#932: An Encounter

May 25th, 2018

He sat at the end of the bar, smiling and talking to himself. He rocked a little, nodding along to whatever internal beat drove him.

“Man,” I thought. “That guy is drunk.

He wasn’t.

My friend and I had stopped for a drink to dissect the wonderful movie we had just watched. She suggested a whiskey bar with a selection of fancy beers so we could talk out the film in comfort. Fancy drinks for a fancy conversation.

It was quiet when we entered. A few dates. A few out-of-town middle-aged men enjoying Chicago’s finest. Dark wood and comfortable chairs. I liked the place immediately. We sat at the bar.

A date left, body language signaling what their next step of the night was, and a young man toddled up. He had been in the bar already, just wandered with a Budweiser to the now-empty seat at the main stage, right by the bartender, right by the beer.

He was in his mid-20s perhaps. Young, handsome, black, skinny, small beard and short-cropped hair. And he sat, bobbing and rocking and making movements with his lips, singing to a song no one else could hear. I liked him immediately but couldn’t say why.

The night went on. The conversation about the movie (“Disobedience” — see it, Rachel McAdams was fantastic in it) spiraled out into one of those barroom talks about everything and nothing. We talked about why I hate Ferris Bueller and am learning to hate Marty McFly, about aging, about whether the movie we had just seen should have cast more Jews and fewer really goyish-looking brunettes. We talked about whiskey and beer and homemade lunches. And with every noun, adjective and gerund formation of irregular verbs in our conversation, the young drunk man with Budweiser after Budweiser nodded to that song of his.

When we got the check, I loudly asked the bartender to put one of his drinks on it. I liked the guy and thought it might spur a conversation.

The man didn’t move, just kept nodding. Then I noticed his eyes never met anyone’s. The bartender told him I paid for one of his drinks. The man blinked a few times, smiled and said, “Then I’ll have another Budweiser” before heading to the bathroom.

The bartender came with the check.

“I don’t think he understood,” the bartender said.

It wasn’t the words so much as the tone. The bartender said it kindly, softly and with an apologetic smile. He was trying to spare someone embarrassment. I realized it was me.

From the bartender, we learned that the man comes in several nights a week. Always alone. Always Budweiser. Always silent and smiling.

“He doesn’t talk to anyone,” the bartender said. “Just to himself.”

The man did come back and it apparently had clicked for him what had happened. Smiling broadly but still averting gaze, he held out two hands for my friend and I to shake. We did and he thanked us kindly, but he wasn’t the encounter I used to title this story. The moment I want to capture in whatever immortality these few pixels flashing across your screen can offer isn’t a man who has his own life, his own issues and his own troubles to handle. I wish him the best, but he’s not the story.

The encounter happened a split moment after the words “Just to himself.” The encounter wasn’t spoken, just a look on a face of a man slinging cozy drinks at a whiskey bar on a warm spring night. It was kindness. It was pity. It was a look of admiration I couldn’t ignore or explain. It was a sad, human, complicated gaze while a troubled man was using the bathroom.

The bartender looked at the empty seat and smiled sadly thinking of the kind regular with something wrong inside.

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