April 2, Poem 2 (or memoir, or short story) Lake Placid, January 2008
Lake Placid, January 2008
And Barack wins South Carolina and I’m frightened again, and I’m done preparing my lesson for the inmates for the next morning, and I’m alone in a bed and breakfast and I feel alone, so I leave to get a drink and I don’t know where to get a bar open in a sleepy town like this at midnight in the Winter and I have no car, so I’m setting out on foot and I figure I’ll check out the Hilton bar just down the block, because it’s a major chain and their bar is bound to be open and besides it just is bound to safe there, now that the world is falling apart because all of a sudden it looks like Barack might win and im done with my night’s work. But the Hilton bar is closed and the front desk guy is telling me to walk about half mile down Main Street until I get to a bar with two bobsleds parked outside the door. It’s called Zig Zag, he says, and they’re still open. And this seems like a bad idea but I’m in, so I turn onto Main Street and it’s snowing a little heavier now and nothing is wrong, but I can’t remember having felt this alone in a while, but I don’t want anyone where I’m going to have a conversation with me, because all I can think of is Barack is going to die and I don’t expect any of these white people to understand why I’m worried, but I figure I’m not going to make friends. I just want one drink. And I put on my cold-as-ice grill and I turn into the Zig Zag, which is loud with 90s pop-rock and frat boys ordering pitchers of Bud Light and I’m sure now that Barack is gonna die or at least be shot at, but it’s a huge room; maybe 40 yards from the front door to the back wall, and the bar itself takes up about 25 yards, so I sit on the short side, at the corner, nearest the front door where there’s no one else seated and I order Ketel One on the rocks with a lime and the bartender, who looks to be about 35 is blonde and cheery and really fit, like so many of the mountain biking, harness climbing, tri-athletes I tend to be meeting here, is really polite. And I’m not encouraging small talk from anyone because I don’t want to have to explain about Barack and I definitely don’t want to get into a fight because it isn’t 1992 anymore or 2006 for that matter, and fighting drunk frat boys isn’t my idea of how this evening should end, but the bartender’s pour is generous and I leave her a $2 tip on a $7 drink and I take the first sip and it burns blue and cool across my throat and for a second I feel like I can go to a place where it’ll be alright or at least, tonight will be.
And then these two narc-looking mid 30s white men come in, and clearly they don’t belong here either, and I don’t trust them because Barack won South Carolina and the one guy is just too friendly; hey guy how you doin? and I don’t answer him, just nod about half inch, so he’ll know I don’t want to talk and get back to staring at my drink.
And on the TV, ESPN is talking about ex-heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, and I’m looking but not really listening because I’m not really a fan of Lennox Lewis and besides I’ve more important things on my mind. I’m still thinking about how I’ll present the exercise to the inmates in the morning and well, you know… Barack. But now there is an older man walking towards us from the recesses of the bar; maybe 50ish, working class, matching black Dickies short sleeve shirt and short pants, white crew socks pulled up to mid-calf, black reebok sneakers. And he’s a little tipsy, and walking directly towards us and then the night turns: Lennox Lewis, he says, greatest heavyweight of all time, right?! And the two narc dudes and me, because I can’t help myself all say in unison, No. And the one trying-to-be-friendly narc dude says It’s Muhammed Ali. And old working-class-trucker dude says Lennox Lewis, never been defeated, not one time and narc dude says but he didn’t fight nobody and old dude says, well that’s not his fault. wouldn’t it have been great to see Muhammed Ali in his prime fight Lennox Lewis? And I’m almost half the way down the drink and Barack is strategizing for Virginia and I swear to you in unison, and with no rehearsal, me and the narc dude say, No, I’d much rather see him fight Mike Tyson, just like that, exact same syntax and timing and everything, but I don’t acknowledge that it’s happened. I don’t even look at narc dude, because really, I’m still not trying to have a conversation, but now a part of me is jonesing for a good story and I feel like one is coming on, but now old dude is talking about all kinds of boxers and he’s walking gingerly around the two narc dudes at the bar corner, around me, to take the bar stool on the short side of the bar I’m on against the wall, and now he says, James Braddock, Cinderella Man, now there was a great boxer. he even beat a black guy. And narc guy stops mid sentence, his mouth fixed in a permanent O and I don’t know how chipper-bartender lady heard him say that all the way at the other end of the bar, but she’s running down here now and says to old dude Lenny, what the hell? are you bothering my night’s best customer so far? and I say Don’t worry about it, even though it made me spit up my drink, but now I’m really seeing a story in the works and remember, Barack has just won, and narc dude is trying to shift things now so he says, okay, all sports, all time, who’s your favorite athlete? And old dude says, sounding a little drunker now, Edwin Moses. And the rest of us freeze, because it’s a thoughtful response and we didn’t expect it from this guy and I’m remembering being 11 or 12 and Edwin Moses is unbeatable in the 400 hurdles and he goes ten years without ever losing a race and he breaks his own record like 3 times in that time and unless you’re a sick sports fan you still don’t know who he is, so now I join in and I say Pele, by which I mean, the first time I ever understood poetry, by which I mean, my childhood is inviolable, by which I mean Brazil, blackness, football, make me, and the narc dudes nod and then the one guy who’s been talking says Roberto Clemente, and we all know he means Pittsburg Pirates centerfielder, maybe the greatest centerfielder ever, who died in a plane crash taking supplies home to his native Nicaragua. But something’s wrong, and old dude is real agitated about narc dude’s response, and starts mumbling to himself. Roberto Clemente, Roberto Clemente, Roberto Clemente and then he raises his head and points at the narc dude and shouts Fuck You! Fuck You! and now I know my story is finally here, and that this; this is why I left my hotel room and walked here in the snow, and this time chipper-bartender doesn’t come running for some reason, and he says again, Fuck You! Roberto Clemente does not like your fucking attitude! And he starts to climb off his bar stool as if to make his way around me to give the narc dude the what-for. And he’s still mumbling Fucking Roberto Clemente, as he trips on the stool’s lower rung, and falls face first onto the concrete barroom floor, at which the other narc dude who hasn’t said anything this whole time, jumps off his stool, stands over him and signals like an umpire in the arms outstretched like a plane landing gesture, and says, Safe!
And I’m amazed, and I get off my stool and I pick up old dude by the underarms and face him in the direction of the door, and by the time he’s back on his feet, he doesn’t know why he left his stool in the first place and he heads off into the night, and I follow close behind him, because I don’t want to discuss what happened with these guys, and my drink is done and I want to think about Barack a little bit before I turn in for the night.