The Taste of Time
“Whats your name, partner?”
…sitting at the bar, my mind immediately tried to analyze the old guy, but to no avail.
“Tom,” I said with exaggerated gruffness.
A south side neighborhood bar where the guys get off work at five, then sit around smoking and downing dollar taps from tiny bar glasses that keep it cold down to the last delicious, golden drop. A place where “wife” is a dirty word till around seven when dinner is ready. A sanctuary of peace and silence in self and others.
I live a few blocks away, only a small orange neon “open” light in the front window and an old-school Pabst sign betray its location. Most in my trendy Bay View neighborhood prefer the more known joints. This one was the real deal, he was the real deal.
“Mine is Ernie”
We shook hands over the half-full ashtray between us.
He had to be around his mid-fifties. A full head of combed white hair and beard to match. A working man’s clothing line of denim and dirt. I was there to sit in peace as well with a way overdue copy of a Henry Miller biography in hardback and a pack of Camels that had lasted me through the week. A beer and circumstance smoker, luckily.
“Nice to meet you Ernie.”
“You got a girlfriend, Tom?”…he clearly noticed that I had no ring on my aging finger.
“No, not really.”
“Ha, yeah. Me neither…” he paused, and it was in that moment that I could feel the unspoken, oncoming weight of his past push through to the exterior.
“Avocados and pussy.”
“Love ’em both, Ernie!” I replied with an almost dismissive laugh.
“No, avocados and pussy. That’s what it is.”
I had no idea where he was going with this and, frankly, I didn’t care. All my best random conversations with bar strangers have started out with one or both of us talking bullshit and or making no god damn sense at all.
“You see, when you’re in the grocery store and you’re buying avocados for the first time, what is it that you notice? You see all the nice, new, shiny green ones. That color that screams freshness to your immature eyes. Perfectly proportioned outsides, round, robust, firm to the touch. Man, a piece of fruit can’t get no better looking than that, can it? Fuck if you don’t stick your hand in that pile and take one of those babies home with you.”
“Then what is it that happens next?”,he asked.
I thought for a moment. “You realize they’re unripe.”
“They’re fucking unripe! Almost bitter, no taste, no flavor, no soul. unforgiving.”
I gave myself phantom points for knowing the answer.
“Now you go back another day and see the ones in that same bin that are darkened with time, jade in color, probably bruised from being in a wooden crate and shipped to your dumb ass from across the country. Their outside skin is deceivingly thin. The rough appearance actually delicate, giving to your gentle touch. You decide to try one of these, seeing how your first go at it was a bust. What do you then finally realize when you slice into one and press it’s soft flesh up into to your mouth?”
“They’re ripe!” I grinned.
“Hell yes they’re ripe! Ripe with experience, ripe with travel, ripe with taste, texture, all these things. It’s as if you were eating the sun personified in a fucking piece of fruit! …And why? Because you used your head and your heart and your instinct to find this unique one among a crate of many. Among a crate of youth and inexperience.”
…silence as we both contemplated this seemingly absurd metaphor, though differently I assume. Contemplating where we each stood on that timeline of knowledge. Surely he had the edge on me, surely… and knowing it is only with ourselves that we are competing.
The bartender reached up and changed the channel to the six o’clock news. “Something something” about a downtown Milwaukee condo development neither of us could give two shits about.
I took one last drag off a smoldering cigarette that I had left too long in the ashtray. The huge ash fell off before I got a chance to smother it out.
I slid two dollars from the pile of bills in front of me and pushed them forward.
“Ernie,” I said, “the next one’s on me.”
(Last Call is a weekly column that appears on Thursdays on this website.)