Robert ordered a double shot of vodka, slid onto a stool and peered through the smoke of the 8th Avenue bar in search of a good listener. There were few. Between gulps of whiskey and beer everyone was jabbering and no one was listening.
Robert is 60 years old, but looks 70. Time has whittled him down to something less than he was as a young Montana miner’s son setting out to see the world.
He has only about four teeth left and one leg is three inches shorter than it was a few years ago. He lifted his orthopedic shoe onto the brass bar rail to show and tell. His other leg, he said, is as good as new and that creates problems when it is time to step off Manhattan’s steep curbs.
Time does not wear things or people evenly. Only television can do that. It wears them down to smooth dull shapes, Robert said.
“Nobody knows how to talk anymore, they’re too busy watching that thing,” he said, waving his hand in contempt towards the television set at the far corner of the bar. Another set, facing the other way, was suspended over Robert’s head.
“Before they started putting those things everywhere, you could go out and get into a conversation,” he said.
That’s what Robert does every day: He sets out from his tiny Greenwich Village flat and looks for someone who knows how to talk. He is not argumentative and almost any topic will do. Good talkers get a drink or two on Robert.
“I myself am loquacious,” he said. “Loquacious! Now there’s a word for you!”
Usually he works his way uptown in search of talkers; it takes longer and longer to find them as the years wear on. He stops in neighborhood bars where workmen gather at day’s end. Many of the bars have no stools – the philosophy of such establishments being that when you can’t stand up anymore it is time to go home.
As sunlight crept out of the 8th Avenue canyon Robert told of the long and twisting sojourn that led him first across the nation and then across the ocean and back. Grizzle danced on his lips.
He started out in a Montana silver mining town, he said, and might have stayed to dig but in the 1940s there were no unions strong enough to protect miners.
Decades earlier, Robert’s uncle had been a member of the International Workers of the World. But local membership in the union dropped off after some thugs hired by a silver company hung his uncle’s union pal from a tree on the banks of the Little Bighorn River.
“The silver companies run the whole damn state,” Robert said.
Instead of digging for silver in the ground, Robert dug for gold in books. He found some, but not enough to make him stake a claim in any one place.
He studied journalism at the University of Montana before joining the Army and earning a lieutenant’s bars. The army taught him Russian and Spanish and Italian and sent him to Europe to eavesdrop on undesirables.
Robert was at home with his work. He said he walked around and listened to people long before the Army ever paid him to.
Bars and restaurants were his beat. Robert told of dining in Sicilian restaurants where surly waiters brought him plate after plate of food he was afraid to refuse. “A man can only eat so much. But they would say, ‘Now you must have this,’ and give me that hard look. I was intimidated. I didn’t talk back. I sat down and ate everything they gave me.”
Unlike some old men in bars, Robert is not a motormouth. He does not relentlessly inflict self-pitying stories on people who do not want to hear them. Robert’s stories are funny and sad and he tells them beautifully, even though the words do not come as clearly as they did before his dentures broke.
Robert also listens. He questions, he weighs the words, he studies the accent. “You have to be a student of things, you have to look around and learn a little something.”
Nothing, he said, is more pleasant than getting into a good conversation at a well-worn bar near evening.
Every conversation draws its own map. From the dark pool of memory flow forgotten facts and faces. It’s the stimulation of thinking out loud that dislodges them and pushes them into the current of conversation, Robert said.
Joe Palooka, the Wilkes-Barre Walloper, found his way into this one. “Joe Palooka,” said Robert, twirling his glass slowly, the image from the television reflecting upon its contents. “I haven’t thought of Joe Palooka in a hundred years.”
Palooka’s mighty memory punch sent Robert reeling first past other pencil people, past Maggie and Jiggs’ house and “their little stick-figure dog,” up Gasoline Alley and then back through the decades to Pennsylvania and to Carlisle, where Robert first trained to be an Army officer.
Robert went for a full hitch in the Army, but after he retired with a good pension, he didn’t bother to start another career. Instead, he uses his time to read and converse.
“I go over the Veteran’s Administration and they can’t keep enough books over there for me,” he said. “I devour them. I eat them up so fast that some of those VA people ask, ‘Are you really reading that?’ I tell them of course I’m reading it.”
“Reading is getting to be another lost art,” he said.
Robert’s favorite author is Graham Greene – “He’s a smart one.”
“One day I was telling another guy at the VA about Graham Greene – I was giving him a synopsis and…”
Robert straightened up and took a quick poke of vodka.
“Synopsis!” he cried. “There’s another fine word. Oh, that’s a dandy.”