Notes From Behind the Bar
A bicycle mechanic, a line cook, and a shotgun walk into a bar…

Illustration of a bartender drying a mug.
Illustration of a bartender drying a mug.

Stone gray clouds, heavy and threatening, hover above the city as I make my way to the 7/11 on the corner near where I work. Despite it only being early Fall, it already seems the months of ceaseless rain are here to stay. Nothing new, really. It’s Portland.

I cross the street down from the crosswalk, the thought of today’s work load on my mind. Thawing chicken. Refilling the deep fryers. Portioning and prepping and cooking. If I’m lucky, I’ll have some time to do some writing in the early afternoon when the spattering of regulars, flat and lukewarm, are working on their early drinks. Most people don’t want fried food and beer before 3 pm. Most people.

I almost walk right into this guy sitting on the sidewalk in a torn and stained flannel. I mumble an apology, pulling myself out of my own head and back to Earth. He holds up a piece of crumpled paper that reads “spare a dollar.” I don’t typically carry cash on me and I tell him as much. He holds up one hand to his ear and shakes his head. I begin to explain once more but he gives me the same motion. It then clicks for me that he’s deaf, so I pull out my wallet and show him the inside where only some paper punch cards and plastic lay. I shrug. As if to apologize. As if to say that I’m sorry I don’t have anything for him. He gives me a look of understanding and I make my way past him and into the store for a coffee.

Cheap coffee in hand, I push the bar door open and am greeted by the familiar sound of one of our regulars. A bicycle mechanic from down the street who seems to frequent our bartender more than he does his own customers. “…[T]weakers and deadbeats, I tell ya! Quitters and burnouts… I’ve had enough of ‘em.”

When I first got hired here, this guy would typically come in at some point in the afternoon for a drink on his break. Now he was at the bar most mornings when I showed up at 11, talking some poor fool’s ear off about all of the neighborhood’s problems. Or at least, what he thinks the problems are. As anyone in the place would discover from his inebriated ramblings, the desperate cries of onlookers mercilessly ignored, he’s had some bad luck.

You see, I try to avoid too many interactions with the regulars. I’m just here for the paycheck, nothing more. The reason I never became a bartender is that I simply don’t have it in me to be a therapist. Especially not when booze is involved. But alas, I hear it all this time.

Illustration of a bicycle wheel, tools, and a shotgun.
Illustration of a bicycle wheel, tools, and a shotgun.

For three nights in a row a group of people tried to break into his shop. He presumes some of the homeless people living around the area. Due to his security cameras, he became aware of these attempts after just the first night. The second night he sleeps in his shop, a 12 gauge shotgun loaded and resting in his lap. The third night, they try the skylight. He hears them walking about the roof, shaking at the frame that holds the glass in place, and in response he flips on the lights and the group scrambles. They hadn’t tried anything again since.
Amidst his storm of expletive laden rants about everyone in the world that wishes him and his ill will, he stops and redirects his slurred words towards the bartender and I, idly standing nearby.
“I can’t wait to shoot ‘em. You come into my shop, you’re getting pumped full of buckshot. I scared ‘em away that time, but if they come back… if I see their faces… I can’t wait to fill ‘em full of lead.”
I laugh, as I’m prone to do when thrust into uncomfortable situations, and make the long walk back toward the kitchen accompanied only by my thoughts. I’ve heard it all before.

Sentiments of defensive violence wrought by privilege and often shared within gun savvy groups and the bottomless pits of online forums. Fantasies fueled by media and fetishized by angry white men.
How someone thinks they could live with themselves after ending a person’s life who’s most certainly acting out of desperation is beyond me. Further, there’s a certain irony in how our own poverty eludes us. The guy had already let on to how difficult it’s been for him to pay his rent. How one bad month could put him out of business, possibly out on the streets. With how much money, effort, and time he’d put into that place, perhaps he too could end up crowded under one of Portland’s endless bridges, seeking shelter from the downpour of the Pacific Northwest.
We’re no different; homeless or otherwise. Yet, we’re at war with each other.

While city officials enjoy their tidy and gentrified neighborhoods, relaxing in their mini mansions with two dollar Black Lives Matter signs out front to remind their neighbors of how progressive they are (in case they’d forgotten), we’re hiding behind the locked doors of our single room shops with loaded shotguns and a grimace.

Bicycle mechanic, line cook, bartender… we’re all barely getting by, typically paycheck to paycheck. Landlords raising rent after a global pandemic could be just the push that topples our mountains of finely balanced debt. How many of those out on Portland’s streets right now are bicycle mechanics themselves? Line cooks? People trampled by the city’s apparent disregard or out of towners who didn’t know that heroin is easier to access here than a decent job and apartment. People who simply ran out of luck or never had it in the first place. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve heard this kind of dehumanizing talk. And yet, perhaps that’s the problem. Talk is cheap after all. Listening is something else.

Outside my window, where the rain softly patters and people rush past to whatever escape awaits them, a group of tired looking people huddle under a tarp strung between tents as water streams down and feeds small rivers in the street. An old woman wrapped in her patchwork blanket, the edges of which are becoming soaked on the wet sidewalk, hides under the eave of an abandoned storefront. The deaf man outside the 7/11 still sits alone, the crumpled paper cupped in his hand to avoid the oncoming rains.
And a voice trails back to my kitchen where I’m flipping burgers… “I’m ready for ‘em. Just try me.”

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