When times are tough, many people head to their local pub for some company, conversation and favorite drink, whether it be water or whiskey. But that’s not an option right now in most of Arizona – and the nation – as bars and restaurants are closed to the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this week’s Poetry Friday segment, Flagstaff poet and bar owner, James Jay, offers us some hope, poetry, and a toast to the time when we can all get together again.
James Jay: My name is James Jay, and we are at Uptown Pubhouse in Flagstaff, Arizona. It is not a normal day at the pub. We are in close-down procedures. In fact, it’s been a pretty tough day. Had to let my staff know that we’ve laid them off and that they should file for unemployment immediately. They have all done that, and we’ve helped them out with that filing.
What I would pour today – in fact, what I might pour right now – I’ve got a bottle of Teeling 24 Year that I’ve been wanting to get into. It’s made in Dublin and is one of the few distilleries that’s actually still producing it in the capital of Ireland. We were closed down for St. Patrick’s Day, so I didn’t get to have anything like it, so I’m going to sip on that.
The role of the pub in American history goes back before the United States. So, it’s more than just a place to get a nice whiskey or two. It’s a place where you can come together and communicate ideas for the day, philosophies, different ideas.
I’ve bartended through 9/11, through the 2008 financial crisis, through the fake Y2K crisis, you know, a little bit of all those things. When things get rough, folks want to get together. That’s just perfectly normal. That’s just the way we are. It doesn’t matter how rough it gets, we want to come together. This is far more difficult than those things in that we have to stay apart.
So, thinking about those regulars that I’m not getting to see, I wanted to read a poem from one of the regulars that used to come in fairly often and just have the one drink. Didn’t say a whole lot, but one day he just kind of opened up with this incredible story. It made me think there’s so much that goes on; you have people that you see day-to-day, and you know them in a certain aspect, and they’ve survived all kinds of things – all sorts of hardships – with a certain grace and beauty that you would never expect. And this is one of those stories that was from a fellow that came in here. He told me this story about before his daughter was going to be born, just kind of opened up about it one day. So, I ended up adjusting a few things poetically. But for the most part, this is how it came out.
The Bartender and the Fiddle Player
A man, a musician with a following in the world of Celtic music, who lives in the same town as I do (they have to live somewhere too) orders his usual lone pint on his way up Leroux Street on Thursdays. He doesn’t say much. Months go by. Starlight piles on the high rafters. Then, mid glass, he locks his eyes onto me. He speaks. His voice like the air in early autumn from a far-flung mountain, meandering through trees and ravines, pressing through the open doorway and into canals of my double shift working ears. He speaks of the days before his daughter was to be born:
After a prenatal exam with two weeks to the due date, the doctor looked up from her clipboard to tell my wife and me the baby was dead. Nothing could be done, but there’d still need to be a birth. I clinch my right hand on my bar towel. What else could they do? Did he still sing to the full belly at night? Pluck his strings to the hump of terrible news? Did she keep up on vitamin K? Drink herbal teas? Time must have moved as slowly as the Cliffs of Dover dwindling ever down until it was time to jump off the ledge.
Then, the child was born She was fine. Fine.
Turns out the monitors were wrong. The data was wrong or something. The doctor was wrong.
I start to ask how. He waves the bottom of his pint at my looming questions. He looks down. His reflection smiles up from the copper bar top:
I don’t know anymore than that. I didn’t care. It was decades ago and we were just happy to have our little girl back. He adds the back, as if she’d always been theirs, already been there, as if she simply needed to find the right notes to follow home.
(Music: Albatross, by Fleetwood Mac)
Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a story, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu.