Brotherhood of the befuddled
The pressures of paying rent or mortgage, and all of the other collective bills in a family’s life, was a burden that most men carried daily into jobs that they sometimes didn’t like or want. “No one said it would be easy” you often heard. And they were right! The neighborhood taverns were a pressure release-valve for many.
Entering a local tavern, in Buffalo N.Y., was an experience similar to walking into an old-fashioned saloon on the Western Frontier of America, during the mid 1800’s. People from outside the area would look around the room carefully, to see who lined the bar or sat at a table. Yet, they did not make any undue or overly challenging eye contact with the sitting patrons, for strangers were never appreciated and always suspect in their intentions to the locals.
A quick survey of this brotherhood of the befuddled could tell an experienced eye who was three sheets to the wind, who had the stiffened posture of one ready to argue and those who were just plain mean and looking for trouble. No one these days wore colt revolvers on their hips, but you never knew what lay in store for those who didn’t know you and didn’t want you in “their place.”
Some few happy souls would simply be sitting, mellowed out from large doses of their amber narcotic, talking lazily of the latest sporting event that had captured everyone’s attention that day or weekend. Others listened idly, ready to jump into whoever’s conversation that was a handy means to express their considered opinion on whatever the topic of the hour was.
The usual trivia challenges arose. What is the capital of Kentucky? Who holds the highest lifetime batting average in baseball? In what year did Hollywood produce Gone with the wind? The answers were never certain. It depended upon who wanted to insist on his/her version of the answer and how many beers they had consumed in the past few hours. Some rose to the challenge, questioning a patron’s veracity, his intentions and sometimes even his intelligence or legitimacy. If a few punches did get thrown they were usually ineffectual and caused little harm. Beer muscles lacked the force necessary to injure anyone. The prospective combatants usually retired to different ends of the bar, muttering curses or oaths of retribution that were soon forgotten amidst the general dynamic of the conversations up and down the bar. Some few scuffles ended up “outside.” Minor injuries and cuts sometimes surfaced after a few punches were thrown. It was another way of blowing off the accumulated steam of survival in a working-class community. Often the pressures of the day drove a man to seek the befuddled relief of the “creature” and the boozy companionship of others who toiled in the same difficult vineyards.
For most of the evenings, the crowd told and retold stories of their collective past and laughed uproariously, for the hundredth time, at some remembered silly escapade of their collective past. The communal memory of an area forgot nothing and remembered the shared history of all its members. No one and no topic escaped unscathed from the alcohol-enhanced scrutiny. Laughter and a muttered suggestion of what unnatural act the narrator of the criticism could perform on himself was both the expected and approved response.
Sometimes the evening could even turn to cultural edification if you can believe it. I can remember one night, deep in the “magic Hours” well past two A.M. one of the local characters called for silence as he launched into an impassioned rendition of Antoine D’Arcy’s “Face on the bar room floor.” Hard-nosed iron workers, roustabouts and other miscreants sat in absolute silence as this local poetic genius outlined the fate of a bar room celebrity, now fallen on hard times. There were even a few mist-covered eyes among us, though none would admit it. My own appreciation for and admiration of the Canadian Poet Robert W. Service. A teller of similar tales, stems from this magical rendition, carried out by a man three sheets to the wind. It was memorable.
It was only later, in the wee hours of the morning, that the crowd winnowed out, slowly sending the participants homeward to uncertain receptions by their collective families. Usually the Mrs. would weigh in loudly about the amount of time wasted, the money squandered and her general dissatisfaction with the life and habits of the befuddled miscreant who crawled home after a hard night in the saloon.
Reactions at home could be unpredictable as well. Physical violence was not unknown in some relationships. Sometimes a black eye or a fat lip marked the exchange. Usually, it was just one more loud and confrontational episode, in a series of verbal jousting, that marked the relationship of some working-class family's struggling for survival. The next morning would bring forth sheepish apologies and professions of an abstemious future that both parties knew was more a hopeful wish than an expected reality. People got by as best they could, in a difficult economic environment.
It wasn’t Walton’s mountain, but to those of us who lived there, it was home.
Joseph Xavier Martin