Barman Story

Behind the bar at the Irish Bank, Fleet Week 1999

Note on this story: It’s one of the Überhaus Diaries I wrote in Portland during the late 1990s. The photo Karen selected this week is the inside of a bar around the corner from where I lived in Portland. The Überhaus was perhaps the last bandit lofts in the city, a 2000 square foot apartment above The Great Northwest Bookstore. Great Northwest was a hipper, less expensive (and far less organized) version of Powell’s, a wonderful jumble of paperbacks, first editions, art books, and signed photos (including one of Charles Bukowski and Walt Curtis that I have always regretted not buying). It was a magical time to live in that city, just before the wave of gentrification that made it almost as expensive a place to live as San Francisco. So here it is, too long for Pegman, but one of the first stories I ever wrote.

Sleep deprivation is a funny thing. It seems to change the quality of light, throw odd shadows, etch the edges of the world in sharp relief. I started looking at my world in a new way. I started writing it down.

In 1998, I worked as a barman at Kellsgetting home around four AM too amped up by coffee and work to go to sleep. So I wrote stories and poetry, drew comics, often staying up until breakfast time.

Kells required all its barmen to wear ties and a white shirt. Individualist that I am, I always wore bow ties. I had inherited a couple dozen from my grandfather, a professor at Yale and Hunter who was never seen in a straight tie. I liked the bow ties. My grandfather had snazzy taste. The patterns were so garish that they would have been over the top in a regular necktie, but on the small scale of a bow tie they added an interesting splash of color. I had so many that I could go a month or more without repeating the tie.

Another fringe benefit was that the ties stayed clean. Neckties dangle and can drag in the ice or on the bar itself. They are also a fire hazard when a guy is making Portland’s Signature Drink

One night, we had a bit of a slowdown around 11. My buddy Ciaran pointed at my tie, a vulgar red and blue affair that looked like it had been cut out of an art school canvas.

“Nice tie,” he said. He looked down at his own, a badly stained maroon double knit. He tugged it, lurching forward. He pulled himself by the necktie, jolting down the length of the bar, pretending to resist like a recalcitrant dog. It was hilarious.

It got me thinking. Something about it stuck with me. Something about that jolting snap when he tugged it the first time.

When I got home, I wrote this.


Überhaus Diary November 10th, 1998

They treated me differently after the hospital.

I used to crack jokes. Everyone would laugh. It  was cool.

Now it was different.

Before anyone laughed there’d be this little pause, like they were checking to make sure everything was okay before they had any merriment.Their eyes would stay flat and watchful while they ha-ha-ha’d. It was like watching really bad actors laughing on stage, but right up close.That’s how it seemed.

I wasn’t a great judge because I was on so much medication. The doctors were using an impressive arsenal of pharmacopoeia on me and I was so whacked most of the time that I bounced between feeling twenty stories tall and feeling like something  on the sidewalk you’d avoid stepping in.

When they carried me into the hospital I remember somebody screaming and a flurry of activity.  They took me right into the trauma room, no waiting required. My face was hanging off me, slashed into ribbons by the box knife.

It had been a fucked-up night.  The bar was already full when I walked in at 4. Rowdy drunks got rowdier. They gave me a lot of shit.  My mood wasn’t great to start with, and it only got worse. And the tips were bad. The assholes were tipping with coins. I wanted to throw their fucking coins at them. Coins are always insulting.

There comes a time in everybody’s life when they crack. It can happen any time, anywhere. Somebody says or does something you just can’t accept and POW, you pop. When that happens, it’s like your whole universe shifts and everything that was going to happen up to that point isn’t going to happen anymore.

Your life just turned in a new direction and everything is different.

There was a loudmouthed little shit who had been parked next to the well since I walked in. I had cut him off politely and when that didn’t work, insultingly. I got all his buddies laughing at him. When I turned around a minute later he had a fucking drink in front of him. A fresh one.

He must have gotten it from one of his friends at a table behind him, or maybe off the cocktail waitress’ tray when she wasn’t looking.

That’s when I lost it.

I yelled at him, “WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, YOU LITTLE SHIT?” I grabbed the glass from his hand and dumped it into the sink, looking him right in his smug little face the whole time. His eyes went dead, and the next thing I know he grabs my necktie and pulls me down onto the bar. In his right hand is a box knife, the razor blade tool that they use to cut open cardboard cases in grocery stores. He starts zipping me across the face with it, hard diagonal hits across my nose, eyes and lips. He won’t let me go, and noboy else is moving. They all just stand there, shocked. Finally two guys pull him off, but by this point I’m a bloody mess and my face looks like ripped-up upholstery.

The doctors did as good as a job as they could, but I’d been cut so many times in so many directions it was all they could do to cover my skull. I had signifigant nerve damage (I can’t smile or raise my eyebrows anymore) and I lost most of the vision in my right eye. It’s coming back, but it’s taking its time. My face looks like a badly made baseball and the scars are still bright red. The doctors say that they’ll fade, but they might just be saying that.

The bar’s insurance paid up handsomely (no pun intended). I got a huge settlement, so I never have to work again. I want to work, though, if for no other reason than to find the asshole who did this to me, the asshole who was never caught, the asshole who is still at large.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I’ll do him if I see him.

But it’s not just the thought of revenge that brings me back to work. See, when they removed the bandages it wasn’t so bad. My face was so swollen that it looked like any bad beating, so you couldn’t really tell  the extent of the damage. It was only after the swelling receded that I saw what I’d lost.

Before, when I met somebody new, I had something to do with the opinion they would form about me. I could present myself to them on a level playing field, get to know them a bit before they start thinking “he’s a this” or “he’s a that.”

I was just another guy they got to know. I’ve met lots of people that way, especially across the bar.

But now, that’s gone. See me a block away and you already are forming an opinion: What the hell??

When you talk face to face you either mention it or you don’t. But it’s there, lying between us. There’s no getting around my face.

I guess it’s like being famous. I’m not like anybody else and won’t be ever again. If I ever get a girl it’ll be because she is a freak or a saint.

I think about that night. I think about it a lot.

The little prick tried to steal my life because I poured out his drink? FUCK HIM.

I think if I manage to not blow brains out, it’ll be due to spite.

But I wear a bow tie at work now. I’m known for it.

What Pegman Saw: Portland




Add Yours
  1. kirizar

    Loved the voice even as I was disturbed by the violence. Exactly what is the ratio of caffeine to violent depictions in your work, I wonder.

  2. Bear

    Being one who has had facial reconstruction surgery… I totally identify with the drugged up state and the pain state,and everything in between. And yes, even the ‘being treated differently afterwards’ thing, too. What an awesome story you wrote… makes my face ache just reading it. That’s a compliment, by the way! :) <3

  3. Dale

    What a wonderful read, Josh. We are normally limited to 100 or 150 words – it’s wonderful what happens when you let ‘er rip! I’d definitely read a novel by you :D

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