(This note is about being a twenty-something bartender at The Lark Tavern.)
I saw her on my first day in Albany when she stepped out of the corner store with her arms around a bagful of groceries. Another day she was on Madison Ave by the public courts, a tennis racket in one hand and a sports bag over her shoulder.
She had the air of a model. Dressed in short shorts and a white Minnie Mouse T-shirt, she was tall and slim with a runway stride. Her short blonde hair bounced around her face as she walked down the street.
I’d watch her walk by and wonder — “What would it take to have a girlfriend like that?” I imagined standing beside her on a street corner someday, waiting to cross. What I would I say to her?
When I began working at The Lark Tavern, I still felt like a bit of an outsider in this new town. I’d notice the other guys with their girlfriends, and wish that could be me.
Late one Friday night when The Lark was packed, the tall blond from the tennis courts showed up out of nowhere. Customers were three deep at the bar waving their hands for attention while the wait staff shouted out the drinks that they wanted. I spun around from the back bar with a liquor bottle in each hand, and suddenly we were face to face. She was looking straight at me, leaned in between two seated customers.
I stood frozen. Before I could think of what to say, she said “Tanqueray and tonic.”
I set her drink on the cocktail napkin; she took her change and turned away.
She was with friends, and they squeezed into the back room where Mr. Scruff was rocking the keys on the old upright piano. I was busy all night and didn’t see her again until closing time when she and her friends were leaving.
As they walked past the bar, she turned to the brunette and said, “He has Mediterranean eyes.” They both glanced at me.
Back at my apartment after work, I was still thinking about her. She had said to her friend, “He has Mediterranean eyes.” I’d seen her so many times, and not one of those times had the courage to say anything, not even hello.
Next time, it would be different.
But now I wouldn’t see her again for months, not until late one Sunday after a long shift at The Lark.
Sunday was always a long day. I’d get home around 6:00 A.M. after closing Saturday night, and I had to be back to open the place four hours later. Sunday was my only day shift.
Behind the bar, I’d spike my coffee with Jameson Irish Whiskey and wonder how I was going to make it. Then the Sunday night bartender would walk in — I’d step around to the other side, pull up a bar stool and just relax.
Sitting at the bar is like a day at the beach. Doing absolutely nothing and not feeling guilty about it. Through the bay window, we’d watch the people walk by on their way to somewhere. It looked like they were in a fish bowl.
Sometimes I’d stay all night, talking with anyone who happened to sit down beside me. One of our bartenders, Stacey Conway, called it “the drug of worthless company.”
Business was slow that Sunday night and The Lark stopped serving at 1:00 A.M., so I headed down the street. It wasn’t until I pulled on the door handle at G. J.’s, that I realized they were closed. G. J.’s was always open until 4:00 A.M., no matter what, but now it was pitch black inside. I pulled the handle again . . . and then saw the handwritten note taped to the glass:
“We regret that G. J.‘s is closed tonight due to the untimely death of our beloved bartender, Josie.”
Later I heard from the buzz on the street that Josie’s boyfriend, one of the infamous Burke brothers, had walked over to her apartment and shot her in the head with a rifle. I later heard that it was Jeremy Burke, the guy who had hurled his beer bottle against the back bar mirror (see an earlier post, “The Tip”.)
The Burke family was notorious in the Washington Park area. Those guys were always in one kind of trouble or another.
Apparently Josie and Jeremy Burke had dated for several months but when she decided to end the relationship, in typical Burke fashion, Jeremy did something stupid and violent. He went to Josie’s apartment and shot her in the head. Then he put the barrel of the rifle in his mouth and using his toe to pull the trigger, he blew what brains he had all over the walls of her apartment.
I stared into the darkened bar, one hand still on the door handle. I didn’t know the details then, only that Josie was dead . . . and everyone knew Josie.
I wanted to go someplace quiet.
Walking around the corner, I passed The Outside Inn. At night this place was always overrun with a younger crowd, but what else would be open? The Outside Inn was mobbed with college students, but there was an empty spot at the end by the front window.
All around me, the kids were loud and obnoxious, but I didn’t care. I had a quiet seat. At the other end of the bar, a fresh-scrubbed college boy with a thick neck and his baseball cap on backwards was singing along with the jukebox: “Midnight at the Ooaa . . . sis!”
I swiveled in my seat and glanced out the window just to be looking somewhere else.
That’s when I saw her. The tall blonde from the tennis courts. She was walking down the sidewalk with her tennis racket in one hand, wearing that Minnie Mouse T-shirt. It was two o’clock in the morning.
She stopped at the window, glanced inside, then turned to come into the place.
In the doorway, she looked around, then walked over and sat on the empty stool next to me.
I made more room for her, then faced straight ahead. She was sitting next to me. I had no idea what to do.
She ordered a drink and talked with the bartender before he left to serve someone else. It was a long time before I thought of anything to say.
“A little late for tennis, isn’t it?” I asked, nodding to the racket propped by her bar stool.
“The courts are open all night,” she looked at me and smiled, “They turn down the main lights, but you can see enough to practice.”
“You just have to hop over the chains.”
We introduced ourselves and began talking about tennis. We talked about the Greenwich Village feel of Washington Park. We laughed about some of the encounters we’d had with the neighborhood street people; Michael the Archangel and James the Greek. She didn’t mention the Lark Tavern. When she finished her drink, I offered to buy her another.
“It’s my pleasure,” I said.
I told her that I was a bartender and worked at The Lark, but then something distracted us — a group of college kids laughing. We turned back and we were already talking about something else.
For over an hour, we sat side by side on our bar stools as though traveling somewhere together. I offered to buy her another drink, but now she hesitated. “Not unless you want to walk me home,” she laughed. “I’ll be nervous about walking alone if I have any more.”
“Sure, Kristin, I’ll walk you home.” I wanted desperately to sound casual. “Sure, why not?”
(For Kristin, Part II click here.)