"The universe is a bar," Buck says between swigs of beer, in one of those lines that led the late poet William Stafford to observe, "Everyone wanders into poetry sometimes."
If Buck hadn’t just told me he’s 61, I might have guessed 85, partly because he’s toothless, his chin and nose in profile about even with the blue hill of his baseball cap. He’s wearing jeans, with a blue-and-green windbreaker. His blue eyes have the unfocused look of the legally blind. "It's no big deal," he says. "I've done bad things, and God punished me, but I do miss my books."
And everybody is. They are starring in some fantastic production &mdash some memory of past triumphs or daydream of victories to come. Some vision of romance kept alive by the irrepressible energy and mild flirtations of the Asian barmaids, Hundreds of tiny twinkle lights reinforce the message 365 days a year, with extras added for the Christmas season.
My cover is a Dell book of crossword puzzles. It's a conversation piece. It makes drinks last longer. Once in a while it even lets me make a hasty note or two to jog my overburdened memory.
"I hear you say something about talking books, and I'm legally blind. Macular de-teary-ation." He says something else I don't catch, something about the retina. The three of us exchange names and handshakes, awkwardly, because bars are as one-directional as airport seating, unless you go to a table, and then you miss half the fun. The second legally blind man is Norman, 63, who looks like a star of major magnitude in his crisp white shirt, pale blue cardigan, impeccable grooming, and heavy-rimmed glasses meant to magnify.
"Patients with SMD (senile macular degeneration)," according to the Merck Manual, "though often 'legally blind' (less than 20/200 vision), usually have good peripheral vision and useful color vision, and they should be advised that they will not lose sight."
Norman was a military pilot in Oklahoma when he became aware of his near-blindness, which can come on gradually or suddenly. "They wanted me to fly this plane," he says, "and there was no way I was going to do it when I couldn't see, so they grounded me; and then I got out of the service." Norman lives in a studio apartment in a 14-story building across from the Golden West Hotel.
When Buck likens the universe to a bar, I pull out my pencil and say, "I think I can use that in a poem." That encourages him to expand the theme. "See, the bars have taken over the old barn dances."
Well, maybe. But the Star does- n't look much like a barn, except for the high ceiling. Carpet and barstools are red, but not barn red. There's a white pool table at the rear of the long narrow space, a second half bar opposite the main one, and small black circular tables along the other half toward the rear. Like the paintings on the Sistine Chapel, the Viking ships on the Star's ceiling have accumulated smoke and grime through the decades. The Vatican should send someone over to clean things up.
Aloud, Norman wishes he could play his music tapes on the government machine, but he says it won't work.
"Yes, it will," Buck corrects him and launches into a description of the adjustments necessary to make it happen. Norman thanks him for the tip and says he'll try it when he goes home.
"I'm entitled to carry one of those red-and-white canes," Norman says. "But there's no way I'm gonna degrade myself like that." He eases himself off the barstool and makes his careful way to the door. I plead hunger and plan my escape for lunch. The Star doesn't serve any food, not even snacks, so I'm going to the mall for a bowl of soup.
"I love soup," Buck says, and it's easy to see why a toothless man would choose a liquid diet. For my benefit, he gives me the location of a $3.95 all-you-can-eat family restaurant. He wants to know where I'm going, so I admit to Nordstrom.
"My friend shops there all the time," Buck says: "I'll have that sometime." He may just pick up and leave San Diego; "She wants to go to Florida, so I told her to check into it. She looks after me because I can't see."
Before we part, I tell Buck about Daniel, a chef at Ole Madrid who likes to read philosophy and expand his vocabulary. He learned twenty words last week. The first was epistemology.
"I've heard of that," Buck says.
I tell him that Daniel knew the definition of the second word, but couldn't retrieve the word itself. He thought it had an h-y-m. It wasn't homonym. Then Daniel said, "Ad, ad .... " And I said, "Ad hominem &mdash an argument based on the views of a person rather than abstract principles. "Will you write that down for me?" Buck asks, giving me his paper napkin. I oblige. "I can't read it,"Buck says, "but I'll just hand it to her."
More Stars appear in the business listings of the San Diego phone book than in Vincent Van .Gogh's night sky, but the Star isn't among them. I know the tavern has a phone, because Lonnie, the Vietnamese maid, complains that a customer's talking on it for an hour to his friend. "It's for the business." Lonnie says, and she lets him know as much. Eventually, I learn from another patron that the bar is listed as the Club. Sure enough, it's been there all along.
My friend and I discover the Star, hidden away in an ungentrified spot near Horton Plaza. It's close to standing room only when we enter. We sit at the half-bar, away from the main action. I ask for Chardonnay. They don't have it. "What wines do you have?"