Funny how the mind works. How one totally unrelated incident can trigger from the past another that binds them in the present. Like these two unrelated incidents now intertwined…
Now your friendly bartender has only seen this two or three times at best, but once to his way of thinking is one time too many. And it’s a scam that boasts all the subtlety of robbing the blind. In fact, scam is probably too good a word as “scam” at least hints at cunning, this act would fall more comfortably in the category of “mugging”. And it goes like this.
A guy sees he’s reached that point in the night where his words come tumbling out as though tripped by his tongue, so he orders that final-final then pays and tips. But too drunk to realize he’s done this before, having lingered too long at the fair, he says upon finishing that drink, “Bartender, what do I owe you?” Enter mugging!
A dummy check is quickly drawn up, the guy pays and tips again, but this time the whole damn lot goes into the tip cup. Now this ruse should only be done with a cash sale, lest you invite a paper trail, and conveniently the place where I saw this didn’t accept credit cards. It was the perfect venue for a stunt like this and it happened to be a place where I used to work.
It was the first joint I’d ever worked in a setting right out of the pages of a Mickey Spillane novel, and the staff there was made up largely of hard-nosed old timers. These were guys from the school of hard knocks who could bend a nail with a stare, who viewed their dealings with patrons as “us against them”. (They got money, we got pockets, let’s by hook or crook make an exchange here!) And as far as that “double dipping” was concerned… that mugging I just described and to which I was witness… some guys could pull that off without blinking an eye. Well, that’s not totally true, they would blink and eye in the form of a wink to signal to an onlooking co-worker, “Hey, we got em!” But that was them and this is me and not that I’m now trying to act like I’m under some halo… for believe me I did (under orders) my share of “wink worthy”… but never, ever could I charge a customer twice. That’s a flat-out mugging.
Now let’s cut to Pal Joey and the intertwining…
There’s this homeless guy who works the corner of 87th and Second, and the corner of many warm hearts as they pass him by. For even if he doesn’t get a toke from these folks, he and his dog almost always get a warm smile. His name is Joseph and his dog will answer to Shorty. Joey is all of about five foot six but more like four foot six because of his back pain… he’s sadly usually hunched over… and when he isn’t standing he’s sitting on a plastic milk crate. And Shorty, his dog of dubious breed… his chubby little friend who is always there… lies on a pile of blankets wedged in a shopping cart. And what a sight they make! But since Joey is often in need of a bath installed in a wardrobe as soiled sometimes as his skin, while Shorty is often in need of a scrub and a brushing, one might be moved to call them a couple of mutts. But one would be wrong. Very wrong!
For I often wonder as I watch this guy… when I see people giving him blankets, food, clothing and trinkets to hang from the side of his cart, even an album of photos comprised of pictures of him and Shorty some woman had assembled… if Joey is not there for us instead of the reverse. If Joey is not there to help us to see the light. I know that sounds dramatic, dear reader, but sometimes I actually sense that, as I always feel better and warmer after leaving the scene. And so do many others, I see it in their faces.
And I know that Joey feels better for all this after we’ve had our exchange… our chat that can range from the Yankees to the price of tomatoes… for I’ve long ago come to the conclusion whereby these people who work the streets, these people whom life has placed on the outside looking in, as much as the money they enjoy being recognized as people. Being validated and shown they belong to the human race. And a talk can do that. And with Joey that talk is always a snap because he’s articulate, he’s kind, he’s smart and he’s always polite, and he’s honest as you shall see as this story unfolds.
Well, all that said (and please don’t think I’m tooting my horn because believe me I’m not in the least), I decided a long time ago to make a commitment… to give this guy an amount every day, seven days a week, and fortunately up to the present I’ve kept that commitment. For even when he doesn’t show up on a day for reasons known only to himself and none of my business, I’ll pay him for the day he’s missed with a next day double up. Because I know the money means a lot to him, as well as our conversations, so what does it kill me to stick to that little contract? Hey, I’m selfish enough in the rest of my life, one little turn for the good, as I said, won’t kill me.
So a week ago Friday, not in possession of the right denomination and really in a hurry when I approached him, I said, “Joey, I don’t have any small bills, my man, so take this instead and now we’re good til Tuesday, okay? That’s four days worth.” And as always, even after all this time, he smiled and thanked me profusely as if we’d just met. And he meant it.
So along comes Monday when I stop for the drop and to give a good scratch to Shorty, when, as I reach down into my pocket to grab my money, Joey puts up his hand and says, “No, you paid me. Don’t you remember last Friday you gave me four days?”
“Oh, shit, you’re right,” I said, “I totally forgot. Thanks for being so honest, Joe, I appreciate that.” And the smile that opened his face meant he’d trumped the money. The act of him doing for me for a change, instead of me doing for him, was a self-imposed gift that was clearly much richer than swag. “Okay, pal, I guess we’re even then,” I said. “Have a good day, my friend, and I’ll catch you tomorrow.”
“You have a good day too,” Joey said, smiling still as I left, and coincidentally Shorty was wearing a dog grin. And as I rounded the corner and headed toward First for some stuff I had to take care of that now seemed trivial, here’s the thought that hit me like a ton of bricks. Here is this homeless guy Joey, down on his luck and out on the street and really (as they say) not having a pot to piss in, and he has the integrity to say, “You already paid me.” And then there were those guys who worked in that bar (only a few, but still) with a cup full of cash, a nice warm bed, a starched white shirt and the self-esteem that employment brings, who rather would say, “Yeah, gimme’ your money!”
A couple of mutts? I don’t think so. The hunched over four-foot-six guy stands a lot taller.
Over and out from Bar-land… see ya’ next week-end.