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THE CON JOB
It was the only seat at the bar. I took it, though my instinct cried otherwise. The man to my right was gaunt and evidently drunk, the man held a glass of coffee. Vacant, blood shot eyes. He noticed my accent and asked where I was from, and I returned the courtesy.
"Well, I was let out of prison this morning," the man told me.
Working in blue collar America provides access to those from all walks - and a few crawls - of life. I once had a rolltender in Wisconsin casually mention, as we stood watching my machine run, "Blew up a gas station once. Did five for it." I asked why he blew up the gas station. The young man shrugged.
"Fuckin' guy owed me money."
I worked in Chicago with a man named Owen Garland, who told me he had once robbed a bank.
"We got thirty thousand bucks," he told me over a glass of beer in the Dew Drop Inn, in suburban Niles. "And we went right down to the Mississippi river and rented a house boat, and we partied our asses off for three weeks! We blew thirty thousand bucks in three weeks! It was great, all the booze and all the broads you wanted, partied our asses off! Thirty thousand bucks in three weeks! Did eight in Leavenworth for it."
Owen Garland always wore a Gilligan-style blue seaman's hat, pulled low over his balding forehead. He had thick, wide glasses magnifying blue eyes, which turned noticeably glassy after only one beer. He gleefully reminisced of his post-robbery party on the Mississippi River. I struggled with the moral justification of his enthusiasm.
"Was it worth it?" I asked Owen. "Was the three-week party worth eight years in Leavenworth?" I fully expected the question to illustrate the juxtaposition of his enthusiasm with the harsh reality. Owen Garland sipped his beer, turned to me magnified, glassy-eyed smiling:
"It was worth every-fuckin'-minute."
The man to my right wants to talk. I ask him what he was in for. He answered with marginal coherence.
"I'm from Oklahoma, and I'm not a prejudiced man. I can be friends with a black, my sister can be friends with a black, but a black man with a white woman is un-ax-ceptable. We don't allow that where I'm from. We moved out here from Oklahoma, and I'm going down the road - they got me for attempted vehicular homicide, or vehicular assault. That cop was chasing me, hell, I was almost to my daddy's driveway, I could'a gotten away, but that guy got me right before the turnoff. They say I cracked into his car; the guy lied like hell at the trial. Lied like hell right on the stand! Two years for that? Oh sure, I was drunk as hell. Did two years, gotta get alcohol tested tomorrow in Redding, why I'm drinking coffee. Two ain't bad, could'a got six. Because of the other stuff I did. Passin' checks n'shit. Oh, I been drinking all day, but I'm drinking coffee now, see? You been in, right?"
"Well, ah, no." I wave to the young woman bartending; she sees me, but chooses to ignore. She stands next to a very large black man. I understand immediately that there is a correlation between her ignoring me and the man I speak with.
"Fuck her. She's mad at me 'cuz I got mad at this guy a while ago. I can't keep my mouth shut. I'm forty-seven years old. Let's get out of here, get one across the street. You know where the men's room's at? You go out that door next to Black Beauty down there, and you're in a hallway! In a passageway! There's kids out there! Right where the men's room's at!"
There seems, in my certainly limited understanding of his situation, little hope for this guy. He strikes me as a man who can explode at any moment; agitated, angry, uneducated. He shows me his prison I.D. card and an envelope stuffed with money the State of California has released him with. The smart money was not on his passing any alcohol test in the morning. He speaks to me as though we share a common view of the great American conspiracy.
"You can't do nuthin', man. Three strikes and you're out in this state. I'm goin' home to Oklahoma when my parole's up. Can't do nuthin' in this state, man."
"What advice would you give, about being in prison?" I asked him. He responded immediately and without reservation:
"Be smooth - like you."
I ask what trouble he had caused here in this barroom that made our bartender so unhappy. He points to the bartender - still casting angry eyes in our direction - and I see her immediately whirl on her feet and speak to Black Beauty. The bouncer walks our way and leans on the back bar in front of my new friend. He folds huge black arms, hung on a six-foot-six frame. He speaks with authority steeled with confident, earnest eyes.
"You're outta here," he said to the man on my right.
"I don't know and I don't care. You upset my bartender, so you're outta here."
"Why! I ain't done nuthin'!"
"You upset my bartender, so you're outta here. Now."
"But I ain't done nuthin'!"
"I don't care. You're outta here, now. Go...GO."
I saw my new friend struggle with his emotions. Saw a man on parole reluctantly but wisely concluding that he probably shouldn't be getting into any arguments on the night of his release from prison. Certainly not in a barroom on the eve of his appointment in Redding, tomorrow morning. He raised his hands 'OK' and pushed back from his barstool. He walked away, out into the night.
I sit there, catching my reflection in the bar mirror between the liquor bottles. As I study it, I ponder with dubious resignation what on earth this man saw in me to consider me an equal. And then his words struck me. I get a good laugh at this con job. I finish my beer, push back from my stool, and walk as smoothly as I know how out into the warm Sacramento night.