Monday, September 3, 2012

don't be a jukebox hero

It's a dive bar in West Toledo. That's just the way it is. But the clientele is well enough behaved and at times even downright friendly to a self-described writer from New York. There's cheap pizza late at night. The beers and drinks are also a pretty good bargain. And if you do shots you'll not get short poured. There is even a mystery shot called the blue shot. In color and from the hangover it delivers, it is indistinguishable from Windex. By taste you can usually tell the difference between the two.

"Don't play that one again, Sam (or whatever your name is)."

In the bar stands a jukebox. It is stocked with great songs, including classic rock, country & western, pop, even some 1980s tunes, well nothing is perfect. You get three plays for a buck. Says so right on the machine next to the slot for your dollar bill. The writer from New York plays the jukebox a lot. He figures, what the heck, give the people some tunage. He even lets others pick some of the songs if they want. He is not trying out for a job as deejay. Has no interest in monopolizing the music. He just likes to have it in the air. After a couple weeks of hanging out, drinking cheap beer and playing tunes, the bartender one night shoots a brief look of pity in the direction of the New York dude. Now you should also undestand there is a sign on the wall behind the bar that pretty much sums up the innkeeper's philosophy on the hospitality industry:

I can only please one person per day.
Today is not your day.
Tomorrow doesn't look good either.

But on this particular night the bartender comes out from behind the bar to meet the writer at the jukebox.
"Watch," he tells the writer and pulls a handful of change from his pocket.
"Yeah, what's going on," the New York guy says. He has no idea he is about to be given some valuable information, about to be offered a free lesson in the idiosyncratic economics of this particular jukebox. Yeah, it's true the guy is a little slow on the uptake.

The bartender asks for the writer's dollar, pockets it and flicks two quarters into the change slot. He points to the display. "What's it say?" the bartender asks the New York guy.
"Two plays."
"You saw what I put in?"
"So don't use a dollar bill. But pick your two songs before putting in another two quarters and that way you'll be getting four songs for a dollar." He hands the New York guy two more quarters.
"Nice. Hey thanks, brother," the writer says.
The bartender begins to walk back behind the bar.
"Hey, you're just telling me this now," the New York guy calls out. "I been coming here for three weeks."
The bartender turns back toward the jukebox and the New York guy. He takes a couple steps. He has a sheepish grin and shrugs his shoulders. "Look, just keep this to yourself. OK?"
Now the writer forgets his staged indignation and is once more brimming with gratitude and the good feeling of being 'in the know.'"
"Sure thing."

A couple days later the writer returns to the bar on a weekday afternoon, takes a seat and orders a Bud Light. Next to him is an old guy with a dirty face and beard wearing a Navy Vietnam Vet cap and drinking the perennial beer of the month, Busch cans for one dollar. The vet is thin and seems like he has smoked and drunk for decades. The writer from New York barely speaks to the guy. Everyone at the bar is staring at the big screen TV, which is blaring some cops reality show. A couple of beers later the vet gets up and walks to the jukebox, taking with him a dollar bill from the pile of change on the bar next to his can of Busch. The writer considers telling the vet about the jukebox secret. The night bartender didn’t want him spreading the word around but this is still the day shift. Besides, the writer has since realized that quite a number of regulars are already in on the deal.

Now the New York guy begins to consider the deeper philosophical and, yes, moral ramifications of not sharing his insider jukebox knowledge with the vet. If too many people learn of the deal, he wonders, will the jukebox vendor fix that glitsch and then will everybody have to pay more for the music? On the other hand (the writer is hopelessly ambidextrous), is it not morally wrong to keep silent and allow this man, even though he is a stranger, to spend more money for the same number of songs than others who are in the know?

Before the writer can resolve his dilemma, beer hall philosophy can be a tedious dialectic, he is distracted from his moral ruminations by the TV, now airing a more salacious program called Lawless Ladies, comprised of police chases, prison riots, and surveillance videos of crimes involving women only. The writer is dismayed by such programming but is caught up in the show. He thinks a better name for the program would be "Badass Babes."

Now the man in the vet's cap has returned from the jukebox and sits back down next to the writer. The first song he played comes on and the selection quite frankly takes the New York guy by surprise. From the speaker a vocalist exhorts with the lyrics:

Young man there's no need to feel down
I said young man pick yourself off the ground
I said young man 'cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy

It’s the YMCA song. That's an odd selection for this crusty old war vet, the writer thinks. Surely the old guy meant to play some Bob Seeger or Toby Keith or even Willie Nelson.

Isn't the YMCA song considered a gay anthem, the New York guy is wondering. Then he feels the vet blowing on right his hand, which has been hugging the edge of the bar. The writer looks at the man, who turns toward his Busch beer. Now the writer looks back in front of himself but cannot repress a smile. Is this old guy really busting a move on him? Is this really a gay bar? The writer ignores the old man and drinks the Bud Light. The next two songs are also of the fey disco genre, if you will. Now the writer even laughs a little out loud, imagining the wrong signal he would have sent had he joined the old vet at the jukebox to pass on the money-saving tip. The guy probably would have followed him into the john out of appreciation.

It's just one more instance where the old New York street wisdom of "don't get involved" pays off, the writer realizes. He leaves the day bartender a tip and walks out the back door into the alley. Exiting the bar with him, because there is nothing he can do now to prevent it, are the words of that first song still echoing in his head: Young man there's no need to feel down...

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