Dennis Fried tells a short story about “an old guy in a bar . . . “
The scene: the 1970s, a family-owned Irish bar in Leeds, New York, that served as the informal headquarters for a group of us young guys who were still living the single life and still maintaining the resolve not to let getting up early for work interfere with staying up late for fun.
There was no jukebox. Other than the alcohol and the camaraderie, the sole sources of entertainment were a dartboard and one of those ubiquitous bowling machines, where you slid the metal puck down the wax-covered chute and the ten-pin always stayed up no matter what.
There was also Andorra, the owners’ German shepherd, who sat at the window and barked excitedly whenever she spied a regular approaching, and who added nicely to the nightly revenue by having customers buy her Slim Jims, which she neatly unwrapped herself. At some point, the videogame Pong was added to the mix, a first hint of what was to come.
There were two incidents from that time and place that marked me forever.
One night a friend of mine got into a disagreement over a barstool with an “old” guy (that is, someone around fifty). After a brief exchange, the old guy put up his hands in surrender and said, “Hey, it’s your time,” and walked away.
That was a rather deep comment for a barroom dispute, but I thought I understood it. And I did, but only to the extent that a young person whose future was still untapped could.
Now, quite often when I’m out and about, I see people whose time it is, and I think back to that old guy and his comment. And now I understand it, feel it, in a way that only a person whose time it is not can.
Second incident. One of the regulars was Joe, another old guy who came in nightly always took the same stool at the end of the bar, put some dollar bills on the bar in front of him, slowly drank several glasses of beer, then left. He never spoke or interacted with anyone in any way, just stared straight ahead and sipped his beer.
I was always curious about Joe, and the most anyone could tell me was that he had been hurt in the war (which war?), had a metal plate in his head, wouldn’t acknowledge the presence of anyone, seemed to be oblivious to his surroundings and was better left alone.
One night I arrived at the bar, and there was no one there yet that I knew. But Joe was there, at the end of the bar. So I sat down on the stool next to him. I said, “Hi.”
He continued staring straight ahead. He said, “Hi.”
I was stunned. Now, what could I say to continue this “conversation” with Joe?
So I ventured, “There aren’t very many people in here tonight.”
His straight-ahead gaze never wavered. He said, “There are twelve.”
I counted. There were twelve. I literally felt a shock to my heart: surprise, amazement, recognition, sadness. This man, who everyone assumed was lost in a world of his own, who numerous times was within earshot of careless comments about “crazy old Joe”—he was a hundred times more observant and aware than any of us.
I was too shaken to continue. I excused myself and took a walk outside in that glorious young-summer-evening air, fighting tears. I never tried talking to Joe again. I had learned something I’d rather not have known, and it was enough.
I’ve carried that experience with me to this day. Do we ever have good reason to assume we know what’s going on in someone else’s mind? How often are we surprised, both happily and unhappily, when we discover how wrong our assumptions are? And we have even less reason to assume we can know what’s going on in the minds of animals: when we befriend them, love them, hunt them, lead them to the slaughterhouse.
Sometimes we become wiser when we realize we know less than we thought.