Evening at Coffee Depot, the Homeless Drunk Man
Eight-thirty. The September sunset ends. A crowd of young people accumulate at the door to Sevilla. Under the club’s green neon sign, Southern California girls, black brown white, in short dancing dresses chatter like birds jiggling on a tree branch, young men in colored shoes stand mute next to them, accessories, shifting from foot to foot, observing, pointing to tricked-out autos.
Across the narrow parking lot, at Coffee Depot, it’s open-mic night. Eighty musicians, audience, and coffee patrons sit in the little theater, formerly the baggage storage room for the Union Pacific’s passenger station, on couches in the lounge, on wrought iron chairs at wrought iron tables outside, on car hoods and fenders, listening, nervous, talking. Several practice with acoustic guitars.
In the small covered patio, a half-dozen tables around a non-working fountain, we take seats. A lone guitarist plays with an amplifier. He sings without a microphone, we can hear his voice occasionally, when the strumming, riffs, picks, and thumping on the guitar box unexpectedly drop in volume.
My eighty-one-year-old mother-in-law is thrilled. She is always up for a party. She laughs, her eyes glisten, her face glows, “he must be professional.” My wife returns from the order bar with three coffees. Mine, decaffeinated, sugarless, hot; Joan’s, mocha, with extra caffeine, iced; her’s, decaf something, hot. Liz smiles, puts her feet up on the yellow painted iron chair across from her mother. We can’t converse, the amplified guitar is too loud; but the music is enjoyable. We stay and listen.
Two hundred fifty feet away, trains roar on schedule over double tracks. The Amtrak Super Chief out of LA bound for Chicago speeds by, blowing its whistle as it passes through nearby sets of double-gated railroad street crossings. Passengers are already settled at tables in the dining car, ignore our festivities. Then freights, in both directions, on the Union Pacific tracks and the Burlington Santa Fe tracks. Each train with a four-engine locomotive pulls one hundred twenty-five freight and container cars. We feel the rhythmic rumbling of the heavy cars in our feet. The diesel engine noise, steel wheels clacking on breaks in the steel rails, and incessant warning horns punch the air around us.
In the corner of the patio sits a drunk old man with a stubbly, gray beard. A white guy. He is asleep. He slumps in his white wrought iron chair. His hair is long, down to his shoulders, stringy, glistening with grease and dirt in the parking lot lights, reflecting the green of the dance club’s neon sign. His clothes hang loose, crusted with filth, almost brittle. When the acoustic guitar revs up, he seems to hear the music, stirs himself, sits up. Without opening his eyes, he reaches for a large bottle of whiskey stationed next to him on the patio’s concrete floor. He brings the bottle to his lips, covering the label with his hand, as if he is enacting a movie scene and isn’t allowed to advertise the whiskey maker. He tilts his head back, draws in a large gulp, swallows silently, then gently sets the bottle down. By the chair, he has a black backpack, his world stuffed into canvas. Joan looks over at him, then turns toward me. She makes a sad face of sympathy for him. Her husband always gave money to the homeless beggars with “will work for food” signs at the city’s street intersections. “They’re people too.” The drunk man falls back asleep in his chair. He looks homeless. Uncared for.
I watch. The drunk man sleeps without peace. Couples line up at the club door. Cars, most small sedans, enter and depart the parking lot. By the end of the evening, automobiles belonging to dancers at Sevilla and patrons at the café will spread out into streets lined with warehouses along the railroads and Hispanic neighborhoods of small bungalows within walking distance of orange packing houses. In Coffee Depot, I watch community college students with laptops and textbooks confer with one another, drink their coffee, couples touch each other, flirting, laugh at their screens, scrutinize video games.
The black, moonless night is bright as day. Yellow from a shop across the tracks, white of car beams and streetlights, red from railroad crossing signals and backing cars. Blue lamps illuminate the underside of the decorative tent covering the dance floor on the Club Sevilla roof top. My wife is tired, she closes her eyes. I watch her. She briefly dozes off, then wakes. I watch my mother-in-law. An emotion floods me, intensity as unexpected as perfume in the air drenched with gasoline fumes and coffee aromas.
The performer, practicing for his slot on the open mic stage, plays Ray Charles tunes. My wife and Joan look knowledgeably toward each other in enjoyment. Joan says something to me, but I can’t hear her. In a brief break between songs, my wife shouts out a song title for him to sing. He says he’s sung that so often he’s sick of it. Then Joan asks him to “haul out some of those old blues.” My mother-in-law always has a way with strangers, even at 81, charismatic. He laughs, obliges. To a Ray Charles interpretation, he plays “Over the Rainbow” and sings the lyrics. Joan looks at me. “What’s he singing?” “Over-the-rainbow,” I shout, leaning close to her ear. She laughs.
The drunk lurches up. “My son does that,” he mumbles, not to anybody. He falls back asleep. The musician, sitting now astride a table, with the amplifier on a chair, begins to strum a Bob Dylan tune. The drunk wakes up again. He mutters inaudibly. We look over to him. He rouses himself out of his chair. He is short, perhaps five feet five inches. He wears brown leather dress shoes too large for his feet. They are untied. His dirty shirt hangs over his pants. He lifts his pack. He stumbles forward. We think he wants to approach the musician. He passes by our table and says something again. We can’t understand him. He shuffles up to the musician and stands there, weaving slightly out of rhythm. My wife leans forward. “He’s on meth,” she says. “And whiskey,” I add.
Standing next to the musician, the drunk turns slightly toward us. He wants our audience. Suddenly, he begins to sing. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The Dylan song. He sings clearly. He sings like Dylan, a passable imitation. We watch and listen. My mother-in-law’s face bursts with joy. As the drunk sings, a young college student with an acoustic guitar comes over and joins the performing duo.
Euphoria surges in me. It’s forgiveness. We’re all okay in this glowing evening. Club Sevilla, Coffee Depot, the Super Chief passing in the night. Knockin’ on heaven’s door.
About the Author:
Ronald Tobey grew up in north New Hampshire, USA, and attended the University of New Hampshire, Durham, where he published his first poem in an independent student journal. He has lived in Ithaca NY, Pittsburgh PA, Riverside CA, Berkley CA, and London UK. After professional careers in Southern California, he and his wife now live in West Virginia, where they raise cattle and keep goats and horses. Ron writes, reflecting personal experience, imagistic poetry of places, moods, and the worlds of work. His poems have appeared in Constellate (UK), Prometheus Dreaming (3 poems), Fishbowl Press Poetry (featured poet of the month), Truly U Review (7 poems), Nymphs, Line Rider Press (3 poems, twice featured poem of the week), Bonnie’s Crew (2 poems, UK), Broadkill Review (2 poems), The Cabinet of Heed (UK), The Failure Baler (UK), Pendemic (2 poems, one with 14 Haiku, Ireland), print anthology Prometheus Unbound (David van den Berg, editor, 2020), Detritus, 3 Moon (10 Haiku, Canada), Variant Literature, The Write Launch (3 poems), Poetry Pea podcast S3E11 (3 Haiku, Switzerland), Neuro Logical Literary Magazine (Ireland), Better Than Starbucks (6 haiku), and Vaugh Street Doubles (Canada).