The Lark Tavern, Albany NY

(It was a new approach that would save a lot of money.  When I was working at The Lark Tavern, the State of New York decided to release thousands of mental patients and move them to group homes.  One afternoon one of them, a guy named Danny, walked into our bar.)

It was a slow day, and now this quiet guy had plopped himself down – medium height, clean shaven, with an easy-going, goofy smile.

“Danny,” I said, “Should you be drinking?”

I’d already heard a little about him.  There was a neighborhood crisis center just down the street, and the counselors from Refer Switchboard stopped into The Lark now and then, talking shop.  We learned about a guy who grew up in a mental hospital.

Danny’s family had sent him there when he was five-years-old because they couldn’t handle his strange behavior.  For the next twenty years his world was a row of hospital beds, and the nurses’ station, and a slick tile floor beneath his state-issued slippers.

Now he had been released.

It’s called Deinstitutionalization,” a counselor told us, The state plans to move half of its patients into nearby communities.”

Stacey, one of the new bartenders, asked if the plan included warning all the neighborhood pubs.

Danny was taken to a group home.  I pictured them dropping him off, the motor still running, and someone saying, “There you go, Danny!”  The car door swings shut, and just like that he’s in the wider world.  He stands on the front stoop and looks around, grinning.

For the first time, Danny lived in a house, on a street, in a neighborhood.

Each day he stepped off the stoop there were endless possibilities.  He could walk down whatever street he liked, and stop at anyplace he liked.  Today he walked into The Lark Tavern, sat down and ordered a beer, probably for the first time ever.

“I’d like a cold one!” he said, with a big smile.

I looked at him, an overgrown kid, his only concept of what bars are like pieced together from watching the hospital TV.  I had to think about this for a minute.

“Danny, how about a Coke?”

On a sunny day, a bar feels so much like home.  The bay window at the end filled the place with light as Danny played a few old tunes on the jukebox.  He scooped up a handful of peanuts from the tin washtub.  He sat with shells scattered around him, grinning, on top of the world.  “I’ll have another one!” he said, pushing his soda glass forward.

We always had a few customers at the bar in the afternoons, regulars mostly.  Danny came in every day.  He was neatly dressed, pleasant with the staff, and after a while the regulars barely gave him a second look.  They probably thought he was the quiet sort, a bit odd, but that was his business.  He sat alone, but whenever we came over he gave us a quick smile and blurted out, “How are you, today?”  We all knew he was excited just to be allowed to stay.

The days went by, and Danny started to talk with the customers.  At first I was concerned.
If he made people uncomfortable, we’d have to ask him to leave.  As it turned out, he was surprisingly at ease, commenting about the weather, about something that was on TV, or how the New York Yankees were doing.  “I like Darryl Strawberry,” Danny said to someone watching the game.

The man agreed and Danny was beaming.  He was a regular guy now, talking about everyday stuff in a bar.  “I’ll be right back,” he said when he got up to go to the men’s room.  He gestured to his stool, making sure I would save it for him.  He had found his spot.

In the outside world small differences keep people from talking, but inside a pub it doesn’t take much to connect.  The old timers had their seats at the end, talking with the guys who worked at the corner gas station.  State employees from the government offices a few blocks away slid down to make room for some college kids.  Someone unemployed joked with a doctor or lawyer.  Danny sat with his Coke, happy to chat with one customer or another.

Then he took an interest in the women.  I should have seen it coming.

It’s a different conversation, talking with a woman in a bar.  Most of the women weren’t interested in Danny and they let him know.  They didn’t respond, or looked the other way.  One of them swiveled in her seat, turning her back on him while he was talking as though something else had her attention.  Danny realized it was a lost cause and quietly got up.

“I didn’t mean to bother you,” he said, and went back to his stool.

One afternoon a new woman came in, and she seemed more friendly toward Danny.  She gave him a causal nod as he introduced himself, and when he sat down beside her, she appeared attentive and listened to what he had to say.  Danny told her he liked her dress.  He got her to laugh a few times.  “Wait, I’ve got another one!” Danny said, and they talked for almost an hour.

A few days later they sat together again, and this went on for several weeks.  When they were at the bar they’d sit and talk, and then one day Danny told me they were going to meet somewhere for lunch.

“That’s great, Danny,” I said, although I wondered.  He was a good-looking guy, I guess, if you stepped back and looked at him.  Then you’d remember, he spent his life in a mental hospital.  He didn’t have a job.

By now we knew that the woman worked in an office at the state government complexes,
downtown.  She was attractive enough, pretty in a way.  She sat with her drink and Danny with his Coke, and it made you wonder, “What’s the story there?”

As we watched them leave one afternoon, one of the new waitresses said that they were probably having sex.  “Maybe Danny is a good lover,” she said, and somebody called out, “Yea . . . right!”

“He might be really hung,” she said, and the entire place burst into laughter.

Apparently they had a good lunch because they continued to meet at The Lark, talking
about things they’d just seen on the TV.  Sometimes when they left together, Danny struggled to keep the smile off his face.  After a while I wondered if I should say something to her; she knew about Danny and the hospital, but just to be sure.

Social life can be pretty chancy in a bar, but Danny and the woman from the government offices appeared to get along well and it seemed to do Danny a world of good.  Maybe it was the sex, if they were having sex.  He was definitely more relaxed, more confident now, and he’d order his Coke as though he really belonged.  All the staff liked him, and he had a friend for the afternoons whiled away in a neighborhood bar.

Danny was at the jukebox when Stacey said, “He’s hung his life on The Lark Tavern like a coat on a hook.”

As the weeks continued to pass, however, we noticed a gradual change in Danny.  It’s hard to describe, but there were small things – a difference in the way he acted, and how he sat on his stool.  He turned to her one day, hands in his lap, and there was almost a pleading expression on his face.

Everyone might feel that way at times, but they normally don’t show it in a bar.  At that moment he looked out of place, too childlike to be here.

The woman had been patient with him, but it was clear that the situation with Danny was
beginning to bother her.  They faced each other and appeared to be arguing.  Their voices were too low to be heard, but her gestures were stern, choppy.  And sometimes she’d just sit there, looking at him hard, not saying a word.

One afternoon, she stood up in the middle of their conversation.  “You have to leave all
that behind you, Danny,” she said loudly, picking up her purse and jacket.  “You have to stop living in the past.”  Then she left.

We never saw her again.

“I guess she and I will have to wait for a while,” Danny said when I asked a few days later.  “She’s very busy with her work right now,” he explained.

All the staff knew the relationship was over.

Danny tried to talk with other women, but they always turned away, or got up and took another seat.  Danny sat with his hands wrapped around a glass of Coke.

“Danny,” I said, “Maybe it would be better if you didn’t talk about the hospital right away.”

“What else am I going to talk about?”  He looked right at me.  “That’s who I am.  It’s all I’ve got . . . the hospital.”

One day Danny sat not talking with anyone.  The staff paid attention to him whenever we walked by, asking how things were going, the usual cheerfulness.  But he didn’t smile.  I wanted to do something, but what?  He sat in his spot, empty stools on either side, alone in the crowd.

After a few hours, he got up to go to the men’s room.  When he didn’t come back for a
while, I knocked on the door.

“Danny,” I said, knocking, “Danny, are you in there?”

No answer.  I twisted the door knob back and forth, and knocked harder.  “Danny, what’s
going on, pal?  Are you OK?”

When pounding on the door didn’t bring an answer, one of the regulars came over and
Stacey ran out from behind the bar.  Someone grabbed a hammer and a screwdriver; we popped the bolts from the hinges and pulled the door out of its frame.

Danny was sitting on the tile between the toilet and the sink.  His back was against the wall, his sleeves rolled up.  There was blood everywhere.  He sat in a puddle of it.  His shirt was soaked.  Arms loose at his sides, a razor blade had fallen on the floor near his open hand.

He raised his head and looked at me.

Danny was carried out on a stretcher.  One of the paramedics shoved equipment back
into a medical duffle bag as they took him outside.  “He’ll be fine,” the paramedic said, “His cuts are across the wrist.”

“Takes a long time to bleed to death that way.  Cut yourself lengthwise, open up a long section of the vein, and you’ll be dead in a few minutes.”

The ambulance was backed-up onto the sidewalk in front of The Lark Tavern, its rear doors open.  Two fire trucks had parked beside the ambulance.  The lights on the vehicles continued to flash their warning in silence . . . but it was too late now.  I stood at the bay window and watched the ambulance doors close.

We didn’t see Danny again.  Someone followed up with the Refer counselors and we found out that he was going to be OK.  Later, we heard he was sent back to Marcy State Hospital.

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16 Responses to DANNY

  1. Starbucks8294 says:

    Man, you outdid yourself with this one. What a story!

  2. Llylak says:

    You’ve told us about the strippers, old bartenders, and the drinking and all, but these are the posts I enjoy most. This was very sad, and moving. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. David says:

    Now that I have stopped sobbing, I can say, “wow.” Thank you for sharing this story. You have outdone yourself once again.

  4. Susan P says:

    That is so sad. I felt so bad, I can’t imagine what you were feeling watching them put Danny into the ambulance. It is sad but a well told story.

  5. Case says:

    An economic crunch can cause all kinds of problems. You put a face on the tragic human consequences. It’s one of your best posts.

  6. Cheryl says:

    This is such a beautiful, bittersweet and tragic story. You captured the moment wonderfully, very well written. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Sonnia Rice says:

    I remember Deinstitutionalization, I was working for the State of NY at the time. Though there are group homes for some of these poor souls, there sure is not enough follow up on their care. Many of our homeless are mentally ill. Very sad indeed. Thank you Mike for sharing your story. Sonnia

  8. Jason says:

    Tough life, tough story. It’s a side of the bar life not many people see when they’re out and about. Thanks for the look.

  9. Colleen says:

    This is my favorite story. It encompasses Danny’s experiences and reactions in a social context and his misguided behavior when dealing with distress. The first time I read this story I was moved and to this day, it still impacts me.

  10. DAbertini says:

    Not my kind of story, but I have to admit I did read it through to find out what happened. Pretty tough. It’s a tough life. This was a good post.

  11. Matthew says:

    This is the best story I’ve read here. I’ve been to the Lark Tavern and I can see this happening there. It’s a cool place, all kinds of people at the bar. Wish we had a place like it in Buffalo.

  12. Delia says:

    That was beautiful Mike, sad, but beautiful. you rock

  13. Jake says:

    First time here, I have to say I’m impressed. This is quite a sampling of stories you’ve collected. I’m a former bartender myself.

  14. Matt R says:

    Really meaningful and moving, Mike… glad I stumbled on this today. See you at JD’s.

  15. Jill says:

    Heart warming yet heart breaking

  16. MikeQ says:

    Jill: Thanks for reading! You know how it is when you put something out there … you especially want the fellow writers whose opinions you respect to take a look at it. Feel free to email me any comments/suggestions … it’s all a process, right? See you soon.

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