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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Gentlemen Club (à la manière d'Alarcón)

George Tomaziu, Saloon
watercolor and ink
private collection
no copyright infringement intended

(click here for the Romanian version)

A small group of gentlemen well in their seventies, meeting any given day in a pub of sorts. Four or five of them come every day, sometimes there are one or two more. It's near an old graveyard, and that graveyard is named after the village that used to be there long time ago. That village was swallowed by the city, it happened in the forties or fifties. Firstly slums replaced the old households and gardens and swamps, much later alleys of apartment buildings came over the slums.

On the other end of the graveyard there is a market where peasants come to sell their vegetables and stuff. They talk between them in their native language, which is different from the language of the country: their great-grandparents left their own country  and settled here. This market changed names several times, more or less on each change of political regime: people always use the name that was just replaced; so the new name is like a no name; but as soon as the new name is in turn replaced, people adopt it enthusiastically.

You'd say this market of vegetables and cheese and so on has always been there; it's not like that. For many years it was a flea market in this place. A streetcar was coming from downtown, and here was the last stop. There was a statue showing a soldier that had lost his right hand in the battle, while having in his left hand a grenade. Followed a narrow street with small houses. You could guess large courtyards behind. The flea market began at the end of this street. I was there only three times: dust and misery.

That flea market vanished so many decades ago that nobody talks about it any more. Large boulevards and ugly apartment buildings came over the place and the streetcar line has now another end, far away.

Much later another flea market appeared there, this time at the other end of the graveyard, neighboring some large vegetable gardens. I never knew who owned the gardens, it seems they belonged to some factories from the neighborhood. It remained like that only  a couple of years. Then the flea market together with the gardens disappeared (while the factories went out of business, one after the other).  The place is occupied now by restaurants trying (with limited success) to imitate the downtown atmosphere, alleys with villas for the new rich, a supermarket with a huge parking lot most of the time empty, three gas stations, a gym, a huge Eastern-Orthodox cathedral, a small Catholic settlement, an Evangelic assembly hall, two kindergartens, plus some small shops. However this second flea market left some remains: a street corner where some people still come with shabby stuff that nobody's interested to buy, and three or four small embarrassing stores exhibiting second hand clothing.

The pub I briefly mentioned at the beginning is actually also a relic of the flea market universe. All other restaurants try to pretend to be kind of brands, this one is just a hovel with cheap wine, cheap bear, and cheap vodka. Oh, I forgot the rum, some patrons mix it with the bear. Peasants come here (not many, though - there is another hovel in walking distance), also some workers (there is a body shop around), also the grave-diggers from nearby - and beside them a separate table, for the gentlemen club.

Gentlemen coming in the morning, more or less at the same time, taking their seats at the table, each one having in front of him a carafe of wine. Each one has his stories, his jokes, his opinions about soccer, women, politics, cars. Only it's been a long time since each one learned all others stories and jokes and opinions. Thus everybody's silent. It's enough to see a fugitive smile on Old Jack's face and you know what's in his mind, only he doesn't tell the tale anymore. It was told far too many times.

Nobody else stays at that table. If a newcomer enters the pub and takes a sit there, the waiter comes immediately and tells him in a whisper to move to some other table. So each gentleman arrives and sits in his chair, always the same chair. The waiter brings immediately the carafe of wine for him, and a glass, both kept cold.

The owners changed several times and each time the staff changed, too. Plus minor changes in the furniture, like new TV monitors, that kind of stuff. The gentlemen remained there, at their table, with their carafes of wine and their silence. And I never thought something will change in this respect.

Firstly Old Jack passed away. He had been in some way their informal leader, if you could talk about a leader here. Everybody respected him and his was the last word always, even in their situation where silence was the king. He had been an engineer or something at one of the factories in the neighborhood, and had been retired for about fifteen years. Neither the factory was anymore, replaced by a mall. He had two boys. One of them had moved abroad, Germany or Switzerland something, the other worked in an insurance company. And one day came when Old Jack did not appear in the pub: the beginning of an illness that plagued him for the next three months till he died. The others came to see him for the last time at the chapel: he looked like sleeping.

The second to kick the bucket was the Doctor. Actually he wasn't a doctor, only he had followed two or three years in a medical college, then he gave up and changed several menial jobs. Nevertheless it was enough to be called by everybody there a doctor. He had had his quirks while young: for instance he always drank standing up, as if he didn't want to spoil the strip at his pants. He wasn't like that any more and now he was seating in row with the others. I don't know whether he still played poker, he had been an aficionado for gambling. Nobody would have guessed how he had been in his young years, now he had a pretty humble demeanor. Still he was a chain smoker. However there were not the cigarettes that killed him, but a pneumonia.

Neither Mac the Cobbler was a shoemaker. I really don't know why they were calling him the Cobbler. He had been friends with the Doctor since their young years, sharing the passion for gambling. If it were for me, I would have called him rather Mac the Tailor, just for fun, only who am I to call names? He wasn't coming so often as the others, and always was very carefully dressed, with coat and tie and everything, only his shoes were kind of bobo. That's it, nobody's perfect. He survived his friend for only two months.

Then it came the turn of Silvio, the kindest of all of them. He had a work accident sometime in his past and never fully recovered. And he lived with the sequels for all his life. Two or three months ago he went to a doctor as he felt badly, then a surgery was necessary, and after other two weeks he passed away. As I said, the kindest in the group. Mike was always filling Silvio's glass, I believe it was a proof of sympathy. It would have been impossible not to like Silvio.

George had worked at a cigarette factory, quite away from this neighborhood. After retirement he took a partial time job somewhere, but he renounced pretty quickly. He had a sister living in the country and sometimes he was staying with her for two or three months. His death came as a surprise, nobody would have expected that, as he was the youngest in the group.

And so, Mike is now alone. Coming every day, seated at that table, the waiter comes with the carafe of wine and the glass, and he drinks it slowly. No more the other gentlemen, to keep silent together, that so full silence.

(Daniel Alarcón)



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