Bubs walks by.

He’s one of the old crowd from “before.” Thirteen months later, his habit of stopping by to see if we need help sweeping up after a busy night remains.

We don’t. Not yet, at least.

Bubs would clean up on busy nights and not just trash. After the bartenders tipped him out a few bucks, he’d go around the patio like an usher at church, gladhanding each congregate until he received his tithe.

“We’re not there yet,” I tell him, giving him a slice of pizza that JR brought over earlier. Right now, it’s just me and Bubs and a couple out back. Capacity isn’t back to normal, but it’s improving. I tell him to check back on a busy night. Bubs shuffles off, working the street, like he did before. Shit, it’s almost comforting to see him.

I hear laughter on the bar patio across the street, and if I turn off the George Jones in here, I’d hear the mournful echo of Del Shannon playing from the speakers of the radio station that churns out late-night oldies half a block away.

It’s quiet after dark. Late night is strictly for professionals now.

People who do come out, come early. And they come in like the past year didn’t happen. Some nights, regulars I haven’t seen in 12 months sidle up to the bar like they were here just the night before and ask for their usual. And like a drink-serving automaton, the order they last placed more than a year ago conjures itself out of the smoky depths of my memory.

“Mark likes a Jameson and a PBR.”

My old muscle memory asserts itself, as does theirs. Feels almost normal. Almost.

It’s quiet out there these days. (photo by James Douglas)

There’s a distance, despite the yearning to touch, to hug, to feel someone, anyone. Instead, fist-bumps have become the preferred method of greeting between old friends.

JR comes back in. An unofficial caretaker, he’s been wandering to neighboring bars and checking in on the bartenders, surveying the scene, seeing who’s out.

“It’s dead out,” he says, like I haven’t been chain smoking on the patio and watching the lack of activity since 10 o’clock.

The night before, I actually had a quick hour where it felt like real bartending. A steady stream of orders, one after another, no time to dwell. Order, Serve, Repeat. Check IDs. Clean. Change the music. Cut someone off.

But most of the time, it’s quiet.

People come; people go. When it’s busy — today’s version of busy — some stick around but most make their way to another place. It’s like they have to go to all the hot spots they’ve missed out on. But the important thing is that they stop by, even if it’s to feel a sense of camaraderie with strangers who also have realized that they might just be coming into the ass-end of this thing.

To feel the relief, the literal weight, lifting off as they realize they’re vaccinated and that they can go out again! Like before.

There is happiness. But as someone who has lost friends in the past year, there are nights, especially on the slow ones like tonight, where I look at an empty seat and think about who should be sitting there. I think about all of the stories that I’ll never hear.

We’ve collectively been put through a generational flux. This is ours; this is our “infamy” moment. I expect there’s going to be a time not too far from now where we will see a true catharsis, and the aftereffects of the past year will become apparent — good and bad. But, I have no idea. None of us do. We all have to jump in, eyes closed, and hope for the best.

I hear a knock on the window and look up. Bubs is back. I smile, grab my smokes and walk outside.

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