It's hard to write about bars after your friend dies from alcoholism at age 48, but just as many folks die from heart disease, and that doesn't stop us from getting the chorizo at El Farolito. Still, I can't stop thinking about him and how drinking affects people.
Some people are what I call Hank Williams drinkers: They douse themselves in booze with an unquenchable thirst and die young in the backseat of a '52 Cadillac. Others are more like Joan Crawford, gradually becoming more pickled with age.
After I got news of my friend's death from liver and kidney failure, I was pretty sure that I did not want to find solace in a dive bar. The Bukowski brigade would look like a row of cirrhosis incubators. I wanted to go somewhere where drinking was being celebrated. I needed fruity drinks and piano music. I needed Martuni's.
It had been a few years since I last set foot in the place, but I always remembered it fondly. The bartenders were super nice and it was decorated like the set of a hotel bar on The Golden Girls.
Five years later, nothing much has changed.
The bartender still greeted me warmly, and there was the same roster of kooky drinks: lemon drops, cherry blossoms, watermelon fizz-whats, wango tango bongo juice, etc. These drinks aren't hand-squeezed with organic honey pinched from a bee's ass, either. You order a drink, it comes quickly, and it tastes like something you would've dug when you were 16 and first experimenting with liquor.
Sadly, the piano was silent when I was there, but if you hang around long enough you'll be surrounded by people requesting songs and belting them out. I had too much on my mind, though. The night before I had had a vivid dream of my dead friend in Texas.
He found out he was dying only two weeks ago, when he arrived at work and his co-workers pointed out how yellow he appeared. Once he got to the hospital they marveled at the fact that he was still alive, and he was put into hospice care immediately. He didn't want to die, and he promised his ex-wife that if he ever got out, he would kiss the ground and never drink again. I was skeptical, because he had given up his marriage to her, someone he loved dearly, because he wasn't willing to quit drinking. I love her dearly, too — she is my best friend — and I have never quite forgiven him for choosing alcohol over her. But I also knew that his addiction ruled his life.
In the dream, I was visiting him at the hospice; I knew that I was going back in time to the day before he died to try somehow to save him. He was downing whiskey from a bottle; I knew that chronic alcoholics still need to drink every day or they can die, so hospitals usually administer vodka to keep the body regulated as best they can. But I was surprised that the doctors gave him a fifth. (It was dream, after all; stranger things can happen.) I was also delighted to see that this hospice had baby pygmy goats wandering around to lift the spirits of the doomed. They enjoyed being petted, but better still, they ate all the garbage and kept the place spic 'n' span.
"Is this seat taken?" asked a dapper middle-aged man at Martuni's. I motioned for him to sit down. He nodded at the bartender and didn't even have to order; the server knew what he wanted. A regular. I studied him, looking for signs of his level of probable alcoholism: He wasn't a Richard Burton (not ruddy enough), and he didn't have the shaky wanderlust of a Kerouac. No, this was a Jack Lemmon right before he got sober. I tipped my glass to him and he smiled back at me.
Back to my dream. I am petting the goats, and my friend is getting drunker. I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I know what is going to happen, because I am from the future. He starts singing Southern rock songs. He is high. His ex-wife is tending to him, too; both of us are attempting harm reduction, which, considering the fact that we are in a hospice, seems incredibly futile. I remember a story he told about sitting in a crib with his little cousin who had cerebral palsy, and how he always took good care of her when they were kids and made sure she wasn't left out. His heart was always big. The hospital has given him a cart to move around in because he could no longer walk. Also a bad idea. He rams it into the wall, his head bouncing off the steering wheel. This is it, I thought, this is how he dies. Slowly, though, he comes to. Drinkers have nine lives. They may kill other people in the process, but they usually come out with just a scrape. I had watched him do this a thousand times.
In real life, he died in his bed with his friends around him. In my dream, the doctor took out his liver and I examined it: fatty, scarred, used up. But he lived in the afterlife in a new, healthy body. He didn't need to drink to elevate his mood. He just was, and that was good.
The regular at Martuni's ordered another one. The bar was full of people ordering another one, as well as newbies who really don't drink very often. They'll have the lemon drop, please. The man stirred his drink five times, lifted the straw and tapped it, then laid it down beside his glass. A soothing ritual repeated again and again, all over this town.