Today’s Drinking Story:
Here we see Caleb J Ross discover the holy trinity: Tom Waits, Free Drinks and…Southwest Airlines Magazine?
This is the already true part: in June of 2008 I stood on a beach in San Diego
wearing a full suit, paying more attention to my watch than to the ocean in front of me.
For a boy from Kansas City, where the largest body of water might be a wort vessel at the Boulevard Brewery, this transposed priority says a lot. I had a flight, and as always, the airline schedule superseded any perceived relaxation. And it’s especially hard to relax
when, with my suit beachwear I looked the part of a misplaced predator. Bikinied
women covered themselves as I strolled the boardwalk.
That morning I boarded a flight en-route to California for a client meeting, which
I approached with equal parts hesitation and disappointment. Why? That morning, and
continuing through the flight, I mainlined a steady feed of Tom Waits. I carried an iPod
packed with albums focusing on his early, crooner years, and a book of interviews
highlighting his drunken-beatnik persona. Normally, this would be my heaven. But this
immersion put my corporate attire in an unflattering light. Jealousy bred self-disappointment.
Accepting the careerist lifestyle years earlier, fresh from college, destroyed the
delicate persona I had for so long nurtured. I wanted Nighthawks at the Diner. I got
paper cuts at the copier. I wanted 16 shots from a 30-ought 6. I got 16 emails an hour
with a 30 year plan. I wanted a jockey full of bourbon, but had settled as a desk jockey.
Thankful for the near-empty flight, yet not ready to hear Waits in my earbuds
mock my tailored uniform, I fished through the seatback pouch for something to enliven
my spirits. Nothing like Sky Mall, and the implication of its corporate clientele to
remind myself of whom I don’t want to become. But instead, I found a copy of Spirit, the
Southwest Airlines magazine, and on the cover: Tom Waits.
This was a sign, not mere coincidence. I embraced the circumstance and decided
then to own my situation the way Tom Waits had lived the passé Beat poet style. I
wouldn’t be a sales slave anymore, God damn it. I would be a Jitterbug Boy. Step right
up. Everyone’s a winner. Bargains galore.
The article, a collection of anecdotes, standard fare for someone as Wait-read as
myself, comforted me though offered nothing new. We landed. I pissed. I shook hands
with my client. Later, I managed to carve out those fifteen minutes for beach time,
happy to at least kiss the ocean air. Women covered themselves, but I hardly noticed. I
was waltzing Matilda now.
* * *
Here’s more already-true stuff. Upon returning to Kansas City I wrote a letter to
Spirit magazine. The bulk of the correspondence contained praise and thanks, but
buried within was a request for an additional copy of the Waits issue. The ruse not only
earned me that copy, but also a Spirit logoed t-shirt and bragging rights that my letter
would be featured in an upcoming issue. Net worth: Approximately $14. My writing
career had officially begun.
But it gets better, believe it or not. Two months later I sat wedged between my coworker and a portly stranger on my way to Chicago for a baseball game. A business
partner had given us Wrigley Rooftop tickets, ensuring plenty of beer and little actual
game watching. During a lull in our conversation, I grabbed the current issue of Spirit,
and casually directed my co-worker’s attention to my letter. Within minutes a homely,
round flight attendant approached. “I’ve never had a contributor on board before,” she
said and dumped multiple bags of pretzels into my lap before handing me a rum and
coke. My celebrity career had officially begun.
Which brings me here, to Leela’s, an unpaid gig, done for the love, but with the
hope of supper for my signing. You dream of a day when writing affords your basic
necessities, when you can comp not just a free drink with your writing, but a free drunk.
You dream of a—
“Get this man a drink,” says a handsome man in the front row. Casually play off the interruption as though you weren’t secretly hoping for such an outburst. Smile.
Smirk, if you want to call it that, but nod toward the bar, accept his gift. Waits would do
Waits would scat on local establishments, describe perfect fish tacos from Illegal
Pete’s, he’d shoot the local beer full of holes, and train his fresh-off-the-plane French
friend how to pour American lagers. Waits would make his audience his performance.
Every show, something new. If he were stuffed into a suit, put on a plane, and teased
with the ocean, he’d loosen the tie just a bit, strike up a conversation with a flight
attendant, and tell the ocean it has done nothing for him anyway.
* * *
You dream, too, of a real life Choose Your Own Adventure story. And here’s mine:
If you have a free drink in your hand, kindly thank the audience and leave the stage. If
you do not, continue reading.
You do not. Survey the audience with unwarranted contempt. Say, “you people,”
and cough to emphasize your arid throat…*cough*. Say “excuse me” like you only have
the dust to blame. Don’t yet turn on these people. A few are still your friends. “You
people have been wonderful,” you say.
You think, Did they not hear the handsome gentleman up front call for a drink?
Perhaps he wasn’t loud enough. Yes, blame him. You have other, better, friends.
Smile. Carry on. “I’ve had the time of my life,” you say, to initiate the denouement. But where was the story’s climax, the audience wonders. I’ll be drinking it alone in the back of the bar after the reading.
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