which pleased me, too. Everyone hung out at The Belden Tap. Lots of notables. Siskel and Ebert, the movie critics, were regulars. The art house Biograph Theater was right down the block. It was a cheap place to drink, located right in the middle of the action.
The incident that finally made me quit working at The Belden Tap occurred on a late Sunday night. Bob Gilbert Hennessey, “Hennessey from Tennessee” we called him, a house painter and long-time regular, stuck around until closing time and walked up close to me, pulled pulled a .38 semi-automatic from his jacket pocket and stuck it right between my eyes. I looked at his face as he held it there, a look of madness, spittle, and missing teeth amplified by twenty or so vodka tonics. He’d been waiting all night to kill me and take the till money. He must have been desperate. This was the best idea he could come up with.
“Bob,” I said, “I thought we were pals?”
Hennessey snorted as only a truly drunk man can. I knew what he was thinking. I hadn’t bought him a drink all night. I never did. At 65 cents a drink the house never bought, house rules, though I probably should have. But the Fucker never left a tip, either.
Still, you don’t shoot people for not buying drinks.
“You don’t want to do this, Bob. Think about it. People go to jail for shit like this. You don’t want to go there, Bob, think about it. You don’t want to do this.”
He didn’t. He turned, and then ran out the door, and that’s when I decided I didn’t want to tend bar at The Belden Tap anymore. The shit you go through for $3 an hour, plus tips. I took an extra $20 from the drawer, combat pay, came around from the register and locked the front door, then took a seat at a table by the jukebox to gather my thoughts.
Jerry Dillard, my bartender mentor, had explained to me the science behind his method. “The whole point is to make them think.” Jerry said. “If you can distract them for just half a second you break their concentration. And, for them to continue, they have to reset their thoughts, rethink their will and commitment, and they can’t, so they leave.”
Nothing broke my concentration. I reset my thoughts.
I rethought my will and my commitment.
And I got up from the table, turned off the lights, locked the front door behind me, and went home.