Before and during the times when I was working as a reporter upstate I worked as a bartender in a town that had no traffic light and a population of 1,800. The bar had a kind of derelict hominess, was frequented by old time musicians, Viet Nam Vets, families with young children, professors and a surprising number of know-it-all drop outs, rural hipsters, and the under-employed.
I took this job because it paid vastly more money than I was earning working as a managing editor of a literary arts journal. My shift began at four and I would pick my son up from second grade on the way to the bar and bring him with me. He would help me open. Turn on the taps, bring bottles up from the basement, set silverware out on tables, and then stand on a milk crate next to me, leaning his elbows on the bar as the first of the regulars rolled in. At seven-years-old he could make a martini, a cuba libra, and a white Russian, while keeping up a pretty decent banter about the mars rover and pirates.
His father would pick him up on his way home from work around five thirty, and I would spend the rest of the evening pouring drinks, then go home smelling like cigarettes and bleach and kiss my sleeping boy goodnight.
One of the regulars who would arrive early and leave at closing time was a guy named Clint Swank. I didn’t make that name up. A jazz musician who could have been anywhere between forty-eight and ninety-years-old. He chain smoked camels, talked about physics, literature and religion and sat in the bar all night arguing and laughing. I had never once seen him sober and I contributed greatly to his “delicate condition.” Despite this he was still one of the more lucid regulars I dealt with. Low on the conspiracy theories, not fond of academic jargon or bucolic sentimentality, had never killed a guy or a deer and was always in a good mood.
“Why the fuck is someone like you bartending?” He asked me one horribly rainy Sunday evening while we were watching the news together and drinking Guinness in the empty bar, and I was dying to go home to my kid.
“To support my family.” I told him. “Obviously.”
“What a fucking load of shit,” he said. “A person like you goes to law school if they want to support a family they don’t hang out with a bunch of drunks at a dive out in the country. Don’t fucking kid yourself. If you really loved your kid you’d get a real job.”
“What the hell are you doing out here?” I asked him.
“Now you’re getting it,” he said, fixing me with a look of profound recognition. And started laughing.
As if to further illustrate this cautionary tale Clint moved into an apartment above the bar, took a job cleaning the bar and spent all of his time drunk in the bar.
It was like watching a monk set himself on fire. And it made me take up writing fiction with a seriousness I hadn’t before experienced; eventually getting a fellowship that enabled me to stay home with my kid, where we read The Odyssey and Treasure Island, built a pyramid for a dead goldfish and did not learn any more cocktail recipes until he was headed off to college.
The one thing everyone had always been able to agree on, even people whom he mocked and irritated, was that Clint was a monster talent. But now he could barely play. Things weren’t going so well for the man, though he too got to stay home a lot. He’d lost weight, looked a wreck and was in and out of the hospital.
“It’s all fine with me,” he said, rolling a cigarette with shaking hands on a bench outside the bar. “I’d be happy to die doing something I love.”
Eventually he was sent to a year-long rehab program and returned a remarkably clear eyed and foul mouthed Buddhist. He got new teeth and good health and went back to giving music lessons. “But it would have been okay either way,” he said to me later sitting on a bench outside the coffee shop. “I’m not caught up in the material world. You of all people should know that.”
As Thanksgiving approaches my thoughts turn to Clint and I’m grateful. Grateful that he called me out and told me to get a job. Advice that would have meant nothing coming from a parent or teacher but from a gifted self-saboteur was absolutely chilling. Grateful for his stories and for his being a monumental pain in the ass to the right people. But most of all I am very grateful that he is alive and playing.
For some of us, it wouldn’t have been okay either way. Happy Thanksgiving Clint Swank, rogue professor of life beyond lost causes. I raise my glass of water to you!