Sleeping with the Bottles

March 13, 2012    » posted by: admin

I had just turned 21 when I realized I had to go. I had dropped out of college after my first year, moved back to my hometown, and was working a nowhere job. I was pining away for an old girlfriend, living in an awful little apartment and drove a sad excuse for a car that didn’t have reverse most of the time. Some family friends had visited the Virgin Islands and showed me pictures of the trip, and I saw a bunch of young kids about my age in the periphery of the photos. One particularly sad and sodden night in January, I vowed that I would move down there for a while and snap myself out of this funk. Six weeks later, I was boarding a plane with a backpack and $400.

I ended up on the little island of St John, not knowing anyone but free, warm and happy to be there . After painting a few houses and surfing a few couches, I was running short of work, money and a place to stay. While most of the painters on the crew would head to a little bar called Woody’s after work to grab $1 beers and ogle the all-female bartenders in short shorts, I would go with the old salty foreman named Willis up to a hole in the wall called Grumpy’s Almost by the Sea. I had never seen anything like it. No walls, tin roof, tree growing right up through the corner of the bar. Bearded tattooed sailors, shady outlaws in their Vietnam fatigues with the nametags x-ed out who never, ever took their shades off, career soaks who took their drink without ice so it wouldn’t be watered down when they picked it up after their nap on the bar. Tourists would occasionally walk up the stairs with their kids, only to turn right around again after they got a load of the patrons. Names like Dinghy Dale, Dirty White Boy, Pops, Parrot Dave, Brando, Little Man Chuck. A three legged dog named Shanty slept on the patio, a remarkably articulate and cranky parrot named Adrian patrolled the bar, geckoes and sugarbirds darting this way and that. Rum and Cokes were two bucks, menu was small but simple, and the music too loud and erratic. I loved it, and though I was roundly ignored and scorned as the new guy for a few weeks, I found myself hanging out there quite a bit. I struck up a friendship with the owner, a 450 pound ex- Cadillac salesman from Detroit named Sloppy Bill who held court at the corner table in his omnipresent straw hat, slept in a tiny bunk behind the stage, and hadn’t left the building in nearly 4 years. Bill was one of the sweetest and sharpest guys I have ever met, and when I explained my dilemma to him one night, he extended his hospitality and asked if I needed a place to stay. I thanked him and asked where the place was. He nodded towards the back bar and grunted, “Nobody’s sleeping there these days…you’re welcome to it.” I moved in the next day.

No free ride, though. I opened the place every morning, about 4 hours after it closed. There was an 8 a.m. happy hour, mostly frequented by last night’s patrons who needed a steady hand for the day’s work, and the place needed sweeping, Adrian needed feeding (last night’s fryolator crumbs), and I usually made breakfast for Bill. He liked the eggs, I guess, so he offered me a few shifts in the kitchen. Under the fine tutelage of Pops, a retired line repairman from Sunnyside, Queens who was one of the cooks there, I learned how to make about everything on the menu. By tutelage I mostly mean hollered directions as he was lying down atop the reach-in freezer and drinking a Bud, but we got it down. For these few shifts a week, I ate, slept and drank as a Grumpy’s employee and tenant. For free. This was a damn good deal for a 21 year old.

There were others living there too, mind you. Besides the aforementioned Pops and Bill (who most folks referred to as the Baby), there was Bobbo, Bill’s left hand man, a wizened old ex-Marine with a fondness for well vodka and harassing any Navy sailors on shore leave that came in to the bar; Tal, a big old boy from Louisiana who was a former roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd and would often trade stories for Jack and Cokes (well worth the 4 bucks!); Benito, a long haired metalhead kid from Iowa who skipped bail on a silly charge and fancied himself an outlaw. Dinghy Dale crashed there now and again when his boat got too leaky, and a few others here and there, but mostly just the six of us. An ugly crew, but my crew.

One night, I had closed up the kitchen (Pops used the local land crabs to “pre-rinse” the chili pot..a surprisingly effective method) and was leaning against the end of the bar with the night’s first shift drink. Bar was packed, the Sand Devils were wailing away on stage, and the bartender was in trouble. Paulie was a good guy, old football player from southern Cali with 2 bad knees and a predilection for dark rum. We called him Polio Paul, as his ability to walk disappeared with his sobriety, and he was well in his cups behind the bar. This wasn’t craft cocktails and fine wine here…just popping Heinekens and strong dark Cruzan and Cokes in plastic; pouring heavy was encouraged, as the Coke cost more than the rum, and the ice machine was constantly crapping out. But the locals were voraciously thirsty and wanted their drinks yesterday, and Paulie was flailing. He spotted me, started laughing (?!), and mumbled, “Watch the bar, ok?” as he wobbled his way into the bathroom. So I did. For about 3 minutes, an eternity on a busy night. People were waving at me, Parrot Dave was roaring like an elephant seal, empty cups all over the bar and no Paulie. Looking back, I watched the bathroom door open…and close. No Paulie. I glanced down, and there he was, giggling like mad and crawling towards the patio. Oh boy.

I darted around the corner and told the Baby what happened. There he sat, with a basket of fries in front of him, Adrian pacing circles around the perimeter of his straw hat and grabbing the occasional fry that Bill threw up there. He shook his head, stroked his ZZ Top size beard for a moment, and said “What’s in a rum and Coke?”. I paused, thinking I misheard him with the band blaring behind him, and answered, “Rum and…Coke?”. He quickly replied, “Don’t forget the ice! Get back there! Go!”. I took off my apron, grabbed an opener and jumped squarely into the weeds. My first bar shift.