By: Ian C Smith
At fourteen, wearing my work overalls, so looking older, I breast the bar’s murmuring buzz after pushing through the sesame door. Payday, air blue with cigarette smoke, a swearing stew. Women, not allowed in this jingoistic jungle, sit in the Ladies Lounge, a demi-monde of quiet drinkers. Some men wear suits, battered hats, or brilliantined hair like mine. Office personnel arrive later than day shift workers. Printers, ink-grubby hard drinkers, argue there before work. Shaky old men sipping wee glasses, ‘ponies’, treated with respect, always attend. Off-duty detectives eye this hubbub of talk, too much of this also being most men’s ritual complaint about women, those cops’ probing glares assessing me this first time with my eighteen year-old workmate.
Buying rounds, ‘shouting’, required the right words, gestures, diction rough, ensuring barely pausing barmen understood, their fluid movement artistry to me. Alert to nuances of slang, I began to relax, part of the throng though agog with need to fathom arcane rites, concerned I might jostle somebody’s drink – most guzzled beer in various sized glasses – through obvious drunkenness, or speak too loudly, big no-no’s akin to engaging eye contact with off-duty cops.
Soaking up lore like a bar mat, alcohol intake limited by junior wages, I embraced the surging swell, tipsy choir of packed voices, angled light from acid-etched windows, jokes’ casual vulgarity, horse racing rationale, the lowdown on current scandals, ornate silver cash registers’ constant ringing, subtle but strict etiquette, even the stink of spilled beer’s stale familiarity.
When I was seventeen one of those cops I knew well by then chided me incorrectly for encouraging a group of underaged drinkers, kicking them out but not me, muttering that I ought to know better. I worked it out later I was the second-youngest.