*this is a work of non-fiction.*
I pushed up the tap on the beer, swiveled on my feet, grabbed a napkin, and delicately placed the fresh pint on top of it in front of the customer, an old regular. In one swift motion, I grabbed the $5 bill waiting for me on the bar, turned around, entered the purchase into the old antique register, and returned to drop the $1 change, which I knew would be left as a tip to me. I glanced aside to the front of the bar and froze mid-swivel, dollar bill in hand. I was horrified.
Norman was using the pee bucket to shit, and it was liquid. I could hear and smell it at least 20 feet down the bar.
“Excuse me,” I said, dropping the dollar and barely looking over my shoulder as I quickly approached his living corner by the front door. I flipped up the locks that fixed the front doors in place, denying entry or exit.
“Wh-wh-what are you doing?” he stuttered out at me angrily, gearing up for a fight.
“I am closing the bar,” I replied cooly.
“Weh-weh- well, what time is it?”
“The bar doesn’a close ’til two.”
“Tonight, it closes at nine,” I replied, staring back at him menacingly, hands on my hips. He was gearing up for a fight, but I was ready to not only battle but win. A real line had been crossed with this shit.
He looked at me and, deciding it wasn’t worth it, didn’t even attempt to argue. He was a pathetic sight, sitting in a ratty old armchair and stained dark blue sweat pants hastily pulled up his legs but unable to get up past his ass and over his giant white belly. “There was no way he could have even wiped his ass clean after that,” I thought in horror, looking at the fabric armchair.
The bar was dead anyway, save a couple of regulars sitting as far down the long bar as they could get for him. Despite the fact there was a dirty old slob blob of a man living at the front of the bar, puffing cigars even though he had oxygen tubes fixed in his nostrils, the bar was actually pretty popular. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s was in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district, boasted old-fashioned scratch-made cocktails, a front-of-house staff composed almost entirely of beautiful young (often underage) women, a big fat orange (and incredibly lovable) house cat named Mr. Higgins, and was the only bar around that tolerated indoor cigarette, cigar, (and at times) cannabis smoke despite indoor smoking having been outlawed in California for over a decade at that time.
Millions of dollars worth of antique Tiffany’s lamps adorned the bar, flowing ferns tucked in around the tables and windows, and what he claimed to be 40 vintage motorcycles affixed to the ceiling above the space. An elaborate train on tracks wrapped around the room above the windows, and old historical artifacts and war memorabilia were lit in glass cases all around. Overall, it was supposed to give patrons the feeling of sitting in a rich old grandmother’s living room. This was Norman’s legacy, as he took credit for the concept of the “fern bar” and claimed the lemon drop martini as his invention. We boasted a diverse range of regulars, from lawyers, bankers, tech workers, and locals who just loved the weirdness. Tourists read about it online or stumbled on it on their own and were regularly milling about and taking photos of themselves with the bikes, the lamps, the drinks, or the cat. The place certainly had “charm.”
And, as I liked to say, “The drinks may cost you, but the show is always free,” my favorite phrase to utter when things were getting weird, as they were that night Norman let diarrhea loose in a little white plastic bucket as I served drinks down the bar.
It was obvious what I had to do — clean it and him up, administer some medications, and close the bar — but I sure as shit wasn’t going to do it sober. Despite being “on the wagon,” as we liked to call it, meaning I was trying to go sober, the sight and smell of the shit was enough to push me right off. I came behind the bar, beelined to the Jameson, and poured a small rocks glass with a double shot. I threw my head back and tossed the whiskey down my throat, and then set it down with purpose to start pouring another.
The two men sitting with their beers and cigarettes looked at me in horror; what could have possibly happened to provoke this? I slammed the second empty glass on the counter, took a deep breath, and said, “Bar’s closed for the night. Gotta leave through the back door when you’re ready.”
I filled them in as I tightly tied my hair up behind my head and grabbed a bottle of sanitizer and a handful of plastic gloves. I took a deep breath, quickly switching to breathing only through my mouth as I set out down the bar to clean diarrhea.
I knew this was part of why Norman kept me around, despite hiring and firing young women for sport and the entertainment of his regulars. If you could survive, the money was good: San Francisco minimum wage of $15 an hour plus tips, a minimum of $300 for an average bar shift, at least in 2006 before the economy crashed. Part of the job was taking care of Norman, administering pills and syringes of insulin, delivering food, cleaning up after him, and generally taking his abuse while serving and entertaining customers.
Norman took a liking to me because I was an empathetic caregiver who treated him like a human and loved his cat. I was also a quick, clean, efficient bartender who could entertain the clients and didn’t steal cash (only shots of liquor). I was the kind of person who chose to clean up diarrhea and settle him into bed instead of walking out completely and leaving him to sit in his shit until the following morning when the salad chef would be forced to clean it up when he showered him with a hose on a stool in in the men’s bathroom. Maybe he deserved to sit in his shit, but I knew if I didn’t do it, someone else would have to anyway, someone I considered a friend. Friends don’t make friends clean up crusty diarrhea.
Having closed up the bar, administered some drugs to settle his stomach, and prepared his bed on the tattered old couch up in the front window, I climbed the ladder to the loft overlooking the bar where he used to live, now home to a couple of old motorcycles, a small office setup, and a bag of laundry. I dug through and pulled out a freshly washed pair of sweatpants. I stumbled back down the ladder and dropped the last few feet to the floor, a cigarette dangling from my lips. I took a second to light it and inhale before approaching him with the fresh pants. Instead, I took another big cup of whiskey, finished the cigarette in weary peace, and joined him back at the end of the bar. I bent down to the floor, putting each swollen ankle into each leg hole, and did my best to stand up quickly without having to look his shriveled old dick in the face. With a big heave, I used all my strength to help pull him out of the chair where he uncomfortably leaned his weight on me, which I directed to the edge of the bar. Solidly propped against the bar, I finished cleaning him and the chair, pulled up his pants, and helped guide him to bed.
Norman was one of the most problematic humans to ever live. He was a terrible racist and homophobe, the latter of which because he had plenty of sex with men in his youth but hated that modern men were mostly comfortable being “out.” Years later, I began to see him as the perfect metaphor for the rapidly changing world around him. Outside, there was literal shit all over the streets, regardless of the gentrification that was transforming San Francisco into a high-tech hellhole. No matter how many shiny new towers replaced old saloons like ours, there was still shit everywhere. Inside he was surrounded by shit, but shit he could cling to, shit that would never change, shit that gave him value because it had value. Now he was literally dying surrounded by his shit at the front of the bar.
The understood reason he lived in the bar was to keep an eye on his shit. He kept an old pistol wrapped in grubby white dining napkins near him at the front of the bar, where he spent most of his days and all of his nights. One Tiffany’s lamp alone, the Wistera, was appraised for a cool $750,000. Like all the other lamps, it was chained to the bar and lit with very bright bulbs that were never shut off, even while he slept. Now he was dying in public filth surrounded by his millions of dollars of shit, just like the city itself.