Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The 86 look

The Monroe Street Tavern wasn’t cleverly named. It sat inconspicuously on the corner of Monroe and Sangamon, and quietly served it’s patrons the best in beer from around the world.. The beer was only Half the attraction. It used to be the anonymity, but that all came to a screeching halt when ,my boy Scratch, let it slip that I spent my late nights on the radio as “Big Daddy Guru B”. Most folks call me Guru and I’m fine with that, even though it was undeserved and unearned.

I don’t have all the answers, which is the other reason why I come here. The bartender, Zelda, has taught me more about how to live a life than most and, truth be told, I am a horrible student.

This was not one of those nights when I needed therapy or a shoulder to cry on. Scratch and me had shot some pool and had a few cocktails. He had a gig later and I was going on shift in the middle of some A to Z music weekend, and I had a feeling I was stuck with the shitty end of the alphabet.

That night we met up with Wayno the wino, former coke dealer and Scratch’s old roommate Wayno had quit the life when his attention span and nervous system started to fail him. He decided that he was gonna settle down and die like a good American from booze and matrimony. Wayne is on his second marriage, his third kid and his 15th anniversary. he will probably outlive us all.

Rounding out the foursome that evening was Jeff Waters. Jeff never had a nick-name. He was too dignified for that. Jeff was the kind of guy who never loosened his tie, never slouched, and never shared a political opinion that I agreed with. He knew his pool, his booze, and his music trivia up to 1982. Everything from 83 on was about country music and how rock died the minute it went electronic. Jeff liked to fish and bowl and talk about the stock market, but mostly Jeff liked to drink.

Wayno had given me the customary hug and kiss on the lips that so often accompanied his departure. Scratch gave me the usual slap on the back and “later brother” that was part of his ritual.

Zelda poured me a beer without asking. I smiled and sat down at the nearly empty bar. Jeff Waters stood next to me telling some story about almost getting eaten by a bear or something. Zelda looked at me with that particular expression on her face. It was a look I had seen a few times before, We called it the “86” look. The look that meant someone was about to be cut off, or thrown out, or have their car keys confiscated. The look was an unforgiving one, sometimes filled with pity mostly laced with derision.

In my long history of drinking at the Monroe, I have bounced my share of folks for being drunk, or stupid, or rude, or some combination of those behaviors. My method is the “best friend” method. I start a conversation and get all buddy buddy and convince the guy to pay the check and go home. I usually get the poor drunk bastard to tip and everything.

But this was not just any drunk bastard. This was Jeff Waters. The self-proclaimed king of the Monroe Street Tavern. Jeff and Wayno, Me and Scratch had been drinking at The Monroe since the day they got their booze license. We were the kings of the pool table. I doubled as part time bouncer and lord of the Juke Box, and Jeff...Jeff was the Master of Bullshit. The more he drank the bigger the bullshit. Jeff had made some wonderful claims. On one particularly drunken night, Jeff had invented the internet, introduced Guinness to the Americas, and was currently beta testing the Kama Sutra.

Jeff Waters had a complicated relationship with beer. Somewhere inside Jeff was a line that separated sober and drunk. The margin of beer it took to cross that line was exactly one. It is not that Jeff had a low tolerance, it was that there were no intermediate steps. Usually there are steps. Normal folks go from sober to buzzed to tipsy, to mostly drunk, to bombed. Jeff did not follow the proper dance steps. His trip was directly from sober to bombed.

Most people have drunken tells, ticks and traits that are dead giveaways that they are bombed. Slurred speech, double vision, crying, loud talking, those are pretty normal. Jeff was a rocker. He would stand in one place and rock forward, catch his balance, and rock backwards. He never actually fell, but it was occasionally a close call.

We had always managed to get Jeff out of the bar before the 86 look was required. Today were too late.

“Jeff honey,” Zelda said. “Why don’t you give me those car keys and we can get you a cab home.”

“Huh,” Jeff replied. “don be stoopd, ican liv mecar, idhav to ack getit in tomro.”

Did I mention the indecipherable speech. I probably should have mentioned the indecipherable speech.

“Dude,” I said. “I’ll make sure your car gets home.”

“Noone derivs mecar b’me. Imfin, icndriv mesilf. i...iwll be Okaaaaaaaaaaaaay.” Jeff replied, and weaved and rocked.

This went on for 15 minutes. We argued about the car. He turned down rides home from other regulars. We offered to pay for the cab. Jeff Waters did not realize how much he was loved. Every bar needed a good bullshitter, and Jeff was ours. His tales of putting sleeper holds on brown bears while camping, his claims to knowing the average weight of the common sparrow, the insistence that he sang backup for Garth Brooks made us smile and groan.

“Give me the keys,Jeff.” I said.

“OkOkOKOk” He said. “Lemme goto da res room anden You-u-u can ha mi keez.”

Jeff staggered to the men’s room and was gone for another 15 minutes. My assumption was that he was trying to compose himself, perhaps practice speaking in preparation for another 10 rounds.

Zelda was getting worried. She liked Jeff, but this mostly had to do with cleaning up vomit in the men’s room. She sent me to check on him, but as I was walking to the restrooms, I caught a glimpse of Jeff sneaking through the dining area. His keys firmly in his hand.

Somewhere, Jeff had found drunken swiftness. He was headed for the exit and I was in pursuit. Outside, underneath the streetlights, I saw Jeff heading for his car. I finally caught up with him and grabbed him by the ear.

“Give me the keys Jeff!” I shouted as I held tightly to his lobe.

“No…” He shouted back. “Ima fin, Ikn dry v miself.”

“You promised to give me the keys. Do you want to be known as a liar?” I was trying to make him angry.

“I...will...not...give...you...my...keys!” Jeff said slowly and loudly, concentrating to pronounce every word properly.

And that’s when I punched him.

One quick shot to the face that knocked his glasses to the ground. One quick shot that made him huff and puff like a diabolical asthmatic. he couldn’t speak. he just stared at me for a minute, turned, and started speed walking.

I don’t know what happened after that. I went back in for another beer, and to tell the story to Zelda and the regulars.

My best guess is that he drove home, but I don’t really know. I figure I did all I could. In the weeks to come, I hear he pulled over to take a nap. I also heard he woke up in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

Jeff Waters is lucky to be alive, but it took him many more drunken nights to learn that when you get “the 86 look” from Zelda, you don’t play around.

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