The bar in this small central Pennsylvania town is like many others. A few tables, a mounted television, branded tap handles, metal tube stools. I order a draught and scan the snack menu, turning my attention to the TV because it’s impossible not to.
It’s soon obvious one of the fellows at the bar has had a few. His bit is a verbal cut-and-paste I’ve heard in a hundred towns. As the night attenuates, he’ll be bolder. Here in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, there’s no need of circumspection: the angry drunk guy always talks as though for the room, as if his was the voice of universal reason and truth and righteousness.
I was finding it hard to get a beer in Sault Ste Marie. Everything closes early and there didn’t seem to be a beer store within miles of my hotel. I could have asked someone for directions, but even finding people on Queen Street East was difficult. I gave up, turned a corner to go home, and discovered a bar.
The waitress was at my table before I’d taken off my coat. The place was almost empty. Two men sat at the antipodes of an island bar, one beneath the television, torquing his neck to see the Canadiens game. The other was an Indigenous fellow dressed in a blue nylon jacket, jeans, and a cowboy hat. He exchanged banter with his acquaintance, but got quiet when the white guy in the baseball cap, oblivious to the irony, launched into the familiar bit about immigrants.
I remember the birthday when I was finally old enough to drink. Beer came in stubbies and you needed a churchkey to uncap it. Craft beer was unheard of: you drank Blue or 50 or Export. Old enough that I remember distant, lost things, I recall cars with bench seats, smoking on airplanes, hometown steel plants, bell-bottom pants. Life is a casting away, says a character in Death of a Salesman. Are we improving as a species, and as a society? I miss bench seats and 70s FM, but I believe in progress.
The angry white guy in this New York State bar seems to believe that everything was better in some distant, unspecified past. It’s never Tupperware parties, or shag carpet that they reference. Or eight-track tapes, Bakelite, radio dramas, big bands, flapper dresses, pompadours. It’s the people. The color of skin, the smell of alien cuisine, the many ways society has changed for the worse because there are more of the certain kinds of people.
The more generalized and uninformed, the more audacious. Eventually I find I have to leave. In the morning the angry man will wake up sober, a bit hungover maybe, and blend back into the general intercourse of things. He’ll tuck the resentment deep into a discrete psychic pocket, like an angry watch. He’ll dream of days when he could say the words in his head to the open air and it was okay, better than okay. After the sermon he would step into the courtyard and pull his silver cigarette case from a blazer pocket, like everyone else, and chat about last week’s episode of a favorite program. It’s different now.
“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” He is a writer of the South, of stasis and decline, of nostalgia and tragedy. In one of his stories a dead woman lies in a bed. Her family acts as if nothing has changed. She is a metaphor of an existence that is suspended between life and death, unwilling to let go of the past and unable to manage the present.
Life is a casting away. Loss and retention, stasis and continual change. Both can be true if you cling to losses real and imaged and cultivate a grievance that is like the phantom ache of an amputated arm. Time frozen and time reclaimed. Once was greatness. What if the world is gone wrong, is going wrong, is falling away?
I’ve seen them in villages, hamlets, towns, and cities. There must be millions of these angry bar creatures, as if a central bureaucracy oversaw their mandated production and distribution. In the daylight the commerce of our world looks tidy and civil, but I’ve learned to see this as an illusion. Civility is a crust beneath which churns the lava of human malaise. It is thin and fragile, given to periodical breaches of roiling madness.
I’ve learned in places like this Pennsylvania bar to abjure the nightmares of robots and aliens, as well as the zombies and vampires and superheroes conjured in film. In the real world there is no Superman, but there may be a strongman, an angry man, who will rise up among us. I ponder the dystopia in which a dormant germ catches the fleck of an essential nutrient. Click, goes a switch, and it begins.
Categories: Personal Essay