The strangest crew of misfits I ever had working for me at one time consisted of a six-foot-nine sixty-year-old redheaded Vietnam vet named Robert who rode a three-wheel bike with an American Flag sticking up out the back of it, smoked pungent, off-brand cigarettes and drank 10-15 tall cans of Natural Ice a day; Mason, a twenty-year-old blond boy who was handsome enough to be on the cover of any men’s fashion magazine, but was dim as night and lived in his car; and a husband and wife couple who tattooed each other’s names in cursive on their wrists. The husband was my chief mechanic. He also drank much beer during the day. Budweiser. He drank it warm, out of the can. He drank it while he worked on my equipment. I let him, I didn’t care. I was on the verge of going out of business anyway. I was so close that I struck a deal with my dad, who owned a patio furniture store nearby, to take care of the furniture his customers brought to him for restrapping. He paid me piece rate for the work – $10 per chaise lounge, $5 per chair – and this was how I paid the hourly salaries of Mason, Robert and the mechanic’s wife. They did the restrapping. They did it in the alley behind the shop. This was in 2001 when the shop still was in its original location, in a strip mall called The Villager. Other businesses in the strip mall included a barber shop, a headshop, an insurance agency, a vet, a shoe shop, a sandwich shop, a beauty parlor and two dive bars. Robert and my chief mechanic had met at one of the two dive bars, The Villager Pub, which was two doors down from the shop. There was an old drunk named Fred who lived in the bar. He slept on a sofa in the back of the place. The owners let him. They liked him. I liked him too. Fred was an electrician in a past life, married with one or two daughters, successful, well-respected by his peers – I always got the sense that he was highly intelligent – but there was some tragic break. No one knew exactly what happened. All we knew was that he’d been broken, and had since lost half his teeth, grown a long, Dostoyevskian beard to obscure the fact, and slept on the sofa of that old, smoky bar every night.
Well, one day, as my misfit crew was restrapping patio furniture in the alley behind my shop, Fred came out the back door of the bar and noticed them working. He lit a cigarette in his trembling hand and watched. There was Robert, six-foot-nine, standing in the July sun with his shirt off, a pungent cigarette dangling from his bottom lip as he talked about the stages he built at Woodstock and the little Southern Illinois town he grew up in; there was Mason, the young unusually dumb unusually handsome blond pulling strap over a chaise; there was the mechanic’s overfed wife destrapping a chair; there was the mechanic, drunk and babbling as he yanked the recoil of a chainsaw.
Fred saw all this as he was smoking his first cigarette of the morning and looked at me, the deranged P.T. Barnum who had hired them all. He smirked, shook his head, and kept smirking. Then he stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.
He could now officially say he’d seen everything.