Monday, September 13, 2010
Labor Day: Make Somebody Happy
It was Monday and it was Labor Day and America was alive and well inside of O’Malley’s Pub on Harlem. Dim lighting, shadowy figures, strong drinks, cheap prices, Chicago logos, an earned blue collar attitude, broken souls, bitter lovers, a cute bartender; a place where people come to drink while drowning away pain, not to flirt or laugh. A definitive Chicago working class bar in one of the last strong holds of windy city community in the outer rusting shell of that old Chicago machine.
Wednesday would be the ten year anniversary of my mom’s suicide, and I needed a drink. Many drinks, to be honest with you, and let’s face it honesty is hard to find in this era of communication. I had spent most of Labor Day at a Polishfest, taking pictures of a polish Elvis impersonator, all the while biting my tongue, hard, from making terribly easy ethnic jokes. I sat with a gypsy who read my cards and fished for truths in everything I said. I wanted answers and all I got was stories and parlor tricks. But after all it was Labor Day, and these folks were all just working their crafts in a nation of dreamers covered in a smog of reality.
A biker was sitting next to me plotting the assassination of his own liver in desperate scheme of self annihilation. My own damn self was kind of jealous of his well laid plans, so I called over my old friend Jack, to help see if he knew anybody I could talk to about my own coup. Jack got mixed up with a pretty little diet coke, so I got drunk, and the plans were laid to rest as my mind hummed a dirge and said a prayer for the all of us.
I’ve been depressed for about two years with the worst of it coming in the coldest nights of last winter when I lost my grandma. As the fall approaches I search for a parachute, and warmer clothing. But this isn’t about me it’s about Labor Day, and a cozy picture of the America I love. The reason I mentioned it is because I haven’t written in a while because I don’t feel much anymore, and yet when I witnessed what I saw and all the simplicity of it, I once again felt so alive.
What I saw was two old men holding onto their smiles, while dancing the night away, as they fed twenty dollar bill after twenty dollar bill into the modern day juke box full of all their old memories. Aged smiles full of false teeth sang along as song after song of old crooners overran the sound speakers of the bar. Sinatra, Darin, Bennet, Davis, Dorsey, Martin, they were all alive again in these old men’s hearts.
I started coming to this bar about ten years ago when I was going to college. Some nights I would work the grave yard shift, and so I would stop into O’Malley’s, just as it was opening around 7am. An old Irish man who looks a bit like Mickey in Rocky movies, always tends the bar until about 4PM. Gravelly voice, kind eyes, rough face and a heart of gold, his name is Tommy. The first time I introduced myself he told me about how he used to drink with my grandfather at this same bar when they were both younger. My family has owned a building down the street for years and I remember as a very young man my grandpa taking me to this same bar where I would sit and drink Pepsi.
Tommy is getting old and I hear he’s sick (something you often hear of the aged) but every time I see him he’s full of so much piss and vigor I figure he’ll out live me, especially if I keep sitting next to bikers hell bent on self destruction. I’ve seen sadness in his eyes especially when he talks of his wife who died a few years ago from the cancer, but he’s from the old world where men kept marching on -- and there is no time for sadness.
Tommy’s shift usually ends around 3pm, and is generally replaced by a large chested face of youth. The day crowd at a bar is very different then the night crowd, yet both share a tendency for darkness and sadness. Jeopardy usually signals the changing of the guard as the unemployed, third shift workers, and retired loners start moving out and the workers move in still in their cable uniforms, business suits, and dirty construction pants. Seven exits the husbands, and eight brings in the losers, followed by the junkies, followed by the outlaws, then the yuppies, a few Mexicans, and usually a Pollock or two. Rinse and repeat in a cycle of cultural exchange and you get the eco system of most bars. So when Johnny and Tommy were still playing the jukebox at 4:30 we all started to wonder.
The tough bikers said to the bartender, “somebody has to do something about those guys,” giving her the hint.
“Today is Labor Day, in the same state and city where men died for it to exist”, I said. “These men have labored for probably more than 6o years busting their ass’s in a tough, cold, and brutal city we know is a bitch to live in. I think tonight is there night, and we’re all along for the ride. Let’s enjoy it and hope to have it one day our own damn selves.”
I always wanted to be a politician and occasionally I let my voice heard. I wasn’t sure if the biker was going to hit me but I was sure the bartender wasn’t going to have wild sex with me tonight as she rolled her eyes. I winked and smiled.
Jimmy Durante “Make Someone Happy” was playing as the biker also found his smile, said nothing, and went back to the assignation of his liver. He didn’t hit me but I’m fairly certain the fucking prick snatched my sunglasses later that night while I was buying a hamburger.
I thought for a moment of the 13 workers killed by the hands of the government in Chicago at Pullman Square in one of the largest labor strikes in our nation’s history. The railroads cut the workers pay causing the workers who could no longer feed their families to strike. At its peak about 250,000 workers in 27 states with little ability to communicate managed to organize. President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to stop the strike and all hell broke loose. When it was all said and done we were given Labor Day to remember the 13 dead and what should never happen again. How many of us remember? History repeats if it’s not heard. Jesus my writing is starting to feel like a Charlie Brown cartoon.
What’s often lost to us in the passage of time is the magic that’s created along the way. In these two old men’s lives they saw this music live in concert halls and in bars. It was the hits on their radio, and the record player was the king of the party scene. But rock came hard and they were pushed away fast and hard. They still had their records, and radio still had the oldies. Record players broke and went out of style and all of a sudden Rock became the oldies and radio was gone. Today no 24 hour radio station in Chicago plays Sinatra type music (if I’m not mistaken). Tapes, CD’s, IPods, were never fully understood by this generation. Jukeboxes only had Rock in it with maybe a Frank CD as a novelty thrown in. Our generation can hold on to our sounds, and our ways with ease, but this generation couldn’t or refused to.
So here they stand in front of a new machine they can understand. A Jukebox. They watched the juke box grow from a novelty to a center piece in some bars (this being one of them). What is before them they don’t really understand but they know if they type in a name on the touch screen chances are somebody they know is going to play. A whole database of music, and not just a hand full of songs inside of an old box. Here they are at the end of their lives, old honky tonk heroes who have been a regular in this same bar since the first Daley started in this same city. For years that sound lost, they thought they lost forever. I smile as here these men are, on Labor Day, as they drink and sing along to their sound in the bar that was once there’s to rule. It’s magic to them, and so routine to you and I.
Erick, a friend of mine who joined me on this Labor Day, asked me if I thought he could play them a few songs. I told him it wasn’t a good idea, even if I knew his intentions were good. After a few drinks Erick walked to the juke box and started looking.
“He could look, but he can’t play,” a gravelly voice barked from Tommy’s mouth.
I yelled the words verbatim to Erick and started laughing loudly. Tommy started laughing too and when Erick came back over by us Tommy threw his arm around him like an old grandpa and everybody was laughing as Sinatra sang about New York.
Everybody knows I’ve always been an old soul probably from being around a lot of really old people during my formidable years. My grandmother took care of all the old people in the neighborhood bringing them food and love when I was young and my mom was getting her life together. When my mom had her life together it was as a nurse’s aide in nursing homes and I tagged along. But tonight, it wasn’t the feeble in nursing homes, the nice old people shut in their own homes, or even my own grandmother dying in that bed last winter -- it was all of them -- alive again and having fun.
Some cities have superheroes that lurk at night doing good and spreading fear in the hearts of the evil. Chicago has a guy that looks like GI Joe, who spreads cheese and cholesterol into the hearts of drunken Chicagoans in the mist of Cubs and Sox debates. I pointed out to Erick, a hopeless cubs fan, that when this music was originally playing in this bar the Cubs were about the same in their losing ways. Some things never change. Anyway the rumbor is that if you enjoy yourself in the city of wind long enough a magical butch shows up in a white butchers apron lays out a spread of some of the best cheese and sausage you’ve ever tasted (intoxication level may help the rating) and then sells them from his mobile deli. I bought a summer sausage and cheese and just enjoyed myself.
7 turned into 8 and 8 turned into 9 and the old men were still going. Some songs were even so nice we heard them twice. Johnny, who was the one feeding the machine and singing along with every song was back at the screen. He was lost in the music all night and in his mind that bar was 1953. He gave me a dirty look when I waved for his attention.
“Play ‘Mack the Knife’ for me, will ya,” I pleaded.
My grandpa on my mom’s side’s last name was McDonald so everybody called him Mac. I remember that song was he and his brother’s theme song, and I knew every word as I used to sing it with them when I was like five. Johnny kind of nodded as he went back to his selections. It was selfish but I wanted it.
The night passed and my mind started to wonder. I really was enjoying myself just watching these old men be happy. I don’t know what about made me feel so right, but it did. It was Labor Day and they deserved every minute of it. There night faded around 10:3, a good four hours later than any of us would have guessed. Soon 60’s rock, Mexican (an odd ball right out of the gate when they left), Metal, southern rock, classic rock, and rap would all fight for control of the night but before it did me and Johnny sang Mack the Knife word for word ending with a big high five on my favorite Labor Day in my nations history.
Aah … I said Jenny Diver … whoa … Sukey Tawdry
Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Yes, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town …
Look out … old Macky is back!!