Archive for January, 2013

Favorite Bars

A Saturday afternoon at the Quiet Man pub in Dallas circa 1970. The author is the fellow in the center with horn-rimmed spectacles and a civilized haircut.
A Saturday afternoon circa 1970 at the Quiet Man pub in Dallas. The author is the fellow in the center with horn-rimmed spectacles and a civilized haircut. To my right, the guy with long sideburns is Mike Craig.  To my left is Pat Murphy and Ken Word. The guy lighting a cigarette is “Broadway” Jim Crump, and the fellow fitted into the  bottom right corner is Jon McNeill.

By Bob Litton 

Three things an ex-serviceman never forgets: his service number, his women, and his favorite bars.  I’m going to spare the reader an account of the first two of these and concentrate on the bars.

I had had very little experience with intoxicating drinks prior to joining the air force.  While I was still a child, one of my brothers, eleven years older than I, tricked me into taking a sip of our father’s Four Roses whiskey.  Then, on the night of my senior prom, my girlfriend’s aunt, who had invited several of us over to her office suite at the Adolphus Hotel for an after-the-dance get-together, poured me a couple of  mixed drinks.  My girlfriend didn’t appreciate her aunt’s giving me that.

A couple of months later, after foundering around trying to decide what I wanted to do, I joined the air force.  Of course, in basic training there was no opportunity for imbibing, even had I the inclination, which I didn’t.  Up in New Haven, Connecticut, and Fort Meade, Maryland, where I spent a year being trained as a Chinese linguist and a radio telephone intercept operator, I had plenty of opportunity but no desire.

It was only when I arrived at my first station, on Okinawa, that the opportunities were too much before me.  At a comrade’s urging, I tried burgundy and sloe gin at the Airmen’s Club.  I liked the sloe gin best, so I stuck with it, although on a couple of occasions I experimented with what was called a “rainbow”.  A “rainbow” is a small glass filled with liqueurs: half-ounce Crème de Nouyax (on the bottom), half-ounce Melon Liqueur, and half-ounce White Crème De Cacao (on the top).  The three don’t mix; they sit one on top of the other; the drink itself is one of a type called “floaters”.  And they are brought to the drinker aflame.  You don’t want more than one of those, not if you have any common sense left after drinking the first one.

I went to the Airmen’s Club only twice, maybe three times.  I don’t know why so seldom; they served good food — even a free steak dinner on your birthday — and the drinks were inexpensive.  (The services seemed bent on turning service men into alcoholics.)  And, each time I went, there was live entertainment.  Once, a ventriloquist had his dummy bend over to determine whether a female customer’s natural hair color was actually blond.  Another time, a small group of Oriental songstresses sang popular songs of the day, including : “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley; hang down your head and cly; hang down your head, Tom Dooley; poor boy, you’re bound to die.”  (That’s not a typo; Orientals have a tough time with the letter “r”, just as the French and Germans do with “t”.)

In Koza, the little town just outside Kadena Air Base, I went to several bars, where I drank either sloe gin or a red wine.  I don’t remember ever getting drunk in those days.  I never did drink to get drunk; drinking was something you did while talking or listening to music or just watching people. Anyway, my favorite place in Koza was Pierrot’s — not a very Oriental name, but then, none of the bars, as far as I can recall, had Oriental names.  Instead, they were called “Texas Bar” or “New York Bar” or “California Bar” : you get the idea.  So, already, Pierrot’s was different.  It was also different in other ways.  It didn’t have a juke box.  For music, you had two choices: pick one of a very limited selection of LPs at the small counter and have the lady there play it for you or, on certain nights, listen to a young man play classical guitar music.  Pierrot’s was really a cabaret rather than a bar; I would call it a coffee house except they didn’t serve coffee.  I became a regular there, consistently asking Kuniko-san to play Shelley Manne’s Peter Gunn album or the Warsaw Concerto by I forget what orchestra.  I still have fond memories of Pierrot’s.

After I was discharged, I didn’t drink much until I started attending parties at SMU and developing friendships with regular drinkers.  But parties, fun and interesting as they generally were, are not my subject here. Two of my regular drinking buddies were Joe Pitner and Dick Ouer, both of whom were undergraduates with me and went on to get their law degrees at S.M.U. Law School.  We would all go down to various bars on Greenville Avenue — before it was discovered.  These were real bars in the Texas plebeian sense of a bar.  They were all very dark — the only light coming from candles in apple-shaped jars on the tables, from the juke box’s stripes, and from beer brand signs scattered throughout.  They had cheap, ugly shag carpet and Formica-topped tables.  For entertainment there were the juke boxes; in those days you could get three songs for a quarter, one for a dime. The most popular song of that time that I remember was “Born To Lose” by Ray Charles: very much suited to the atmosphere.  The bar Joe, Dick and I frequented most was the El Toro Room, on Greenville near Lovers Lane, but actually it was probably the worst of all: very much a downer place.

I much preferred drinking in well-lit bars — either daylight or indirect lighting.  In fact, one of the pleasantest places I can recall was not really a bar at all, but an outside setting on Greenville near where White Rock Creek crosses it; in fact, someone had dubbed this drinking spot “The Creek”.  They had erected an awning over boards settled in a rectangle on barrels: a makeshift bar.  And there were some coolers on the ground inside the “The Creek”, but the coolers were there only to keep your beers cold — the beers you bought in the liquor store behind which the “The Creek” was situated.  As I remember it, it was simply a place where guys could stand and talk while drinking their beers in the open air.  There were some large cottonwood trees which assisted the awning in providing shade.  I didn’t go there often enough to be able to describe any of the other drinkers as “regulars”, but I managed to engage the few men I did meet in convivial conversations.

Another place, which was not really a bar as such but a pizza parlor, was Gordo’s on Mockingbord Lane near Central Expressway, just a few blocks away from the SMU campus.  The owner was Italian, I believe, although his moniker was Gordo (Spanish for “fat”).  He made great pizzas. Gordo’s was well-lighted, a little bit cramped, but SMU students still managed to load themselves in there.  It had cream-colored walls and, at ceiling level, visible gray pipes extending much of the length of its rectangular interior; one could easily imagine he was eating in the engine room of a ship. Oh, but it was always a cheerful scene, at least during the occasions I was there! One of my favorite songs on the jukebox was “Washington Square”, a 1963 hit by The Village Stompers. Either encroaching developers or a desire for a larger place caused Gordo to move his establishment to a rather out-of-the-way spot just off Knox Street.  It was nicer, in a way, certainly swankier, but it wasn’t nearly as lively as the old location.

About that time, Gordo sold out to some Iranians who still kept the parlor’s name, but the nature of the pizza changed.  It wasn’t as authentic as Gordo had made it; it was typical of the kind of pizza you could find anywhere.  My favorite song on the juke box there was “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, by Helen Reddy, from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Those were the days of folk music — Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Kingston Trio; Pete Seeger — and “coffee houses” reminiscent of Pierrot’s.  The coffee house I went to most frequently was called the “Rubaiyat” on Maple Avenue, near downtown.  Again, it was snug; I guess they never could tell how many customers to count on, and everyone feels more welcome when there are not many empty chairs around.  Besides, folk music is supposed to be an intimate entertainment.  The fellow who owned the place, Ron Shipman, also played the guitar and sang there.  He had one song in his repertoire which everyone, including me, often requested.  Don’t remember its name, but it was a bit of soft-core about a rooster amorously involved with one of his hens; the strumming on the guitar speeded up toward the song’s end, finally ending with a “ping” on one of the higher strings.

But the primary action was on Knox Street, particularly at an “Irish” pub called the “Quiet Man”.  This pub was owned by Mike Carr, whose parents had come from Ireland.  I never did ask Mike if he had ever been to Ireland.  Mike had really wanted a traditional pub — truly Irish in the sense women would not be allowed.  The nonsensicalness of that notion was impressed upon him, so he changed it to a lady would be welcome only if accompanied by a man.  That restriction, too, was soon over-ruled. Also, as a wanna-be-lawyer, Mike hoped to cater to SMU Law School students.

I never met a customer there who claimed to be a law student (except my friends, Joe and Dick, who had already graduated), but there were several other students, me included, as well as a variety of professors, writers, musicians and artists.  I was a history major and then a grad student of English literature, who would recite the first fifty lines of Beowulf (in Anglo-Saxon) to anybody who would listen to me.  To shut me up, other options for them were to play Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum” or Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” on the juke box.

Perhaps the best known of the “artsy” types who frequented the Quiet Man was Preston Jones, who wrote the  plays he called A Texas Trilogy, also known as The Bradleyville Trilogy (1973-74).  The second of the three, titled “The Last Meeting of The Knights of The White Magnolia”, was the only one I saw, in dress rehearsal, and I don’t remember much of it; but, on the other hand, I don’t recall that it was disappointing either.  Initially performed at the Dallas Theater Center, where Jones was a director, the trilogy made its way on up to New York and even to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (1976).  All I remember about Jones personally was that he was a tightwad who consumed his share of the pitcher of beer anyone brought to the cable-spool tables where we sat, but he never paid for a pitcher himself.

Another playwright, who came to the Quiet Man only occasionally and who didn’t strike me as the artsy type at all — much more as the lawyer or CPA type — was D.L. Coburn.  He won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Gin Game”.  I chatted with D.L. whenever I saw him, but he was never around enough for me really to get to know.  Good for him!

Among the artists was SMU sculpting teacher Wilbert “Bill” Verhelst.  I wrote a feature article about Verhelst while I was taking jounalism courses at UT-Arlington; it was never published.  Although I liked Verhelst the  man, I didn’t see anything admirable in his works.

Another scene, this one inside, the Quiet Man pub in Dallas, on a Saturday afternoon circa 1970.

Another scene, this one inside, at the Quiet Man pub in Dallas, on a Saturday afternoon circa 1970. From the left is Pam Eastland, SMU paleontology professor Bob Slaughter, Don Akers, Irwin Wingo (sipping his beer). The couple whose backs are to the camera are SMU sculpting professor Bill Verhelst and his wife Pat.

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A Saturday afternoon circa 1970 at the Quiet Man pub in Dallas. Shown here are (from left) Pan Eastland, Pat Verhelst and her husband Bill Verhelst.

Yet I didn’t take that tack in my article; I just tried to explain what he was doing as well as he could explain it to me.  At the time, he was producing rectangular acrylic blocks of graded colors reminiscent of the “Rainbow” drinks I mentioned earlier.  He had also done several large metal pieces, all abstract, including eight fountain sculptures, eight reliefs, two screens and one stabile during a 15-year period.

A couple of other artists are worth mentioning mainly for their weirdness.  One was a young fellow named Richard (don’t recall that he ever mentioned his last name), who didn’t seem to know anything but his art.  His works — at least the ones I saw — were legal pad-size, done in ink with colors added, and they were spacey.  I mean like he was trying to imagine life on some distant planet: weird wiry shapes; imagine multi-thickness clothes hangers joined to hula hoops with strange-shaped flora blooming out of them.  They didn’t appeal to me at all, but he was selling them for pretty good prices.  Also, one night Richard informed me he was scheduled to have a show opening at a gallery in New York.  I just rolled my eyes and changed the subject.  Another drinker told me Richard had begun his career hawking his drawings on street corners.  Recently, a former Quiet Man habitué told me Richard eventually moved to New Mexico, where he lived in a teepee and continued with his painting.

Then there was Bill James…oh well.  Bill, an older alcoholic, had some physical disability; perhaps he was a polio survivor; I don’t know.  Anyway, he regularly hobbled to the Quiet Man and to the Knox Street Pub two blocks down the street with a sketch pad and pencils in his hand.  He drew portraits for beer money: back then a pilsner glass of beer cost 15 cents; a mug, 25 cents.  Bill’s drawings were unremarkable, but the subjects were at least recognizable; and Mike paid him some small amount to draw all his regular customers, the portraits to be tacked or taped onto the bar’s walls.  I have mine, retrieved a few years after Mike left the bar business and distributed all his memorabilia.

I, too, did some sketching, briefly, for beer money.  If a customer caught me during my first or second beer, the portrait would be most acceptable.  But after the third or fourth beer, they were gambling, assuming they were too shy to refuse to pay for the sketch.  (One fellow demanded a refund —$2— which I gave him and didn’t get my drawing back.)

Anyway, I was more generally recognized not as an artist but as “the philosopher”, even though I never majored in philosophy and never consciously sought to appear as a philosopher (at that time).  One regular Quiet Man and Knox Street Pub customer named Tom Johnson — an Associated Press reporter who habitually pulled his trench coat together just before leaning against the bar — several times tried to engage me in discussions of the German philosophers, none of whom, except Nietsche, had I read.

The image error may have developed from my habit of standing alone at the bar and staring either into my beer or at the gleaming beer mugs lined up on the back counter, and indulging in revery.  I loved to get just high enough that I could relax and lose myself.  Another possible explanation is that I was a good listener.  I remember sitting a while with a local tradesman and listening to him without uttering a word myself.  After he had concluded, he said, “You know, you’re pretty smart.”  With some effort, I managed not to break out laughing.  I’m not sure that’s how my reputation got started, but it’s the only way I can imagine.

A few Dallas Symphony Orchestra musicians also frequented the Quiet Man. One DSO musician I remember was a tuba player named Ed Gilmore.  Ed was a seemingly very healthy-minded fellow who nevertheless referred me to his psychiatrist and spent a lot of time reading Psychology Today.  He often joined in impromptu jam sessions with a couple of other (non-symphonic) musicians at the Quiet Man.  Ed usually sat with me and our Pakistani physicist friend, Syed Rizvi, as well as a couple of other DSO musicians for Saturday breakfast at Henry’s café across from S.M.U. on Hillcrest Avenue.

After I had been away from Dallas for a decade or so working on newspapers in West Texas, I returned to find the Quiet Man no longer the Quiet Man.  Some younger set had taken it over under a new name, and a new sub-culture frequented it.

The cohering aspect of the Quiet Man and other neighborhood bars is the “family” quality of them.  I don’t mean “family” in the sense of blood relationships but in the sense that, since the customers there are mostly regulars, one gets comfortable around them.  Regardless of whether one likes another regular or not, at least he becomes acquainted with the other — with his or her quirks, strengths and weaknesses — so that one can cope with them.  They become “known quantities”, as the saying goes.

Of course, not every excursion to a neighborhood bar is pleasant; some very unpleasant things can happen there.  Just as one example, I will relate an episode involving a “tough guy” Quiet Man regular and his women.  I didn’t like this fellow from the first time I saw him, so I didn’t spend any time in lengthy conversation with him.  I didn’t ask his name, and, although I did hear it mentioned by others, I don’t remember it now.  For some reason, perhaps his name, I retain a sense that he was of Italian descent yet born here.  He had a regular woman; I assumed she was his wife.  However, after a couple of years he took on a second woman and kept her in an apartment directly above him and his “wife”.  He impregnated both of them.  But, just because he took a mistress doesn’t mean he wasn’t jealous — or possessive — of his “wife”.  One evening, when the pub was rather full, all of a sudden I heard a scream and turned about to see this lover boy jerking his “wife” by her hair off a chair and dragging her out of the pub.  He paused at the doorway and yelled, “Anyone in there man enough to stop me?”  No one reacted to his challenge.

I’ve already referred to the Knox Street Pub.  It was really my favorite place, although it opened a year or more after the Quiet Man, so the Quiet Man has a more substantial hold on my memory .  The Knox Street Pub was larger and had ferns all over the place, antique mirrors, indirect lighting, a juke box and a well-polished oaken bar.  The various light sources reflected off everything.  The owner — the owner at that time anyway — was Sam Wilson.  He had slightly effeminate mannerisms but he also had a beautiful wife and two daughters, so I never was sure what to make of him.  Every time I hear that song “Those Were The Days, My Friend” by Mary Hopkins I visualize the Knox Street Pub.

I was shocked recently when a friend forwarded to me the Knox Street Pub’s website.  Photos of the place, now removed to McKinney and Armstrong, revealed a multitude of TV sets tuned to sports events, picnic tables, and a crowd of plump people, some in crushed-brim cowboy hats and waving beer bottles.  A new generation. No emotional connection whatever was possible for me.  It was only depressing.

But, like I said, I spent some intervening years in West Texas.  It’s not really a comparable situation.  It’s like having a baby, I suppose: Even though you might have a second child, that first birthing can never be duplicated.  A whole new range of values is needed.  That pretty much describes the situation I encountered in West Texas.

My first newspaper job was in Clarendon, the county seat of Donley County in the Panhandle.  Clarendon itself is (or was) dry, but all one had to do is drive about eight miles north on State Highway 70, to just on the northern edge of the Red River’s Salt Fork, to find a couple of “watering holes”.  Actually it was a single, boomerang-shaped complex made up of two bars — one at either end of the boomerang — shouldering a liquor store.  If the places had names I never heard them.

The whole complex, I was told, was owned by one man.  I never met this man, but he was described to me as an extremely intelligent fellow with paranormal powers.  He lived in a house on a hilltop or a ridge; the house reportedly was fashioned after Noah’s Ark and was supposed to be a beacon of sorts for ETs, whom this fellow expected to arrive any day.

But back to the bars. The southern bar was dimly lit and mostly filled with comfy booths, what I consider a scene to take a date for seduction purposes.  The other, however, had a large plate glass window facing south toward the river.  I loved to sit on a stool, looking out that window at the changing level of shadows in the arroyos leading to the river, as the sun set.  The music from the juke box helped a lot, too: Karen Carpenter singing “I Need To Be In Love” and Barry Manilow singing “Mandy”.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more outside myself and deeper within myself than during those late afternoons.  The ultimate revery setting!

The large window had other engaging aspects.  One afternoon, for instance, I saw a Piper Cub plane taxi around the corner of the “seduction bar” and stop in front of the liquor store.  A cowboy hopped from the passenger side door and went inside the store, returning a few minutes later with a case of beer.  After loading the beer into the plane, he climbed back in, and the plane went back the way it came.  Then, one day, I took up my usual place at the bar before noticing that a dozen or so frogs were hopping up onto and along the sill of the plate glass window.  I thought it an hilarious scene, but the bar maid was not as amused.

When I returned to Clarendon one Fourth of July five years later, I drove up to the bars and was shocked to find that the plate glass window had been replaced with a wall.  The whole magic of the place had been ruined.  Maybe “Mister Paranormal” wasn’t as appreciative of frogs as I.

I lasted only two months at The Clarendon Press.  I was ill-prepared to handle all the responsibilities of an editor/reporter without an on-site coach, and my boss, the publisher, was managing a publishing firm in Wichita Falls.

Two years later, in late 1979, I was “called” to Monahans, in Ward County, to serve as “editor” for the semi-weekly paper there.  I place “editor” in quotation marks because the job was really a glorified reporter’s position.  The owner, Pearson Cooper, was the real editor/publisher in the sense that he was the “boss”.  I say “owner”, but actually there were three owners — Pearson and his brother and sister, both of whom lived up in the Dallas area.

I, nevertheless, was the “show window” editor.  I covered all the governmental meetings as well as the police and court activity.  I also wrote frequent columns which often carried the aroma of editorials. I was the “face” of The Monahans News. I wasn’t bothered by not being the “boss”.  I didn’t want to be boss.  I have no managerial skills whatsoever.  And Pearson was a patient coach and had grown up in the newspaper business; his father had started The Monahans News back just before WWII.  Pearson gave me pretty much free rein to do whatever I wanted to do, as long as I filled up the paper.

As for bars, there were several of them along Highway 80 on the western edge of town and even a fairly decent one in Pyote further west.  But the one I liked the best was Charlie’s Game Room, mostly because it had plenty of daylight but also because it was within easy walking distance of the newspaper and my house.  Charlie Chailland also fried large catfish, very tasty.  His place was right next to the railroad track, and Charlie had a part-time job — or contract — with the railroad maintaining the resting engine and filling a storage bin in the caboose with ice.

Charlie’s Game Room was not the sort of joint girls were interested in frequenting, at least not during the hours I was there; I never stayed late. The most frequently played songs on the juke box were the C&W hits Mel McDaniel’s “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” and Don Williams’ “I Believe In Love”.  Charlie’s customers consisted mostly of oilfield hands, retired train conductors, a few cowboys, and me.   Charlie died of cancer, and his wife sold the business to a man not so interesting as Charlie.

Charlie’s Game Room lost its appeal for me, so I took to buying six packs and drinking at home or driving on down the highway to a really dark bar run by an ex-Marine named Jake.  That was a dangerous situation because Jake’s was definitely not within walking distance.  I should have been arrested for DWI dozens of times, and I suspect that the only reason I wasn’t was because I was the editor of the paper. I never realized how drunk I was until one night, on my way home, I stopped at a diner and ate some supper.  When I went up to the counter to pay my bill with a check I encountered much difficulty filling it in legibly.

Oblivious of  the hypocrisy I had become guilty of, I reported public intoxications and DWIs  in the paper’s “Police Report” twice a week.  I tried to be sure nobody was skipped over because of his or her “prominence”; and, if I had been arrested, I would have reported it. But Pearson had a different value system, and one day a fellow approached me in one of the bars and complained about the fact that a cowboy buddy of Pearson’s had been bragging about how Pearson kept him out of  “Police Report”.  From that day on, I never identified anyone by name in “Police Report”; I just gave their gender, age and town.

After five and a half years, I grew tired of the tensions between me and some of the other employees at The Monahans News.  Also, I had written feature articles about everybody I could think of without the articles becoming confounded with advertising.  I went back to Dallas and sold carpet at my brother’s carpet store.

In Dallas, I didn’t venture onto Knox Street.  Rather, I went to a restaurant and bar on Lover’s Lane called Roscoe White’s “Easy Way”.  They served good American dishes there, specializing in barbecue.  Like so many people in my life’s encounters, Roscoe was a contradiction: He was an old redneck, but he had a long-time black employee, a bartender named Slim.  Slim was the best bartender and one of the best-natured people I’ve ever known.  Evidently, Roscoe thought so, too, because, when Slim died, Roscoe framed a handsome 8×10 color portrait of him and hanged it over the bar mirror.

Another bar I frequented was the Cedar Pub on Cedar Springs near Love Field.  It had been started by Colin Jefferson, an English immigrant whom I used to love to annoy by breaking out in Old English lines from Beowulf.  For its last several years, however, it belonged to a native, a really good-natured fellow whose name I can’t recall.  Many of the regulars at the Cedar Pub were former habitués of the Quiet Man.  Not many artistes showed up there, though.  In fact, the only ones who did were a few jazz musicians.  Among them was a small group of medical students who had formed a jazz combo they dubbed “Afterbirth” — the slimy stuff clinging to babies when they emerge from the womb.

As much as I enjoyed the The Cedar Pub, it was the source of my undoing as a drinker.  In 1989, I had left the pub and was driving to my brother’s house in far north Dallas when I was stopped by the Carrollton police.  My brother bailed me out of jail the next morning.  The day before Thanksgiving, a judge sentenced me to two years probation and fined me $1,500. A year later, one of the several probation officers I endured, disgusted by the fact that I still drank a little, told me to go to some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  He gave me a log sheet to have initialed by an AA member after each meeting.

I attended AA daily for two years at the Central Group, until that particular crowd had to move because of declining membership and a rent hike.  It was one of the best experiences of my life and the cheapest, most effective mental therapy I can imagine. I stayed off beer entirely for a year and more after AA, and when I did take it up again, my intake was much less than what it had been prior to AA.  I don’t attribute the decreased drinking to self-control, rather to aging; absence of day-lit, revery-inducing bars; and bloating after three beers.  Dread of another DWI arrest also plays in, although not emphatically.

Now, here in Alpine, a remote spot in what Texas promoters call the state’s “mountain country”, I drink a little bit once or twice a week at local bars.  There are a lot of graphic artists in this area, but not many of them frequent the bars.  Some journalists (like me, for instance) do, and the two owners of one bar, called the Railroad Blues, contract with Austin musicians of all sorts to appear here on the weekends. There are also a few local bands, one of which is led by a former Catholic priest, the erstwhile “Father Rick”.  The décor has spun toward the funky, with odd objects such as a bicycle hanging from the ceiling in one place and defaced dollar bills stapled all over the ceiling of another.  Juke boxes are non-existent; all “down-time” music is streamed in over one of the Internet sites.  To keep things supposititiously alive, before the bands blast away after 8 o’clock, as many as five TV sets — in a single bar — are constantly tuned in to sports programs.   Most of the customers are cowboys, tradesmen, and college students, with a few tourists sprinkled in. I don’t hang around for the music; it’s too loud and generally outside my acquaintance.  I just drink two beers, talk to a few people, and go home.  I’m old now.

Finis

Investigating Time

By Bob Litton

“Death is only a statistical probability.  Each of us runs the risk of becoming the first immortal.”  [Source forgotten.  A citation would be appreciated.]

My annual hourglass flipped over last month, and I turned 73.

I had noticed a few months earlier how difficult it was to specify my age. I am no woman and therefore felt no uneasiness about declaring my age…if I knew it; but, when you feel, after a few months, that saying you are 72 is prevaricating and saying you are 73 is foolishly rushing the aging process a bit, then you realize you are in a quandary. Of course, one may be microscopic about it and calculate one’s exact temporal state by saying, for instance, “Right now I am 72 years, ten months, 28 days and 6-1/2 hours old.” That certainly should satisfy any lust for fastidious candor, but it would require a chronometric skillfulness that I entirely lack. The only alternative I can imagine is to avoid all situations in which the subject might arise.

But back, for now, to women.  Many a comedic punchline has revolved around this supposed dread of theirs that their age might be revealed when they pass over the 30 years bridge.  I never quite understood this fear; since, minus face-lifts, a woman’s age will be relatively gaugeable in her appearance. Much guesswork, of course, will be involved in that gauging; for we have a preconception, based admittedly on a lifetime’s experience, about what a person of a certain age should look like.

When someone we meet proves an exception to that preconception we can be shocked. I met a woman a couple of years ago and still encounter her regularly at our small town’s senior center. The first time I saw her, she was weighing herself on the center’s scale; and I wondered why because she is of good proportions, upright carriage, seemingly in excellent health but with snow white hair. I asked her how old she was, expecting the usual feminine demur, and she readily informed me that she was 90-something. (I can’t remember what the exact second digit was.) “You’re in great shape!” I exclaimed in surprise as she stepped off the scale. Had she wished to fib, I would easily have accepted a figure in the 70s or early 80s at the most. The other habitués of the senior center recently heartily congratulated this woman of dignified bearing on the 98th anniversary of her birth; but I just smiled at her, for, to me, we who survive past 70 have additional life burdens to bear: a sharper anticipation of the end and an acknowledgment that our options are now severely limited, compared to what they had been just a few years earlier. How can I genuinely feel joyful or appreciative of that, either for me or for another?

There is, of course, a more positive angle from which to view longevity, at least for the witnesses: that is, experiencing or perceiving the accomplishments of long-lived achievers. Artist Pablo Picasso fathered his fourth child, Anne Paloma Picasso, when he was 68; and actor Tony Randall had two children in his 70s, the second, Jefferson Salvinia Randall, when Tony was 78. Although I recognize the enviable virility those birthings reflect, I don’t see them as sensible actions; a child doesn’t just need a father; he or she needs fathering in the nurturing sense. Picasso and Randall also continued to achieve in their art forms well into their last years. There is no apparent consensus about when creative types peak. One report I read noted that poets seem to peak out in their 20s, while novelists blossom later — in their 40s or 50s. Nonetheless, many ordinary individuals have led extraordinary lives, full of adventures and humorous episodes, that can serve as material for entertaining their grandchildren. Also, the unity and historicity of a family can be dependent to a great extent on the events recounted by elders.

At the personal level, I feel that exceeding 70 has not fit in well with either my psyche or my lifestyle. I have had more than enough years to contribute to Humanity’s store of valuables. Moreover, since I did not father any children — which my reputed intellect indicates that I should have — the number of future solvers of the world’s problems, both ongoing and fresh, is fewer by the very number I might have sired, assuming they would have survived long enough to buttress other solvers’ efforts. But that is beyond correction now; what I have done is done; and I am left with little more than the quotidian and fantasies to occupy me.

I don’t know when the quotidian ordinarily begins to annoy any individual or even when exactly it began to annoy me. I feel confident in averring that I was at least in my 30s before I became sensitive to the repetitiveness of ablutions and chores, greetings and farewells, dawn and dusk. Many actions in a day, among professionals anyway, can be various, but enough of the humdrum remain to slacken one’s sail. And what of those many deadend jobs of the mind-numbingly repetitive sort? I have worked for brief periods (through temporary employment agencies) at enough tedious assignments — forming cardboard boxes at a biscuit factory, sorting items off a conveyor belt at a gewgaw manufacturer’s, pressure-hosing gum off the walkways at a shopping mall — to realize how threatening to the spirit those jobs can be. What must such work do to someone who has no other opportunities available? I imagine such luckless persons would age quite fast unless their mental capacities were so far below average as to render the tasks in fact challenges.

As for fantasies, a companion habitué of the coffee shop and I recently discovered that we have a significant characteristic in common other than our age and gender: dreams. We both have caught ourselves in the ridiculous state of considering another profession. My acquaintance still dreams of being an artist, while I have a hankering to go to California and argue my eligibility for a screen test. Oh, I know I am too old to play the male lead in a romantic comedy, but I could be a character actor like Burl Ives or Walter Brennan. [I swear! Walter Brennan looked like the same old man from Red River (1948) to The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again (1970).] But that long trip to California, carrying all these broken bones, for much less than a certain success hasn’t deluded my residual common sense.

Whatever else one may say, good or bad, about aging, there are a couple of definite ineradicable truths that should not be ignored: our world of friends and usefulness shrinks, and Death controls the curtain. We find that all of a sudden we are attending more funerals than weddings; that there is no way of forming friendships as intimate and long-lasting as those who once filled the chairs in the coffee shops and bars we frequented; and that the strangers we walk past on sidewalks and in mall corridors seem even stranger. Eventually, too, we are told by the younger folk that they have “heard that story already”; even we begin to sense that we are repeating ourselves. For the what time? And we realize somewhere en route that we are no longer invulnerable like we were when we were young. The real problem about Death, for many of us, is not that we will die but that we don’t know what Death is. We can’t really imagine oblivion, even though many of us have experienced it in some form — sleep, coma, viral encephalitis. Many people still believe in a Heaven — a kind of Garden of Eden in which every virtuous person who has ever lived will be eternally happy doing…what? A long continuation of what we have done here on Earth, even though it might be blessed with more harmonious relations and a more comfortable climate, seems too much tainted with unavoidable boredom. There are only so many tunes you can play on a harp.

As for me, I keep telling myself not to try to figure that mystery out because it’s impossible. I don’t know what I felt or thought while I was in the womb; most likely that will be the case when I am in the tomb.

Finis

Orpheus and Narcissus

By Bob Litton

SCENE: Small stage in a large auditorium with many wooden seats, all but about twenty of them empty. The stage’s maroon curtains are closed; half a dozen footlights (large candles in rusty metal holders) cast an orangey-yellow light on the curtains. In a few minutes, a slender male hand grips the right side curtain and pulls it slowly back a few feet. A mid-sized man dressed in a black tux, moving backwards and then sideways, comes from behind the curtain, then turns to face the audience. He pauses a few seconds as though trying to remember what he needed to say. Finally,…

ORPHEUS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I regret to inform you that the scheduled host of this program, Bob Litton — a mild-mannered reporter and suave man-about-town with other, odder characteristics — cannot be here this evening because…because…he has split! I don’t mean he has left the building or the city; I mean that he has split in two. As a matter of fact, I am one half of him. My alter-ego name is Orpheus — the most adept and creative composer of poems in the history of Western Civilization…if I do say so myself–with all due modesty, of course.

The other half of Bob’s personality I expect to be here any second now. He’s a rather brash, boastful, and…I’ll go ahead and say it…boorish fellow. He continually seeks the limelight for every one of Bob’s achievements–achieved mostly through my influence, if you want to know the truth of the matter. Anyway, this overweight, self-glorifying alter-ego’s name is Nar…

A large man with long, blond, flowing hair and dressed in a royal blue, velvet smoking jacket with golden cravat, suddenly appears from the stage’s left wing.

NARCISSUS: Narrrcisssusss! I am perfectly capable of introducing myself, you little twit. I didn’t catch all that this early bird had to chirp, my friends….And you are my friends; of course, you are. Why, everybody is my friend…except those characters I don’t like. Those latter are the ones who aggrieve me by disagreeing with me. I raise my nose as I pass by their tables in the coffee shops, restaurants and bars. I would prefer to include this wimp to my left, but I can’t; he’s connected to me like a Siamese twin. We always confront each other every time Bob cracks up and splits. How we manage to keep it together when Bob is whole (so to speak) I haven’t figured out yet. But, I will; there ain’t nothing I can’t do.

ORPHEUS:Well, you can’t speak correct English! You’ve just used Non-Standard diction with your “ain’t” and you’ve crammed a triple negative into that last sentence.

NARCISSUS: I’ll leave the minor details to you, Glossary-Head. I aim for the big picture, the vast canvas. Anyway, getting down to business, what shall we talk about today? I know what: football. Yeah, that’s what I’ll talk about. After all, this is the apex of the football season.

ORPHEUS: What if I don’t want to talk about football? Which I don’t. I’m half of this act, you know.

NARCISSUS: Well, you didn’t speak up soon enough, so the majority vote is against you.

ORPHEUS: “Majority vote”?

NARCISSUS: That’s what I said. So…”And away we go!” Did you hear that commercial the other day by the coaches and athletic directors associations about how football isn’t just about competition; it’s about teamwork, integrity and skills development, about how many top football players also excel in academics?

ORPHEUS: I have heard of one who was a Rhodes scholar, Myron Rolle, a former Florida State University safety, who went on to play for the Tennessee Titans; but I think he’s the only one. For the most part, college athletes are allowed to enroll because their athletic abilities will help their colleges’ teams win games, championships and money. As one famous coach put it, “Winning isn’t just everything; it’s the only thing.”

Recently, we’ve learned through news reports that the New Orleans Saints were penalized by the NFL because their coaches…or a coach…had urged their players — through bounties — to purposely injure players on the opposing teams. Even here in little ol’ Alpine, the same sort of nonsense is…or at least has been…prevalent. I was talking to two native locals the other day at a restaurant. Now in their fifties, one, a rancher, and the other, a medical professional, had both played hard-nosed football here in their high school days. While their attention was being distracted by the football games then being played on two of the restaurant’s TVs, I mentioned the Saints news item. The rancher looked across our table at his friend and said, “He tried to injure the other teams’ players.” The medic acknowledged the truth of his friend’s remark without any expression of regret.

Then, even more recently, we’ve heard that some high school and college coaches do not follow medical advice to keep concussion victims off the field for longer periods of recovery. And the coaches are also feeding concussion victims extremely strong pills to relieve post-incident headaches…again despite doctors’ warnings. You tell me those actions are not dictated by the over-riding will to win?

NARCISSUS: Well, shit happens…but not all that much, I believe. Still, you have to recognize that the boys are learning teamwork, integrity and skills development.

ORPHEUS: Har, de, har, har, har!…to follow up on your Jackie Gleason allusion a while ago. A couple of decades back, several high school football players in the North Central Texas area were tried for armed robbery of some fast food places. Their coaches appeared at the trial and urged the judge to place the boys on probation so they could continue playing football where they would learn moral values and responsibility. The judge gazed up at a corner of the courtroom’s ceiling in wonderment. Those high school players — juniors and seniors by trial time — had presumably been playing football at least since the eighth grade. If they hadn’t learned anything about moral values and responsibility by the present moment, the outlook for any future improvement through contact sports was dim. All they could learn from leniency would be that athletes can expect special treatment. I don’t recall what their final sentence was and I can’t find it now on the Internet; it happened during the 1980s or early ’90s, when Internet archiving was not as thorough as it is now.

NARCISSUS: I don’t know how you do it, Four-Eyes. You always do your homework, and you never seem to give a damn about America’s revered objects, persons or institutions. You’ve called the pledge of allegiance idolatry, John Wayne a hypocritical non-actor, and now football the vice of our country. It’s no wonder you have few friends, and if I don’t get Bob to have you excised out of his brain pretty soon, I won’t have any friends either.

I have to go now. I’ve got an appointment at the barber shop. By the way, have you seen my mirror around here anywhere? I’ve misplaced it again.

The two elements of Bob leave the stage in different directions toward the wings.

Finis

New Blog Site Launching

Hello friends and fellow humans.  I am today launching this, my second, attempt at a blog site.  I had an earlier one back in April-August 2010 which I discontinued for two reasons: I came to feel (foolishly) that I must write an essay every week and I had problems with the blog site’s host.  This blog will primarily contain essays, anecdotes, witticisms, brief comments, and maybe poems reflecting on the general human condition as well as personal experiences.  It is intended to take the pressure off my email contacts who have received similar communications there.

Let’s see if this site is workable.

Bob Litton

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