de(tales): drugstore cowboy
Ross is one of the first people that I connected with over the internet. It was through his blog that I discovered the words of Addie Zierman (I will eternally grateful for this). Since then, he has made me laugh often on Twitter and cry while reading his blog. I hope you enjoy his contribution to the de(tales) series.
The man wore steel-toed, brown leather work boots and jeans faded white around the knees. We were in a coffee shop that'd soon become a bar that was once a drugstore, even had a scene in that Van Saint movie Drugstore Cowboy. We drank coffee and laughed about the stupid stuff we did while drinking the night before, while this man sat down at a table near us with a hot bagel on a plate and a steaming cup of coffee.
The kid behind the counter wiping down the espresso machine had a peach fuzz mustache He kept one eye on the bagel munching cowboy who scooted his chair across the wood paneled floor and rambled on about something old cowboys ramble on about.
The bagel gave him some trouble and he soon forgot about it and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his flannel pocket and then a lighter he'd made out of thin air as if it never left his hand. Our laughing on the couches subsided and we all watched as the cowboy perched the cigarette between his chapped lips and snapped a flame to life. We watched his lungs expand and the blood rush through his cheeks and the slow plume expand from his lips. We held our breath as the smoke drifted and the kid behind the counter whipped around, the edges of his wet rag sprayed soapy water.
At that moment the cowboy was just a drunk in a coffee shop, no different than any of the other drunks stumbling down the wet Portland pavement on the other side of the glass. He was just a man holding the little dignity he believed was owed to him like soft dirt in his hand.
The kid came around the bar and said with as much gusto as he could muster, "You're eighty-sixed, man. Get out of here." The cowboy, unbalanced, stood up and faced the kid, the tips of their noses brushed, and the kid’s mustache quivered. The cowboy balled both his fists at his side.
Nobody moved. The kid’s towel dripped a small puddle of water at their feet. And I knew that when someone did move it would affect my evening out with my friends. So I stood up and went over to the cowboy.
I asked the cowboy if he wanted to smoke outside with me. I could tell he wanted to by the way he stepped toward the door, but not forgetting, pointed at this kid, "This pecker, right here," he said and stared at him. I said not to worry about him, let's have a smoke. He stared at the kid some more as he tumbled toward the door and had his cigarette lighted and puffed before the door shut behind us.
We sat at the cold, wet metal tables outside and I listened.
He said that when he was young he used to come to this coffee shop only it wasn’t a coffee shop then, it was a drugstore. He flipped off the kid inside. He said, “That little pecker.” He asked me where I was from. He said that when he was a kid he saw a guy’s brains get splattered at this cross walk. The guy was walking across the street and a car came and pow. He said he saw his brains get splattered.
He said, "The Portland music scene, let me tell you, it is happening. You are right in the middle of it." He asked me where I was from. He said he really appreciated me coming out here to talk with him. He asked me what I did. I said I went to school, worked at a church. He asked me if I was Mormon. I said I wasn’t. He said, "My ex-wife is Mormon. I have four kids." He pulled out his wallet and set down two pictures side by side.
He said his oldest boy played the guitar. He said the Portland music scene is the place to be. That his son’s band would be opening for a show next week. I asked him if he went to his son’s concerts. He said he tried to make most of them. He said that he’s six foot nine and plays the guitar. I asked him if he played basketball. He said he used to wear a shirt that said, I Don’t Play Basketball.
He said he got lit tonight. He said he appreciated me coming out to talk with him. He said that when he was a kid he saw a guy’s brains get splattered right here on this street. For the first time that night he went quiet. He looked at the ground. Around us more drunks were stumbling home as the bars closed. Some were smoking outside and talking on their cell phones. Inside the coffee shop my friends were sitting on the couches and I could hear them laughing. I thought he was going to cry the way he was looking at the ground all silent. When he lifted his head he pointed across the street at a bar and said there’s lots of hot ass over there.
It’s easier to label somebody than it is to understand them. I didn’t want to understand him. I just wanted to avoid a scene while hanging with my friends. I thought I understood everything that needed to be understood. I thought it was all evident from my observation. I just didn’t want to see. Maybe because I’m lazy, maybe because I’m indifferent, maybe because I don’t really love my neighbor unless that neighbor somehow benefits me.
When I don't want to care I ignore all the details. I ignore the other's divine humanness and my own undeserved gift of humanity and breath. I left that drugstore the same as I entered, just more convicted, more ashamed at what I choose to look away from and what I choose to see. Then that's my prayer for myself, for all of us. That I not only look but see, not only hear but listen. No matter how ugly the scene, lit or not, brains splattered or not.
Ross Gale is a writer and editor living in Hawaii. He blogs at rcgale.com.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.