Stone: Catching a whiff of mortality in a New Jersey bar
I’m sick of politics. Even our own amusing, small-town politics.
So I thought I’d veer off track this week and turn away from politics. I hear sighs of relief from the crowd — and in that spirit of good fellowship I want to assure you that the little tale I’m about to tell is not as gloomy as it might sound.
So, I have recently been exchanging emails with a long-lost hometown friend, a great buddy I lost touch with about 45 years ago.
You know how those things happen. And now, after all that time gone by, we have a lot to write about. Scraps of what we’re doing now, bigger helpings of things that happened back then.
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We share a lot of great memories — those were good years — but we don’t share them quite exactly. Each of us remembers different slices of the same events.
In our last exchange, I mentioned events that occurred in New Jersey, at the tail end of one particularly long day’s adventures. He remembered most of the day, but nothing about events in New Jersey.
But the Jersey part of the story was clear in my mind, because of a minor incident: one of those moments — never mentioned to anyone — that snags forever in your memory.
To be specific, it was the first time that I felt the chilly breath of mortality blowing through my life.
Not a moment easily forgotten.
By the way, this is the part I was telling you about. That isn’t as gloomy as it might seem. Young as I was — and I was — it was a good time to catch at least that faint wheeze of mortality in the far distance.
A carload of us had stopped at a run-down, roadside bar in the middle of the afternoon. We were lost and, this being the late 1960s, we were looking for a payphone so we could call for directions.
It was a barren industrial area with warehouses and chain-link fences. This ratty bar was the closest thing to civilization — defined as civilization often could be back then, as “a place that might have a payphone.”
Inside, it was dark (required) with a couple of sad and desperate drinkers at the bar (also required). And no, I’m not making this up. Those things are cliches because they’re so often true.
While the guy who was in charge of our expedition went looking for the phone, I headed for the men’s room.
The bathroom was what you’d expect in a place like that: not pleasant. I’ll spare you the details, but the main object of interest in the room was an old guy in a dingy, white suit, with strands of gray hair trailing from under a panama hat jammed on the back of his head.
In that white suit and panama hat, he could have been a riverboat gambler. He could have been a plantation owner. But what he was instead, was an old man using the urinals at a rundown New Jersey bar.
Urinals — plural. There were three in a row on the wall, and he was sprawled across them all, trying to use the center one, but too drunk — or maybe too old and weak — to stand upright. He had his right arm out, braced against the wall at the end of the row, and his legs spraddled in a wide stance, blocking the rest of the row.
That wide stance was limited by the grimy white pants pulled about halfway down his thighs. No mere unzipping of the fly for the gentleman in the white suit.
I stood for a moment. The man gave what might have been a grumble, might have been a groan. Still having a young man’s bladder, I left him to his apparently difficult and possibly painful task and went back to the car to join my friends.
As we drove, I sat in the back seat and tried to figure out the man in the once-white suit.
You can say he was seedy, the bar was seedy, so it all fits — but oversimplification will never lead to the truth. If it had been a bar in some tropical backwater, sure. But that white suit and panama hat — no matter how beat up — didn’t belong in that industrial New Jersey wasteland.
Eventually we gave up on whatever it was we were trying to do and headed home — and I had time to consider that same man back in the day when the suit was clean and his posture better. How far did that guy fall to wind up in that bathroom? And how did he hang onto the suit the whole way?
I imagined that it must have taken some strong wind to carry this man in his white suit all the way to where he fetched up against those urinals, struggling.
I wondered, is that what lies ahead for us? For all of us? Even me?
Not exactly that, of course. Not the men’s room, the urinals, the white suit. But some scent of that lies ahead, some taste carried on the wind that is coming for each of us.
As I said, not necessarily gloomy, but the kind of thing that sticks in your mind.
So, when my friend emailed to say he remembered most of the day, but not stopping in New Jersey, I didn’t argue.
I knew we had made that stop. But why would I drag a friend through a moment that had mattered in such a strange way to me — and only to me.
I’m certain the man in the white suit never thought about that moment again for the rest of his life. Any more than Lucifer — once, in his own white suit, the most beautiful of all Heaven’s angels — remembered any single moment of his endless fall from God’s side to the depths of hell.
Which, I do believe, bear a distinct resemblance to certain stretches of industrial New Jersey.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.
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