Monday, October 13, 2014

The March, Chapter 38: Fred Proves Quite Competent in the New Year

Chapter 37

Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a God, you say YES

Christmas came and went and all of the sudden it was a new year, 1991.

The Soviet Union had collapsed and the United States was headed into its first war in the Gulf.  Home Alone was number one at the box office and a nation waited with bated breath to learn who killed Laura Palmer.

The Chicago Bulls were firmly in first place.  It was very exciting!

Gio and Brooke were the new weekend night bartenders, slinging drinks the same nights that Rosie spun tunes at The March.  On weekdays, Rosie was still clubbing it up. 

Will worked the door five nights a week at The March and went to school during the days and was pretty committed, studies aside, to sha-la-la-la-la-la living for the day. 

Tré was walking the straight and narrow, but, despite that, found himself more and more mired in debt.

Teddy’s epic work was no closer to completion.

Mary was in her last year of law school and fretting mightily about the bar.

Raff still popped up unexpectedly and unwelcome in Bulstrode’s life, more strung out and wilder looking each time.  Bulstrode kept paying him off and wondering how this situation would resolve.

Fred had begun school again, taking 21 hours at DePaul University, desperate to finish his undergraduate and make something of his life.  He’d gotten a few thousand dollars from his mother and used that to begin paying Caleb back. He was determined to get back in the good graces of everyone.  Especially, Mary.  And he was, by hook or crook, determined on a future in law.
One night, early in the semester, he passed near The March and decided, spontaneously, to drop in.  

He was missing the place.

Fred paused at the door to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with Will, who seemed very much at home there, leaning against the door and toying with a yoyo.

Will and Fred chatted for a spell about their individual returns to school and how the Bulls were doing and how crazy stupid cold this long winter was.  Will told Fred about a new waitress named Casey who’d started at The March and walked in with him for introductions.

Staff turnover is the norm at taverns.  Boys begin working at the door, girls on the floor.  As time goes on and folks leave, if the manager and staff are so inclined, a promotion to the bar comes along.  And then they finish their schooling or get promoted at their day jobs and slowly their shifts fall away and before you know it, they’re gone.  Moved on into the real world.  The process is organic, sometimes glacial and only really noticeable during those first few shifts of change. For a brief time, the current staff will seem as though they’ve always been there, and are the heart of the bar.  But time passes, some come and others go, and then there’s a new heart of the bar, a new crop of people who’ve always been there.

Regulars roll their eyes when being carded by the new doorman, and compare the new waitress or bartender unfavorably to the old.  Brooke was compared unfavorably to Rosie when she was a newbie.  Casey is compared unfavorably to Brooke now.  Gio and Brooke are not nearly as attentive or quick with a free drink as the nameless sometime bartenders who went before them.  Eventually Gio will leave to work full time in corporate America and someone new will take his place.  And that person will deal with grumblings from the opposite side of the bar as to how much better it was when Gio was serving the drinks.

The process is evolutionary and to be expected. People come and people go, staff and patron, in front of and behind the bar.  Except for Caleb, who is where he will be until he retires. This is not a sad fact of his life.  For Caleb this is his career, not a way to make rent.  Some people are very good at this line of work.

Having met Casey, Fred navigated through the crowd to the bar.  The March was surprisingly busy for a weeknight.  And the tables were full of people doing the same thing – watching basketball.  

Since December, it had seemed like The Bulls just could not lose.

Fred sat at the bar and ordered a Budweiser.  He scanned the regulars in the corner, looking to see if there were a conversation he could join, when be noticed the regular named Mike looking fidgety and kind of pissed.  Fred was not surprised when Mike leapt off his barstool and turned to face the bar.

“Fuck, Caleb!”  he yelled. “Put on the Hawks!  The game started 10 minutes ago!”

“No, way!” came the shouts from the corner.  “We’re watching The Bulls!”

“Goddammit, Caleb,” shouted Mike.  “The Bulls go on the TV in the back of the room.  We watch the Chicago BlackHawks here!”

Everyone began airing opinions at once, at increasingly urgent volume. 

Isn’t this a silly thing to fight about?  Nowadays, our sports bars are fitted with about a bajillion TV’s.  If you traveled in from East Yemen, there’s a good chance you could find your local football team on some TV in some tavern.  But in those days, a neighborhood tavern came with maybe two or three TVs and people got surprisingly territorial over the programming.

Still, it was stupid.  The Bulls game had five minutes to go on the fourth quarter and would be over long before the end of the first period in the hockey game.  But Mike’s objection was only nominally about hockey vs. basketball.  His beef was much more sociological in nature.

There was an unspoken seating code at The March.  One group of regulars, let’s call them B Regulars, sat at tables. The other group, A Regulars, sat at the corner end of the bar. And there was little doubt as to the added cachet of being in the A group.  A Regulars drank beer from bottles and bought shots for each other.  B Regulars shared pitchers and argued over whose turn it was to buy next.  A Regulars knew Caleb’s last name and got called, affectionately, Fuckhead by Mary.  They had at least one drink a night comped.  B Regulars broke in the new cocktail waitresses and then watched as, once they became familiar, they moved to the bar where they’d be tipped better by A Regulars. 

The good TV was in the same corner as the A Regulars.  And Mike, who enjoyed his status, was not enjoying the Bulls-induced encroachment into his area.  He felt his status was being diminished and was frustrated that no one with whom he shared this space was questioning it.  It is also, of course, true that he preferred the Blackhawks to the Bulls by a large margin.

The argument at the corner grew heated.  When someone said, “The Blackhawks fucking suck anyway…” Mike whirled around and threw a wild punch.

It was so wild that sit missed the intended target all together and, instead, landed on its downward arc right on the tray Casey was bringing out to a table.

Glassware shattered liquid splashed across the patrons near the wait station and the room went quiet.  Mike looked around defensively and the tension level in the room skyrocketed.  But, then, surprisingly, Fred laughed.  A loud, friendly guffaw.  “Opaa!” he shouted, in the manner of waiters at Greek restaurants.  “Way to go there, butterfingers.”

Caleb joined in the laughter and soon the whole east end of the bar was laughing, good-naturedly, with Mike.  Will grinned as he swept up the glassware.  The Bulls won shortly after and the Blackhawks began skating around on the good TV.

The tension was gone.  And all because Fred knew when to laugh.

Later that night, after the room cleared out a little, and Fred was paying his tab, Caleb said to him, “You know, that was nicely handled, Fred.  You have a way with people.  If you ever want to work here, let me know.”

“Thanks, Caleb,” said Fred, who felt proud and touched, but also kind of sad.  “I don’t think Mary would go for that though.”

“She might surprise you,” said Caleb.  “Keep it in mind.”

The next morning, Caleb stopped into The March to do some paperwork.  He told Mary how Fred had cleared the tension from the room.

“Hunh,” said Mary.  “I guess he’s not a total fucking idiot.”

“Not a total idiot,” said Caleb.

“But mostly,” she said. “Mostly an idiot.”