Panorama of San Bernardino

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Knotty and Matted Life

My hair is full of knots.  I place my hand on the back of my head and feel the tangled web of hair and I think back to when my dad bought a bar called the Big O.

To this day, I don't know why the bar had that name. The Big O Bar was located about a mile away from our house in Ontario on Holt between Grove and Vineyard.

 "Why that bar John? Isn't Holt street where all the hookers hang out?" Mom said when Dad first broached the subject with her.

Dad persisted. "It's a dream Judy. There's pool tables, video games and it already has a beer and wine license. They are even going to pay us to manage the trailer park behind it."

Mom huffed.

"This could be a moneymaker Judy," Dad said trying to cajole her. Mom was a yeller and a fighter and she didn't handle fools lightly.

 Mom knew that anytime you put the words trailer park and bar together, it was trouble. She also knew that Dad loved his Budweiser which was the sorest point of contention in the debate over Dad's quest to buy the Big O.

 "Dammit John, you are going to end up drunk all day and land us in the poor house. I don't want to lose the house and if you quit your job and buy that money pit, that's what will happen. I don't know," she said, her voice trailing off. My sisters and I could all hear a note of give in Mom's voice. She was leaving the door open just a little.

 Why was she even considering this? I was only ten and could see it was a bad idea. Dad loved to drink and hang out with what Mom called the lowlifes. It may have been because Dad had always dreamed of owning either a bar or a donut shop. Dad had been talking about it since I could walk. Those two businesses may seem like an odd pair but they encompassed two of my dad's favorite things: beer and junk food. It was his dream and he was going to make it happen no matter the cost. 

Buying the bar was just like the time Dad bought a freezer full of steaks from some kid walking around the block.

 When Mom found out that not only had he bought the meat, but a freezer to house it in, she hit the roof.

 "John, you're an idiot," she told him. "You got taken. You're one of those suckers born every minute. The bill is for almost a thousand dollars. Where are we going to get that kind of money? We could have a bought a car. That's almost four months of house payments."

 "I'll make the payments," Dad had assured her with a grimace and a shake of his head. He always made a face like his stomach hurt when Mom started yelling at him. "We will get the best steaks. There's a ton of porterhouses and filet minions." (Dad was not known for his proper pronunciations.)  

"Dammit John, what are we going to do with all those steaks?" Mom asked her skepticism evident.

"Judy, there are enough steaks for an army."

 Mom shook her head. "But why'd you have to buy the freezer? We're not rich John, you're a truck driver, and I'm a god damn waitress."

"We'll eat like kings," Dad said. "The kid who came to the door said everyone on the block bought one. We can have a block barbecue."

 "Block barbecue?" Mom said with a head shake. "No one else bought one. You're a fool. My brother said you were a dumb gringo but I didn't believe him."

"Judy I don't want to fight, send the freezer back," Dad said with his stock sigh.

 "Are you gonna pay it?" Mom said. She wasn't letting up.

Dad pleaded. “I'll pay it. I promise Judy. And I'll make some of my potato salad to go with those filet minions. You'll eat it." Mom had given in like she always did, "Fine John. But you're making the payment."

 Within three months, Mom was making the fifty dollar payment. Then the freezer was repossessed.

Just like with the freezer full of meat, Dad made the bar happen and within mere months of first talking about it, my parents were the owners of a bar on Holt street bordering a trailer park in the worst part of Ontario. ---------------------------------

The first year wasn't bad. Dad would take us to the bar with him every Saturday morning. We would clean the dark green felt of the pool tables with a brush and steal cigarettes from the machine. "What do you girls wanna eat?" Dad asked. "We have frozen pizza or hamburgers and fries." Dad never cared that it was only nine in the morning. I would always choose cheese pizza and Dad let me put songs on the jukebox. He had Alabama and Johnny Cash.

Even though Mom was Mexican, she loved country music. Her favorite was Freddy Fender. Dad's favorite was Loretta Lynn. I loved watching her dress up in her Western jean suit to go out with Dad to the bar. "We met at a honkey tonk", Mom would always remind us. "I always had a thing for white man cowboys."

But, us girls never listened to country. Country was for truckers like my dad and hillbillies. We preferred Pat Benetar, The Go-Go's and Olivia Newton John.

Dad taught us how to play pool at the bar and I still remember the way Dad would hold the pool stick after putting his Kent cigarette out. And we would play pinball for hours. We never wanted to leave. We played our turns in silence, with focus. Dad loved to hit the machine with his hip. "You're gonna tilt it dad" my two sisters and I would scream at him. Dad only tilted one time out of ten but he came close most of the time.

My sisters and I would fight over who got to clean the pool table but no one wanted to mop the floor. Dad would do it grumbling, "Give your ole man a break girls" Dad's knees were bad from moving furniture for years and his legs would swell to the point that he had to wear special blood pressure socks but he would mop while humming along to the sounds of the Oak Ridge Boys. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 My strongest memory of the bar was the smell. It smelled like stale cigs and old tap beer. My parents couldn't afford a full alcohol license so all they served was wine and beer. Dad would get plastered every night he played bartender. Patrons would buy him drinks all night and he would stumble into the house at two am and Mom would scream. And then there was the gambling. 

Eventually, all things come to an end and my parents lost the bar in 1984. Soon after, they lost the house. And once they lost the house, everything went downhill and my family spent my high school years moving from rental to rental.

My dreams of attending college at Claremont McKenna vanished in a haze after I dozed and drank my way through my senior year and dropped out of high school five credits short of a diploma.

My mom never forgave my father for buying the bar but I am glad he did. It showed me as a young child that fulfilling your dream was possible. It taught me that even though it might not turn out well as you hoped, at least you tried. It's why I took my GED and how I imagined myself graduating from law school even when I was in junior college waitressing to pay my way through. And, it's also probably why I began dreaming my book into being.

 Dad died eight years ago and my mom, who has mellowed through the years, cannot go one day without saying his name. I am sitting with her in her little one room subsidized apartment in Fontana and she reminisces while looking at one of the many pictures of my dad on her walls.

"Your dad didn't do so bad that first year," Mom told me recently. "The problem was that the rednecks and the Mexicans didn't like each other and we catered more to the rednecks. We should have catered to the Mexicans more but then we would have been a Mexican bar and your dad didn't want that. He was a Montana cowboy and he wanted a honky tonk. He loved that damn bar. It put us in the poorhouse and we lost everything. But he never regretted it. He was a dreamer."

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