It was an upscale hotel in a decidedly downtrodden corner of the city. A single night’s stay in one of the rooms would cover a month’s lease at the nearby welfare squats but the barstools could be rented for the price of a bottle of beer. Our proximity to squalor guaranteed a blurring of the line between the haves and the have nots and the bar I tended had a door that opened to the street.

My tour of duty at that particular lemonade stand was happily brief but in the space of ten months I lived through enough chaos to last me a lifetime. I didn’t stick around long enough to endure armed robbery or serious bodily injury but that clock was definitely ticking in the background.

Hotel bars rarely employ bouncers so I served as the court of last resort when things took an ugly turn and man, things took an ugly turn almost every single night at that joint. I weigh about a buck and a half, soaking wet, so diplomacy was my stock in trade. I only suffered actual physical violence a handful of times but a couple of those were enough to teach me not to underestimate any foe. Under the best circumstances regulars are a mixed blessing and this particular gin joint was not among the best circumstances.

The only people who made multiple appearances at this bar were icky or dangerous or both.

_______________________


The guy had to be eighty years old, a crusty wino known only as "Stinky." When his monthly stipend ran as dry as his gullet, he’d shoplift cologne or perfume from the drugstore on the corner. It had to be a devastating blow to his taste buds and stomach lining but the stuff had a high enough alcohol content to soothe his Jones and calm his tremors. The perfume exited his pores, merged with ordinary bodily secretions and created a noxious cloud around his person, like Pigpen in the Charlie Brown comics.

Stinky always showed up at the beginning of the month, when he was still flush with the government’s largess. The dole rarely lasted beyond the sixth or seventh day on the calendar so his nuisance to me was marginal. He pretty much kept to himself at the bar and all things considered he was probably among my best-behaved victims. Stinky would have made my A list if he'd lay off the Aqua Velva for awhile and take a bath from time to time.

On the street he was a derelict but on the days that he had folding money in his pocket he moved with exaggerated dignity. Stinky occupied his barstool with perfect military posture and sipped my crappiest whiskey as though it was a rare French cognac. I even taught him to tip sort of, sometimes only a dime and a few pennies or a crumpled up bus transfer but it was a start. On a bad day, when the well was dry, he'd leave me pocket lint or a tube of hemorrhoid cream he’d stolen from the drug store that morning.

Stinky wasn’t bad people necessarily but his hygiene was a quiet threat to my trade. My secret fear was that he’d show up one day with all of his friends.

_______________________


I had never seen the woman before that day but my little voice told me that she was gonna be bad news. The first indication that something was terribly wrong was when she parked herself on the stool right next to Stinky and tried to strike up a conversation. Stinky could make my eyes water from six feet away so at the very least the woman had a badly flawed olfactory.

She was sixty-something and every bit as ragged as the odoriferous octogenarian next to her. Small tufts of greasy gray hair bulged out from underneath her soiled pink stocking cap and it looked as though Helen Keller had applied her make-up with a brick. She wore a tattered green parka, patched with duct tape and missing one sleeve at the elbow. Leopard pattern K-mart stretch pants and unmatched Keds tennis shoes made her assault on fashion complete.

"Uh, howdy ma’am, what’ll ya have?"

Her breath was a fair match for her smelly counterpart at the bar and her gooey slur made it clear that she was already medicated. The dozen or so teeth in her mouth were puce colored and broken. Only one of her two front teeth remained and it was chipped so as to resemble a fang that jutted out of her gum at a forty-five degree angle, giving her a whistling lisp.

"Thith fuchhin' plathe is nuthin' thinthe they took out the piano bar...yer prolly waterin' down yer likker too. Thtupid fuchhin' bathtardth..."

Big wads of opaque saliva jettisoned from her pie hole with every utterance so I grabbed a bar towel and kept my distance.

"Uh, they took out the piano bar when Eisenhower was President, ma'am, maybe it's time to get over it. What'll ya have?"

"Well that all dependth now, don't it buthter?"

She swooned clumsily against Stinky, who had been doing his best to ignore the spectacle on the neighboring stool. She jarred his drinking arm in the process and spilled his precious bourbon.

"Get this crazy broad away from me, sheesh! I'm mindin' my own business here and payin' good money for a drink. Ain't you got rules to keep out the riff raff? I want compensation dammit! Crazy hooker spilt my whiskey!"

"Who you callin' a hooker? I'm a rethpeckable lady and a real gennleman would buy me a champagne cocktail."

"Calm down, calm down." I splashed a little more rotgut into Stinky’s glass to cover his spillage and was about to give the woman the bum's rush when I was distracted by a hotel guest at the other end of the bar. He was a generically well attired business traveler and the single malt scotch he ordered cost more than the combined net worth of the odd couple at the opposite end. To my horror, the fanged menace noticed him too.

"Now thath a gennleman over there...You wooden let a lady go thirthty now wudya, hanthom?"

"Certainly not."

Oh dear God, I thought, don't buy her a drink or we'll never be rid of her.

"Bartender, put the nice lady's drink on my tab."

_______________________


She began wobbling toward the soft touch in the suit and I reacted quickly by placing her champagne cocktail down next to Stinky. As a dog’s glance will follow a Milk Bone, her rheumy eyes adhered to the beverage and to my great relief, the rest of her followed dutifully. Class conflict was the last thing I needed in that deteriorating scene and if my boss walked in to see street people commingling with his precious hotel guests he’d blow a gasket for sure.

I had planned to leave the indigent lovebirds to their own devices at the far end of the bar, in favor of chatting up the hotel guest, when Stinky started shrieking.

"She’s grabbin’ at my wiener! Make this old hag let go of my wiener!"

By this time there were about a dozen hotel guests seated at the various tables in the lounge, all within earshot, each visibly shaken by the geriatric genital grab. I moved quickly to defuse the situation but it was too late. By the time I made it back to ground zero, Stinky was on his unsteady feet and the fanged crone had fallen backward off of her barstool in a drunken heap on the floor.

She was motionless for a minute or two and as much as I hate people dying in my bar, the prospect provided me a moment of guilty comfort.

As luck would have it, she survived the fall and returned to her barstool. The side of her face that hit the filthy barroom floor had bits of debris lodged in the liberally applied pancake make-up but beyond that she seemed no worse for wear and tear.

"That thmelly bathtard thpilled my cocktail. Gimmeanotherone dammit!"

"I think you've had enough, you’re going to have to leave now."

"Yer gonna kick me out, you thkinny little fuchhher, you an whoothe army?"

She picked a stack of three glass ashtrays off of the bar before I could react and had her arm cocked like a catapult by the time I fully evaluated the threat. With all of the fury of a Nolan Ryan fastball she unloaded directly at my head from less than five feet away. Either the patron saint of bartenders intervened on my behalf or due to substance ravaged motor coordination her aim really sucked.

In slow motion, like a gun battle in a Peckinpah western, I watched the glass missiles pass centimeters from my head. The ashtrays divided in flight with one whizzing past each of my ears and the third just grazing the cowlick on top of my head.

My relief was temporary, perhaps a nanosecond or two, interrupted by the ashtrays shattering the twenty-five foot mirrored wall behind the bar. Shelves full of festively colored, ridiculously expensive joy juice cascaded to the floor or ruptured as they struck the back bar. I stared dumbstruck at the devastation; thousands of dollars worth of broken glass and spilt spirits with me smack dab in the middle of it.

Some wrongs are so egregious that you have to just stand there for awhile and shake your head. My boss lost sleep at night worrying that cigarette smoke was gradually yellowing the ceiling tiles in the bar. I knew that he had to have heard the squall of shattering glass from his office and was en route to the bar at that moment with the veins bulging in his neck and forehead. He was a high strung cat to begin with but this freakshow was gonna be aneurysm material.

My only hope would be to lay my hands on the culprit, as a sacrificial offering to deflect his anger but when I turned, she was gone.

Stinky returned to his stool as though nothing had happened and was trying to get my attention when my manager rushed into the bar. The boss stopped in his tracks just inside the doorway and trembled as he surveyed the aftermath, crimson growing in his cheeks, apoplexy testing the limits of his cardiovascular system. I stood frozen in place on the sticky pile of expensive debris, waiting for the second explosion of the night.

Stinky started banging his empty glass on the bar, momentarily distracting my boss from his homicidal rage.

"Whaddya gotta do to get a drink around here?"


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