A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals ...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chapter 1

A funny thing happened to me just the other day ...” was what I was saying sure. What I was thinking however, was why in the world was I allowing myself to tell this story out loud, who in their right mind could possibly be expected believe it, and what they were serving for dinner tonight in the loony bin; which is undoubtedly where I would find myself long before the telling was completed. I was also rather chagrined at the rather tired and unoriginal phrase with which I had begun. In moments when I thought about such things (normally limited to rare attempts at 20/20 hindsight), I liked to hope that I was a far more imaginative person than one forced to fall back on this rather hackneyed opening would indicate. I might as well have said “Once upon a time, there lived a man in the deep green wood.” (And of course there did, but that's another tale entirely...)

Of course this vapid line isn't where this conversation started, nor where it ended; but I refuse to be constrained by the sequential recounting of a story that has little in the way of logic, less in the way of believability, and almost no reason whatsoever attached to it. Trying to keep the facts straight in my head will be burden enough without attempting to keep them in order as well. In the very act of this retelling, I realize that I am in fact trying to tell a tale about telling the tale, as well as the tale itself; so forgive me if I find the concept of a logical sequence of events rather ludicrous. So if from time to time, you find yourself perplexed by the twisted path that this chronicle follows, take heart in the knowledge that the mind leading you through it has been twisted far worse and far longer. You might also take some solace in the fact that you are probably in good company in your disorientation, and that when listening to stories such as this, confusion (real or feigned) is probably necessary component to the survival of your mental health. 


So before things get any more confused than they already are (assuming that this in fact still possible) and considering that what has now become a hopelessly interrupted narrative was not nearly so at the time; let me say that the person whose ear I was bending was someone that I had spoken to before. Oh, not with anything the likes of which I was about to, but at least with some form of pleasant conversation. As to where I was doing this ear bending, it was a wonderful little place by the name of Gibby's that I often used as an island of tranquility in a sea of madness; especially when the siren song of alcohol irresistibly calls my name.

Fortunately for me, Gibby’s was exactly the kind of place for one to succumb to such temptation; and mine would not be the first strange tale ever shared within its confines (though one as wild as mine seemed rather unlikely). As they go, Gibby's was one of those great places which managed to specialize in, well ... absolutely nothing; and it seems rather taken with that fact. It's bi-polar personality perfectly suited it, as did it's lack of pretension. In fact, describing it is probably worth a minute of time, as an understanding of the place and the kind of people that frequent it might provide some insight into who I am and why any of its patrons would consider listening to this rather preposterous tale without calling for me to be fitted with a jacket with graced with overly-long sleeves and strange buckles for cuff links.

If the truth were told (and I will limit myself to truth whenever not doing so places me in jeopardy of getting caught) Gibby’s isn’t actually one place but two. Each caters to an entirely different clientele and serves a different purpose in the greater scheme of life. The design of the building, whatever its original purpose, seemed to naturally separate itself in order to accommodate these different worlds in both form and function. The most recent owners, taking advantage of this happy accident of architecture; managed to use this situation to full advantage and tried to please two vastly different groups who remained by-and-large oblivious of each other. 


The downstairs area had a bar along most of the back wall, though seeing it was often difficult in the dim lighting throughout. Opposite the bar was a open area of negligible size that served as a dance floor in front of an even smaller stage. Small, crowded tables surrounded this area in no readily discernible pattern. Narrow aisles created a maze through these tiny islands of social interaction, barely allowing passage to waitresses bearing rounds rounds of drinks to serve thirsty customers, and managing to effectively confuse those patrons attempting to find the bathrooms after they had been served sufficient quantities to warrant such a trip. The overall decor could generously be called 'fraternity shabby' and consisted of plain darkly painted walls with neon alcoholic beverage displays featured prominently, along with scattered banners and posters extolling the virtues of future special events. The fact that most of these future events had long since passed seemed to fit the timeless nature of the place and didn't seem to matter to the patrons found occasionally gazing raptly, though often blearily at them (usually while looking for signs to lead them to the bathrooms).

Local bands would do their best there to reproduce music carefully restricted to four chords and a volume slightly below that of an F-4 tornado; allowing little or no verbal communication, even when screaming at the top of one’s lungs (which was usually required when ordering drinks or asking for directions to the bathroom). Visual communication was limited as well owing to the sparse lighting, but was apparently not much of an concern to the patrons who inhabited this level. Because of this frantic ambiance, the downstairs area was a place frequented by young people (and older ones acting like adolescents); to meet, mingle, and dance in traditional tribal mating rituals. (No tribe has actually taken responsibility for these rituals, nor has any admitted to such traditions being a part of their culture; but their primitive nature must date them to the early days of civilization.)


Sociologists for the most part, do not seem to find it odd that human mating rituals are mostly performed in places serving alcohol; though no formal studies on what is considered to be common knowledge were ever effectively performed. (It's suspected that this was because those who managed to get government grants for such work could never stay sober long enough to properly write down their observations, and were too hung over after completing their research to write up their notes, let alone the definite papers required afterward.) One rumored school of thought however, holds that it might have something to do with a societal complexity that has forced many to seek a release of inhibitions through the use of alcoholic beverages in a purely adolescent ritual (though this theory leads to an unresolved 'chicken / egg question where alcohol and inhibitions were concerned). Another school holds that people have simply become so stupid and obnoxious that the only way that interpersonal relationships resulting in species reproduction are possible is through the mitigating effects of considerable amounts of C2H5OH. A third holds that human evolution has long since left the species on a branch of evolution in which potential mating partners can only be judged for suitability based on performing actions in which they make fools of themselves through the use of intoxicating beverages and immature behavior. This last of course, begs the question of whether such alcohol-induced madness can actually be considered a survival trait in today’s society and if as a consequence we are finally following the path of the dodo bird. As for me, I hold that it might be too early in the story for any such deep thinking, though it seems a bit late to bring that up now. But where was I?

Ah yes, the layout of Gibby’s. Since I started out by telling you about a lower level, the implication of course is that the other would be upper. At Gibby's this would be a potentially disastrous conclusion, since the bar was built into the side of the hill and each level had an exit at its own respective ground level. This bit of unintentional misdirection was accentuated by an internal stairway that often left new visitors who thought they were on the only level thoroughly confused and provided regulars a non-stop source of amusement as they discovered they weren't. 


Fortunately for me however, not only was my initiation into these mysteries long in my past; but ready egress was the only thing that these levels shared. The upper level in fact existed more in the atmosphere of a Public House (where the term 'Pub' originally came from). It's layout consisted of a three-side bar against a wall with stools on each of the remaining sides, and tables in a regular arrangement surrounding that. A wide and easily navigable aisle separated these two seating areas, and provided simple and direct access to the bathroom. (If I seem a bit preoccupied with bathrooms, it's because I am. I'm a huge fan of indoor plumbing in fact, but more on that later.) In much better lighted and more subdued surroundings, it serves a variety of Irish and English beers; and a few of the more popular American ones. The wine list is short, but well represented; and the variety of more potent beverages was considerable in scope and scale.

The almost infinite variety of flavors in distilled beverages today has quite frankly become rather confusing to me. I grew up in an age when choices like walking to school in the snow up hill both ways was simple and straight forward proposition that left no options, and choices in alcohol were fairly limited both in type and brand. These days, I often find myself rather disconcerted when a bartender asks me which of the twenty or more types of vodka that he stocks I would like in a vodka martini. Confusion over whiskey (Irish or Scotch please, and no water or ice thank you very much) is less of a concern, as I am normally amenable to anything that has been given 12 years of providing the “angel's share” before being placed in a bottle. I'm sure that in the great scheme of things, all of this should be considered as signs of progress, proof of a more discriminating society, or as a triumph of the free market 


mentality. All I know is that life can be confusing enough, and entering a bar is usually done as an escape to an over exposure to such confusion. If obtaining a tonic to alleviate the symptoms of such confusion (vodka and lime included, of course) instead adds to it, where then will we turn for respite for the trials and tribulations of everyday existence? But again, where were we?
Ah yes, the upstairs area. More in keeping with the low-key atmosphere of this level, the music here is of the pre-recorded variety, and features what most consider to be oldies (The selection changes from time to time, but then again, so does the definition of oldies.). Far more importantly, this music is always played at that wonderful level that allows a person to enjoy an old favorite if you hear one, or a pleasant conversation without shouting if not. This was a place where personal privacy was the prerogative of the customer; though there was always a congenial crowd, and most of the regulars knew each other by face if not by name.

I long ago had to admit that I am not young anymore (and sometimes wonder if in fact I ever was), so the music and conversation of the upstairs level were much more my style (and prevented further permanent hearing loss begun by hanging out in places like that downstairs in my youth as an added benefit). This is not to say that I have any objection to dark rooms or tribal mating rituals, in fact quite the contrary. I also find that participating in their practice is an essential and enjoyable part of any form of existence. As the beginnings of middle age overtook me however, and with my hair getting thinner and the rest of me anything but, I found myself much happier living at a less frenetic pace to life in general, and to a less frantic search for suitable female companionship in particular. I therefore found the atmosphere that had been created upstairs to be a perfect place to enjoy myself, whether any of my small circle of friends were there or not. 


Now let me stop for minute yet again in a tale but just begun to make a point that will matter a great deal as it continues. When I say friend, I mean it. I don’t mean the list of people you know only by sight and name. I don’t mean the faces that you recognize at work or while shopping. And I certainly don't mean all of those you list as such on some social media website in a vain attempt to prove how really interesting and popular you are. I mean people whose lives you are involved with and who are involved with yours. A person you would lend money to without asking why. Someone whose birthday and favorite color you probably know and whose childhood you understand a little bit about (even if you didn’t participate in it). It is a condition perhaps best described by the anonymous quote: “A friend is someone who will help you move. A real friend is someone who will help you move a body.” This type of friend is not made easily or often, and this type of friendship remains long after regular contact may have faded. I feel very strongly about the meaning of words like friend (among others) and shame on you if you don’t. Again, where were we?

Perhaps the reason that company was not always as required to enjoy the experience upstairs is because no matter when you arrived or who else was there, Michael was always there to greet you and make you feel at home. Michael the bartender (he was from both the city and county Donegal in Ireland originally and refused to answer to Mike under any circumstances) was someone who had long ago achieved the level of grand master mixologist . He exhibited all of those particular talents that only the true master bartenders possess; an unfailing memory for faces, names, and preferred adult beverages; and the gift of being able to make sure that your glass never quite reached empty.

Real bartenders may in fact be the closest things that we have in our world to a magical race race of beings. Though not related to each other in any way genetically, they share a common gift nonetheless. Who else would be able to put up with the non-stop load of natural 


fertilizer that we spread in their company while not only maintaining their composure, but managing to perform an important and necessary public service at the same time? Who else would have the character and strength of will not to blab every secret we reveal after having done so? Who else could have perfected the art of keeping a group of people polite and happy while they are in the process of killing as many brain cells as possible in a single sitting? No, the craft of bartending is a peculiar kind of genius that may sometimes be recognized, but rarely if ever duplicated.

Michael was always happy to give conversation if you were in the mood (though never advice; as that’s reserved for doctors, barbers, and hairdressers). He also seemed to be perpetually in a good mood. There was actually a rumor that went around from time to time (some said spread by Michael himself) that he had won the lottery years ago (or robbed a bank somewhere), secretly owned the place, and was only working there because it amused him. True or not, something certainly amused him.

He was not a large man, standing at about 5’10” tall and weighing in at not more than 160 pounds. While clean-shaven for the most part, he did sport a pair of significant gray sideburns framing an unlined face that gave no hint to his age. Matching gray curls surrounded his head like a halo, but any who knew him understood that he was anything but a saintly man, and that you courted his ire at your peril. Many are the poor fools with one too many under their belt that have challenged his decree against further service or last call, only to find themselves sitting outside on wet grass before they realized they had left. I personally witnessed him clear the room of an unruly bunch of ex-football players with only minor perspiration and no visible bruising showing on his part. (The same could not be said of his victims that night, though I heard that all were eventually able to feed themselves without help and most were able to walk again with only a slight limp.)


Sean,” he said. “Will you be having another half-and-half?”

For the uninitiated, a half and half is a beer concoction consisting of equal parts of Harps lager and Guinness stout, with the Guinness layered softly onto the top of its predecessor in such a way so as to remain completely separate. When done properly, it is a thing of beauty. When performed improperly, it is a mistake that is happily and easily disposed of. Michael rarely managed a mistake, and always added the touch of drawing a Shamrock in the foam of the Guinness on top, a talent that has won him more than one award in his trade. This should not be confused with a similar cocktail, the Black and Tan, which is made in a similar fashion, but with Bass Ale (an English beer) used instead of the Harps. Most find the mixing of English and Irish brew as worse than a sacrilege, and consumption of such unholy unions sufficient justification for a holy war (though the Irish and English seldom need much of an excuse for such combats); but I think we can refuse to be drawn into religious or political discussions and their relationship to the subject of beer at this point. I will simply note here that both combinations are fully worthy of consumption.

Now I’ve answered yes to the question of 'having another' more times than I should have in this life (often to my later regret); but I had rather a lot on my mind on that particular day as I think that you will see. The first of the day's droughts was Guinness alone, and had gone down my throat as if my heart were on fire, and only the ambrosia produced at the James Gate Brewery would put out the flames. A second pint went down at a slightly slower pace, but had only begun to steady my rattled nerves; and a third soon followed. For the next, I decided to thin the mix a bit with the Harp, and commit to a slightly less blistering pace of consumption, though at this point I was feeling little if any effect from those I had already consumed. Since I was in no way prepared to end the day's festivities until that situation had drastically changed, I readily agreed. 


I will note here, for no particular reason other than that it amuses me, that recent research I have performed allowed me to discover that 2,000,000 liters of Guinness are produced every day in their James Gate Brewery in Dublin, the largest stout brewery in the world. While that may seem interesting enough by itself, consider this. One half of that production is sent around the world for consumption by we fortunate few who recognize this nectar for what it is, the other half remains in Ireland for consumption by its 3.5 million inhabitants. Such excess by an indigenous population should at least be noted, if not vigorously applauded.

Have you noticed the looks that old Tom is giving you?” he asked then, as he set the still settling pint glass before me.

Tom?” I replied.

Sure, you know old Tom. He’s the one sitting four seats over, near the corner of the bar. He looks a bit confused about something today, and there’s no mistaking it.”

I glanced over casually to where I'd been directed (or at least attempted to) and he was right, I did know Tom. Now when I say I know him, I mean that we were acquainted with each other. As I stated earlier, most of the regulars were at least acquainted with each other; though I can't say we knew each other well enough to be friends. My circle of friends is in fact rather small. I make them rarely, treasure them highly, and am fiercely loyal to those I count among them, no matter what the personal consequence. A true friend is a rare thing indeed. But again, perhaps you will understand that better later. So when I say that we were acquainted I mean just that. We had spoken together on any number of occasions at the bar (though I couldn’t recall meeting him anywhere else), and I seemed to remember that we had enjoyed a fine cigar together more than once and had bought a drink for one another on occasion.


For himself, Tom appeared to be in his late forties, though little gray had to begun to take over for the original black. He had a full head of hair cut medium length and combed straight back. I would have guessed his height a little over six feet, three or four inches; and though he was carrying a little extra weight around the middle, no one would have called him overweight at what I would have figured to be about 235 pounds or so. His clear brown eyes stared out from an open, though not simple face; and he affected a mustache with just a hint of a handlebar to the ends. It was obvious from his countenance however, that Michael was right about the man’s current disturbed state of mind.

There was nothing untoward in his appearance that would suggest that anything was wrong to those who had never met him of course. He was sitting quietly in a subdued business suit, with his shirt collar open and no tie to be seen, but there was something of a look about him. He glanced over discretely, though regularly in my direction; and I couldn’t decide if his expression signaled concern, confusion, or simple amusement. Since these were not the type of facial expressions that I was used to seeing on him (or directed at me), it caught my attention.

How long has he been here?” I asked.

Oh, not long at all,” Michael said with a small quizzical smile on his face. “He came in not long after you, but quickly fell behind the pace that you've been setting today. He's been nursing that second one along for a bit now, but I must admit that something today about him that worries me. He’s glanced over towards you from time to time since he sat down, and at first I thought that there might have been some issue or dispute between the two of you. Watching him as time has passed I no longer believe that to be the case however. He certainly seems to be taking rather an interest in you at any rate and I thought that there might be something…”


Say no more Michael,” I said setting aside my attempts at liquid self-medication quickly and with some relief. “I will make my way over and inquire as to whether I might be of some assistance.”

You might think that I was performing an act of generosity or madness by doing this, but you would be wrong on both counts. In fact it was just the opposite. Michael, shrewd observer of human nature that he is, had quickly noted my own disheveled condition and apparent level of distress. As a true gentleman however, he did not want, nor would he seek to embarrass me by pointing this out directly. He sought therefore to allow me to find the distraction and help that I appeared to need while apparently providing to offer it to another instead. (Maybe this is another of the talents that can be exhibited by a master of the bartender's craft, I don’t know.) That explains why Michael did it; but my own motives at the time were a little more obscure (especially to me). And as for why I thought that I could be of some assistance to anyone else … well experience has taught me some rather hard lessons in this regard, and my ability to help others in situations that I know little or nothing about has been tested more than once. But surprisingly enough, none of that was on my mind.

The truth of the matter is that as is often the case with people placed in in unusual situations, my spoken words hadn't been preceded by any real thought of the consequences. I'm sure that if that were the case, most of us would no doubt be living safer, but far less interesting lives. On the other hand, much of the suffering of the human condition would have never been shared, and the world much the worse for it. As for myself, it often seems as though
thought rarely if ever precedes any speech or action that I take. I have never been able to 


understand why that's the case, but there it is. It's not that I lack the intelligence or the ability to understand the consequences of my actions. Quite the contrary in fact, as I consider myself to be of above average intelligence; and the product of a fine education and a rather varied (some might say bizarre) number of experiences that should have put me in a position to know and understand what I'm getting into before I place myself in harm's way. None of these things ever seems to stop me in these situations however. Perhaps I am simply wired different than other people. (Normal people?) I only know that I have no real control of it, and quite frankly, rarely consider it.

Having made the verbal commitment to Michael though, it had now become a point of pride for me. I gathered up my drink and made my way over to confront this situation, with the hope of being able to winnow from him the source of his discomfiture. This also might seem to be a bit of foolishness, as I am not particularly talented at getting information out of people. My close friends would tell you that I am much more of a talker than a listener, and they would not be entirely wrong in saying so. I am capable however of the rare exception (though sometimes the effort is both terrible and tortuous to behold), and I was determined to do so as I managed to strike up the beginnings of a conversation with Tom. Of course, as is often the case in these situations, this meant having a conversation that had nothing to do with the problem at hand; for even the most direct and stout-hearted (pun intended) of men is incapable of broaching such a subject directly with someone little more than an acquaintance. In fact it started out being concerned with the most trivial and meaningless details about the weather and local sports. We did not discuss either politics or religion, as these two subjects tend to end more conversations that they begin; and that was not the goal of this one. Tom seemed to be listening and answering in a rather distracted fashion however, which soon left the conversation at a lull.


Tom,” I finally said, taking the bull by the horns. (Which doesn't seem particularly intelligent, since grabbing the pointy end of anything is never the best of strategies. On further reflection, I can't really think of a way to take a bull that's a good strategy, and which doesn't involve a significant component of danger.) “I hope that you don’t take this the wrong way, but I feel that I must tell you that you have a look on your face that would take all of the fun out of a Half-priced pint night at the bar … not that Michael would have one you understand.”

Sean,” he said with a slight chuckle, a sigh, and a note of concern that I had never heard in his voice before. “The look you see is for you. Don’t take offense my friend, but I must point out that you look like you've been drug out of that Half-priced pint night, and face down to boot. I would normally hesitate to mention it, but even you have to admit that your appearance, such as it is, is far from your normal state. So you'll forgive my curiosity over your looking like something that the car dragged in ... and only unwillingly, and what might be its cause.”

There's no need Tom,” I replied with a with a weary chuckle of my own; only now recalling the frayed condition of my attire and the general disheveled appearance that I must have presented. “I'm sure that my current appearance is more than enough to draw some curious stares; and maybe in some way I was looking for some. Quite frankly, I thought that Michael would be reluctant to even serve me when I first walked in. If it weren’t for the fact of my being a regular, I'm pretty sure he would have cut me off and asked me to leave long since. Once having begun the attempt to drown myself in a small lake of beer however, I had almost managed to put the whole thing out of my mind. Let me apologize for any concern that I might have caused you, Michael, or anyone else. I actually think I'm OK again, or at least as much as I normally am. 


Things have been more than a little bit strange lately, and stopping in was an opportunity to find some shred of reality to hang on to. Strangely enough, this seemed to me to be the place to do it. If the truth were known though, I’m not entirely sure what led me to do it. I haven’t been home in some time and really should get up and go, but my heart isn’t really into the idea. Perhaps my stopping here was some some subconscious desire to talk to someone, though both conscious and subconscious thought seem to imply a level of reasoning almost impossible to me right now. Having said all of that however, let me add that while I appreciate your concern, I'm not at all sure that I want to talk about it.”

You will note that all of this conversation was in a very formal tone, and attempted with a high degree of civility on both of our parts. This tone and level of formality were quite important, considering the nature of the discussion going on. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a similar situation before, but to say they can be uncomfortable is like saying that finding yourself naked in a crowded room is uncomfortable (not that I'm admitting that anything like that has happened to me you understand). Personally, I would have expected his normal reaction would be to suddenly recall an long anticipated meeting with a mother-in-law or an urgent appointment with a dentist that he was already late for; and to run for the door like a groom who's late for the wedding (with all the customary apologies of course). And I would have understood, since I myself am not usually one to involve myself in other peoples’ lives and problems if I have any choice in the matter (and seldom do so even when I don't); nor do I allow any but a few access to my private life. I would therefore understand a similar response from him or anyone else. 


There was something about the situation however, that seemed to prevent Tom from beating the customary hasty retreat that the situation begged for. I can’t say what it was, and I don’t know now whether it was a true act of kindness or one of temporary insanity on his part. Whatever the case however, I found myself listening to all of the proper polite sounding noises, while having this man tell me that the least he could do was listen, as he felt that I had something that I needed to say. While he wouldn’t and couldn’t guarantee a final reaction to anything that I might offer, he could at least promise me a full hearing.

A funny thing happened to me just the other day…” I began again with a resigned sigh. “No wait, I think that we already did this part. But it was in fact, a funny thing that just happened to me. Oh, not funny ‘ha-ha’ (though parts of it seem rather amusing, now that I can look back on them), but funny strange. Of course, this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened in my life; and if history is any indication, it won’t be the last. I’m getting ahead of myself though. So let me just try to tell this the way that it happened without trying to strain your credibility any more than I have to in telling it.”