I used to work up in South City as a bartender at the Dirty Cactus on weekends during the summer. I’d take the train to the South San Francisco stop and walk the one and a half blocks west to Linden Ave. where there wasn’t ever anybody, or so it seemed. The Dirty Cactus always had the chronic winos and beer-gutted scum coming through, never bothering to tip anything besides a few words. Sometimes though, a jewel of a bastard would come in, and I could have listened to these guys talk for hours, if they felt like talking for that long. Then I would take a break, write down as much as I could remember before going back, and serve ‘em up the next round, lighting a cigarette.
Dirty Cactus was one of the best bars in South City, even though it was what you might call a “dive” bar (originally used to describe the bars during Prohibition that were located in cellars where you would “dive down” out of the public eye.) Of course who’s to say what the best bar was, I was in fact a bartender at said bar, so my opinion is slightly biased anyways. Regardless, what dive could possibly be complete without the cliché of being entirely deficient of women? The Dirty Cactus undoubtedly deserved some award for being the only establishment in the city that hadn’t served a female patron in weeks, if such an award exists, but this was just one of the many eccentricities of the Cactus.
After a lone night of drinking at the bar after closing, waking to an incurable hangover, I was trying to sleep on the train when this girl came and sat next to me. Now I knew that the tram I was riding was most likely empty, and that this girl had sat next to me to start some conversation. I hated these forced conversations sometimes, there were times (especially before work) when it was just nice to sit alone for a godamn half hour, when there was no reason to speak at all, and you could just observe. Picasso once said, “If only we could pull out our brains and only use our eyes.”
She pulled a tiny book from her tiny purse and sat it in her tiny lap. She was twenty-something, Euro-looking, with thin trimmed blue eyeglasses, her legs too thin for my taste; she was too thin in general. I adjusted my head in my jacket against the glass window, watching the cars and cities float by, people outside on lunch breaks or midday excursions.
The girl began reading furiously, her brown bob cut hair swung as her head turned from one side of the page to the other. She turned her head toward me as she moved her hand to turn the page, but when she turned the page, she kept her eyes one me. Now we’re gonna have to speak to each other, I thought, Fuck. I turned back toward her and sat up in my seat. She politely put her book down, never taking her eyes away from mine.
“Do I know you?” I said, figuring she was trying to pick me out from somewhere.
“South San Francisco stop, this is South San Francisco,” a static voice said loudly from the speakers as she tried to say something.
“Actually this is my stop,” I said, standing up and grabbing my backpack, “Sorry we didn’t get to chat. Come by the Dirty Cactus sometime, I’m always there.”
“But…” she tried to say, but I had already walked away and off the train, into the warm air of another California winter.
There was only one shift at the Dirty Cactus: the night shift. I usually opened the bar at three-o-clock on weekdays, two-o-clock on Fridays and Saturdays. The Dirty Cactus always stayed open till 2am though, no exceptions, and we were closed on Sundays. The owner never minded paying me overtime everyday, in fact, for such a shitty place, the owner, Niles, was an upstanding guy. Well, more or less upstanding; there were instances where his anger could get he better of him and on days when he’d show up to the bar, there would always be an altercation between him and some customer. It was a Friday, Niles never showed up on Friday night, so I would have the whole bar to myself.
My bottle opener keychain snagged the inside of my jeans pocket as I pulled out my keys and it ripped a hole the size of Manhattan in the bottom of my pocket, the contents slipping down my leg to the wet cement. I unlocked the door, chipping off a few dry red paint flakes, and walked in, sniffing a deep sniff of stale beer, dirty mop water, a hint of vomit from the direction of the bathroom, and the bar flies were hovering above the taps. After I wiped the bar, moped the floor and killed the barflies with an impressive homemade blowtorch, I poured myself a shot of Makers as I flipped on the purple neon OPEN sign and turned up the music. I shot the shot, and with a shake of my head and a large sigh-ish exhale, I started washing dishes.
to be continued...