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Boozy Breakfast

My brother Maury, a talented writer whose books are available here, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Breakfast to write the following:

Liquid Breakfast by Maury Barr

We opened at nine, but I was there at eight to make coffee, fill the till from the safe, and get the place ready for another day. Coming off Pill Hill where I lived in an older apartment amongst all the new hospitals and clinics, I could see up Pine Street. It had been a raucous night. Broken glass and litter lay on the sidewalk and into the gutters of the street. Marybelle’s was already open to catch the early wino traffic looking for that “fur” of the “dog who bit me” the night before; but, The Cove, where I worked, wanted a better clientele, said Morris, the owner. “A neighborhood tav, that’s what we are,” he said while checking a glass schooner to show me how clean they needed to be, no lipstick smears. “I’m hiring you to be one of the neighborhood – not just talk and be friendly to people. A bartender is part shrink and needs to listen. You may think the best bartender is the extrovert – Mr. Jim Friendly – who cracks good jokes and keeps the party going. But that’s not the BEST bartender. The best is the shy fellow, basically an introvert, who has thought of all the hard questions and keeps trying on answers. Who can listen to a guy who’s about to lose his girlfriend, or the gal whose boyfriend is seeing somebody else and she’s paying his rent. Somebody who actually listens, not who wants to make himself the center of attention, but who makes the customer the center of attention.”

That was two months ago, in the spring, and this was now the early days of August and Seattle’s foggy mornings had changed into warm and clear – when everyone but us abandons downtown for vacations at the seashore or mountains. “What’s happening, Luce?” I asked the lanky, very disheveled man sitting sideways against the glass tavern doors. An empty pint of Patty’s Ruby Port lay next to his trouser leg, and I could see it was wine that had wet down the concrete area around him, not blood, and probably not piss, but who knows. The glass bottle was green which was odd given the sweet, red wine it had supplied. The odor of stale tobacco brought my attention to cigarette butts scattered all around like visible, puffed up spit.

Lucien woke with a start when I touched his shoulder. One eye opened to stare at me, and the other had a large bruise around it. “Oh, it’s you,” he said slurring. “I fell. Thought you were those…kids.”

“You’re hurting. Anything broken? Can you stand?” I held him under his arm and when that was not working, embraced him from behind. I had to hold him a couple minutes until his legs, which had probably gone to sleep, could get over the wobbles and straighten. “Let’s go inside.” I let him stand on his own while I fished keys out of my pocket and opened the door. Lucien took his place immediately at the near end of the bar by the window. It was probably where he’d ended the night before, but then he stood up again quickly and walked briskly past me toward the men’s room at the other end of the room.

I saw that Mike, the night bartender, had left things in fairly good order. I racked a couple of cues leaning on the low wall between the pool tables and the pinball machines. We had one of the new video games with Space Invaders on it, at Dee Dee’s suggestion. Morris would not have even considered bringing such a thing into the tavern except he and Dee Dee had an “understanding” a few years back; she was from Anchorage and made a lot of money in the skin trade – I figured she was more Madame than trick, and Morris respected her opinion about business. I was replacing her as day bartender and manager while she was off somewhere vacationing, probably the seashore. “Watch out no kids sneak in to play it,” Morris warned me. “My grandkids are hooked on that video shit.”

I relocked the door and was glad Lucian was still in the can while I rotated the dial on the safe and pulled out the cash drawer to put in the cash register. Stacks of bills tied with brown bank paper lay beside the till, and I did not touch them. Morris left the safe sitting in the hall near the back door, and I had always thought he probably had a security camera aimed right at it. Who would just leave a safe out in the open with a tavern full of our unreliable patrons – let’s be honest: drunks, thieves, whores and whoremongers? Morris was hard to figure. He hired ex-cons fresh out of Walla Walla to clean his home swimming pool and mow the lawns of his rentals.

I was recounting the ones in the till when Luce got back to the bar. I refused to think of him as anything but “Luce” or “Lucien” although most called him “Lucy.” But he maintained some degree of dignity, and he was trying. Why bring him down with ridicule? He had splashed water on his face and his hair was wet and slicked back. The lens on the bruised eye was broken on his glasses.

I put down what I was doing – the till always had been right on the money – and brought some scotch tape over to him. He took the glasses off and held them out to me. His hands shook like a couple of maple leaves still on the branch in a late October breeze.

He brought a piece of glass up in his hand, and I could see it did match the piece of the lens that was missing. Miracle, when you think of what shape he was in and also that he could not see much without his glasses. “Legally blind,” he’d told me once.

“Coffee’ll be ready in a few minutes,” I told him.

He shook his head, no. “Couple a shots,” he said, pleading with his naked eyes.

I fastened the tape on and handed the glasses back to him. “Not perfect,” I apologized, “but maybe a little better for you.” He thanked me. “You buying?” I asked.

He again shook his head, no.

“You blew your whole check?”

With a shrug, he said he was sorry. “Kids in my pockets. Too.”

“Yesterday was the first of the month.”

“Mr. Wang.” He pointed out to the street and then motioned with his thumb to the left.

I nodded. The grocer cashed checks and held accounts for many of the people in the neighborhood, a banking function, which meant they were able to save back some money to buy groceries and spread out their booze and pill habits throughout the long month. They would go to Wang for “loans” against their accounts, and the grocery store made some money on a “service charge” which, more to Wang’s honor, was not exorbitant.

“Good. Smart of you,” I said to Lucien. I poured two shots of port and dug in my pocket for money to cover the cost. If he remembered, he’d flip me back some when he was flush again with a loan of his own money from Mr. Wang.

I saw Lucien reach for one of the glasses, but his hand shook so badly, I knew he would spill it all. This was a fairly usual event, not just for Lucien, in The Cove mornings. Men and women would dribble the first one down the shirt or blouse managing to get some of the calming but cursed liquid down their gullets. A couple shots more, and they steadied right out, and a few shots beyond those, and they were ready for another day on Pine Street.

I told him to hold very still. I lifted up the glass and poured half of it into his open mouth. I let him swallow which he did eagerly, and then I poured the rest. We went through the ritual one more time. “Now, coffee?” I asked. “Maybe a sausage?” I looked over at the new polish dogs I’d just spiked in the glassed rotisserie on the back bar. They were not cooked yet, but he could wait.

“Naw,” he said getting off the stool. “Gotta get my glasses fixed, got things to do.” He looked me straight in the face, which was a kind of thank you, really, and said, “Breakfast’s over.”


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