Bobby is 73 years old. I know this because he told me at least three times. He came to Arcadia, California by way of Oakland six years ago. He told me this no fewer than five times. I met Bobby at the Drinker’s Hall of Fame, a bar on Huntington St. in Arcadia, just a few blocks from Santa Anita racetrack.
I discovered the Hall of Fame recently on a business trip. It’s a neighborhood bar were all of the patrons seem to know each other. Whenever one of the regulars wanders in there are handshakes and back slaps and shouted greetings all around. As a rule they are an older crowd. Music of the sixties and seventy’s is the predominate choice on the jukebox. Smoking is still allowed in the Hall of Fame and everyone, including Miss Holly the bartender, smokes like a locomotive. It is my only complaint, but one that I keep to myself.
Yesterday when I arrived I noticed they had put up some Christmas decorations. Silver balls and tin-foil snowflakes dangled from the ceiling on strips of ribbon and strands of colored lights were stapled to the walls in a manner that looked more accidental than planned. Their journey began at the far end of the bar, where they rose and fell along the wall, wove their way around some neon beer signs, climbed up and over framed photographs of race horses and smiling jockeys in the Winner’s Circle, undulated across the back wall above the pool table, then passed over the juke box before finally ending, loosely draped around a painting of a pretty young woman who was sans clothing.
I scoped the room and saw there was only one open stool at the bar, the one next to the video game machine nobody ever takes if there’s another choice. Every bar has one. I don’t like it much either, but I like the high-top tables even less, so I took the objectionable stool, and that’s how I ended up talking to Bobby.
Before I managed to sit down Bobby looked up at me and said, “You look like a judge.” His remark caught me by surprise and I barked out a laugh right in his face. Luckily I didn’t spray him with spit. Miss Holly came to take my order and that diverted Bobby’s attention for a minute, but it didn’t last long. Soon enough he was introducing himself and telling me he was from Oakland and he was 73 years old, born in 1937. I told him he didn’t look 73, but he does. He is thin and his skin is tanned and leathery. His hair is white, but to his credit he still had a full head of it. He combs it straight back, which makes him look like the crazy scientist in Back to the Future.
Right out of the gate Bobby said the Hall of Fame was a good bar because the people were nice and he felt safe there. He lit a Marlboro and blew a cloud of smoke at the Christmas stockings stuck to the mirror behind the bar. Then he told me he was a good guy, and as proof he offered that he had only been in jail once in his life, a five hour stretch in the Oakland drunk tank. What compelled him to tell such a personal and unflattering story to someone he had known barely longer than it takes to hard-boil an egg I couldn’t say. Maybe he thought I needed reassurance.
As this revelation was soaking in, Mike reappeared. Mike is Hall of Fame regular who had been on the stool to Bobby’s left when I sat down. He went outside for a while and when he came back he gave Bobby a plastic bag that held something bulky. They talked for a minute but I couldn’t hear them over the music. Then they shook hands, and for the next several minutes Bobby was quiet. He stared straight ahead at his reflection in the mirror, lost in his thoughts.
Later Bobby told me Mike had given him a sleeping bag. He said he was glad to have it because he slept in the alley behind the bar and he had been getting cold at night. I said “Well, it should come in handy.” I didn’t know what to say, honestly, because it had just dawned on me that for the first time in my life I was having an extended conversation with a man who lived on the streets.
Bobby shot pool with a loud woman in a low-cut blouse, and between games he drank screwdrivers and told me more about his life. He is a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He said he had killed people, and I hoped he meant in the wars, but then later he said he was glad he didn’t have to hurt anyone while he was overseas. Whatever the truth, it would not surprise me. He gambles professionally at the racetrack and he also panhandles. He said he can survive this way and he doesn’t need Social Security. He asked me if I collected Social Security and I was glad I could say no. He said that earlier in the day he had won $150 at the racetrack. Then he said he had not eaten for two days. I had watched him spend at least $30 on drinks for himself and others, and he also made a bet on the weekly football pool, so if he wasn’t eating it wasn’t because he lacked money. Bobby asked me if I had ever been hungry. I said, “No, not the way you mean.” He said being hungry was a bitch. Then he told me he was a drunk.
Bobby believes he has Alzheimer’s Disease. This is a self-diagnosis because he does not go to doctors. He is certain he has it because he once owed a guy some money and he tried to repay him twice. He didn’t remember doing it the first time. That was proof enough for Bobby that he has Alzheimer’s. Given the number of times he had repeated himself during our short acquaintance I supposed it was a possibility. It’s also possible he was drunk.
Bobby is passionate about the plight of homeless veterans in America. He said I should help them. It sounded more like a command than a suggestion. I think the screwdrivers were kicking in. I asked him if I should give money? Bobby said they didn’t need money. I detected a hint of irritation in his voice. He put his cigarette to his lips and I could see his hands were shaking. I said, ”What, then?” He said, “They need shelter, man.” Exasperated that I could miss a point so obvious, he did not elaborate on what I could do to help. He acted like it was enough for him to say the words and I should be able to figure it out from there. If that was the case, he overestimated me.
I knew the question was going to come up sooner or later, and sure enough, Bobby chose that awkward pause to ask me if I was a veteran. I told him the truth and said no. With one eyebrow cocked, he looked at me down his long, straight nose and he didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. His expression spoke for him. It said that in that moment, Bobby felt nothing for me but contempt, and it made me angry.
I make no apologies for not serving in the military. I wasn’t called, so I didn’t go. I had the opportunity to go to college, and all these years later I still believe I made the right choice. I do believe, and I have told people this before, that by not spending a couple of years in the service I have missed out on something that may have been good for me. I have even said it might have made me a better man. Maybe, maybe not. It was 1971 and I did not want to go to Vietnam, and considering how that fiasco turned out, I have no regrets.
I didn’t bother explaining any of this to Bobby. He wouldn’t have understood, and I had already decided it was time for us to part company. In some ways I wanted to feel sorry for him. But another part of me, the part that won out, did not. It’s too bad Bobby’s life has turned out the way it has, but he made his choices, and choices have consequences. It’s the same for all of us.
I finished my drink and put on my coat. Then I shook Bobby’s hand and wished him luck, and I walked out of the Drinker’s Hall of Fame into the cool California night.