Jesse Millner: The Bus Driver's Book of the Dead

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  MEMOIR by Jesse Millner
Polish Wedding  Devolution  Aliens Among Us  Eddie Jones  Dave  
Tom MarionStarved Rock State Park  The Alcoholic Point of View   My Lost Season  Listening for God  I Remember a Pet Peeve  Hair Salon Panic Attack!  
Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground


The last time I saw Tom Johnson, I was sitting at the bar in the Club del Morocco, sipping on an Old Style. It was payday and I’d just cashed my check at the currency exchange around the corner on Halsted. I had three-hundred bucks in my pocket and it was late afternoon with a whole night of drinking and forgetfulness lying ahead of me. Tom walked through the door of the Club. It was January and the cold air followed him in. He sat next to me, ordered a Budweiser and a shot of bourbon. Lindsay pulled a can out of the cooler and deftly poured a shot all in the same motion. “I’m a little short, Jess” said Tom. “Can you spot me half a sawbuck until I cash my check?” “Sure,” I said, pulling a wad of money out of my front pocket and peeling off a ten-dollar bill. Tom finished his drinks and said, “Think I’ll head out to Cicero and catch up with some buddies.” I watched him walk out the door, late sun framing his portly body as he walked out into the faltering daylight. I never saw Tom again. That night in Cicero someone nearly beat him to death in the parking lot of a tavern. He lay in a coma at Rush Presbyterian for a week before his family told the doctor to pull the plug.

During the week he lay in his death trance, some of the guys visited him, but I didn’t. Instead I went to the Club and raised an Old Style and thought about Tom’s bad luck. Dave Zaworkski, a sixty-year-old, soon-to-be retiring charter driver, said, “He knew better than to go to that fuckin’ Candlelight Lounge. They’ll roll you there for a dollar.” And soon we reduced Tom’s death to a bad choice: getting drunk in a neighborhood known for its paranoia and prejudice, for its cheap hoods and gangsters. The night of Tom’s death, I got drunk just like any other night and knew that if fate had been reversed, he would have done the same thing.

Somewhere deep inside of me, those days are still playing out. I see the dead hanging over the knife-nicked bar of the Club del Morocco. “Fast Willie” Green is offering me a sip of bourbon from his favorite mug—it has a miniature tit on the side of it near the top. There's a hole in the nipple, so you can suck booze from it. The booths are full of bus drivers eating the greasy perch dinner that is the best choice on the tavern's menu. From the kitchen I can hear the laughter of a prostitute and two of her clients. Downstairs an illegal card game is going on, and the jukebox is blasting Motown as I look into the mirror behind the bar, see a stranger staring back at me. He's holding a shot glass in his right hand and the hollowness behind his eyes goes on forever.

I’m reading this twenty-five years after Tom’s death, twenty-two years after I stopped drinking; fifteen years after I quit the bus driving job and moved to Florida; and five years after I stopped believing in God. I still remember Tom, and as I look back toward that darkness of the early ‘80s I can almost see his face, almost remember what he looked like.

A few days before he died, we got drunk at O’Sullivan’s, an Irish bar at the intersection where Grand, Milwaukee and Halsted meet, where on most afternoons between two and four, you could get dark and tans and shots of Drambuie for half-price. That last time we drank together at O’Sullivan’s, Marion, the only female bus driver, was with us, and now I can remember her short black hair, the pretty face, the strong body that flashed don’t fuck with me, in pink neon. There was an Irish band playing at the Irish bar and we were drinking dark and tans, and even though Drambuie is Scottish, hell, it was close enough that we felt like Irish booze brothers and sisters. There were other bus drivers there that afternoon, which by the time the band played, had become a ragged night of too much laughter and too many of the giggly insults we lived by. At one point, I fell off my stool and landed flat on my back. It didn’t hurt at all and everyone complimented me on not grabbing the table and pulling the shots and brews down with me.

O’Sullivan’s is coming back clearly now, or as clearly as anything from those days might be remembered. It was a big place with high ceilings. The west wall had big windows so you could look out on Milwaukee Avenue and pity the normal people who were waiting for buses, or maybe queuing up at the Greek butcher shop across the street with a sheep’s bloody head on display out front.

There were pictures of Mayor Daley behind the bar. One of them showed his honor shaking hands with one of the founding O’Sullivans. Another picture showed Wolf Point, that little peninsula on the Chicago River where the sainted Fathers’ Marquette and Joliet landed in the late 17th century. In fact, there were many other pictures and I could make up a few, but I want you to believe how drunk I was that last time I hung out with Tom Johnson. I want you to realize that if you had asked me at that very moment when I chugged down those dark and tans, followed them with the fire of Drambuie; if you’d ask me then, I would have said that I loved Tom and Marion. Hell, I loved everyone when I was drunk.


© 2010, Jesse Millner

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