The Long Bus Ride Home from War

By Neva Knott

It’s Tuesday, July 5. I’m bartending at The White Eagle Saloon, a small music venue in Portland, with an 11-room hotel on the top floor. The bar is pretty empty. Everyone has the holiday hangover, I guess. My first customers were a nice couple who’d just checked in to the hotel. Just down from Seattle, it’s fun to get away. As I’m chatting it up with them, I see a woman take a stool at the end of the bar, backlit by the heavy afternoon sun glare from the front windows.

I get over there, and immediately can tell something is off. She orders a drink, seems really confused, but not in a drunken sort of way. She’s sort of slurring, and wants a double. I’m sure she isn’t drunk, just agitated. I pour her double vodka and hand it to her. She seems to need to explain, so opens with, “I was visiting my daughter, but she made me leave early.” I tell her I’m sorry, stand there for a minute so she feels like we’ve connected.

I move off to cruise the patio, to see who’s out there, what’s up. Two of my Monday regulars are in their usual spot, having missed yesterday for the holiday. They come in and drink cheap beer and smoke and talk. Today’s topic is cars. I love to get them laughing, so I ask if they have all their fingers after lighting fireworks on the Fourth. They giggle and show me their hands.

Next table is a group of three who come in every once in awhile, though it seems more often lately. These folks typify the usual non-descript backdrop of business at any Mcmenamins pub. They work day jobs, they come in for a quick few beers and a snack with the people they like at work, usually to talk about work, and share a few cursory personal details. They don’t really expect much from us. Happy hour drinks and cheap tater tots. In and out. Their transactions here are pretty much what I imagine their days to be like. In box full, outbox full. I like to open them up. I’m not saying I want to get to know them personally, their nitty-gritty and all, but I do want them to know I see them as people. As regulars. As part of my day. A couple of days ago I had really bad allergies and kept messing up little things on their order. I apologized, and told them I was blaming the pollen. So today I opened with, “I took Zyrtec today. I think I’ll be a much better waitress for you all…” They laughed, a little chip in the ice.

So this is pretty much it the first couple of hours—I have my two talking and smoking guys on the patio, my work-talk threesome has left for home, another regular has come in with three friends, and they are on the patio, drinking iced tea. A couple of guys come in for a quick after work meeting, drink Old Fashions. As I pour their last round, one orders two dinners to go.

The vodka woman has moved outside and is sitting at a front table, nervously smoking. I understand her emotional state now, and can see it in each jagged move she makes. Each time I’ve come behind the bar to mix a drink, she’s blurted out a detail. Her daughter is in the rehab program across the street. She herself is in what she termed a bad relationship, and today her boyfriend decided to hit her in the face instead of her stomach. She is upset because she took her daughter roses, but made her daughter cry. I stayed with her as she talked and finally asked her if she had resources to get herself some help. She’s staying with her son and her mother, alternately. She’s looking for work. She graduated from Apollo College, but really wants to be a bartender, but doesn’t know how to mix drinks. I tell her you learn as you go. She thanks me for the drink, tells me it helped, uses the bathroom, and leaves. At least I think she leaves, until I realize a long while later she’s out front, shaking and smoking.

Janine, the other bartender for the night, comes in. We do a few things to get ready for the night, and chat. Still not much going on. A new group arrives, a mix of men and women. The guys are the sort of amblers who just can’t make eye contact or listen to an answer to one of their own questions long enough for you to find out what kind of beer to pour for them. Talking over each other, competing for Janine’s attention, ordering then walking off. The woman was one of those super-annoying people who want the whole menu narrated to her and then still can’t decide, so she ends the conversation with, “I think I’ll just go sit down–will you come wait on us?” Later, we find out they are a Toastmasters group—you know, the public speaking club. The irony is not lost.

The band arrives, creating a little flurry of activity, though it is still slow. We stock liquor, and decide it’s slow enough Janine should go home.

Into this mix walks a man looking for a hotel room. I’m coming out of the kitchen from putting my dirty dishes to soak. I look toward the front door and see this guy with a camouflage hat come in, dragging a huge rolling suitcase. He sees me, immediately drops the suitcase half in the doorway, and comes over, saying, “You got rooms here?” I can feel his exhaustion and general wariness, but he’s also gentle and polite. There is something in this combination that alerts me to deal with this guy slowly and calmly and to give him reassurance. We walk over to the hotel computer, and I tell him what we have available. He blurts out, “I’ll take it. I’m on the Greyhound, and I’ve been all across the country, but they don’t let you sleep in the bus station here. Strangest thing; I’ve slept in bus stations everywhere else.” As he’s talking, I’m making the reservation. He seems a little worried. He keeps alternating in his expressions, but now he’s alternating from worried to smiling. I see he has no teeth. His shirt is frayed, but he’s clean-shaven. I give him his keys and welcome him, let him know we have music starting soon if he wants to come back down and relax.

About half an hour later, I walk onto the patio and see him sitting there. I take his order and bring him a Bud. I ask him if he got settled in all right, and he says yes, that he likes it here, that it feels good to relax. I walk on by, and he actually leaves his seat and follows me out to the trash pit. He comes back to the whole can’t sleep in the bus station thing. I tell him the area of the bus station has been bad for years because of drugs, and that he’s safer here. I ask him where he’s traveling from. We walk out of the trash pit. As he gets back to his table, he tells me he left Afghanistan, went to Iraq, then to Germany, to Florida, and then on the bus to Portland. In the early morning, he’s going on to Seattle, to the VA hospital there. I get a shiver of sadness as he tells me all of this, even though he’s smiling. I guess this is how our government shuttles around veterans these days. He says it’s good to be home. I thank him, for fighting. Actually, I’m not really sure what I thank him for—fighting, or trying, or enduring. I ask him if he’d like another beer, and I buy it for him. He stays awhile, then thanks me and goes upstairs.

The band is about ready to play. This new guy headed for the bar is a piece of work. He’s all tatted up, I mean really tatted up, even for Portland—got the words on the knuckles and all that. He has a pristine white fashion-brand ball cap on, cocked just so to one. He has big, chunky black hipster eye glasses, and, of course, a goatee. He sort of acknowledges me when I greet him, but mostly keeps talking really jumpy and to no one, and saying not much. He looks around the room constantly. Finally he asks, “Isn’t there a band here tonight?” It’s early, and anyone who comes out regularly would know that the opening band is most likely just going to start. Plus, the stage is full of equipment. And, the lead guy from the band is sitting at the bar, about two stools down. So I know this guy isn’t a friend. He’s here to write a review, but he won’t tell me the name of the publication, which is just bad manners in terms of Portland creative culture. He slams a couple more drinks, stays for part of the band’s first set, does the bro hand shake and leaves. Scott, my favorite regular, who is seated at the bar, laughs at him, and I do, too.

Now that the sun is down, I’ve got the fire is burning outside on the patio, and I chat with the people sitting around the pit. They are talking about cocaine. Then about art. The woman tells me about a great resort in Colorado that has continuously burning fireplaces in all the rooms in the winter. I tell her I’d like to go there, tell her I’d like to teach writing workshops at places like that. She gives me a warning look and explains it’s expensive, says, “But you could work there—they always need people to serve.” I ponder her perspective–the usual assumption that bartenders lack other skills–as I throw another log on the flame.

The night ambles on, as a slow Tuesday with good music on a summer’s evening can do. I start my closing tasks. The band is done playing, and they all leave to drink wine at Scott’s. Two of the guys from the Widmer Brew Pub, just across the street, come in and are soon wrapped into a heated, friendly debate about who’s the better tennis player.

My last customers of the evening are two hotel guests, here on a guy trip. One of them is moving across the country tomorrow, so this is their last hurrah. I pour them a shots of good whiskey and listen to them find a way to say goodbye.

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