THE BALLAD OF BRUCE FOSTER
Every neighborhood bar has its roster of stock characters: the bullshit artist, the practical joker, the windy philosopher, the sports nut, the husband-and-wife alcoholic tag team, the insufferable know-it-all, the Wall Street asshole, the outright psychotic. It’s called Local Color, and it’s an inescapable fact of bar life.
Similarly, every bar has a Bruce Foster – a guy who seems to embody all the aspects of the term “loser”. A chronic screw-up, a bonehead, a reverse alchemist who can turn gold into dross. He’ll have a nickname like “Sully” or “Weed”, or maybe something ironic like “Chief”.
We had the actual Bruce Foster. He didn’t have a nickname; he was Bruce Foster. Bruce wasn’t the original loser, the template for all losers to come, but he was perhaps the apotheosis. Clueless, bumbling, his own worst enemy, Bruce would instinctively put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was never the guy you wanted on your side, because he would always find a way to make things worse. As John Crimmins would say, “That guy could fuck up a wet dream.”
Everyone had a story about Bruce Foster. I have one too, and although it’s probably not the strangest predicament he’s ever gotten himself into - not the most precarious, nor the most ridiculous – it’s still a representative sample of the tribulations that regularly dotted his life’s path.
I’m guessing it was spring, because it was still light out at 6 o’clock, but would be dark soon after. Bruce was coming home on the 6:04 train. He was working at the time in Mineola, I think. Bruce was always working somewhere; you never knew where - sometimes the bowling alley, sometimes the car wash – and you never knew why. Because you couldn’t imagine anyone willingly employing Bruce. It had to be a desperation hire. “At this point I’ll take anybody!” Anybody was Bruce.
The bar was reasonably full that evening when Bruce came in the back door. He was wearing his default Bruce Foster outfit: faded black jeans, a blue plaid shirt and a NY Yankees hat. Bruce was a rabid Yankee fan, in the literal sense that he would almost foam at the mouth. Under the influence of various chemicals, he’d stand right beneath the television and scream with every base hit and shout profane imprecations at every error. Sometimes he’d wave a Yankee pennant right in front of the screen, antagonizing not only the sizable segment of bar regulars who were Met fans, but also the Yankee fans who wanted to see the game. “Get the fuck out of the way!” they would suggest, but he wouldn’t, because that was the thing about Bruce, he didn’t have an internal gauge on the corrosive effect of his behavior. He couldn’t sense when he was pissing people off. Just when he thought he was being brilliant and clever and entertaining, someone would suddenly punch him out, or a group of irate strangers would join forces to hurl him out the door, and it always mystified him. What was their problem?
No matter the slings and arrows that Bruce suffered, he always came back. People would break his chops mercilessly - he was such an easy target - and he would accept it as a natural consequence of his existence. Once we got a group together to go to Shea Stadium, and we took up two rows in the loge section. Bruce was sitting in front of us, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. In the course of the game – during which Bruce was doing his usual obnoxious screaming fan shtick, drawing dark hostile looks from the Met faithful – somebody in our second row had the inspiration of tossing an empty peanut shell into Bruce’s open hood. That opened the floodgates: by the end of the game the sweatshirt hood was brimming with peanut shells, contributed from all directions. He was completely unaware, of course – he went through life completely unaware - and it wasn’t until we were walking back to the train and it started drizzling that Bruce pulled up his hood and his head was showered with peanut shells. “What the fuck…?” He immediately looked up at the sky, as if the gods were responsible for yet another indignity, but then he caught us laughing. “Oh,” he said, “Real funny.” And it was.
Bruce had a girlfriend named Maria. Maria was a tough cookie, thin and hard, her sharp-angled body taking its lead from the hatchet-like nose that defined her face and her character. Maria was, to put it mildly, possessive. She had her hooks into Bruce, and she wasn’t going to let him go until she was good and ready. He belonged to her, and you got the sense that if he even tried to wriggle free she would kill him. She would actually kill him.
Accordingly, Bruce was always trying to avoid her. One day the bar phone rang, and Bruce gave a warning wave: “If that’s Maria, I’m not here!” I answered the phone. It was Maria. “Bruce isn’t here,” I told her. “Bullshit!” said Maria. “I’m sitting in the parking lot right now, and I can see him through the window! Put him on the phone!” Defeated, Bruce trudged to the phone booth, closed the door, and spent the next fifteen minutes nodding disconsolately into the receiver as Maria reamed him out. Then he emerged from the booth with a springy bravado, declaring, “It’s all good!”
Another time Bruce was sitting at the bar and Maria’s car pulled up in front, the wheels squealing to an angry stop. That’s all Bruce needed to see. He jumped off his stool and raced to the men’s room to hide. A moment later Maria burst into the bar like a charging rhino, and marched straight across the room to the bathroom door. She hammered on it with Thor-like thunder: “I know you’re in there!” She always seemed to know. She waited with arms folded and nostrils snorting until Bruce emerged sheepishly, head bowed, like a dog waiting to be beaten, and off they went without a word.
They were, in short, a perfect match. And yet it came as no surprise when Maria suddenly wound up engaged to somebody else. She was no bargain, but even she deserved better.
It didn’t bother Bruce. He moved blithely on to the next adventure, the next disaster.
As in that fateful evening, when he got off the 6:04 train and strode purposefully through the back door of the bar like a man on a mission. “Hey Freddy” (he always called me Freddy, which was annoying in itself), “can I borrow your car?”
“My car?” I said in disbelief. This was an incredible request. I couldn’t think of any circumstances under which I would ever let Bruce borrow my car. I didn’t even like having Bruce in my car. He was the kind of person whom bad luck followed, to the point where you suspected that his mere presence in the passenger seat would pull an oncoming tractor-trailer into your lane like a magnet. And you dreaded the thought that everyone at your wake would be whispering about the strange turn of events that left you, in your last moments on earth, sitting next to Bruce Foster.
“I just have to run up to the house and get my wallet,” he said. He was sharing a house up on the hill in Colonial Park with a couple of friends (“friends” being the flexible term for a bunch of guys who needed a live body to share the rent, and were generally too coked up themselves to notice those qualities of Bruce’s that would make him a less than desirable housemate). “I’ll be right back,” he promised.
Now I had seen Bruce in action many times, and I had a pretty good idea of where his level of fucked-upness was at any given moment. As I studied him now, I was struck by the unnatural clearness of his eyes. He was probably as stone cold sober as I’d ever seen him.
I quickly weighed the pros and cons of this decision. Bruce definitely needed his wallet, because he had long since exhausted the privilege of running a bar tab, and without cash he wouldn’t be able to hang out. Did I want him hanging out? No, but still, a customer was a customer. If he was going to get drunk, he might as well do it here.
What about my car? It was a 1983 Cutlass Ciera, with plenty of miles on it, nothing special. The downside appeared to be small.
So I gave him my keys. “Come right back,” I told him.
“Oh yeah,” said Bruce, as he headed down the back steps.
Matt McDonnell, always a sage if cynical observer of the human condition, had been watching the transaction from a few stools removed. He was mildly incredulous. “You’re lending Bruce your car?
“It’s okay,” I said. “He’s sober.”
Matt shook his head. “You’re crazy.”
I knew he was right. Bruce was going to screw this up somehow, that was a given. But it was too late now, he was gone.
Not two minutes after Bruce left, a tall beefy fellow with a red face came in the back door. I recognized him as a Glen Cove city cop, Reggie something. He was off-duty now, and in a state of agitation. He surveyed the room, and didn’t find what he was looking for. So he came to the end of the bar and called me over. “Did a guy with a plaid shirt and a Yankee hat come in here?”
There are moments in bartending when it seems not only prudent but necessary to lie, and simply by observing the undulant rippling of the purple veins on Reggie’s forehead, I could tell that this was one of those moments. “No,” I said.
“No? Are you sure?” He gave me the classic cop look: eyes narrowing, back straightening, restrained menace in his aspect. His body language was clear: “Are you shitting me? Because you’d better not be shitting me.”
Nevertheless, I proceeded to shit him. “I didn’t see him,” I said. Be assured, if I thought this was official police business, I would have given up Bruce in a minute. As Rick Blaine would say, I stick my neck out for no one. But I got the impression that this was more of a personal matter, and I wasn’t going to toss Bruce to the wolves until I knew the exact nature of his folly. “Why? What happened?”
Reggie looked towards the two exits, perhaps hoping that the plaid-shirted Yankee fan would walk in now, and he could summarily take care of business without having to disclose the nature of his discontent to a relative stranger. But as there was no sign of Bruce, he finally came out with it:
“What happened? This joker exposed himself to my wife on the train! That’s what happened!”
I did not see that coming. “Really?”
“My wife. Just now. On the train.”
“Wow.” I was sincere in my horror. This was about as unpleasant and disturbing an image as one could conjure. Bruce, with his scruffy beard and Yankee hat, opening his pants on the LIRR and…yecch.
“Then he followed her off the train and into the parking lot. She was scared for her life. She said he walked down the driveway and came in here.”
“Really? In here? Well, I didn’t see him…”
Reggie repeated with extra emphasis, just to make sure I got the picture: “He was wearing a Yankee hat and a plaid shirt!”
Had this been a movie, this would have been the optimal moment for Bruce to stroll in the back door - in his Yankee hat and plaid shirt - and hand me the car keys. “Thanks for letting me use your car, Freddy!” And then all hell would break loose: broken bottles, chairs flying, Bruce thrown through the back bar mirror, etc.
But Bruce didn’t walk in, and I was eager to get rid of Officer Reggie before he did. “Maybe he went to Wimbledon’s,” I suggested. Wimbledon’s was a disco right down the street, and you could access it by cutting through our backyard.
“She said he came in here.” Reggie glanced into the back room.
“He’s not back there, is he?”
“No. Go ahead and look.”
Reggie paced some more, clenched his fists a couple of times, and then issued his final word on the subject. “If this prick comes in, you tell him, if I ever catch him, I’m gonna bury his head in cement!” He turned and left.
I looked over at Matt. “Did you hear that?”
He heard it. “Bruce was waxing his bean!” he chuckled.
“He was dashing his dan, all right.”
“That guy’s gonna kill him.”
“Yeah,” Matt agreed. And we both laughed. Because, even if it weren’t true, it was such a quintessential Bruce move: exposing yourself to a cop’s wife. Classic!
About ten minutes later, I saw my white Cutlass cruising through the parking lot and pulling into the back driveway. I was anxious to give Bruce the news: he needed to get the hell out of here, and burn his hat and his plaid shirt pronto. It was truly a matter of life and death.
But when the back door opened, it was a very different Bruce who walked in. His eyes were red, his nose was redder. He was walking sideways. He was coked to the gills.
“Thanks, Freddy,” he said, tossing my keys on the bar and falling into a stool. “Can I have a beer, please?”
I couldn’t believe it. “What happened to you?”
He looked at me , his eyes watery and unfocused. “What?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
“You were only gone ten minutes. How did you get so coked up?”
“I’m not coked up,” he insisted.
“You’re stoned out of your mind,” said Matt with flat disdain.
“No I’m not,” said Bruce, looking vaguely in Matt’s direction. Then he smiled in recognition. “Hey, Matty!”
“Listen,” I said, “you have to get out of here.”
“Come on, just one beer. I have money now.”
”A cop was in here looking for you.”
“A cop?” He gave a semi-smirk. “Why?”
“Because you exposed yourself to his wife,” I explained.
Bruce frowned, thought this over, and returned to the original subject. “Just one beer…”
“Bruce, did you hear me? You’re in a lot of trouble. This woman says you exposed yourself on the train, and her husband’s a cop, and he’s looking for you. He says he’s gonna bury your head in cement!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Bruce stared down at the bar. I could see he was still trying to figure out how to get a beer.
“You have to get out of here,” I tried to impress upon him. “He might come back any minute.”
“I don’t care. I’ll tell him she was wrong.”
“She was wrong? And what, you think he’s going to believe you? You’re totally fucked up.”
“I’m not fucked up. I’m fine. I’m not afraid of any cops. Can I have a beer, please?”
I had other customers to deal with, so for the moment I left Bruce to his altered mind-state. By the time I got back, planning to make one more plea to his sense of self-preservation, he had already come up with a new tack:
“Freddy - can I borrow your car again?”
“I ordered a meatball hero from Sal’s Pizza. I have to pick it up.”
“No, you can’t borrow my car. You’re totally stoned!”
“Will you get out of here? Someone is coming to kill you! Don’t you understand? You already dodged one bullet – now you want to go driving around when you’re all drugged-up?”
“I’ll be right back, I promise.”
I walked away, shaking my head. Why was I wasting my time with this guy? Let Officer Reggie beat the shit out of him. It might be the best thing in the long run anyway.
But Bruce wanted that meatball hero, and once again his marvelously stupid resilience came to the fore, as he spotted Lou Noon at the other end of the bar. Lou Noon was an older regular, and one of the nicest guys in the world. He would do anything for you. He’d even loan you his car, if he was awake.
Which at the moment he wasn’t. Lou worked a night shift as a security guard, so he had a tendency to fall asleep at any time, especially after a surfeit of Budweiser. Right now he was sleeping peacefully with his head down on the bar.
This did not deter Bruce Foster. He walked over and nudged Lou’s shoulder. “Hey Lou, can I borrow your car for a minute?”
Lou Noon raised his head sleepily. “Sure.” He handed his keys over, and then lowered his head and went back to sleep. I don’t think he even knew who he was giving his car to.
Keys in hand, Bruce headed out the front door. “Bruce…!” I called after him. “at least take off your hat!” But he was gone. Driving stoned in somebody else’s car with an off-duty cop looking for him…This couldn’t end well.
It was only fifteen minutes later when a police car pulled up in front of the bar. In the front seat was – Bruce.
“They got him,” said Matt. “Dashing Dan.”
But it wasn’t Officer Reggie driving, it was some other cop. What was this about? Why was Bruce in the front seat? And why did they bring him back here?
After a moment, Bruce and the Cop got out of the car and came inside. As the Cop waited by the door, Bruce waved me over to the side of the bar, obviously bearing some distressing news. He tried to break it to me as gently as possible.
“Freddy – don’t get upset – but somebody stole your car!”
“I came out of Sal’s Pizza, and your car was gone! Somebody must have stolen it! I looked everywhere!”
Somebody stole my car? In the midst of the general madness, I momentarily believed him. But then I walked to the back door, and looked out into the yard. My car was right where he’d parked it.
“Bruce,” I pointed out, “My car is right there.”
Bruce went blank for a moment. He looked at my car as if he were experiencing some kind of miraculous vision. Then he started fitting the pieces into place, and it was a wondrous thing to see his slack face slowly crystallize into a Sherlock-Holmesian moment of illumination. “Oh!” he realized, and I believe he actually slapped his forehead. “I have Lou Noon’s car!”
By now the Cop had picked up a few intimations that things weren’t quite what they seemed, and he approached us looking for an explanation. “What’s up here?” he asked, with a definite edge in his voice.
Bruce was apologetic. “It was a mistake. I thought I had Freddy’s car, but I had someone else’s. It’s probably still at Sal’s Pizza. That’s funny.” He gave a rather goofy, stillborn laugh.
“So there’s no stolen car?” said the Cop. He looked pissed.
“No,” said Bruce meekly.
The Cop stared at Bruce a moment, probably trying to think of a good excuse to run him in. Bruce started to launch into a fuller explanation, but the Cop stopped him in mid-sentence: “Okay pal, you wanna get your fucking meatball hero out of my car?”
After the Cop had driven off, and Bruce had the sandwich tucked safely under his arm, we explained the train situation to him one more time. The intervening stress had apparently sobered Bruce up a little, because he was finally receptive to the story’s implications, and he quickly formulated a game plan. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
Which he did, taking his meatball hero with him.
And that was it. Officer Reggie never came back to bury Bruce’s head in cement, and we never did find out if Bruce had actually exposed himself on the 6:04 train or not.
Nobody really wanted to know.
About an hour later, Lou Noon woke up from his nap, took a last sip of beer, and walked out the door. He returned a moment later. “Where’s my car?”