Bob White Special, October 13, 2000

8:49:00 PM

When Bob White smiled, it was deep and inviting. It stretched across his face, quick to appear, but reserved. His grin would start and slowly spread over his face like an avalanche until a mouthful of missing teeth was showing. He’d suddenly recoil from it, as if scared to have allowed it to show, only to reconsider -- chapping his lips; trying to hold it in, staring into you before his mercy for you overcame him and he burst back into laughter. He groaned along with it, as if he’d heard you tell him an awful joke, and he’d point at you, calling you out. At other times, he would bring up a hand from the bar counter and echo what had made him laugh with quick hand gestures of American Sign Language.
When he danced, he would stumble through his cautious steps, holding up in one hand a plastic cup full of whiskey, and in the other, a cigarette. His delight was infectious, and though he was slim and emaciated from his steady diet of cheap liquor, his presence filled the room.  
One could hear him through a dense crowd calling out, “Hey baby. I said, hey baby.” He’d shimmy for a couple of beats with whichever body was nearest before continuing: “I said hey. I said, hey baby. I said don’t you know.” 
In early afternoons, it wasn’t rare to find him sitting at Churchill’s Hideaway with a newspaper and an Irish coffee in front of him. While reading it, he rub his face often with the hand that wasn’t occupied with his cocktail or cigarette. You could see him trying to wring the horror out of it – all the hatred spread open across the front page. Or, on one occasion, I found him at tucked towards the end of the bar underneath the sweat swampy mess of people reaching over and through his brooding for their turn with the bartender. I was one of them, asking causally while I waited for my drink what was troubling.
“Got no money, and I got no honey,” he said.
It was a sensible enough cause to be in the dumps, I thought – down and out. So, I bought him a drink and left him to his sorrowful reverie. It struck me for a moment this was the real him. Or, more to the point, this was just as much him if not all of it because the Bob White who drenched himself with expressions of radiant, drunken, “hey baby! I said, hi,” was all I suspected I would get a chance to know.

* * *

Madonna Raw Bar was on the upper part of the dive totem pole. The inside was a bit grimy, and lit towards the back with bright bulbs. However, the bar itself unlit. The contrast left one feeling like the place was only partially open for business. As soon as I walked in, Leah took my arm and began ushering me out sliding glass doors to a wooden deck where Bob White sat hunched over a newspaper, brooding. She whispered into my ear that his brother had just passed away, and deposited me in a chair across from him, announcing, “Look! Your friend is here!”
For a moment Bob White came alive, his gaze fixing itself on me. His broad grin emerged, and he extended his hand into a handshake of sorts. His index, pinky and thumb remained extended while the other fingers were curled the sign language for “I love you.” I put my hand in the same pose, and our fingers crossed.
“Let’s do this right,” he said, after a moment, stressing each word. 
“I’m sorry about your brother,” I said to him, while we embraced, and he thanked me.
Leah had gone back to the conversation at the bar counter, and after a few brief conversations, I saw Bob White sitting back at a table – grieving. His head kept swaying from end to end, and I could hear him and mumbling, “I’m telling you now.”I watched him saddened.

“What’s your fondest memory of your brother,” I asked out of the blue.
 “What,” he said. He cocked his head as if he hadn’t heard.
 “I said, what do you remember most about your brother?” He just looked at me with disbelief.
 “What!” It came out horse and exasperated. I asked him the same question again, thinking that I had tread on treacherous ground.
 He had venom in his eyes. “Why are you asking me this?”
 “Well, people live on in our memories, and I wanted to know something about how you felt about your brother,” I said.
 His disbelief increased, his eyes grew cross, and his permanently nappy peppered Afro just swayed along with his head. “Why do you want to know about my brother,” he said finally. His hands came up from under the table, and unfurled, “Why?”
 “Bob, I just wanted to know because I care about you. I thought you might want to talk about it.”
 “You don’t care about me,” he said. “You don’t care about me at all!”
 “Ohh,” I said, really chewing on what he said. I was only trying to help, I thought, but I had stuck my foot in my mouth now. “I suppose,” I said, “asking you about your brother, expressing concerned is the only way I know that I can express my caring for you.”
 “My brother’s still alive, my mother passed away.” He still oozed with disbelief in his voice.
 I didn’t know what to say. “Ohh, man, Bob. I’m sorry. I was told that it was your brother that had passed away.”
 “Well first get it from the source before you start askin’ what’s going on,”
 “I’m sorry,” I said thinking that he was absolutely correct.  
“Anyway, what do you care about anything,” he continued.
 This was unbearable to hear, but I remained steadfast, “Bob, I haven’t met a person yet that I don’t care about.”
 “Can you accept this,” he asked. “Can you accept this?” He continued before I have a chance to answer. “That the Palestinians, and the Israelis aren’t getting along because they don’t care about each other, and aren’t listening to each other?”
 “I can accept that.” A conflict in the Middle East was in The Herald’s headlines that morning. 
 “What’s your nationality? What’s your background?” 
 “Puerto Rican,” I said. All the tension that had built up at the table dispelled itself. I scratched my beard. I must have looked Arabic to him. He started to laugh.
“I had you all wrong,” he said. He laughed again, and this time I laughed with him. “I had you all wrong! You’re just a Puerto Rican, and that’s all over there, and you care, but that’s not you.” He extends his had, and we shake, Bob White Style.
 From that understanding, and then on, we didn’t talk much more for the rest of the evening at Madonna’s. After a while, he asked me if I could give him a ride to another bar, the King’s Stable, and I agreed.
* * *
 Bob and I walked out of Madonna’s toward my car. He was looking shitty, swaying across the pavement of the parking lot. When we got into my Jeep, a compact disk started to play from where it left off. The disk was a compilation of old style big band Jazz. It started in high gear, and we drove off, enjoying the Dixieland tempos as we made our way towards the Stables.
 Bob White was enraptured by the music. He mouthed the words of the songs, even when the tune only carried the melody.
  “I didn’t know you were into this kind of music,” He said finally. I started speak, but Bob dove back into the melody, mimicking the scratchy vinyl voice now coming from the speakers.
“What’s in a Bob White Special,” I asked him curious.
 “Shit man! It’s just cheap whisky with some water in it!” By this time we were already pulling into the Stable’s gravel parking lot when a Duke Ellington tune came on. Bob became reverent. He tilted his head back enraptured.
“This is the Duke,” he asked mystified.
“I think so. I didn’t get the track names from the CD. They’re not written on.”
“This is the Duke,” he started laughing and clapped his hands. The car stayed idle in the parking lot, and we both listened to the tune drift through melodies. The piano meandered around twinkling in the trebles, then water-falling down into bass notes. Bob White’s laughing sounded like he was crying.
“My uncle played with the Duke,” he said. “That’s my uncle there playing the bass.”
He fell back into a silence, and I leaned into my seat. The jazz kept rolling out to the speakers, filling the car. It undulated; it’s themes toying around. The snare drum mimicked the piano. The bass walked. It filled the space, and Bob laid back in a trance. The hairs on my arm stood on end. There was only Duke Ellington, and something magical was happening. To feel so low earlier, then now, released into a bliss, the two of us sat in holy rapture. We didn’t say a word. The Duke said it all for us. I felt high.
 The song trickled away. It ended, not in an abrupt jazz refrain, but simply each instrumentalist drifted off. Each stopped carrying their tune, and the song vanished into an elegant repose. I turned off the radio, and we sat there still mesmerized. We said nothing, until finally we looked at each other, calm and expressionless. And from out of nowhere, we both started laughing. We went into paroxysms, looking at each other. We laughed, as if in the music we’d been told a punch line, and we doubled over for minutes until it too drifted off into a serene repose.
The King’s Stable is really just a package goods store in Little Haiti. However, it’s set up like a bar. You walk in through a back door, walk a ten yard corridor towards the bar area that opens up to a pool table, a rectangular bar on the left, a dance floor on the right, and tables in between. As far as I know, they don’t have a proper liquor license. So when you order drinks, they serve you a bottle of spirits, a mixer of your choice, and a bucket of ice with plastic cups.
 I had a feeling of relief as we walked into the King’s Stable. We didn’t talk as we each had a Bob White Special. We toasted to his late mother, and he thanked me effusively for making the toast. I left within a half an hour towards South Beach.
 I don’t think I’ve seen Bob White since. Someone told me that he’d moved to St. Augustine. He inherited his mother’s house, and is living in it now. Sometimes I hear about him from a friend who keeps in closer contact. Bob White has mentioned that the town stinks because the bars close at two, and a city ordinance doesn’t allow liquor to be sold after eleven.

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