Katie said, “I want a beer,” and that’s what started everything.
Those four words triggered a countdown to our bizarre transformation from two disgruntled bastards on the sidewalk to beer revolutionaries looking for some way to gracefully set ourselves free from a coup that neither of us had entirely intended to unleash.
“Alright.” I didn’t know what else to say. We were both painfully aware there wasn’t a stamp’s worth of change between us. These were old broke days, old mooching days, long before the pregnancy, back when we dribbled through Missoula like sunstroke victims and survived on ramen, rice and Quaker oats. Back when “I want a beer,” was more than just something to say; it was a call to arms.
“I have a dollar and a bunch of food stamps at home,” Katie said.
The immediate solution, and one which had worked for us in the past, was to invite some poor sucker to buy us a six-pack. But we were barely in any mood for each other’s company, much less some third party who may or may not subject us to endless accounts of their weekly highlights. By day’s end we would find ourselves encroached upon by three-and-a-half dozen such scoundrels. But a mob is more tolerable to our ears than an individual. A mob makes a whole different sort of music. A mob rattles and consumes and gets shit done, and sound breaks from their lips in wordless raw ugly energy that tastes great with beer.
Katie and I had been sitting stupidly outside the Ritz for hours, backs against the old worn bricks. A great place to lean on a wall and watch the humans walk by. It was early—maybe about six. Not fifty feet behind us, inside the slick gloom of the bar, floated enough beer to drown the both of us. Delicious, overpriced, and entirely out of our reach. Knowing it was there warded off any other thoughts, leaving us slaves of proximity.
“I need a beer,” Katie shouted to the air. Then she shouted it again. With each cry she shook her tiny fists at heaven and her vehemence intensified. I couldn’t just sit there and let her suffer. And so, walking inside to take a piss, I began to scope the place out. Nine or ten customers, afterclockers, no one I knew well enough to bum a dollar from. There was only one bartender at the moment, bored out of his mind and watching the television. This was a Tuesday after all. If things were slow enough, and the bartender bored enough, he might just give us a beer; so I shuffled over and opened up the valve on my leaky faucet of charm.
“How about a free sample?”
“That’s funny,” the kid said. He was in his mid-twenties and wore short, sandy blond hair. Probably working his way through his last year of school. A busy man with no time for any of my nonsense. He kept staring at the TV and drying his hands on his pants.
“Come on,” I persisted. “Half a pint of cheap beer in a plastic cup. What could it hurt?”
“It adds up. Who else wants free beer? Everybody. That’s who.”
Must be a Social Theory major. How was I to appeal to his better nature if he was only in this to win the argument?
“How about a trade? Would you make a trade?”
He looked over at me for the first time. “Yeah. I’ll trade you a beer for three bucks.”
Christ, this kid was a riot!
I kept trying to whittle him down, break his resolve, certain that at some point it would no longer be worth his time to endure my nagging, and he’d give me some beer just to go away. To his credit, this prick was stalwart. A second bartender came in a few minutes later, a big beefy guy with curly hair who’d never learned how to smile. “What do you think?” said Blondie. “Should I give this guy a free beer?”
“No,” said Curley. And that was that.
“I knew you’d get nothing,” Katie said when I was back outside. “It’s useless.”
“Do you want to go?”
“I’m too lazy. Let’s just sit here.”
“Alright,” I said, and so we sat there, thirsty, sober, and silent.
Ten minutes or so later a friend of ours happened by, but there was less chance he had money than that money would fall from the sky. Bosco Howe, a buoyant leprechaun of a lumberjack—the first guy to ever hand me a pipe and say, “hit that”—eventually grew up to brew beer. I can’t help but wonder how much the day’s events at the Ritz contributed to his path.
Bosco stopped and said hello. I squinted up into the sun, and like a true friend, I asked him if he had any money.
And, like a true friend, he did not.
“Katie needs a beer,” I said.
In those days Katie dressed a little like Janis Joplin. She had on this baggy muumuu sort of thing, a dozen necklaces, and round red-tinted sunglasses. Orange-blonde hair flowed over her shoulders, unimpeded by any of the mysterious trinkets women keep at the hair-binding ready. My attention drifted to her gigantic flat tooth. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened her mouth like she was screaming, but no sound came out.
Bosco broke the silence. “Is she okay?”
“I feel like poop,” Katie said, and then again, “I just want…”
“We need beer,” I said. It had become imperative.
“You know, there’s a bar right there,” Bosco offered.
“Let’s go in.”
“It’s too depressing to go in,” Katie said, and she was right about that.
“Come on,” said Bosco, “you can’t just sit out here moaning. I’ll talk them into giving us a pitcher.”
I laughed at this, but it would be worth it just to see Bosco get shot down. He hopped up and opened the great oak door.
“I’ll get us a pitcher,” Bosco said. “I know I can get us a pitcher.”
We wandered inside and filled up a booth. “Go get ‘em,” I said, slapping Bosco on the back.
Emboldened he slid up to the bar and approached the curly-haired bartender. From where we were sitting the conversation was lost, but as best I could tell Bosco said a whole lot of words. Then Curley said a couple words and seemed to grow a little bit taller. Bosco said some more words and Curley stared at him like a monk staring at a waterfall. Bosco shifted his weight, grabbed a handful of red straws out of a pint glass, and slumped back to us.
“No luck?” I asked.
“Don’t even bother with the other guy.”
Katie said, “At this point they won’t give us free drinks for anything. At this point it’s a fun game for them not to.”
“So basically we’re screwed.”
“Should we go?” I asked.
“I’m too lazy,” Katie sighed. “Let’s just sit here.”
A moment passed. One of those awkward moments where you know the next thing someone says is destined to be either stupid or significant, and you don’t really want to risk being the one who says it.
“You know,” Bosco said, “we could take him.”
This almost didn’t register. “What?”
“He’s big but if we ganged up we could take him.”
“Take down the bartender, you’re saying.”
Another silence. This one not so awkward, more stunned. We were stunned. I saw stars sparkling off Bosco’s lascivious grin.
“There’s two of them,” Katie reminded Bosco, who needed no reminding.
“Right, but there’s what…” Bosco leaned out of the booth and started counting the room. “Ten other people in the bar. Altogether we could totally take these guys.”
“Yeah, okay, and if we had a standing army we could take them, too.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“Do you think they’ll give me a glass of water?” Katie said.
“They have to give you water if you ask for it.”
“No they don’t.”
Bosco slammed his fist on the burnt mahogany. “You have to give someone water. It’s the humane thing to do.”
“We aren’t paying customers. We’re lucky to be sitting here.”
“Anyone can sit in a bar,” Bosco insisted, “Anytime.”
“That curly-haired guy keeps glaring at us,” said Katie.
“So he might give me some water but he won’t like it.”
“Then let’s take him down.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
Bosco poked a skinny red straw at my chest. “Why do you think bartenders pick up rounds from time to time? Why do you think there’s such a thing as happy hour? Because there’s more of us than there are of them.”
We stared at Bosco with the gaze of two glass eyes looking up at their blind master for the first time.
“I’m just saying we could take them,” Bosco shrugged, leaning back. “All of us together.”
“Why would anyone else in this bar want to do that? Look at them. They all have drinks. They’re all perfectly content.”
“They all have overpriced drinks. Besides, it’s Tuesday.”
“Let’s do it,” Katie said all of a sudden.
All of a sudden—such a strange phrase. As if you could separate “a sudden” into parts. A sudden is instantaneous. There’s no way you could suddenly do anything in any smaller quantity than all of it.
Anyway, all of a sudden Katie said, “Let’s do it,” and Bosco laughed at this, seeing how serious she looked, but she was even more serious than that. Really, I think she just needed some water, but she wanted a beer and so did I. And so did Bosco, I think. Though he may have just wanted to start some shit.
“All we have to do is talk three people into it,” Katie explained. “That’ll make six of us vs. two bartenders, with seven other customers of uncertain loyalties. Of those seven, even assuming none of them come around and join-in, we can count on the majority not interfering in any way. That’s three who might take the side of the bartenders, but even so we’d still outnumber them.”
It was as if she’d planned it all out ahead of time, sitting outside quietly, back against the brick wall, putting everything together, just waiting for someone else to suggest it.
She went on: “Now, other customers might come in. So we need one guy watching the door. I’m not worried about the back. It’s not like we’re going to hold this place all night. If there are any heroes in the crowd, we should have the bartenders subdued by the time they try to get involved. And by then we’ll outnumber them more than two to one. And that’s IF three of them come against us. And that’s a big if. We’re in a bar. We’re in the Ritz. It’s Tuesday afternoon. And we can offer discounts.”
“You’re saying we start selling?”
“We have to continue to maintain the business during the period of insurgency. We owe them that much. Besides, if we don’t, any patrons acting as neutral parties would quickly turn against us. So it’ll be discounts—not free drinks. If you want to drink free, you better have been involved in the raid.”
“Do we have to call it a raid?” Bosco said.
“What else do you want to call it?”
“I want to call it a hijacking.”
“That word is loaded,” I said. “Let’s call it a revolution.”
“It’s a raid,” Katie said. “That’s what we’re calling it. No discussion.”
“You aren’t serious about this.”
“Goddammit, Josh,” Katie said. “I want a beer.”
That was it. The fourth time she’d said it. There was no going back now.
My job was to feel out the crowd. See who would be most likely to join up. We had to make sure we had our army before too many people knew what was going on. Word could get back to the bartenders, or worse, out onto the street, and then we’d be SOL, or DOA, or MIA, or any number of horrifying acronyms.
Katie went up to see if they would give her some water. She told us she was going to give them one more chance to be reasonable. Besides, this wasn’t something she could do on a dry throat.
Meanwhile, Bosco was to case the joint. He was adamant we use the phrase “case the joint”, and since he’d been shot down about “hijacking”, Katie let him have it. Bosco checked the windows, scoped out the bathrooms, and made sure the back room was locked.
Things were looking up. Of the ten other customers clustered into three separate social groups, five seemed likely candidates. First, two gutter-punk kids drinking PBRs at the back table. Their names were Lilly and Marcus, a decent sort of folk, wearing a mixture of army green, goth black, and rainbow bright. They listened with amusement to our notion. But there was no amusement in Katie’s voice. Not anymore. She’d been given her glass of water, but something had happened in the exchange that I will never understand. Maybe there’d been a severe intensity of rudeness in the bartender’s obligation to give Katie the water. Maybe some words were exchanged. Fightin’ words. Whatever it was, if the girl wasn’t serious before, she was now.
Lilly and Marcus signed on eagerly. Both were scrawny, but I had no doubt they could scrap like the dickens in a surprise attack. We left them and their PBR and told them not to look suspicious and we’d signal them when it was time. Lilly volunteered to be our sentry, confident that she was the fastest among us. She had some rope in her bag that she admitted with a grin was used for Shibari, and offered it to the cause. We were gonna need it.
The booth full of anarchists gave us the surprising cold shoulder. At least they didn’t give a fuck what we did, they just didn’t want to be involved. We’d get no interference from them.
We still needed one more soldier.
When I sat down beside the young preppy-types in their Griz paraphernalia and Abercrombie glasses I felt like we may as well give up and go home. I said, “You guys haven’t ever wanted to take over a bar by any chance, have you?” The younger of the three, a pretty-boy named James, probably thought I was looking for a way to hit on the girl he was with, and focused on contorting his face into the most apish scowl that ever chased-off a hippie. But the older kid, slightly overweight and three years away from a good balding, gave me a grin and asked if he would get college credit. The girl laughed at this, which was akin to receiving a thumbs-up from the Emperor of Rome. Her name was Molly and his was Ben, and they said to just tell them what to do.
Now we were seven. Eight if you count James, who I wouldn’t rely on, but I knew he wouldn’t turn on his buddies, so seven and a half let’s say. Seven and a half enlisted, three conscientious anarchist objectors and an older couple sitting at the bar. When the shit went down Lilly would flash a charming smile and make sure this couple stayed put. We decided Curley had to go down hard. He was the muscle and the attitude. The only worry we had with Blondie was that he might pick up the phone or run out of the bar screaming. So the plan was this. Bosco, Katie, and I would ambush Curley, while Marcus and Ben contained Blondie. Once we had them down, Lilly would abandon her post and put her rope to use. It was this moment, when our sentry was down, that would be the most dangerous. If anyone came in then, the tables could turn on us.
The defining kick-off to the campaign was Ben’s plan to get Blondie out of the picture.
“Gimme another,” he said to Blondie, swaggering up with an empty glass. “Oh, and there’s two people having sex in the bathroom.”
As unlikely as this might have been on a Tuesday afternoon, Blondie was obligated to check it out. The Ritz’ bathrooms were tiny. All he had to do was stick his head in and he’d see Ben was lying. That’s why we put Molly in there. You may find it sexist, but we could never have pulled this off without her award-winning tits. Ben promised them a promotion to Sergeant Major, and by God they earned their stripes. As soon as she suckered Blondie inside, Ben followed behind to persuade him not to try and leave. At this point there could have been a fight, but we got lucky. Blondie just sat on the bathroom floor sulking for the next hour. I heard later that he and Molly got to talking and he didn’t have such a bad time after all.
With Blondie out of the way, the wheels were in motion and we had no choice but to strike. It would only be a matter of time before Curley got suspicious. Bosco and Marcus snuck around behind the bar on hands and knees, much like a pair of drunken ninjas looking for a place to puke. Katie confronted Curley directly. There was some strange energy between them, something primal and aggressive. I flanked them, ready to leap across the bar and cut off access to the phone.
“I need more water,” spat Katie, slamming down her empty pint glass. Curley looked at her long and slow. He took two steps in her direction.
“Why don’t you go across the street? You can’t just sit here and drink water all day.”
“Yes I can. Anyone can sit in a bar. Anytime. For any reason. Give me some water.”
“There’s a sink in the bathroom. Go get it yourself.”
Oh boy Curley was proud of himself for that one. He wore his smirk like a bow tie. Glaring at me as I leaned over the bar dangling on my elbows with a five-year-old grin, he snapped, “What do you want?”
“Beeeer!” I yowlped. This was the signal, and it all came down at once. Katie gave her pint glass a shove, launching it over the bar to shatter at Curley’s feet. I’ve always felt this move was risky. Who wants to go into a battlefield covered in broken glass? But the gamble paid off. Curley jumped away from the glass and right into the ambush. Bosco hit him first, flying around the corner and tackling him at the knees. He hit him hard, too, managing to shove him backward into the menagerie of liquor. “Don’t spill the whiskey!” someone cried. Then Marcus hit him from the other side. The bartender let out a strange guttural gurgle that sounded like a gopher trying to swallow a potato. Katie grabbed the well-spout and started blasting soda into the fray. I knew they’d be on the ground in seconds and I jumped the bar to join in. Curley was big and even with all three of us we had trouble keeping him down. Bosco took a clumsy hook to the jaw and reeled. I looked over and saw blood flowing freely from his nose. Katie let loose a mighty battle-cry, kind of a blah blah blah to the gods, and though we told her to take it easy she was overcome by the moment, and ran around the bar to pummel Curley with fists of doom.
“Stop it! What are you doing,” Curley moaned. That’s right, freak, cry about it. No one had really cut loose until then. Even with us infringing on sacred behind-the-bar territory, Curley hadn’t given us all he could have, and we were more interested in restraining the boy so he could be tied up than assaulting him. If this came to court we didn’t want to have to cough up anything for hospital bills. But Katie? Katie got her licks in.
At the end of it all, the three of us lay breathless against the back of the bar. Curley bound immobile in ropes and resigned to his fate. Bosco gave him a lazy slap on the knee. “That was goddamned invigorating!”
“Now what?” everyone asked.
Now the beer flows like wine and the wine flows like beer.
Halfway through my third pint, Ben and Molly came out of the bathroom holding hands. Ben turned down the gallant offer of our freshly invented whisquilameister special, and pulled me aside. “The other one, Blondie, he was hoping maybe we could tie him up too? He doesn’t want anyone thinking he didn’t put up a fight.”
Understandable. I gave Ben some extra rope and told him he could even slap a shiner on the kid if he wanted, so long as Blondie was game.
Katie only served up one beer for herself. She drank it in silence, staring out across the blissful mayhem of our revolution. I sent Marcus and Lilly out to scrounge up bums and street-kids from off the main drag. To these we offered a full discount, RobinHood style. Half-price for everyone else. True to her word, Katie made the anarchists pay up in full.
By the time we slipped away, the place was hopping. There’s nothing like cheap beer to light up a Tuesday night. And once the story began to spread, it spread fast. Who wouldn’t want to say they bought a drink the day the Ritz got raided?
“I think we made more money for this place in the last hour than they make over the entire course of a regular Tuesday night,” Katie said.
Ben thanked us for the good times. He told us he used to date Curley’s sister and was pretty sure he could guarantee the whole thing to blow over. Still, he reckoned we’d better go before any cops show up.
The sun was going down. Katie and I headed across Higgins Street Bridge. Our beer circuits had been satisfied, but we were still dead broke. That’s when someone who shall remain nameless said, “I want cheese fries.”
*** *** ***
“Raiding the Ritz” was originally published in Slumgullion vol. 3, 2007