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The Jesus Bum The Barroom Chronicles… Episode 16

imagesCAOGENV6The door swung open, nobody paid any  attention. All eyes were glued to the television and the tenth rerun of A Christmas Story.  It was Christmas night and the bar was crowded enough to put a smile on my face. Until that night, I had never worked the holiday, and being my first year at the helm, I penciled my name on the work schedule. I was pleasantly surprised both at the amount of business and the relaxed mood. I didn’t know what to expect, whatever I was expecting wasn’t the softball of a night I was enjoying. Heck, I was so naïve about Montana culture, that three years after moving here, I thought all bars were closed like in my home town. A more cynical explanation was given that by 4:00 PM Christmas afternoon most people were sick of their families and needed an escape.

Cold air swooshed through the open door and accompanied him as he walked towards the bar. His hair was wild and dirty, his face haggard and rife with stubble. Above worn boots were ragged jeans, a ripped flannel and a down vest; he wore nothing else to combat the cold winter air. In his hand was a paper bag, which he set on the bar with a thump.

Could this be The Jesus Bum?
Could this be The Jesus Bum?

“What can I get ya?” I asked.

“Do you know a Blankety Blank?”

“Nope, never heard of her,” I answered.

Cold air radiated from his frown. “How ’bout you?” he asked the patrons closest to him.

“Nope,”  was the resounding answer.

The air seemed to escape his lungs. His head suddenly seemed too heavy for his neck. When he looked back up, sadness swam across the deep pools that were his eyes. “I rode the bus to Missoula, and I walked the rest of the way. I wanted to give her this, but I dropped it and busted it.”  He slid a wolf figurine from the bag. It was a dusty ceramic that looked like it hunted the back shelves of Goodwill, quietly earning a living preying on ceramic dear and elk, until snatched from its den and dropped on some roadside. The damage wasn’t horrible, a front leg had been amputated, but the bum managed to save the dismembered leg.

A crowd started to gather.

“Do you got anything to fix it?” he asked. His voice was quiet, but his gaze shouted. His eyes pierced my recently developing bullshit detector and I had the feeling this wasn’t some ordinary run-of-the-mill drifter.

il_fullxfull.244824797“Nope,” I said before turning to the crowd. “Anyone got any epoxy at home? Any glue?”

Most either ignored me or rumbled no. Someone said yeah, let me run home and check. While we waited the bum asked, “Got a beer? Don’t got no money, but I could use one.”

On a normal night, or if I didn’t have that feeling, I would have been on the verge of saying something like I’m not a soup kitchen for drifters, but I didn’t and instead I quietly poured him a pint of draft. Maybe it was simply Christmas spirit.

Others around him again asked the lady’s name.  He repeated it, everybody shrugged. He gave the address, it was a legitimate address in town.  Time passed, people returned to their crowd or watching the movie. The bum sat quietly, sipping his beer and watching those around him. From behind a cloak of ramshackle desperation a calmness emerged. It bathed him, it gave him presence;  a serene disposition. He waited patiently speaking very little until the door opened again and our local hero walked in with epoxy.  The crowd again gathered and a committee of ceramic veterinarians went about reattaching the wolf’s amputated leg. The bum simply watched.

When the operation was finished he moved for the wolf.

“Whoa, it’s gotta set,”  the lead veterinarian said.

“It’s gettin’ late, she’s probably in bed already,” the Bum said, his calmness slipping a tad.

“Have another beer,” I said. He didn’t refuse.  As he drank he didn’t have much to say. It was obvious he didn’t relish being the center of attention. People flittered away from him and went

The Bar Nazi and the Jesus Bum enjoying the moment
The Bar Nazi and the Jesus Bum enjoying the moment

about doing their things.  Soon he was just another loner sitting at the edge of the bar.  At some point while doing what I do, he slipped out the door unnoticed. Only his empty mug sat at the end of the bar.

“That wasn’t an ordinary drifter,” I said.

“Phffft. Don’t count on it,” one person said.

“You got a lot to learn,” another commented.

“Smelled horrible,” another complained.

And so on and on the comments reigned.  Maybe it was my idealism,  for I hadn’t yet earned my doctorate  in cynicism; I had yet been exposed to the general wretchedness of humankind. That night, I felt like there was something more than met the eye.  The simple events of that Christmas night still give me hope in humankind. Every Christmas since, I’ve wondered about the Jesus Bum and thank him for the lesson.

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A Saturday in November

IimagesCAUB7MP3t was a raw afternoon, the hint of cold rain in the air.  A perfect setting for a football game, hands wrapped around a cup of steaming hot chocolate, maybe spiked with a spirit, maybe topped with marshmallows. Hardly the perfect weather for an outdoor wedding. But this wasn’t an ordinary wedding, no, this one possessed a different energy; it was draped in pall of sadness,  adorned with dignity and laced with poignancy. It is and will be the inspiration for many bittersweet  smiles.

The couple approached me early summer about officiating their wedding, they set the date for the anniversary of the day they first met.  They wanted a 70’s themed wedding,  they wanted ‘Ozzy Osborne’ to officiate and they wished for a fun ceremony.   When I let my hair down, don the right glasses and wear the imagesCA4G9F3Wproper costume, I resemble a younger Ozzy.

Two weeks later, the groom was diagnosed with brain cancer and given less than a year to live.

Through his deteriorating health the couple insisted that they wanted to go through with the ceremony. Practically, it made no sense, the bride would be taking on medical debt that she wasn’t on the hook for, but, this wasn’t about practicalities, this was about spirit, about the immortality of love.

With each passing week, one wondered if there would be a wedding, despite numerous medical procedures the cancer progressed. On a personal note, I pondered how to write something that would be lighthearted and not make a mockery of the situation. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t have problem being inappropriate in the appropriate situation, but this was one line I wouldn’t cross. For weeks I fretted about the ceremony, I even lied to the bride saying that I had the ceremony written, gift wrapped and topped with a bow. The truth was I was clueless what to do. It wasn’t till the Wednesday night before the ceremony that inspiration struck. Keeping within the theme and mindful not to go over the top, the muse gifted me a story told in the titles of 70’s songs.

In the mean time, other logistical challenges arose, the venue cancelled,  so it was decided to hold the imagesCAXFVN7Wwedding at the bar.  A second problem arose, the weather, minutes before the ceremony a cold November rain set in,  it was decided in the interest of the groom to hold the ceremony inside.  The only problem, it was the fourth quarter of a tight Griz/Cat football game. In our neck of the woods, it’s the biggest college football game of the year. I’m proud of the fans who didn’t mind the interruption. Grasping the gravity of the situation, not one left, opting to stay for the ceremony.

Unable to stand for any length of time, the groom, joined by his bride, sat a buddy bar tucked against the main bar, while I sat cross-legged on the bar  and conducted the ceremony.  Below is the reading – the story told by song titles.

Dqueenborapream On, become Hot Blooded, get Saturday Night Fever and end up in Hotel California, the New Kid in Town playing That Funky Music with Fat Bottom Girls until the Levee Breaks, but Baba ORielly, One of These Nights, After The Thrill is Gone, you could be in Bad Company, listening to the Piano Man sipping Captain Jack wishing you were Kung Fu Fighting. It’s a Rock and Roll Fantasy, Rollin’ Down The Highway in a Chevy Van caught in a Bohemian Rhapsody. But when The Wheel in the Sky pokes through Smoke on the Water, The Dream Police appear and Draw the Line.

Imagine, like Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, A Blue Collar Man and a Killer Queen, a real Brick House, enjoying American Pie and Sweet Jane. Babe, she says, my Superstar, Child in Time, Take Me Home Tonight, be my Dream Weaver, Take it to the Limit.

Then You Fooled around and Fell in Love. Hush, Highway Star, ‘cause as every Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman knows, Love Hurts. After Communication Breakdown(s), my 19th Nervous Breakdown, through Good Times, Bad Times, I’ve learned to be Cruel to be Kind. Sweet Emotion, it’s Dog and Butterfly, it’s The Stairway to Heaven, but in The Long Run, We Are Family.

Easy, ‘cause All Along the Watchtower, before the Jailbreak and The Boys are back in town, Come Sail Away, Walk this Way with a Lady, sip a Tequila Sunrise and enjoy a Peaceful, Easy Feeling, and savor thesunset Best of Times.

On a Saturday in December, we’ll be gathering in the same spot, to celebrate the life of the groom.  Two days after the wedding, he entered hospice, a week later, his bride was widowed.  I get the feeling that even death doesn’t do them part.

The Petition… Episode 8 of The Barroom Chronicles

Did you ever have one of those days when you scratch your head and say: “What the F#$%?” In my part of the world, these days are, well, an everyday occasion. But sometimes I’m so amazed that I end up scratching both my head and my butt. This past Saturday was such a day, a perfect storm of silliness and awe that makes you think: wait a minute, is this really happening?

Another such day was an afternoon a little over three years ago when two  elderly ladies came into our fair tavern.  Along with their brooches, one was wearing a smile, the other was wearing a snarl. I was on the phone growling at a vendor and didn’t recognize the impending good granny, bad granny routine.

We the old people...

Little did I know they were the messengers for a sinister organization – The Senior Citizens of our Town. “We have a petition to deliver to you,” the bad granny snapped as she handed me the piece of paper.

I took it from her and read the first line: “We the Senior citizens who’ve lived in our little town for 50 (and up) years find your sign “Welcome pimps and hos” offensive. ((Actually the sign read: Pimp and Ho Party, Saturday Feb. 14) Yes, that’s right, it is our way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.)

Like some sort of sixth sense, or maybe it’s my built in bullshit detector , whatever it was, I sensed displeasure with their message. They weren’t visiting  to proclaim my greatness or draft me as their candidate for mayor.

 “Listen, I’m in a bad mood, I don’t have time for your nonsense,” I said.

Good Granny, Bad Granny

“Read it!” The bad granny snapped.

“Stick it,” I replied.  I can be such an anal aperture. “And while you’re at it, buy something or leave!”   This always works on the non-paying, especially if I’ve never seen the person before.  Listen, being a customer has its priveledges – mostly throwing me a line or two of grief. This was different, I had to draw a line in the sand against the Granny Gestapo.

 “You really should read it, it’s kinda funny,” the good granny chirped.

“No drinky, no stayie,” I barked. (I really didn’t say that, but it sounds good.)

Their task complete, the Grannies walked out the door with their heads held high. It wasn’t till a couple hours later that I cooled my jets enough to peruse their masterpiece. And I thought we were offensive, we’re completely bush league in comparison.  This is what their note read:

“We the Senior citizens who’ve lived in our little town for 50 (and up)
years find your sign “Welcome pimps and hos” offensive. I believe that
parents of young children will also find it offensive. However if you
really think that calling people denigrating names is the way to appeal
to potential customers you are neglecting whole classes of people…

You have your Spicks and Micks and Dagos and Wops,

Who are they calling a Kraut?!

Your Hunkies and Junkies and “pigs” (for cops)
There are Bucks and Squaws, slant-eyes and Frogs
Your Rednecks and Polacks and female Dogs
You’ve got Chinks and Finks and Pansies and Dykes
Niggers and Limeys and don’t forget the Kikes,
There are Greasers and Japs and the German Kraut,
Just so you didnt leave anyone out…

Why not have an all-inclusive sign “Welcome Scum of the earth, this is your
home away from home” Better yet how about a really family- friendly
sign. “Welcome friends and neighbors!””
 
There was almost fifty signatures signed at the bottom of the page. My wife and I got such a kick out of it, we promptly posted the petition with the names on the bar’s Myspace page.  Remember Myspace? It makes me feel as old as the Gestapo.
 
I did take the senior’s advice.  Two new banners went up. One proclaiming a Kikes and Dykes party, and another for  party that gained traction for a couple of years. The Scum Ball.
 
Less than two months later, the town was in uproar about the name change to the 1000 Bra Bar…   See Episode 2  of The Barroom Chronicles. https://johnzunski.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/the-prank-that-keeps-on-giving-the-barroom-chronicles-pt-2/
 
 

Not our bride and groom, but you get the picture.

Oh, I almost forgot about what happened this Saturday.  In addition to our Spread your Wings Party, we had another wedding at the bar.  That’s strange enough, but it’s not terribly unusal, it’s the third. What makes this one odd was not that the mother of the bride was summoned from the golf course, she didn’t know her daughter was getting married.  Apparently, forty-eight hours early, neither did the bride.  The story goes the happy couple met a few days prior to the wedding.  Move over Vegas!

The Midgets are Coming, The Midgets are Coming – The Barroom Chronicles… Episode 5

You’re going to have a what?  Really? We can throw midgets? Where did you find the midgets? You sure this isn’t another April Fool’s joke?

No doubt about it, the previous year’s prank was going to be a hard act to follow, truthfully, I didn’t think it could be done. You may remember The Name Change Party.  If you’re new to The Barroom Chronicles, check out Episode 2,  The Prank That Keeps On Giving.

I had serious reservations that the latest idea would fail miserably. The reactions to the previous year’s stunt were such that I thought everybody would know I was up to shenanigans. My level of resignation was such that on the day of the ‘Midget Toss’, I was going to write April Fools across the Midget Toss banner and call it good.

But thanks to the enthusiasm of an employee,  the event created memories, spawned a tradition, and relegated The Name Change Party to ‘opening act’ status.

“What do you mean write April Fools across the banner? Don’t be a putz,”  Wendy Rae scolded  “I’ve been getting phone calls all week. We’re going to pull this off.”

To the rescue!

The problem was, I didn’t have a clue how, and as far as I knew there wasn’t a midget cavalry coming to the rescue.  The joke was on me.  That afternoon, I learned that well laid plans are great, but sometimes it’s better to improvise.  As the hour approached, I left home armed with the two dolls that would serve as midgets, my computer (for DJing), and a reinvigorated imagination.

Anyone who has ever organized an event will attest, the biggest fear is that it will bomb.  Despite all the good intentions, planning and advertising, people will find other things to do that night.  When that happens, it’s hard not to take the failure personally.  Whatever I was expecting driving into town that night  wasn’t what greeted me.  The bar was packed. There wasn’t a parking place within blocks.  The pressure was on; for me, pressure is motivation.

Eric the Midget

During the weeks leading up to the event, I spun a beautiful web of bullshit.  When questioned if this was an April Fool’s joke, I swore that it wasn’t, saying that the date was the only time the midget troupe was available. Then I deflected the questions by saying not only were we going to have a contest for longest throw, but we were going to put Velcro on the courtyard’s fence and hold a contest for highest toss.  I took it a step further and said that Eric the Midget from the Howard Stern show was the headliner.   I later learned the greatest skeptics were won over by this info.  The chief skeptic admitted buying my line after googling Eric the Midget and  seeing that he was a real person.

Up to this point my only real plan was to drop the dolls off at the Fat Belly Deli and asking Guido to hold them until they were needed.

Outside the bar I took a deep breath before stepping inside. The crowd welcomed me like a conquering hero.  As I set up my computer and got the music going I was swamped with questions:  “When are they gonna get here? Where are they now?”

My answer: “They’re coming from Seattle on a short bus. They’re suppose to be here by midnight. In the meantime take a ticket, we’re having a drawing, the winner gets to tase a midget.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Tonight we’re tasing a midget.”

Not quite a midget tasing, but you get the picture?

Now, that was an interesting sociological experiment. Some people were revolted and refused a ticket, others were fascinated, others were excited. One gentleman followed me around and asked for the tickets that others refused.

The buzz generated was as loud as the music. And then, as fate would have it, I received a phone call. Truthfully, I don’t remember who it was or what it was about, but the timing couldn’t have been better.  I got off the phone, went to the DJ booth,  interrupted the song and made the announcement that the midgets had just entered Montana and that they were about an hour out.  A rousing cheer filled the bar.

Fate conspired in our favor that night, the Ghost Rails Inn – our local bed and breakfast – was holding a murder mystery.  A costume murder mystery.  The group was dressed in 1920’s attire and had come to the bar for an ‘after action review.’  Little did I know they were employees of a Missoula newspaper and our stunt got an article.

As the minutes ticked down, I organized my elves.

Number One:  The ‘winner’ of the tase a midget raffle would announce April Fools over the PA.

Number two:  The man who would deliver the ‘midgets.’

Number three:  Two girls from the murder-mystery who  would climb up on the bar and unveil the “April Fools” banner.

Finally the time had come, I made the announcement that the short bus had arrived. A cheer went up.  We held the ‘tase the midget’ drawing. Our ringer was called to the DJ Booth. Guido kicks open the door and throws the two dolls across the barroom floor and yells:  “Here’s your F#$#ing  midgets!” Our ringer cries “April Fools” and the girls unveil the banner.

A moment of stunned silence fell over the bar.  Then pandemonium broke out:  Some people laughed, some clapped; others booed, some called me nasty names. A very large man from the murder-mystery group who was dressed in knickers and armed with a golf club, beat on a doll until he decapitated it.

Me: I was laughing so hard I escaped to a bench outside the front door. Soon I was greeted by a parade of the humorless.  I was called many nasty names, told I would lose many customers and that they would see to that my name was drug through the mud. I laugh even harder, pointed to another banner that read ‘Free beer tomorrow’  and said: “See you tomorrow.”  As you may have surmised, I subscribe to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Six months ago, the leader of the group stopped in for a beer. We talked about that night. He asked: “Do you know why I was so pissed?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“I can’t believe I fell for your crap two years in a row.”

To his credit, the midget toss was two years ago and he hasn’t fallen for another prank. But then again, we haven’t tried.  My dream, to find a big name musician who would play our humble dive on the first weekend in April.  Of course everybody would think it was a prank.  When word got out that it really happened, I would have a permanent prank license.  One can dream.

Part 2:  The Day After

It may seem that the poor midgets got lost in the shuffle. Nonsense, they both have earned their place in infamy. The poor decapitated doll’s head currently rests on the bison’s left horn. The surviving doll didn’t survive much longer. The next day, Easter Sunday,  we pushed the line further and created a new tradition.

A longtime regular, who was a ringleader in the wheelchair episode,  stopped by the get the midget toss story.  Somehow or another the idea came up to tie a noose and hang the doll from the road sign.  Is it obvious we have a macabre streak?  I believe it stems from a misspent youth watching too many reruns of the Aadams Family.

Imagine the scene, a beautiful Easter Sunday, a dozen or so  people of all ages standing on the front deck with hands over their hearts as the noose is set and tied off.  The  ‘midget’ swaying to the rhythm of Jimi Hendrix’s  Star Spangled Banner.  I still chuckle from the looks we garnered from passing motorists, not -to-mention that poor young family, dressed in their Easter best, who just happened to be walking past.

Much like the lighting of the Olympic flame, the hanging of the midget has become tradition.  Almost every special event is kicked off by a similar opening ceremony. For the midget, it’s Groundhog Day.  At least she gets to hang out in front of  a cool bar.