Originally published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, August 17, 2009
As a young man barely out of my teens, I would often make the summer pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to visit relatives with my then girlfriend Jane. My only living male relative, my great Uncle Mike, would be keen for some guy time, so I would take him on a field trip. This meant revisiting old stomping grounds (read: bars) in the City of Reading. The one I remember best is the Walnut Tavern, at Ninth and Walnut, just up from the Ludens candy factory and kitty-corner to St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
Uncle Mike had actually lived for some time in a room adjacent to the Walnut Tavern, so he pretty much knew all the barflies. He seemed to hate them all, but he knew them. Anyway, picture this: an oppressively hot late morning in a stifling old city made of brick, me winding a borrowed Buick down the warren-like streets, holding up traffic to drop my 80 year-old uncle with bad knees off near the door and then finding a street spot near to parallel park(!), catching up with my uncle, entering the bar, the light disappearing, the air becoming hotter and denser, and the smell of old dust, latrine, and regrets filling my air cavities. Got that?
Uncle Mike and I would sit at the bar. You didn’t want to sit at a table. Those were taken by the young ne’re-do-wells using the pool tables, the “Porta Rickins,” as Uncle Mike called them. (I could never tell if they were in fact of Puerto Rican decent — it was much too hazy to make out facial features. Besides, I was advised not to make eye contact.) The bartender would never actually acknowledge me. My uncle would order whatever and the bartender would put whatever in front of me. Mostly it was Heinekens. My uncle was hell on Heinekens. He would dismiss all other beers (especially massed produced American beers) with a barely audible curse and a twitch of his cane, like a cat burying something nasty.
Now realize this is not yet noon, I was hungry for lunch, and I wasn’t much of a drinker. Things would start to get weird. Generally an old man would sit down at the other side and try to engage me in conversation — except not with actual words but with kind of words and indecipherable hand gestures followed with a laugh. I would laugh along and that seemed to make those guys happy. Eventually Uncle Mike would advise (loud enough for the guy to hear) that he was a crazy [expletive], and I shouldn’t pay any attention to him. Nobody ever seemed at all bothered by this. As the beer ran through me, I’d stumble off to the bathroom to try to regain my senses. This only made reality worse; the bathroom had not been cleaned since the Roosevelt administration (not sure which Roosevelt) and was certainly no place to linger.
But getting around to my point and this week’s comic: At 11:30 the Price Is Right would come on the TV above the bar at an obscenely high sound level. As the TV was the only light source, it was hard not to look at it. So to recap: It’s morning, I’m drunk, I can’t breath, I can’t see much, my uncle is telling me stories about awful things that he had experienced in life, I’m surrounded by lunatics and ruffians, and Bob Barker is frickin’ screaming at me to guess the price of canned peas. …Yep, not too different from the health care debate.