"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 doesn'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?"
"We have chablis."
"Unlike the planets, which are lit by reflected light from the sun," the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the stars are self-luminous." This may explain why everybody at the Star lights up automatically. And they appear to give little thought to others in the pall of their tobacco plumes.
CONSTELLATION ASIATICUS: Dee, Linda, Lonnie, Marisa, Zorayda: satellites Daniel, George, "French Fries" Melody
Sunset and evening Star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning o bar
When I put out to sea ....
Tennyson won't mind if I change the last word to "see." Someone has told me that the Asian barmaids dress up on Friday nights, so I command two stalwart young male friends to escort me. Sure enough, measures of velvet and lace so much rowdy and raucous confusion that we leave after one or two drinks for a deserted (quiet) Chinese restaurant where we can talk.
Observers differ on which star is the brightest in this constellation, but an unscientific poll of voluntary informers show the Lonnie-watchers in the ascendancy.
"Lonnie's young," Dee says, probably to explain her special efficient service, the way she tends to business, rushing from one end of the bar to the other, a diminutive figure in tight, faded jeans and a sleeveless off-white sweater, who probably tips the scales at 90 pounds. Knowing that Lonnie is 42, I'm surprised by Dee's comment, because it implies that she herself is older. When Dee wears makeup and smiles her deep-dimpled smile, she could pass for 24 in the dim light of the bar. Her eyes shine, and she looks like one of the poster girls on the wall.
Melody is a major Lonnie satellite. He &mdash yes, he &mdash lives at St. Vincent de Paul and comes in nearly every morning. "I could watch Lonnie all day," he says. "She's got a hundred different expressions." He.lifts his coffee cup in midair signaling a refill, angling for a dose-up of yet another pert grimace. Lonnie sends Dee to deliver the mug. Today Mel, as the regulars call him, forgot his real money, so he's drinking instant java. I buy him two beers while he says that, no, he's not Catholic, "but I'm still basically Christian, still believe in God. And I still pray." He adds, "I have a beer once in a while, and I smoke, but.... "
During the second beer, Melody tells me the story of Satan, how he was the brightest of the archangels but wanted to rival God, so he was thrown out.
"Where did you get this?"
"Genesis," Mel says. "It's not all in one place. It's scattered through."
"I'll have to read that sometime. It sounds interesting."
While we're talking, Melody says they changed the words in the jukebox song from "sonofabitch" to "son-of-a-gun." I realize that the music doesn't exist for me except as background dissonance interfering with conversation. Others refer to it often. "Oh, Cher!" someone says. Zorayda, the sexiest of the barmaids, sings along with the plaintive outpourings of country that escape my hearing range entirely unless she upstages the soloist. One black barfly brings his own music. Earphones damped in place, he responds to my touch on his arm, takes the phones off, and asks me to repeat.
"What are you listening to?"
"I keep changin' the stations," he says.
"Yes, but what do you like?"
"I like all of it." A long pause. "Except country," and he clamps the phones back on his head.
Surprised in repose, faces of the barmaids reflect boredom, distress, chronic fatigue, but they've learned to light up like Christmas trees for patrons, to twinkle roguishly and slip into the honeyed language of the night, spiced by the charm their accents provide. All are Filipino except Lonnie, who is shutout like
the rest of us when they chatter in their native tongue. At first I get Linda and Dee confused, but Linda has more delicate bone structure and facial features. I see Marisa so seldom she remains light years distant. .
Sixto, the man on my right, drinks Mexican beer. He says he's from the Philippines, and, yes, he can follow what the girls are saying. Dee has just said, "Love is not a good thing."Sixto's limit is three beers, but he orders a fourth to keep our conversation alive. His voice is so soft that I have to ask him to repeat almost everything. I tell him about visiting the bar with friends on Friday night, and, he says, "I wanted to come then, but I was too hungover."
Meanwhile, the gentleman on my left drinks coffee and nibbles on French fries from a small waxed paper bag. I introduce myself but can't hear his answer. He's cute in a teddy bear sort of way: curly brown hair, a pug nose, bright button eyes, and a ramrod spine. The odd thing is that he goes on talking when no one appears to be listening: "I don't want to work for $240 a month for that Christian place .... "
Piping voices float into the Star from the open doorway, and I turn to see three kids halfway in the door. Does San Diego allow children in bars? But Zorayda rushes to the rescue, handing a billfold to her eldest, and shooing them off to a mall movie.
That prompts French Fries to say that he gave Zorayda and her husband the camera to take the first picture of their first child. That was in Mexico, he says, and "I brought the picture of me and her husband in here to prove it."
"At Balboa Hospital," French Fries says, "they put me in a space suit. I wanted to take it home, but they wouldn't let me. The nurse brought me some regular clothes, and I put them on. Then she said, 'You can walk home now,' so I did."
Zorayda (pronounced Zor-EYE-da), easily the most glamorous of the barmaids, looks different every day, like a movie! star or a model. The second time I see her, she has just come in and is having breakfast on the customer side of the bar. She talks very tough, and I wait for the opportune moment to say, "I don't think we've met."
"Yes we have &mdash yesterday."
"Are you Zorayda? You look completely different."
"I had my hair up yesterday, and I was wearing makeup." Later, I see her cosmetically transformed, wearing a customer's fedora. She poses while I get it on film. The day following she appears in a black bra, black lace top, and a slinky short skirt. Her hair is loose and very curly, with the wet look that is fashionable. I tell her she could be a model, and we have another shooting session.
Some observers, mostly those who favor tables, consider her the brightest star in the Empyrean. "I hope you never change, a middle-aged woman in faded, hot pink sweats says fervantly. What attracts her, I think are Zorayda's survival skills. When she waits tables, she swings her hips seductively. It must pay off, because one day shortly before noon, I watch her count out 36 ones in tips.
Those who sit at the bar give quarters, so Lonnie and Dee must make up in volume what Zorayda collects in each tip. One day I catch Dee and Lonnie complaining that Zorayda doesn't carry her share of the load. Dee struts the length of the bar, swinging her hips in imitation of the shirker.
"I need some sex," Dee announces &mdash deliberately, audibly, to no one in particular. Tedium invades every lull in the Star's usual activity. In a classic case of the pot' s seeing its own blackness reflected in the copper kettle, Zorayda says, "Don't talk dirty so early in the morning." I review the steps that led us to this freewheeling talk.
"You bitch me, I bitch you," Lonnie says, the vernacular transitive use new to my ear. She screws her face into a charming little knot, one of dozens that keep the Lonnie-lookouts coming back. Then she glances uneasily in my direction.
You don't have to worry about your language around me. I spent 12 years in Montana, I've heard it all.
Lonnie and Dee relax. Mel says, "I could watch her all day. I think she's cute as a bug's ear." In fact, Mel says it so often that I begin to worry about Lonnie, until I realize that she can take care of herself.
In a slack moment, Dee pages through a newspaper borrowed from a customer.
"What are you looking for?"
"A recycle coupon," she says. For recycling aluminum. "Most places charge [she means "pay"] 70 cents a pound, but if you have a coupon, some places charge a dollar ten." She runs across a $29.95 ad for car alignment. "Twenty-nine ninety-five," she says. They tell me $400. l don't have that much money."
"I need a break," Dee says. Or that's what I think she says. Actually she's still talking about her car. It needs a brake job.
"Zhorzh," Dee says to George, a young graphic artist sipping something nonalcoholic while flirting with her, "Will you fix my brake for two dollar!"
He reaches for her hands, and she lets him hold them briefly. "You need a dipstick?" he asks. "You want me to check your oil?"
Tall, slim, mustached, George wears a denim jacket. He must be on his coffee break. He doesn't drink while he's working and he clearly enjoys coffee, tea, and Dee. She's showing everyone snapshots of the Star's celebration of her November birthday and Lonnie's. She deals out sets of prints to Lonnie and Zoryada, shows them to customers. I tell her that I'm a Scorpio too.
Another day, Dee produces two apples &mdash green Granny Smith and red delicious. Getting ready for another day's lunch on the run, a daily occurrence for the barmaids. As always, she offers to share with anyone in range. One day it's halibut and Parker House rolls wrapped in foil, a treat that has Lonnie, Dee, and Zorayda ravenous, because fish is a staple of their native places. Another day, McDonald's chicken nuggets, smothered in grease. "That's fat food," I tell Zorayda, but she tosses her proud head and says she doesn't have to worry.
I've been telling Zorayda she should be a model. "They ask me," she says: At Nordstrom, I pick up a flier for ABE jeans with a call for models. Just send a photograph, the flier says.
"What's this?" Zorayda asks when I hand it to her; "Ah-bay jeans." She skims the print rapidly. "I'll give this to my daughter."
Under Melody's obsessive gaze, Lonnie talks about her 23-year-old daughter. "I want her to keep her red cherry," Lonnie says, completely unselfconscious. "I was married twice," she adds, "but it didn't work out." She must have married at 18 and given birth at 19. No wonder she hopes that her daughter won't rush things. The daughter says she isn't planning marriage anytime soon.
Lonnie has worked 14 years at the Star, 13 hours a day, six days a week. She says she can't get another job because she doesn't read English. But it's obvious that she holds the place together. She's the first to arrive in the morning, the first to notice someone waiting for service. I'm not there at the change of shift, but I'd bet that Lonnie is the last of the day crew to leave.
From scraps of dialogue with patrons, I piece together her life story without having to ask too many questions. Lonnie's parents were killed in the Vietnam War. As a child, she came to this country with her grandmother and lived in Sacramento. Later she moved to San Diego.
"My grandmother marry a rich man," Lonnie says. Hands joined before her in the attitude of prayer, she separates the palms abruptly, extending her arms right and left. "He leave her. He have two wife. One white, one Vietnamese."
When I ask Dee whether she's used the recycle coupon I found for her, she brightens. "I got $20. Ten for home, ten for here." She must split with the bar owner. It takes a lot of aluminum to keep his Lincoln on the road.
Daniel comes in for his midmorning cranberry juice, a break from work and a chance to watch Lonnie. He's 46, married 17 years, and lost his family, his home &mdash lost everything two years ago. Then he met Richard. Now he lives in a residence for drug addicts and acts as part-time counselor there. His sons visited recently. He strikes me as a man on the mend; and in spite of his troubles, he looks upbeat and engaged. Daniel knows Yeats's poetry and enjoys reading philosophy.
CONSTELLATION HISTORICON: Stars Clifton, Gary, Lloyd
In the combined light shed by Clifton and Gary, I get a good look at the history of the Star bar. Clifton, 74, is portly, with baby-pink skin, blue eyes, and missing teeth that remind me, when he grins, of my 7-year-old neighbor. Clifton drinks a Concoction of vodka and assorted fruit, juices mixed by Lonnie, has three while we're talking, and buys me a cup of coffee &mdash instant, I'm sure &mdash but it's that or fruit juice for me in the forenoon. Later in the day, I grow more reckless. Clifton has been coming to the Star for many moons &mdash since the early '80s. When Lloyd took over the bar, he tells me, the roof leaked, so Lloyd refused to put down carpet until the hotel repaired the roof. Now, 10 or 12 years later, it has started to leak again in one spot.
Clifton points out the owner, a shadowy figure at the back of the bar. His black garb accentuates a tall, spare build. Dark-rimmed glasses, a mustache, and a ponytail single him out from the others. Not once does he look directly at me, and he never speaks, although he moves familiarly among the regulars. Does he suspect that I am here for something other than the company and the booze? Probably. Once, talking to Lonnie, his back turned to me, he rests his right hand on the counter. Three heavy, ornate rings with large stones bejewel his fingers, and I assume that the gems are genuine, like the white Lincoln Continental Clifton points out, Parked at curbside. The Far East is rich in star sapphires and rubies, and Clifton offers to show me evidence of Lloyd's time there &mdash a photograph of his Japanese wife on a wall at the rear of the bar. But when we reach the spot, Clifton is surprised to find the picture missing.
The bar is named for Lloyd's daughter Star, he says. Her father talked her into moving to San Diego so that she can learn the business she will inherit Star works Monday evenings, so I don't meet her. Standing with his back to me, Lloyd tosses a handful of coins toward Lonnie &mdash tips, surely &mdash as carelessly as one might toss peanuts to elephants at the zoo.
"Sometimes he's here all day. Other days, he doesn't come in," Clifton says. Clifton spent 21 years in the Navy, went to Honolulu at 19, stayed 8 or 9 years. When he got out, he worked for his brother, who had a fence-building company.
On a slow day toward the end of my sojourn, my path leads to Gary, who sets a certain amount for drinks and stops when he reaches it. He has Social Security and a pension from 35 years with a press.
"The reason so few people are here today is the Social Security and welfare checks are gone," Gary says. "First they pay the rent, then spend the rest of it. Some of them drop $30 for drinks the first day, $10 the next. Then they have to wait for next month's check. If they didn't have welfare and Social Security, this bar would, shut down." Gary adds that if the welfare workers catch their clients in the bar, they cut them off. That explains why certain characters hug the murkier corners of the bar, looking like a black hole.
Originally, Gary believes the bar was the hotel restaurant and became a bar sometime in the '50s. Lloyd took it over in the '70s, he says.
CONSTELLATION GLADYS: Ernie, Sheila, Smitty, Vaughn
Carrying a small circular tray, a short, 40-ish man elbows between me and my neighbor at the bar to summon Lonnie. I'm surprised to discover a male bartender but soon understand that he's a freelance named Vaughn. "I need a shot of bourbon and a glass of water on the side," he tells Lonnie. She pours the bourbon into a shot glass and the water into a rocks glass. "Oh, I think you'd better give me a fancier glass," Vaughn says. "She's a classy lady."
Lonnie empties the bourbon into a small brandy snifter and shoves it back across the counter. I watch him deliver it to a spry 90-year-old woman wearing a long-sleeved rayon blouse and matching long skirt with a pattern of purple, green, and assorted colors. Her white-hair curled in an Afro perm; she wears earrings that must be three inches long. Two clusters of iridescent beads &mdash blue, pink, green, at different elevations &mdash attach to each earlobe with a gold circular disk. Gladys always presides at one of two window tables elevated on small platforms, as befits a certified member of the "Bourbon dynasty." Poised with cigarette in one hand, whiskey in the other, she speaks elegant English and punctuates her listening with nods of encouragement and repeated murmurs of "Si, si." Her mind and articulation remain clear, even after three bourbons. Dazzling others with her youthful vigor obviously gives her pleasure.
As does introducing her 65-year-old husband, Ernie. They met in the Star when Gladys was up from Mexico and have been married 5 years. "He asked to rent a room in my house in Mexico," Gladys explains. After a first marriage of 45 years, ending with her husband's death, she'd had the bad luck to wed several times and get stuck with playing nurse to her partner's ailments. One had Alzheimer's. "So I decided to go for someone younger," Gladys concludes. "Now Ernie has more things wrong with him than you can imagine." I don't have to imagine too many because, right off, she mentions cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes.
"The doctors said he had a month to live," Gladys says. "That was four months ago." They are going to Rosarito, where Gladys will write Ernie's memoirs, having already completed her own. "Mine was just for the family," she says, "but Ernie's had a very interesting life."
The son of a dirt-poor sharecropper, Ernie was gleaning the fields at the age of 4 or 5. At 14 he was on his own. Eventually he was hired as a consultant for an oil company, traveling to several states to advise on various matters. Privately Gladys tells me that his English is appalling. Should she write the story in the correct English she speaks after 30 years of teaching, or should she make it grammatical? I suggest that she write correctly in third person but use quotes from Ernie to give the account flavor.
Ernie has a collection of cowboy hats, his trademark. "He wears a hat all the time," Gladys says. "It took a while for me to get used to that."
Gladys comes from Amarillo and taught in Texas and California, with summer courses for other teachers. Two of her four children are still living. 'A 61-year-old daughter died a year or two ago.
When Gladys was 80, she was badly burned. "I was lighting a cigarette with a torch," she says, "and my long dress caught fire," She was in shock at first and didn't feel anything. She hikes her skirt above the knee and shows me the white scars from thigh to ankle where they took skin to graft on her body. Then she pushes up her sleeves and shows similar scars on the insides of both arms.
"The doctors said that an 80-year-old woman could possibly survive that degree of burns," Gladys says. She was in the hospital three months, going twice a day to have the dressings on arms and legs changed. A friend told her she got well because she had a strong will to live.
"Every day when they wheeled me in to change the dressings," she says, "I prayed to die."
I ask Gladys if I can take her picture on Saturday. I haven't brought my camera today. She agrees, shows up on schedule, but Ernie isn't around. He was supposed to meet her at the bar. I forget about Ernie and photograph Gladys.
A woman with bleached platinum hair and wearing shorts, a sweatshirt, and Birkenstocks enters the bar. She approaches our table and says, "My name's Sheila, and I'm an alcoholic. I saw you two sitting in here, and I said, 'They're my kind of people.'" Gladys asks whether she'd like a Coke, but she asks for ice water. "I'm trying to lose some weight.
"I'm a nurse," Sheila says. "I've been living in Pacific Beach about ten years. I want to live in Alpine."
"Si," Gladys says, "that's a pretty place." Gladys and her husband are bound for Mexico &mdash Rosarito, she says.
"Do you speak Spanish?" Sheila asks.
"Oh, I lived there before," Glady says. She knows enough of the language to get along.
Sheila says that she speaks Spanish and Russian. "I want to work for Ross Perot," she says, "because sooner or later, he's going to have to talk to the Russians."
"Do you want to work for him because he's a millionaire?" I ask.
"Yes," Sheila admits, "but I also like his principles." Sheila thinks anyone would be better than Bill and Hillary in the White House.
"I like Perot, too," Gladys says. "He's from Texas." The only Republican in her family, Gladys still believes that Clinton hasn't had a fair shake with the media. She'd vote for Colin Powell in a minute, but that's not an option.
Gladys invites me to go to lunch with her at Bacco's, across the street, but I have another appointment. She says the restaurant's potato leek soup is delicious. "What are leeks?" she asks.
I answer her question, then inquire what they charge for soup, trying to asses what kind of place it is.
"I don't know," Gladys says. "Ernie and I had lunch there. We each had two drinks, and the bill was $43.
Gladys's other favorite place for lunch is Marie Callender's in Horton Plaza. With an international conference of neuroscientists in town, I've been having trouble trying to get lunch at the Farmer's Market. Maybe I should try Marie Callender's.
The next time I see Gladys, she's wearing a black leather jacket given to her by a woman at the hotel. Before her is a glass of something obviously not bourbon - a latte? "That's not your usual," I say.
"It's a Black Russian," she says. Ah yes! Now I remember. Her favorite drink: Kahlua, cream, and vodka. She orders a second to accompany her story of "the worst year of my life." She was 40 and gave birth to a second daughter, who lived 18 days. "I went into shock for a whole year," Gladys says. About the same time, her 4-year-old daughter was run over by a car backing out of the garage. She was wearing a snowsuit, which protected her some. She didn't die, but she had to have stitches in her head. Trying to pull out of her depression, Gladys sampled Christian Science but couldn't accept its antimedical stance. Then she tried Unity, taking Courses and making a retreat at Unity Village. Slowly, she returned to her normal self.
Two Black Russians have done what three bourbons cannot. I offer to give her my arm across the street to the restaurant. Smitty, a slight black man unfazed by a leisurely vodka and Seven, helps her up from her chair and down from the platform. I support her right elbow, and we move unsteadily out the door as Gladys grasps any available solid object: the door jamb, a lamppost, a parked car. Safely across the street, I deliver her into the solicitous hands of a waitress, who helps her to a table. I go back to talk to Smitty.
The first time I see him, the bar is crowded, with a single free stool to my left. He stands uncertainly behind the empty place.
"Don't you want to sit down?" I ask. "This place is empty."
He climbs to the stool, introduces himself, and shake hands. We chat. Smitty was born in Virginia. From 1944 to 1968 he was in the Navy, so he was training in the States during the last year of World War II. He also served in Vietnam and Korea. "I don't even want to talk about that," he says.
Smitty seems starved for human interchange, and I like him instantly, so we get together whenever our times in the bar coincide. Smitty's wife died in 1991. He lives in La Mesa, has two daughters, Shirley Lee and Mona Lisa LaVon. "Her real name's Mona," he explains, "but we call her Mona Lisa from the painting."
With a thin, pleasant face, Smitty's eyes smile enough to make up for his reluctance to show his teeth. One oversized crooked lower tooth, flanked by gaps, makes him self-conscious. He's going to Mexico soon to have them taken care of. His daughter will take him and bring him home.
After I take Gladys's picture, he lets me take his. I promise to send him prints if he gives me his address. He letters it neatly on the yellow legal pad I produce from my backpack. He claps his hands silently. "Then I'll have your address, and I can write to you."
"Do you have neighbors you can talk to?"
Smitty explains that a group of friends moved to the neighborhood at the same time. "But since my wife died, I'm on the outside lookin' in." His daughters come by to check on him. This morning, the light on her dash was out, and she had the bulb, but she didn't know how to put it in, so he helped her.
LONE STAR: Jim; satellite Wilson
Six-thirty a.m., and I'm heading for coffee, my personal addiction. "Beer & Wine," reads the black Gothic legend on the side of the neighborhood grocery in Little Italy. On the sidewalk, a homeless man with several plastic trash bags sorts through the garbage looking for cans and bottles. Buck' s right. The universe is a bar.
Downtown, 8:20 a.m., the Samson Hotel Restaurant Bar is OPEN in red neon. Barflies come to talk or to brood. The talkers outnumber the brooders three to one. The men outnumber the women ten to one. And the talkers like to flirt.
Today l take the Star's first empty barstool beside a short, broad-shouldered man with gray mustache and goatee, wearing a gray windbreaker and a porkpie hat.
"My name's Madeline."We shake hands. "Jim," he says."Is this your first time here?"
"No, I've been here every day since ednesday."
He introduces me to the man on my right, shifts his cane to the other side so it won) i:om~betweenu.s; "I want to play with your leg," he says.
"It's too early in the morning for that." I've come looking for Gladys and Ernie. She appears alone in the doorway like a deus ex machina. I excuse myself and go to join her in the window. Soon she's enveloped in the eternal smokescreen. Gladys smokes Mores, which look like cigarillos, and carries Tigres in her purse, a 50-cent Mexican filterless cigarette she hands out to street people who duck in to bum a smoke from her. "Here, "she says regally, "you can have the whole pack."
Sometime later, as Jim leaves the bar, he detours by my place to mutter in my ear, "You don't know what a day you could have had." The next time I see Jim sitting beside a black man at the front of the bar, I head for the middle, near Lonnie and Dee, to avoid being drawn into his orbit. I've gorgotten his name in one of those Freudian memory slips, but I remember his M.O. For the first time at the Star, I feel wary, and I'm hoping the young man in blue who posed for the photograph, saying, "I'm your bodygurad," really is.
"Get over here!" Jim orders, pointing to the empty place near him and a good-looking African American.
"You come over here." It's a slow day. Plenty of empty places.
"Come on, come on! You've got lots of money, and I want to help you spend it, You're the best-dressed person in this bar."
I've 'taken care not to be. I'm wearing a cotton turtleneck badly pilled from frequent washings, a cheap green cardigan, slacks on their way to becoming garden clothes, and the sneakers I prefer for walking.
"I forgot your name," I say. "What's your name?"
"Come on, come on," he coaxes. "I want to tell you dirty jokes. I want to play with your leg."
"I don't even know your name."
"What's his name?" I ask Dee in an undertone. She's forgotten, too. "He's too fresh," I say.
"Especially when he's drinking," Dee agrees.
For a while, Jim distracts himself telling bar stories. One about a man who borrowed $3 from him. "That's my limit. And he didn't pay me back, so I asked him for it. I shoulda asked him when he was sober, but he was drunk, and when he's drunk, he gets mean. But they were afraid to throw him out, so they threw me out, and I wasn't even drunk."
That guy (or another from the same mold), Jim goes on, was so bad they even threw him out of the Mafia.
"And didn't kill him?" asks the black man.
"No. The only thing I can figure out.is his wife was just so stinkin' gorgeous."
Jim prepares to leave, comes over to where I'm sitting.
"You're the prettiest lady in the bar. You have pretty hair."
"I washed it this morning."
"It isn't a wig, is it?"
"Can I touch it?"
"Okay." He puts his hand on my head, lets it rest there a moment; light as the hand of -the priest in blessing, in absolution. Suddenly, I feel sorry for Jim. Leaning on his cane, he moves toward the door accompanied by his exit line, "You could have had a beautiful day."
With Jim safely outside, I go to that end of the bar to talk to his audience, the African American whose name is Wilson.
"I wanted to come over here and talk to you, but not while Jim was here."
"Oh, he's a nice man," Wilson says. "He was only teasing."
Lonnie stands behind the bar, totally absorbed in some project I can't see from where I sit: Lined up on the bar in front of her are a pair of pliers, a roll of picture wire, and scissors. For a few zany seconds, I imagine that practical, hard-working Lonnie is repairing the cash register. But of course, the till is behind her. Several times I call her name but get no response.
She doesn't hear you," Dee says, leaving me to speculate that she; has a hearing loss. When Lonnie looks my way, I ask what she's up to. She lifts a white plastic rectangular grid. She's wiring tiny Christmas lights, one letter to a frame, to spell S-T-A-R. Then l remember her asking Lloyd to get the white fixtures out of storage.
DOUBLE STARS: Shorty and Will
According to the Rand McNally World Atlas (Imperial Edition), there is ten billion trillion times more empty space than stellar material in our galaxy. And in the universe at large, ten million billion trillion. That's a lot of empty space. The first thing I notice about the stars in the Star bar is that everyone I meet shakes hands, as if they're starved for touch.
Like this man, Shorty, a cab driver on three weeks' vacation, who limps to the stool beside me. He's a redhead, I can tell, even though his hair has turned gray. He asks what I'm drinking and pays for my orange juice, when my dollar is already on the the bar.
Down the line, Will hails Shorty. They're both from the Ozarks, and I get them to name the states. Will tells me he's 72 and, when I say he doesn't look it, laughs hilariously. Another joker. He tells one in very bad taste; ostensibly to Shorty, but for my benefit. I change the subject by saying that Victor, one of my
friends, was asked for ID on Friday night at the Star.
"Lots of San Diego bars ask everybody for ID," Will says.
"It' s the way they keep the homeless from coming into bars. They wouldn't ask a well-dressed person like you for ID."
Will's drinking beer with ice cubes. He keeps asking Lonnie for more ice. Finally, she pulls from the freezer a bottle with two dozen cubes frozen onto it. She plunks it on the bar in front of him. He erupts into laughter.
"Is it plastic?" I ask.
"No, it's real. Feel it."
"They wouldn't believe this back in Dodge City," Will says.
He carries it down the bar to show off to his friends. Back at his place, he says, "I wish I had a camera," as he sets the bottle down and triggers an avalanche. He scoops up a few cubes, puts them in his beer, and pushes the rest into the channel at the back of the counter.
"I have a camera," I say, foraging in my purse. "If you can get another bottle like that." Lonnie brings two less-spectacular specimens. I have a bad time focusing in dim light, but I take two shots. "There must be one more exposure," I say."The camera's not rewinding."
"Here," Will says, "I'll take one of you and Shorty." He urges us to move closer together, then clicks the shutter. The camera rewinds.
"I'll drop these off and pick up the prints tomorrow," I say.
"I won't be here tomorrow, "Will says, "but leave them with Lonnie."
Two tall figures emerge from the women's restroom and head straight for the street exit. I've been in that facility: one stall, a red swing door with a broken lock, a single sink. One of the pair is clearly female, but the other is nebulous, looks like pictures of Fabio on the covers of romance novels. Long, flowing hair. Aquiline nose. Impressive pecs. "What is it?" asks a man at the bar.
"Well, they came out of the women's bathroom, so it must be a she," says another.
"One of those bodybuilders?" I ask. "The muscles were highly developed."
"Steroids, maybe," someone prompts.
Breasts way out to here," the first man adds, shaping the image with his hands.
"Somebody in the middle of a sex change operation?" I jest.
"Must be a her-mapha-dite," pronounces a third.
"Well, all I know is, they came outta the women's bathroom."And life at the Star settles back into its customary round.
The jukebox plays "Harper Valley PTA," the only song I recognize in eight days at the Star. The song dates from 1968, my first spring in Montana. If you didn't hunt or fish or indulge in winter sports, the only options were churches and bat's: I was experienced at churches but a rank amateur when it came to bars. Now I think I understand a little about the isolation and the negative feelings that assail those who lack the money this world uses to measure worth. Contradicting this measure, the Star beams a message of solidarity similar to that of the poet Richard Hugo. In "The Miltown Union Bar," Hugo gives the key to the starring role many seek when they go into a bar: You were nothing going in and now you kiss your hand.
&mdash Madeline De Frees
From 1936 until 1974 Madeline De Frees was a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; she published her first book of poems, From the Darkroom (1964), under the name Sister Mary Gilbert, De Frees is author of six books, including When Sky Lets Go and Magpie on the Gallows.