A Night in Glasgow

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“The well off… it’s the kids, that are to pity. They are born with arms filled with marbles, you see, and each one, to them, means so much. Because they have so many and figure that is what makes them happy, you see… And poor buggers, because it is impossible to suffer living without losing any of one’s marbles, as you and I understand… But to them the marbles are sacred, and they trip and drop some here and there, suffering all the more with each one lost, as they remember the wonderful times they’ve had together, them and their marbles…” He pushes his whiskey glass across the bar, and keeps his puffy eyes on his knuckles.

I stop nodding along, swish the burning taste through my front teeth and back again. Better to be born with none at all, I suppose.

“No, no, you see, because… what are we if not the things we love? I love my mother and my wife and my kids, and the house I bought… first… But much better it is to start with a handful of marbles in your pocket, you see, understand their value in the grand scheme of things, and build your empire on that.” His fingers spread apart next to his glass, turn white as they stretch themselves, and fold back together, settling between the weight of his chest and the bar as he brings himself in.

Right man, I understand. I glance around for bowls of peanuts.

“It’s much harder…” He thinks a bit. “I can watch on my TV starving children in Africa, or wherever, sift through mountains of garbage, looking for only food, you see, and I don’t feel anything… or at least not enough to help them.”

Right, right. No peanuts to be found, I nibble on my coaster a little.

“…But when I see a Japanese walking along, after that whole tsunami mess… through the rubble, their decimated houses, on streets that lead them nowhere safe, the constant threat of death hanging around, I shake and feel like I’m going to be sick, you see.” He sways away from the bar. Then comes back again.

He is about to drop his great understanding on me, his midnight compadre. He leans in, spitting a bit on my sleeve. “You see it’s change that gets at you. It’s easy to ignore someone who has always had nothing, who was born into misery, that’s just too bad for them… What we can’t bear to see is someone going from everything to nothing, that’s a tragedy, that’s losing too great a number of marbles, and that is the very last thing we want for ourselves, you see. WE want SECURITY.”

Yes we do. We absolutely do.

And he winks, gives me an arm bump, a little nudge from his elbow, like two kids in a Fifties dream, watching the infinite possibilities unfold beneath us while we squat in our beautifully red Radio Flyer.

“But no need to look so glum, American, because at least we can talk, you see, we have initiated… dialogue. And that is what betters us. As long as there is dialogue we can achieve great things, and continue living in the comfort we’ve gotten used to… you’ve gotten used to, you see.” The Baby Boomer stands straight, composes his lips, tilts his head back, raises his left hand, and twiddles his fingers in his flabby jowls in a professorial fashion.

He thanks me for the conversation, wishes me well on my travels, and then walks off, his final word having been said.

I bite my whiskey and water down while listening to him walk back to the little table he was sitting at before he addressed me. I hear him pull out his little chair, and his saggy fanny plumping squatly right into it. His wooden walking cane falls and clatters on the floor. Moans and groans as he cracks and hunches to pick it back up, settling it softly across his lap.

And he is alone again.

The Stones playing are from the bartender’s speakers.

I do enjoy this whiskey, like a fire, it has a wonderful color.

It goes well with the atmosphere, the drink. This Pub on the corner, clean and dim, has a lot going for itself. Set against an empty thruway, across from a fragmented church, everyone in this room is in their element. When I showed up, the same people were sitting as they are now, staring at me from time to time from their soft wooden tables, the kindly Glaswegian people.

The bartender is Irish and studying to be a biological engineer. He has difficulty speaking to me without being distracted by little glitches that appear in his peripherals. In the middle of answering my scattered questions, he frequently stops and walks from one end of the bar to the other, touching and shifting several imperfect glasses back to the way he feels they ought to be.

He serves quickly and runs his eyes across the customers sitting at the few tables behind me. He doesn’t have a great sense of humor, too much stuttering and hyper-awareness. But he’s got an easier accent to understand and a gentle look. I say so, and he fills me in on the goings on of the city.

QUICK FACTS OF GLASGOW TO PICTURE IT BETTER: Glasgow sits on the River Clyde, in the Southeast of Scotland. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Glasgow was the fourth largest city in Europe with over a million residents, due mostly to the success of the tobacco and locomotive industries. After the Sixties, Glasgow went into decline as many jobs were outsourced to Germany and Japan. Currently the most powerful employers in Glasgow are call centers, often seeking out recent college graduates in large numbers using aggressive recruitment agencies. Criticism of these call centers has surfaced due to exploitative practices used on the temporary workers, such as extreme hours, little pay, and no job security.

So the he tells me in the tone of a semi-automatic.

The gap between the prosperous and deprived in Glasgow is widening, and a third of the cities working-age residents are economically inactive. The population of the City today is just under six hundred thousand.

Listen, I say, Glasgow is really something.

The Irishman bartender agrees with me as I order another glass.

He believes that it is Rome after the Barbarians lost interest, when citizens turned the Coliseum into a marble quarry, when the city went for a rest, waiting to reawake a thousand years later for the Italian Renaissance. Such is Glasgow, with it’s cracked red and blonde Victorian facades and sagging bridges, with the junkies and the Scott-Punks, with the locked parks and upturned hotdog stands, it is in resting. He walks over to a regular and I have time for my own thoughts.

There is so little noise in the City, all of its traffic circles around in packs of buses and taxicabs snaking their way around downtown. Just on my way to this Pub, out in the wind chill of this evening, I was walking down the street from my hostel. There was absolute silence in the center of the City. It wasn’t until I heard the hissing sound of an alley cat spraying diarrhea against a Volkswagen, when I realized that the mansions on Park Terrace weren’t completely alone.

But in here there is music and alcohol, racks and racks of it, and so I have plenty of company to make conversation with.

I turn left to Enji, a former Olympic Mongolian boxer who is thirty-seven years old with five daughters and one girlfriend. I turn to ask him something, but before I do, I order another whiskey and water from the skittering Irishman.

Surfer Girl comes on.

The Irishman delivers, spinning my glass in place until it is facing the right direction for him. I ask Enji what he is doing in Glasgow. He says that things got complicated in Mongolia after the Soviet Union collapsed. But he was at least free to go into China and return with cheap umbrellas to sell with a fifteen percent profit on each unit. To him, it was a much safer option than boxing. In two years he made five thousand American dollars. After the mafia found out they stabbed him and robbed him. He said that the stabbing was nothing, he was a fighter, but he knew he was no longer safe in Mongolia.

He came to Glasgow after he enrolled in a university that he found online. He got a job quick as an interpreter in the Scottish Parliament, being one of the few people in Glasgow who could speak both Russian and Chinese. He also works part time as a security guard at an industrial plant, and occasionally he beats the shit out of people who break into the yard to spray paint the trucks.

We buy each other whiskeys and water and I eventually tell him that I used to take Tae Kwon Do lessons, for about five years, when I was younger. He’s impressed and tells me about his love for Jujitsu. He spins his arms around in the most succinct movements, and uses my wrists to explain certain pressure points in different martial arts and their uses. He’s careful enough to not break anything.

I explain how much I enjoy watching kung-fu matches online. I then show him where my eye was stitched up after a fight I had in high school. I used to fight a lot in high school, I say. He looks at me, stares me down, then reaches into his mouth and pulls out his top four front teeth, each made of plastic. He lost the originals after his last professional boxing match in Barcelona. He then pushes his nose to one side, then to the other, and then wobbles it around like a snapped springboard, and I am shamed.

Enji smiles and offers me a cigarette. We go outside with our heavy coats to the Glasgow night air.

I ask him about his daughters. Two of them attend University in Cardiff together and both are seventeen. Another is living in Mongolia with his first girlfriend. They stayed behind when the mafia forced him out. The last is with her mother in Newcastle.

I say, Man, that sounds rough.

He keeps track of them. His break up in Newcastle was rough. It was the first one where he really felt like the asshole, the cause of everything going wrong. He was the guy with the lead pipe and ski mask. What really got him was watching her pack up his things. Since he lived in Glasgow for most of the week, he had kept only a few things at her place, but she had chosen the same day for moving him out as for Spring Cleaning. She wasn’t moving him out exactly, just cleaning house.

She threw out the toothbrush and shaving kit that he kept in her bathroom, Enji had lost his privilege of cabinet space. She dumped his clothes outside in a trash bag. She picked off the used sheets from her bed and threw them away. She tossed leftovers in the fridge and washed the dishes. She threw out the bamboo plant that he gave her a while back, and that really got him. She told his daughter to wait in her room until he had left. He watched all this quietly from a desk chair in her living room, almost crying, but not quite.

Enji finishes smoking before I do, with his big Mongolian huffs.

Standing without a distraction, he starts punching the air, with such speed his arms blur. He bounces around, swinging left, jabbing right. I watch his face, calm and loose. I watch his brown eyes glare out at an invisible enemy. He is going for the guy’s kidneys, his jaw, his liver, his eyes and ears. He wants to take him out quickly, dodging side to side. His head tilts forward to brace a blow, and from the looks of it, it’s a heavy cross from a monster fist. He trips back from the force of the nonexistent wallop. He stands open, waiting to be punched out. His eyes are floating up to the sky; he is dazed and defenseless, ready for his just deserves.

Nobody comes to finish him.

I stamp out my cigarette and we go back inside.

The Boomer’s cane stands alone against his table. He’s left it behind, along with a mess of napkins, one broken glass, chewed tobacco crud in another, and a few weathered coins. Someone else will take care of the mess. Most of the pub tables have their chairs popped up on top of them, their patrons having slipped out one by one. The music has ended. Enji and I take our seats at the bar and beg the Irishman for our last.

Sitting at the edge of my seat, I try to read the whiskey labels; too far away to decipher the cursive lettering on the classy ones, so I order something in bold. I mix it with the water tin, sitting just where I left it.

Enji asks me to show him some moves.

I say there’s no way I can remember anything in the condition I’m in.

He just wants to see my reflexes, where I’m strong and where I’m not. He squeezes my arm, saying he won’t make fun of me. He just wants to tell me where I can improve, whether or not I ever had a chance as a fighter. I tell him I used to get the shit kicked out of myself by middle-school kids, and it would be best to leave it at that. I’ve forgotten everything; I’m unfit and unable. He says naw, I would remember, no one can take boxing for a few years and not be able to show their reflexes. He gives me a few no-contact swings to the side of my head, trying to get me going.

I try to remember. I try to feel it again, the movement, the control. Fuck, how many times had I broken boards when I was younger? I had it all down then, the swings and stances. I could move fast and I had a long reach, both of which made up for my lack of muscle. I was the runner up in a tournament goddammit.

I turn to Enji, raising my fists in front of my body with intensity and look at him, dead in the eye. He looks at my pose, and sinks down in his seat. He turns back to the bar, his head hung low, and says:

“You don’t have to lie to me, Henry. I thought we were past that shit. I can see someone who’s held up a pair of fists before, and you isn’t one.” He swallows his glass.

I used to, I promise, I’ve just forgotten is all. But then I stare at my white knuckles and even I can tell, I look like an idiot.

“You don’t understand. I know you could never hit a thing with those fists. Not a chance, ever.”

I lower my arms, resting them again on the bar. I want to tell him that I really did take those Tae Kwon Do lessons, that I went in six days a week and wanted to go competitive, but I see it’s pointless. He won’t believe. He wouldn’t even hear it.

I finish my glass too quickly and run outside to vomit a bit. After a minute or so, Enji comes out and informs me that the Irishman has closed the bar. I wish I could have said something to the Irishman, something nice, I never even told him that my next stop was Dublin. I look down at my puddle; it has a nice color, like a fire.

Enji lifts me from my knees, gives me a hug, and tells me I’m a nice kid. I say, drunkenly, that I am proud of him for keeping track of his daughters, that he is a good man. He smiles with those teeth of his and walks off around the corner of the church. I look for something to wash away my mess, give up immediately, realize I need to save cash to get to the airport tomorrow, and walk back to my Youth Hostel on Park Terrace.

 

Image: Theresa @outofthebox27

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