I don’t want to be that man who sells ads on benches. Although a respectable profession, I really think it would make my depression much worse. Bartending appears to be my career as of now. It is a sales-type of position, I guess, but the alcohol suppresses my depression into vacation mode, so I’m alright with that. Bartending does in fact, however, provide the most lucrative of income for the most minimal amount of effort while getting to imbibe occasionally so it too aids in forced amnesia for a while at least so I can forget that I am actually bartending. It didn’t start out this way, of course. It never does. Bartending and serving people who couldn’t form a complete sentence on most nights provided a means to a definite end. Now the end looks just like the means and I can be a bit angry at times reflecting on it after the alcohol wears off.
One Tuesday afternoon an elderly, but upbeat fellow wandered in. He had a hard time sitting still, didn’t even wait to be waited on, but instead approached the take-out counter, ordered his desire and paced from seat to seat, apparently deciding where he would have his food delivered. After chasing him down, I got his drink and food and made conversation with him, because that’s what bartenders with psychology degrees do. He told me how he was from out of town. He told me how he was told we had the best gyros around. He told me how he was in town for business. He told me about the bench.
“I met this guy, he wanted his ad on a bench and I put it right over there,” he said, pointing behind himself out the window of the bar. The town’s dreariness never changed and had nothing to do with the weather. It had been a steel town outside of Pittsburgh (imagine that). Now its only signature was the bar and restaurants that kept the unemployed drunk or fed, usually primarily around the first of the month when their checks came in, and the only remnants of the steel mills hovered in the mysterious smells stinking up the air.
“Ahh, that’s good!” I shook my head and made eye contact, providing him a congratulatory smile. Of course, I didn’t care. Bartenders never do. He was nice enough, though. And he was my only customer. And Christmas was coming.
“Yeah, he said ‘John, here’s what I want on there’, and so I got it for him,” he continued, still moving like caffeine had taken over his body, or meth.
No, too early for the meth heads and he was way too old and nice. Caffeine, definitely caffeine and a youth he refused to allow to die, I thought.
“It’s there by the dollar store, you go see,” he continued. “You can even sit on it and go smoke, I allow you.”
I didn’t even smoke. Well maybe a little, but he didn’t know that. Maybe he assumed that I liked a little tobacco with my Crown Royal. Maybe he figured that most bartenders smoked, which he probably was right. Maybe he was a psychic who had to make a living selling ads on benches and wandered the world spreading subliminal messages on wooden slats under everyone’s asses spreading hope and warmth in run-down small towns everywhere.
My thoughts were interrupted by the bell signaling his gyro was done. My Pavlovian nature obeyed and I retrieved his lunch. After explaining to him how to actually eat the gyro, I retreated to the bar to hide for a while in my own thoughts about bills I had to pay and stared up at The Price Is Right aimlessly. I hadn’t watched this show in 20 years, but it still made me laugh as an excited chubby woman with bad teeth and a home perm’s name was called and she bounced onto the stage. So happy and excited. The reality of where I was startled me as a few other customers entered the bar.
A while later I returned with the man’s check. He was happily filled and already had his 20 dollar bill on the table.
“Very good, very good. Glad I stopped. I heard you had the best gyros around. They don’t make them like that anymore. Very good.” He seemed very happy. Very salesman-like too, like I might be in the market for a bench ad sometime in the near future.
“Glad you liked it. Yes, we make very good gyros. We only use the good stuff,” I reciprocated, reminding myself of him, like we were in some kind of contest.
He was up and moving around as I brought his change, ready to tackle the second part of his day with as much enthusiasm as he came in with.
“Thank you,” he said. “Here, this is yours.” He handed me $3 and made his way to the door, taking little quick steps staying two steps ahead of everything. “And don’t forget to go sit on that bench, it is good in the winter and you will all like it!”
“’I will,” I said. “Thank you and have a good day!”
Happy man, I thought. So happy about his ad on the bench. So depressing, I thought. I wondered how he could be so excited about it. One small ad on one small bench in the middle of one small town. It was all so deeply depressing and disturbing to me, but yet he was so happy. Was he really? I questioned it in my mind, while pouring a 22 ounce Bud into a frosted mug. Beer tastes much better out of a frosted mug. And you gotta get the head just right or it just monkeys it all up. Some people like salt or pepper or tomato juice in their beer, most just like it cold.
My day progressed along. Pizza here, beer there, tip here, smile there. Progressed along just fine. Many of my regulars returned as they always do, telling me all about their new grandbaby or how their second child was just accepted into Penn State or Pitt. The local drunks came in and did their shots and beers and were cut off in their usually accustomed manner. It was a good day.
My shift replacement arrived and I closed out and counted my tips and everyone handed me extra dollars in the bar after learning of my departure. Some even threw a shot or two my way, knowing what made me smile. An enthusiastic series of goodbyes soon followed as I made my way out the door waving as I left, as if I was never returning, funny. Goodbyes were always as welcoming as hellos.
Driving home and already having spent the money mentally that physically was still folded in my pocket, I thought about the bench guy. Damn, I forgot to look for the bench, I thought. Tomorrow.
I went to work the next day and the next. Weeks passed before I knew it. Luckily the seasons helped me keep it all straight. Sometimes the only way I knew what day of the week it was had been by the television programming and the bar’s day of the week specials. I still haven’t looked at the bench, let alone sit on it, and it’s been about a month. I can’t bring myself to. The sad little depressing thing. The sad little happy man living his life selling ads on benches when there was so much more that he could be doing.
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