His aunt owns what was the first gay bar in town. Over the years, it has folded out into four bars. His aunt also rents apartments. He is responsible for keeping up the apartments and managing the bars. He lives in the basement apartment of a house built into a hill. From there, he goes to paint a baseboard, spackle, clean out under a stove or refrigerator, bring a sofa to Goodwill, dump off a pissy mattress or metal filing cabinet, pick up linens, limes, and lemons for the bar.
His Aunt is the heavy, collecting missed payments, dealing with lawsuits, or credit card fraud and music promoters. He has a capacity for quiet, for the pleasure of precise activity, hearing each distinct sound when closing an umbrella somebody left partially open to dry.
There is always something to do.
He knows how many coffee cups a Friday needs, how many napkins for a Sunday. He reports everything to his Aunt, and if she says there can be no new bartenders on Monday, no more napkins, or bandages, or bouncers, or barbacks, or no payroll on Thursday, or no roofer or plumber she can afford, he will make do. He’s had as many nicknames as he’s had friends. He knows everybody.
He knows bar-related tricks. He can hold fifteen glasses in one hand. He can throw and catch cases of wine. He can determine at a glance who he can tease a little, who can help him stop a fight, who is in too much pain, doing what they think is secret. Reading a room comes with ease. He likes the couples that love each other but are afraid and the couples that are like roller coasters and love the ride. He knows who is honest, who is stealing and how much, and he isn’t judgemental about it. He is accepting. He knows how to keep people away from what will get them in trouble. People and their moods and eccentricities exist to him as the weather does.
The bars are full most nights. He knows muralists and punks and historians. He knows all the words to the best dance hits from the last four decades: Boy George, The Cure, Amy Winehouse, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, the Temptations, The Sugarhill Gang, David Bowie.
He knows which emergency room to take someone to.
He can’t remember having a problem drinking a whole bottle down—whiskey, ouzo, tequila. When he’s drunk, his big cheeks get red, he asks naive questions that suggest he might know secrets, but, then, no one can really be sure if he does. He keeps a tally in his head of exactly how much chicken is left in the freezer, how many people he hadn’t met who were inside last night when the surf rock band was on, how many jalapenos in the walk-in, which of the summer tents have holes and where. This is his badge, his rush. He doesn’t hold any meetings. Everyone figures out what to do as they are doing it, or by watching him, or hearing his preferences, and stories about him, what he values, where he likes things. When he gives instructions, he only doles out bits, never too much. He smiles a lot, throws in corny jokes even when there are groans or other conflicts to sort out. He doesn’t use a computer except for work, or sometimes he used to forward jokes from a joke list he signed up for online until one of the bartenders told him those kinds of emails from those kinds of lists contain viruses.
One year it rained on and off in torrents at Mardi Gras. He laughed as the streets overflowed, impossible to stop or fix, the rain being so much, the city having neglected the drains and sewers, and everyone drinking too much anyway in soggy shoes. He kept on moving, empty bottles precarious in bags on carts.
When other people are inefficient, lolling this way aimlessly to the trash can, that way towards the door while a customer is exasperated at their table, a hair in their salad, he might ask a server or two: “Why would anyone do it like that?” And then he would show them how he’d do it, quickly taking a salad off a bill, moving the trash cans and straws closer to where the waiters are working, smiling his big-cheeked smile, waving to a customer at the door. People are sometimes inefficient because they just don’t know.
He has served princes, professors, nobel prize winners, brides, detectives, drunks, and rival politicians.
Sometimes he gets angry when people are supposed to be working but won’t. He gets angry at the ones who are smart, the ones who try to take advantage of him. He curses to himself about what must be wrong with these people, how they show up late, conduct personal business in the back or lean against the bar or pretend to polish a glass while the bar is busy.
He likes to look at his collection of fake ID’s, knives, and drug paraphernalia he’s confiscated at the bar and keeps but never uses. Between re-stocking cans of soda and cleaning off grills, one afternoon he gets a target tattooed on his knee.
He collects guns. He never falls in love. When his Aunt first got sick, he got briefly engaged to a woman who was in a lot of debt.
What will happen when his Aunt dies?
He never goes to the gym or jogs. He likes ice cream. He puts on weight. It could be from eating at off-times, or, as his Aunt says, inherited from his father, her brother, who he never knew.
He likes black. He likes those T-shirts with wolves on them, and he likes walking. He’s tried most drugs, but he prefers alcohol. He is surprised by how much people pay for coffee, but he does it too sometimes. He likes a lot of sugar in his.
Because everyone knows him, he drinks for free at most bars in town and often after they’ve officially closed for the night. He rides bikes around the city drunk with the cooks who give themselves their own tattoos and who never work for more than a few years.
He wonders how other people come into stable work if they aren’t in a family business. He likes stories about people following their dreams. He barely squeaked by in school and did everything he could to make sure the teachers didn’t notice him. At that age, he collected and whittled at sticks that he thought had unusual curves to them.
He has never applied for a job. He knows Spanish and some Italian and some Mandarin. He never takes a taxi, reads novels, or attends a concert he isn’t working. He reads the news but doesn’t discuss it. When other people discuss politics, he generally agrees with everyone without hazarding an opinion. At night, before falling asleep, he takes the copper out of old wires he’s picked up here and there. He sells the copper later where he also sells the recycling from the bars. He reads magazines he subscribes to about horses, gold prospecting, and hunting.
He hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is saving up for a mountain place in Truckee maybe, or Anderson Springs. He collects photographs he buys from a gallery downtown in a suite on the fifth floor looking out over Union Square, and also from another gallery that moves spaces a lot. He goes to these galleries right when they open and keeps to himself. He never talks to any of the staff. His friend, the bartender he calls College Boy, tells him which photographers are important and brings him catalogs and books. He overhears at the bar that this kind of collecting is an investment. He doesn’t know. He sends the barbacks over with checks. He learns to follow his instincts, build on what he has already. He likes photographs that look simple: a glass on a table, a basketball balanced improbably, a woman’s hair, a self-portrait of a man in the Amazon rainforest, a couple alone on the beach, a couple amidst a parade, a photograph of a page of an artist’s mother’s unpublished book, a gruesome gash rendered in extreme detail. He buys the photographs framed and looks at them once or twice before putting them back in the packaging they come in. He builds carpeted shelves for them at College Boy’s advice.
He tells College Boy he could come to his house in the mountains if he ever got into trouble, that he’d protect him, that he would learn how to shoot, that he would have enough money and food and supplies to survive everything. Their friend the bartender Italo retired early to the desert on cash. Their friend the bartender and rug-seller Gloria retired early, also on cash, to a beach in Argentina.
Photograph: Noorann Matties