By Kenneth Justice
“C’mon dude, we’ve got awesome blow, come on in the bathroom with us” he said
~ This past weekend I was in Madison, Wisconsin on my Drinking in the Culture Tour; a coffee house tour that gives me the opportunity to experience local culture in different cities around the Western World. Unfortunately, coffee houses aren’t always open late in the cities I come to and in Madison this past weekend I found myself at a dive bar in the heart of the downtown.
I’m not a stranger to bars, but I’ve never really been what you would call the kind of person who hangs out at them. I’m much more comfortable with the familiar surroundings of comfy coffee-house chairs and philosophy grad students who want to talk Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas with me. However, I have no fear of bars and don’t mind a beer or two when I have the time.
So there I was on Friday night in a clunky dive bar; everything in the place was totally thrown together as though Stevie Wonder was the interior decorator. Mismatched lights hanging crookedly, a weather beaten neon menu that looked like it been lifted from a 1950’s drive-in movie theater; popcorn, French fries, coca cola, hamburgers, hot dogs, I think the menu was about as unimaginative as one could get.
It took me less than three minutes to strike up a conversation with some of the people at the bar. One of the 30-somethings heard that I had a Chicago connection and that sparked his interest in talking to me, and it also helped me connect with the people there that I noticed a few drug deals going on in the back of the bar; I commented to the female bartender and my two seat mates, “So I guess this is the place everyone comes for blow in Madison, Wisconsin” and they all laughed,
“Is it that obvious” the female bartender asked
“Well, you guys sure aren’t very discreet about it” I said. It’s not very difficult to notice drug deals in bars if you know what you’re looking for, and because I wasn’t making a big deal about it all of the people nearby instantly felt that they could trust me in talking about most anything.
One of the dudes hanging out at the bar was a devout atheist, I made a comment about how I’m visiting different cities engaging people in conversation, “you’re probably not interested in talking about the things I care about” he said, “I’ve read every book ever wrote by Christopher Hitchens and Charles Dawkins, I’m a hardcore atheist” he said
“Au contraire dude” I said, “you’ve got to tell me; why do you consider yourself a ‘hardcore’ atheist. Did you grow up in a heavily religious family?” I asked
“No my parents were agnostic. They made me go to catechism at the Lutheran church but after my first communion I went behind the church and got high with my friends; that’s about how serious I take religion” he said
As we talked throughout the evening it became apparent that this young guy had a tough life. When things turned out differently than he expected after high school, most of his 20’s were spent in and out of drug rehab clinics. It’s a testimony to his hard work that despite massive addictions to meth, cocaine, alcohol, many different pills, and eventually heroin, the young man graduated with a degree from Columbia and is now working a fairly decent job in Madison.
The young man’s step father beat him repeatedly. It didn’t help that his father abandoned the family and as a boy his mother was either unable or unwilling to defend him against the cruel step-father, “One day after school he was driving me home from football practice and all of a sudden for no god damn reason he grabbed the back of my head and crushed my face into the dashboard breaking my nose. He swore to me that if I told my mom he did it that he’d kill me. So I had to go the hospital and tell them it happened to me at football practice” he said “My mom knew what was going on but she didn’t say anything. She was scared he’d leave us and we’d be forced to live on the streets or something”.
Atheism for this young man was the only thing that made any sense in the face of all that he suffered through in his youth, “if there’s a god out there that did nothing to save me from my f**ked up situation then I wouldn’t want to worship that god at all” he said
One of the problems whenever I’m at a bar is that it’s usually difficult for me to keep track of all the people I’m talking to; I think that’s why I like hanging out at coffee shops. At a bar, when someone comes in like myself who is interested in having a conversation about real life issues, it usually stirs up a lot of people who crowd-around and want to be a part of the talk, and when I have ten or twenty different people all trying to talk to me at the same time…..my head starts to spin.
It’s also difficult to stay focused on the conversation when every few minutes people are trying to get me to drink shots or go into the bathroom and do lines of coke with them. Unfortunately for them, my idea of a good time wasn’t snorting cocaine off a bathroom counter in a dive bar.
“But dude, don’t you want some kind of hope to look forward to? Some chance that there is more to this life than just blackness after you die?” I asked the young man
“There’s nothing more to life; life is sh*t, life sucks, this is it” he said, and he downed another shot of 100 proof alcohol.
Is that really it? A big black emptiness; nothing more, nothing less? One of the fellow bloggers I met up with in Madison said he believed it was more likely there is something rather than nothing, “look at Nietzsche, even he couldn’t deal with the concept of there being nothing more than this life and in the end he went crazy” he said
It was an interesting weekend in Madison to say the least. Just a few thoughts that came to mind this morning as I sipped my coffee,
Categories: Culture & Society