I've always liked bars. Not sterile hotel "bars", which are essentially lobbies with bottles of booze, but real honky tonks. An observer of life could do no better than to grab a corner table in a tavern, order up a Miller on tap, and sit back and watch.
When I resided on South Fourteenth Street, I one night found a little nook a couple blocks up the cracked sidewalk. It had a juke box and a dart board and a bunch of people who'd somehow staggered their way in. The establishment was tucked inside a skinny crevice between two white-brick factories, one skip past the Burlington Northern railroad tracks. That's why I liked it. It was out of the way; a private spot that only the absolute best alcoholics knew about. That's how a bar should be, if it was to call itself a respectable bar.
I've had a couple of bars in my life. There was my Uncle Howard's bar, Triple Service, where I lived when I was nine years old, and where I was introduced to the ways of life. Then there was The Gaiety, my dad's place. The Gaiety was a bit too fancy for me -- its outside sign had a cocktail glass with an olive bouncing out of it. The Gaiety, though, had all the accouterments of a proper bar. It was dark and musty. It was off the beaten path. Only the best drinkers could find it. And thus it was exclusive.
As a kid, I could make myself at home inside The Gaiety anytime I wanted. I was thirteen, so I didn't make myself at home there too much; only when I was bored with riding my bike around the big circle that surrounded Mom and Dad's motel. I had recently learned how to play guitar, and I knew that The Gaiety had a little stage with a microphone, and I was kinda bored one day, so I decided to stop in and give the regulars a show; demonstrate my prowess with forming C and E chords. It was summer and the July sun had already baked my skin and nobody fun was around to hang with.
And that day I just needed to spill and to give a big FU to my dad.
See, my dad was never around. We'd almost forgotten about him. Honestly. We were bewildered the couple of times he staggered through the kitchen door. I'd once known my dad, but now I had no idea who he was. And he sure didn't know me. He actually didn't even know I was in the room. The Gaiety was only twenty steps away from our little apartment, but for Dad, it was like being banished from heaven and thrust into Purgatory to have to deign to step inside our little family dwelling. He only did it out of a woozy sense of obligation. Mom no longer cared if he showed up at all, my little brother and sister treated him like a visiting stranger, and I chose to ignore him. I was damn sure not going to show him how much it hurt me. Not that he would have noticed. Unlike the little kids, I'd known Dad as a hero; the man who'd taught me about music because he loved it so much.
And now he'd betrayed me. Everything that came before was a lie. You couldn't trust anyone, because people flat-out lied. They portrayed themselves as one thing, but they weren't that. And they didn't care.
I'd been carrying around a giant suitcase of resentment for two years. Granted, I now had a best friend, but friendship and guitars didn't wipe out the hell Mom and Dad had put me, a kid, through. Snubbing my parents was only a band-aid. It would take me about thirty years to rip the band-aid off. Lucky I didn't know that at the time.
Clad in a sage blouse with tied straps and corduroy shorts; barefoot, I walked in the back door of the Gaiety, nonchalant; carrying a big beige acoustic guitar with steel strings. Somebody had left it in a motel room (people were always leaving stuff behind and I was always confiscating that stuff). I hadn't yet saved up enough dollars to buy that red Stella I'd been salivating over in Dahner's Music's window. That cream-colored behemoth stung my fingers, but I'd long ago learned to strum through the pain.
I turned the knob on the amp that powered the microphone, pulled up a backless stool, sat down, bent the mic stand toward me, flipped the pick out from between the frets of my guitar and began my show:
Granted, I hated that song, but it was a crowd-pleaser.
This song wasn't from 1968, but it was an old standby, and I figured the drunks would like it:
An impromptu lounge performance would not be complete without this next song. As an added bonus, I knew all the chords:
Merle really knew how to reel the hard-core drinkers in. I knew this one would be gold:
It wasn't easy to sing all the parts of this song, but I plunged on ahead:
I didn't sing any "women" songs, because I knew I wasn't a good singer. I understood my limitations. Nevertheless, I put on a really fine show. Trouble was, all the sports-shirt wearing patrons kindly ignored me, including the guy behind the bar who was fizzing up drinks -- my dad. I didn't even get a smattering of applause. I got NO applause. Granted, the after-work guzzlers were no doubt puzzled about why some random pre-teen had shown up to give a performance, but the polite thing would have been to clap, at least half-heartedly.
I don't remember ever being embarrassed by my kids. They were never brazen like I was, admittedly. But even if they had been, I would have offered an "attaboy". Courage deserves its own reward. My dad pretended like he didn't know me.
I, for one, was satisfied with my one-woman show. In the moment, I chose to ignore my complete lack of acknowledgment. I hefted my freakish guitar out the back door I'd come in, carried it back to my room, and lay down to take a nap.
I'd like to ask Dad what it was about that day that dismayed him. Maybe it was that I infringed on his lair. Maybe he sauntered off to The Gaiety to get away from troublesome burdens, like his family. Maybe I was wrong to infiltrate, but I was thirteen and full of piss, and I needed to do this.
Dad, you may be interested to know that I took my three chords and eventually wrote some songs of my own -- one, in particular, about you.
You never know what a kid might turn out to be.