When you start to spend a lot of time with people who are on the autism spectrum, it becomes quite clear that we all have quirks, foibles, aspects, facets, and traits that could also be called "autistic" — like the crushing need to make a lengthy list of synonyms when trying to drive home a point. But recently I have been reading about psychopathy, principally, psychologist Robert Hare's checklist of the traits most psychopaths share. Just having one of them does not make you a maniac, but in conjunction with some of the other traits, they can all coalesce to make one great big baby-strangler. Actually, the current discussion around psychopathology is that not all people who have it become Norman Bates. Some become Norman Mailer. Many others become high-powered CEOs or politicians.
But on to the points: The big psychopathic traits are grandiosity; a seemingly magnetic, charming personality; an inability to feel empathy or remorse; and what can be described as "play-acting" when it comes to emotions. Psychopaths will practice certain reactions in front of the mirror to get them down pat: sorrow, joy, modest pride, concern, or anything else that may come in handy when trying to manipulate others. I offer that people who are successful in their field have to adopt some of these traits to get ahead, especially the trait of always needing to win. If you are naturally programmed without empathy, you have a leg up on the competition. The rest of us have to take the time to justify our behavior to ourselves.
I was trying to figure out whether the bartender at the Glen Park Station bar was a psychopath. He was friendly enough, but he was doing a bad job of pretending that he wanted to be there. To truly be a successful bartender, you really have to share some traits with the criminally insane. If Ted Bundy were a bartender, he would've acted like the place was God's little acre, that parcel of land that he had saved up for his entire life in order to live out his dream of goat husbandry through cheesemaking. Bundy would happily make you a mojito, pausing to wistfully breathe in a waft of fresh mint, then tenderly yet forcefully muddle the mass in the bottom of your glass before topping it off with ice and soda. "For you," he would say, placing it in front of you like an engagement ring. Ted Bundy would gain your trust and make you come back again and again to buy more drinks.
The ruddy-faced bartender here might turn to you and lean in a bit when you order, and he will call out the price with a friendly-enough cadence, making change in a timely manner and duly placing it into your outstretched hand. But, alas, he is not friendly enough to be a serial killer. He will not bind, torture, or kill anyone anytime soon, and this may be his undoing in the tips department.
That's not to say that the inside of the Glen Park Station doesn't look like the den of a man who still lives with his mother. It's dark and dusty and full of memorabilia. There are trophies and placards for championship darts on the walls, as well as dart supplies for sale. Various "shuttlecocks" or whatever you call the nonbusiness end of a dart hang in their packaging in a small corner of the joint that looks like a mini hardware store. A stuffed buffalo head with a boa on it is perched on the wall next to the stone fireplace. Dozens of arrayed bottles catch whatever light they can behind the bartender, enveloping him in a great glass quilt.
I was sitting with some friends to the right of the fireplace. Someone had programmed "Kashmir" into the jukebox, and we were about 17 minutes in. I didn't know one person at the table that well, so the requisite small talk ensued. This is always inherently psychopathic, because you have to act like someone who gives a shit about what the other is saying even if you don't, and you have to put your facial features into "interested" formations to play it off. The poor guy I was talking to was having a hard time of it, and I'm pretty sure I was boring him. Again, yet another not-so-good potential maniac. His girlfriend will be glad to hear that.
Of course, it's not just the bartender who needs to be a psychopath at a saloon. Plenty of patrons can fit the bill. Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Rader (the so-called "BTK killer"), and countless other sociopaths gathered their victims in bars. If I had to pick one customer that night who could be a killer, it would be the lone cowboy with the sporadic stubble. He had the facial hair of a 13-year-old boy, but the rest of him was middle-aged. He sat alone at the bar, but he didn't face the bartender; he sat outward, his long legs crossed at the ankles, pulling on his beer bottle like a rodeo roper between competitions. His eyes darted around the room like debauched dragonflies, perhaps hoping to land upon a willing victim, or maybe just someone who found organic fertilizers as fascinating as he did.
Most of the time I'm like those weird women who have fallen in love with serial killers like Richard Ramirez. I am naturally drawn to guys like him in bars. I want to talk to them and use them for fodder for this column. I want to ingratiate myself with them, get them to trust me and open up, so I can relay all of their nuttiness in print the following week. This is why good journalists also have to have a touch of psychopathy. Getting a good story always relies on a certain amount of betrayal. But tonight I just didn't have it in me to be a fake asshole. Dang it.
Our eyes met and he gave me a sort of creepy stare, waiting for me to look away first perhaps, thus proving his dominance. Well, buddy, this will be your lucky night. I will look away. You win.
"Another one?" asked my friend, getting up to go to the bar.