Wednesday, July 21, 2010


There comes a time in a man's life when he has to make a split-second decision. Fight or flight. Go hard or go home. Skate or die.

Can I get both for a dollar extra?

Travel back in time with me once again to those halcyon days of yore, bartending at Les's Lounge in Urbana. The amber light from recessed ceiling cans glinting off spotless glassware on burgundy foam mats. Ice crystals shimmering on a chiller full of 10-ounce beer mugs. David Allan Coe warming cockles from the jukebox.

Pull up a stool, weary traveler. Rest your elbows on the fine pleather. Can I pour you a drink? Can it contain some Galliano? We've been trying to get rid of that stuff ever since people stopped drinking it in 1982. Maybe later we'll shoot a few rounds of pool on the custom red felt tables. First game's on the house.

Back in 2002, the Chicago Bears were without a home base while aliens and bureaucrats began renovations on their mighty fortress, Soldier Field. They needed a new place to wage football war, and through some series of events that likely involved mafia hits and dark arcane rituals, the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium won the honor. For an entire season, the Bears would climb aboard their jewel-encrusted buses and head down to Champaign, an armada of pierogi-scented Bears fans in their wake. Local business rejoiced, local hotels stocked up on polish sausage, and local bars played host to a whole new crowd of Chicagoland hooligans.

Ditka said knock you out.

It was on one of these game nights (dark and stormy, for our purposes) that I found myself once again dutifully slinging brew at the Lounge. The place was packed with refugees from the overcrowded Lincoln Motel down the road, and the kegs of Heileman's Old Style were draining faster than I could tap them.

For the most part, it was a manageable crowd. Large, loud and mustachioed, as these mighty Northmen often were, but of a generally agreeable disposition.

Except for one guy. Oh man, this guy. He sat at the head of the bar, angrily sucking down Jack and Cokes as though they were incrementally adding up to some heinous violent crime he wasn't quite tanked enough to commit. He looked as though someone had taken a dump in his very best shoes. Different liquors have different effects on the brain of your average bar patron; wine drinkers don't leave the bar alone, tequila drinkers are very loud singers, and Jack Daniels drinkers usually end up participating in a complex economy of supply and demand for black eyes and loose teeth. So as each Jack and Coke disappeared into his angry gullet, I added an extra layer of gird to my loins.

Seriously, Jack Daniel. Dentists owe you everything.

Eventually the inevitable happened. Someone brushed up against him, or maybe accidentally caught his eye. Maybe a butterfly flapped its wings in Tokyo and the resulting air currents called his mom unclean names. Either way, he tossed back the remaining half of whatever glass of evil he'd been working on, and began making mistakes. Names were called. Threats were issued. Tensions began to climb.

Enter the bartender. "Hey, buddy. Take it easy." In the language of my people, this is a traditional greeting which roughly translates to "Hello, friend. This is your first warning." Normally, these words are enough to interrupt whatever unpleaant momentum has been building, and inject enough embarassment into the situation to awkwardly defuse any further disturbance.

But not this guy. Oh man, this guy. He responds with an up-and-down sizing glance, the universal sign language for "can I totally take this guy?" At this point, time freezes. The bartender must make a split second decision - am I backing down and taking this guy's crap all night long, including the eventual call to the police, or am I going to put all my chips on the table and rise to the challenge? It's a bluff - the law has very clear things to say about bar staff laying hands on the the clientele despite what movies might tell you - but it's a strong bluff, and I'm an excellent poker player.

I interrupt his assessment of me by quickly leaning into the whisper zone. "Hey pal," I quietly intone, "you see any bouncers in here?"

He swings his whiskey-soaked head from side to side. I'm the only staff in the building.

"No," he wheezes, a brown skull-shaped cloud of whiskey fumes issuing forth from his mouth.

"What does that tell you about me?" Silence. Sustained eye contact.

He slumps back in his stool. I keep up the eye contact for a few seconds more, as a victory lap, and then return to washing the glasses. By the time I've turned around again, he's gone, a $20 bill tucked under his empty rocks glass.

Patrick Swayze, may you rest in peace. We continue your work down here on Terra Firma. This ain't one body's Tell, it's the Tell of us all. Listen it and member.

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