Paul Wellman

Like almost everything else over 30, the Sportsman Lounge on Figueroa Street was built to be something other than it is now. Back by the bathroom, there’s a semisecret exit, Santa Barbara dive-bar style, and beneath pallets of booze and beer, there’s a fireplace, long bricked up, painted over, and forgotten. It might have been a rooming house once or a buggy-whip emporium; maybe a grocer’s or a haberdashery. The clientele who tend to congregate down at the end of the bar, there by the Golden Tee Golf video game and the bathroom, also seem to have all left a life somewhere before showing up here. I noticed a “Ladies Room” the other day, though you rarely see a woman at the Sportsman for more than a quick jolt or two, at least when it’s sunny outside.

The walk from State down to the Sportsman is as close as we get here to the rough-and-tumble commerce of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There’s a barbershop, takeout sushi factory, pastrami-slinging deli, Mexican restaurant, and smoke shop with its own wooden Native American warrior chained outside, with leather chairs, hookahs, and Playboy magazines inside. Most afternoons this hazy public den is peopled with middle-aged men telling each other preposterous lies and marveling at how complicated it is to be a man in such a world.

The Sportsman sits in near darkness. The door allows the only substantial light — everything else is beer-sign glow and repetitive jukebox pyrotechnics. The stools aren’t fixed in the floor as they should be; a loose bar stool in the wrong hands at the wrong minute can be one small pour away from a catastrophic cocktail. As always, I note the exits and formulate a plan for flight. There is the bar — still but scarred, made of Formica, and backed by perfunctory, standard wares. This is a shots-and-a-beer sort of place when it’s not the grapefruit and vodka place it appears to be this afternoon.

The door opens, and in an ambush of light, the Philosopher from Joe’s enters the Sportsman Lounge. He sits next to me in my corner by the trivia machine, orders, unerringly, the cocktail of the day, and then launches a salvo over the conversational bow: “Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, The Great Gatsby, and Death of a Salesman.”

I parried and ducked with other Highlights of American Letters. “I’ll take,” I said, “The Nick Adams Stories, East of Eden, The Bell Jar, the Declaration of Independence, and Hwy 61 Revisited.”

His hair was dyed like Mubarak, maybe Gaddafi. He was wearing a New England Patriots jersey and a Dodgers hat. He tried, “Copernicus, Aristotle, Hammurabi, Moses, Amerigo Vespucci,” and I came up with “Leeuwenhoek, Mendel, Einstein, Plato, and Newton.” Then I presented the theory that he and I were merely showing off and that we should maybe have a real conversation, “You know,” I said, “with parts of speech and all that.” And then, as is often the case with these intellectual marauders, he vanished out the semisecret exit by the defeated fireplace, and I was left with house red on ice and the dubious comforts, culs-de-sac, and back alleys of the New York Times.

The bartender was leading the golf tournament back there in the gloom and took no notice of the madman who had left his cocktail undrunk. “Undrunk,” I thought, and then I missed my itinerant philosopher and how we might have regaled each other with words that aren’t but should be. On the sweaty napkin beneath his drink, he’d written: “The Cliff Room, The Mesa, Thursday.”

We, the retired, those turned out to pasture willingly or dragging our heels, need the occasional break from leisure. I have decided not to be a greeter at Walmart or the codger who delivers sandwiches to the cubicles in office formicaries filled with the young and not so young who can’t find the time to step out for a sub at Jersey Mike’s on State. No, it appears that, for a while anyway, I have a weird phantom to chase through the gin joints of the American Riviera.

“The game,” as Holmes would say to Watson, “is afoot.” I checked out the bus route to the Mesa because I’ve sold my car and didn’t want to be late.

To be continued…


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