Friday, June 29, 2007

The Bar of Perspicacity

{Photos by rocketlass}

A passing phrase from my Trollope post led me into a few thoughts on the Bar of Perspicacity.

The Bar of Perspicacity is open only between three a.m. and dawn, and even in those hours it's never open to anyone who could otherwise be asleep. No, the only ones allowed into its dingy precincts are those who have lain awake, the low ebb of their circadian rhythm amplifying and feeding an uncertainty that has been gnawing at them for days. It's for the smokers in bed, the late-night beach walkers, the ones who turned on that solitary light in the dark-windowed high-rise sky.

The room is shadowy, lit only by a battery of aged, low-wattage bulbs in tarnished sconces behind the bar. A murmur of indistinguishable conversation rumbles at the edge of your hearing, and half-glimpsed movements in the murky corners suggest the presence of unseen, secretive patrons. The bartender could be James Salter, but no, I think he is instead James Jones, leaning there in a worn jacket, tie knotted loosely around a rumpled collar.

You take your stool--there's always one open--and James Jones listens to your order. Then he nods and brings you, not necessarily what you ordered, but what you needed. He doesn't say much, mostly just smokes and keeps a weather eye on your glass as he aimlessly wipes down the thickly varnished oak bar, cleaning the same section again and again. Occasionally, though, he leans in close to you and speaks terse suggestions--commands, really--his voice quiet but forceful.

The barback is Marcel Proust, extravagantly overdressed in his striped waistcoat and evening jacket. He, too, says little most nights, just shifts bottles, arranges glasses, and mixes the simplest of drinks. But once in a while, upon seeing particular customers, Proust will sparkle into life, leaning forward on the bar next to Jones and telling long, detailed, and quite funny stories. Once he gets started talking, he's unlikely to stop much before closing, and Jones, knowing that, slips behind him and silently takes over the barback's duties. Proust's stories are always about him and people he knows, but at the same time they're always for you.

Once in a while Anton Chekhov is there, too, but he's a customer rather than an employee, at least so far as anyone can tell. He sits on a stool writing letters. On certain nights, sitting next to certain customers, he makes frequent trips to the bathroom, pointedly leaving a sheaf of half-finished letters on the bar. The letters, unguarded, are seductive; the customer can't be blamed for reading bits of them. Sometimes he reads this:
Everything I have is crumpled, dirty, torn! I look like a pickpocket.
Or this:
As for me, I have a cough too, but I am alive and I believe I’m well.
While other times he reads this:
It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer’s business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversations, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation of two Russians about pessimism—a conversation which settles nothing—and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented—i.e., to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, and to speak their language.

When the first wisps of dawn begin to pierce the dimness of the Bar of Perspicacity, James Jones steps around the bar, takes you--not quite gently--by the arm and leads you toward the door. You may not think you're not ready to go yet, and, looking around at the suddenly silent bar, you may not see any reason that it has to close just now. But then you find yourself on the sidewalk, the morning papers thumping to the concrete down the street, the city's millions slowly forcing themselves into wakefulness, and you realize that James Jones was right: it's time to go home. As you turn away, some mornings you might see that behind you, where the bar had been, is a dusty shop window offering wedding cake figurines forever wearing long-outmoded dresses and tuxes.

It's possible that you'll end up back at the bar the next night, and the one after that, and that's fine. But six in a row is the limit. Oh, you'll get in a seventh time. The staff, after all they've seen, are anything but hard-hearted. But at the end of the seventh night, when you turn over the tab James Jones has handed you, you'll find not numbers, but a hand-written note from Dawn Powell. Get over yourself, it says. Or: you think we haven't seen worse? This may not sit well with you at the time, or even later, but it will serve; it will make you reconsider your presence on that stool.

And the eighth night, stare at the ceiling above your bed as you might, you'll not find the bar. There will be other bars open, but they will be lesser bars, and you'll come out of them less, too. Best, instead, to get it taken care of within that first week.

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