“What’ll it be folks?”
The question comes so hard and so fast we are both lost, gazing blankly around the bar like a pair of rabbits in the headlights. We’re in a small town bar – a small town red neck bar, to be precise, somewhere in the mid-West. We have just arrived, unpacked our bags in a motel room, and are in search of refreshment.
“Two Bud Lights,” says my guide.
“Two Bud Lights it is…” replies the barman. He’s dressed in noticeably hip clothes – a big statement t-shirt and a light coloured linen jacket. He looks almost as out of place as we do.
“Bud Light?” I ask my guide.
“It’s the only thing I can be sure they would have,” she replies.
A glass and a half of pale beer arrive before us.
“This one is for you, and the barrel popped as I poured it, so this one is on the house.”
We thank our hipster barman, and drink to a day on the smaller roads of the remoter counties of this state. We drove through this town earlier in the day, and then doubled back in a loop knowing that this would be a good place to stay overnight. There was a pair of motels to price off against each other, a couple of places to eat and this – the small town’s self evident and ram shackle low end saloon. It faced the main street of town with a covered deck and countless neon signs in the window. The door was propped open, and the cool evening air was slowly making its way inside.
I am lost in the middle America I love. I don’t want to find my way again any time soon. Anonymous and modestly making my way, there is no more comfortable place to be right now than sitting at this bar.
The advantage of being a Brit in America is not only that everything seems cheaper, the beer also seems weaker. Your pound and your liver go much further over here. Another pair of drinks follow, this time in bottles from a more respectable local brewery. It’s a myth of European origin that Americans don’t make good beer – they just don’t export good beer. Hence slanderous judgements of American culture are made based solely on Budweiser and Coors.
I am strangely content, yet an undercurrent of imminent sadness undermines these cold beers. This time tomorrow I will be at an airport, and on my home. Another journey is over. It’s time to return to the little windswept island in the north-east Atlantic that I call home.
Looking around the bar we clock the clientèle. A pair of (underage) kids keeping a low profile playing pool at the back of the bar. A pair of elderly weekenders who seem to have chosen the wrong bar for a quiet evening’s drink. And finally a rowdy gang of construction workers; still wearing reflective jackets and sporting tightly shaved heads. They occupy the indeterminate zone around the end of the bar where the counter top lifts up. One (young) man in particular is in charge of this drunken conversation; he floats between his buddies and the open counter, straying behind the bar to establish a comfortable position within the barman’s territory.
Hipster barman seems not to mind. He’s dutifully pouring drink after drink. Guessing that construction workers start early and finish early, I reckon they’ve been here for almost two hours. The subtle intra-personal politics of American alpha males is observed discretely by my guide and I. Tensions occasionally flare, and we both prepare ourselves without communicating it for some kind of tussle. They subside, naturally. More drinks are poured. We order food. A frozen pizza emerges from the domestic freezer behind the bar and disappears into a pizza oven.
As we begin to eat, alpha male number one comes over to join us. Perhaps he’s distracted by my admittedly beautiful female guide. Or maybe he’s seen my poser spectacles and wants to know who’s the cheese eating surrender monkey who’s just arrived in town.
He introduces himself, and we shake hands. He inquires as to our origins – which interest him. One of us from west of here, one of us is from east of here. We are all roughly the same age – he’s almost a year younger than me. He’s been to Europe once – a brief layover at Frankfurt airport between military transport flights.
This young American road worker is delighted to welcome us. He’s interested to speak to me, the visiting Brit. He’s met many British people before; he’s served alongside them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost a year younger than me, and he’s seen four tours of duty in the U.S. Army. He shakes my hand again, and tells me that my soldiers are some of the best in the world, the most professional out there.
On the last night of my latest American odyssey, I found myself somewhere I wanted to be for some time. In the middle of almost nowhere; small town America. One horse town, one red neck bar. I’ve found myself in my “dream” middle American venue. But what now seems to have been so arrogant – to have imagined that I, the rich British tourist, could have just swanned in here for a quiet drink while I soak up the atmosphere – seems to have been based on the assumption that I wouldn’t have to have a conversation like this.
The young American man is drunk. He’s slurring, the actions of his hands and arms are wildly exaggerated. And he apologises. He doesn’t stop apologising. My guide and fellow traveller knows the military terms; she’s the daughter of a man who fought for this country in a certain sixteen-year conflict. She also knows other references he’s making, other frustrations with post-demob liasons that he’s occasionally expressing, but then hurredly concealing and apologising for. He’s a long way from home, working with an itinerant road crew earning top blue collar wages. But he’s left his beautiful wife and daughters at home. He carries pictures of them in a laminated wallet, and drinks away the evenings (“most nights after work”). He talks to us about them, but more about his life to date. Especially that brief visit to Europe when he transited in Frankfurt. Delighted to be in Germany, he and his buddies celebrated the stop off on their journey home by buying a crate of German beer to take on the plane. It being a civilian flight, however, they’re told the glass bottles can’t go on board, so they collectively neck about five bottles each.
“Man, I didn’t know German beer was that strong.”
This is a clichéd situation. A well spoken privately educated Brit with a BBC voice and a BBC take on the world arrives in a small town and starts talking to the demobbed and apprarently deeply traumatised young working class American. I’m drinking beer and making jokes about American brewing, and he’s drinking glass after glass of strong liquor telling anyone who’ll listen what he hasn’t been able to tell anyone from military liason.
The conversation last longer than the sum of its parts. I order two more beers while my guide talks with him, reminding him to keep pressing certain people for certain things. She has a greater degree of empathy than I do. I’m lost, floating out of my depth not quite sure this conversation is real. Everything I believe about certain events and actions is being confirmed, but I’m not capable of looking at this man in the eye. And I know in the pit of my stomach that in hundreds, maybe thousands, of bars across this country tonight, men and women like him are telling strangers their story. Maybe no-one else will listen, because it certainly sounds as though the authorities who sent him to a war zone four times in a row won’t listen any more. He’s left the military, set down his uniform and now, he has discovered, lost the vital framework in which his comrades supported him. Hundreds of miles from home, his new buddies are short-contract colleagues and tourists who happen to wander in to the bars he frequents every night after work.
When he leaves us to re-join his buddies and set off for the night, we shake hands again repeatedly. He tells me it’s been an honour to talk to me tonight. I return the compliment, and make some sincere but rushed and half-considered gesture of a compliment that could only be accepted without complaint by a very drunk man.
He finishes his drink, and the group of road workers heads out for the night.
My American friend and I are silent. Of all the places in the world, another dimly lit bar in a small town is not where that man should be every night. We both know it, but can’t express let alone consider where to begin. The support this young man needs is not here. It could be at home, but he needs to feed his family before he can show his face in their company.
Hipster barman clears the end of the bar of the empty glasses, and sweeps up the small change and dollar bills left as a tip. He mutters and rejoins us, dropping less than $3 in change on the bar in front of us.
“Jesus. Three hours of them in here and what do they leave? Three fucking dollars.”