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“You know, I could even kill you with an ice cube.”

So said Doug to a visibly on-edge Mike and Kevin, and God knows, they didn’t doubt it. Doug was an enormous native Canadian, First Nations, though which, I don’t think I knew – Mi’gmaw, maybe, but that’s just a guess. Was he a law student? That seems unlikely, but after 35 years or so, it’s hard to remember, except he had a record, and that suggests that no, he wasn’t vying for admission to the Bar. He was quite happy to tell you about his criminal history, actually, and it wasn’t about stealing change from a parking meter, either. Years ago, he had killed some idiot in a bar fight, his story was that the guy pulled a knife on him, so Doug relieved him of his weapon and used it to pretty much clean the moron like a fish. Mike, looking upwards at the underside of Doug’s chin, was trying to imagine what special mix of alcohol and innate stupidity could lead even the dimmest dim bulb to try his luck and pull a knife on Doug. He did the guy a favour, thought Mike, using the knife to do him in like that, it was a clean death. A soldier’s death. He might just as easily have pulled the silly bastard’s head out by the roots.

Doug usually didn’t like to talk about what prison time was like. They sure as shit weren’t bringing it up.

This evening, Doug was somewhere on the continuum between happy-go-lucky and murderous rage, and the boys were doing their best to be agreeable and nudge him in the right attitudinal direction. If it went sideways, all the plausible scenarios looked a bit grim. Doug looked like he’d be pretty much impervious to the baseball bat that was supposed to be the Domus barman’s last line of active defence. Actually, he looked as if you’d have only a faint hope of slowing him down with small arms fire. Maybe, a few hours after he was through ripping you to pieces, he’d get a nasty infection from the 5 rounds you managed to squeeze off before he shoved the gun up your ass. Kevin was wondering how fast you could possibly put the wooden blast shields in place, and how long it would take Doug to punch through them if you could.

The wild card, the potential derangement factor, was the basement’s low ceiling, which seemed a little lower every semester, as the back half of the building kept subsiding. The top of Doug’s head was right up against it. With the supporting beams lower still, and poor light and copious beer consumption dulling reflexes and depth perception, it was all too likely that even a fellow of ordinary height could suffer one of those jarring blows to the head that makes everybody in the bar gasp and wince. Lots of people banged their pumpkins. If it was somebody you didn’t like, it could be kind of funny, some B-Comm A-hole would bound down the stairs and make for the bar, and clonk, there’d be this sound like the combination of a baseball bat hitting a tree trunk and somebody slapping a honeydew melon with the palm of his hand. Ouch. Honestly, you could knock yourself cross-eyed, really brain yourself, and if a guy was drunk enough he might even do it repeatedly, return from the washroom and thwunk, Jesus, he wouldn’t have done that again on purpose for $500,000, and here he was doing it for free. We used to worry about bar fights, but really, we were far more likely to need the first responders for some poor doofus who’d concussed himself right out of the starting lineup.

Tonight, that diabolical low ceiling looked good to spark off something that’d end with both Mike and Kevin on a slab. Doug liked his liquor, he liked it a lot, and he liked a lot of it. He wasn’t, sadly, one of those mellow drunks who’d just sort of slump there grinning at you. He was more inclined to get a bit testy, let’s say, and this was a tendency that was now being mightily exacerbated by the number of times Doug kept banging his noggin on the beam behind him, and the thick upper frame of the bar enclosure in front of him. It was just too low on all sides. The bar counter sat just above his waist, and from inside the canteen-like space, Mike and Kevin often lost sight of his forehead. Time and again, Doug would get animated over some unhappy memory or other, lean forward for emphasis, and bonk. Shit. This made Doug angry. You really can’t get a good idea from my poor powers of description just how frightening an angry Doug could be.

After each surprising blow, Doug would clench his jaw, and will himself to maintain his composure. He had a story he wanted to tell, and he couldn’t do that and tear the place off its foundation at the same time. You could almost hear his inner monologue as he talked himself down. Steady boy. Take a breath.

There were things to get off his chest. To begin with, he was sorry about that mess in the bar, you know, the poor slob he killed, but really, what did the idiot expect? Who pulls a knife on you out of the blue like that? Would you? It was all instinct after that, all muscle memory, his training kicked in and he disarmed his attacker and, you know, neutralized the threat. That’s what you were supposed to do, shit, how would anybody else react after all that intensive close-quarter combat drill? Poor dumb fuck never had a chance, because Christ, it had taken a long time to get trained in that stuff, and you never forgot your training, no sir, that was the point, it was like forgetting how to walk, you didn’t even think, you just did it.

Er…training? Doug looked at them across the bar, a little befuddled, maybe a little cross, like of course they were supposed to know what he meant. Kevin cursed himself silently for asking.

Bonk. Another bang to the head. Another tooth-clenching pause. “That makes me so mad”, said Doug, grimacing, everything clenched. In the cartoons, this is where Daffy, standing in Kevin’s shoes, says something like “mother”.

Head shake. Oh yeah – training, yeah, he was a veteran, he’d been in the army, the Canadian Army – sorry, the Land Element of Mobile Command. He reeled off the bases where he’d been stationed, the various combat skills he’d been taught, his gripes about the day-to-day drudgery and grinding routines of military life. Mike had served a stint in the Militia, and Doug sounded like the real deal to him. Yet the story that emerged was a stunner – coming from anyone else, you’d snort “sure, Jack”, which, you will understand, was not what Mike or Kevin were going to say just now. Best to just listen, and they did so with increasing fascination.

Doug, you see, had been part of something he wasn’t really supposed to talk about. Special forces shit, black ops, real secret; he was a specialist in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency. He’d been to Viet Nam, part of a joint mission with the Americans back in the late sixties. For a while he was in-country, didn’t see a lot of combat, but he’d been around. He was there mainly to learn. And he’d been taught dozens of ways to kill, quickly, efficiently, silently, with whatever was handy, his bare hands if need be. He could bash in your head with whatever was handy, no problem. Or cut your jugular with a pointed stick. Shit, almost anything could be used to obstruct somebody’s windpipe, if you could pry open his mouth and shove it in there – an ice cube, say. There were lots of special martial arts type moves you could pull too, snap a guy’s neck like balsa wood – hey, did Kevin want to see one?

KA-BONK. “ Jesus Christ, that makes me sooo mad!!”.

I don’t know how long this went on. A while. Then a while longer. There were moments of something close to terror, and moments of great relief, until the ride finally came to an end. It probably sounds implausible at this point, but Mike and Kevin both lived through the night, much as you might weather a hurricane. You can imagine their sense of deliverance; eventually, Doug just shambled off, and probably was never going to kill them at all, so long as they didn’t do anything that would trigger the training. We had no idea what to make of his story. I wondered about it for years after, they told me that it just didn’t seem like Doug was making anything up. Recently, I became curious again and found this:

Maybe Doug had been on the level.

OK, so maybe listening to all the different, essentially effortless ways in which you could be extinguished in close combat is an extreme example, the far end of the spectrum of possibilities facing a Domus bartender at the start of a shift, but that sort of thing was never quite beyond the realm. Seriously, you could never really rule anything out. The drunks who weren’t members, who simply arrived, were apt to get all stroppy if you tried to cut them off, or get them to pay for their drinks when they didn’t feel like it. You  could be off to the races in no time. There was almost always some sort of hassle, some level of fracas in the offing, you developed a sense for it, you could almost feel the millibars of pressure increase as the night wore on, and people became increasingly frustrated.

Frustrated about what? Oh, maybe the bartenders were ignoring you, they tended to do that for long stretches, sometimes just because they were having their own fun back there, sometimes to make a point. Maybe one of them scowled at you for being a lousy tipper (TIPS IS ALL WE GET, it said clearly on the sign behind the bar – buddy, you can’t read?). Maybe some girl or another left you standing there with your dick in your hand, brutally rebuffed. Maybe you didn’t like the music – the selection was the bartender’s alone to make, one of the little perqs, and you could shout out requests all you liked, but those weren’t frigging DJs back there. Maybe if you asked nicely – Jack, our teetering hockey aficionado, knew how, he’d sidle up and say, sweet as pie, “C’mon, Sean my boy, play a little Bobby D”, which was both polite and crafty, since Dylan was Sean’s favourite.

Depending on the bartender, the music could amount to psy-war, outright punishment. Joe Rossi was famous for this. We all came to half dread, half clamour after, the next “Rossi Tape”. Some people have a grasp of the art of the mixed tape – why, I fancy myself a true master of the form – and some are apt to create musical juxtapositions so jarring as to be the aural equivalent of putting shrimp in a chocolate cake. On a Rossi tape, Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love would be programmed next to Anne Murray doing Snowbird. Sometimes the songs would stop, abruptly, and slam immediately into something utterly different and incompatible – Rossi, evidently, simply hit the pause button mid-track and changed the record. Something by the Stones might morph abruptly into the back half of a number by Peter, Paul and Mary. The Domus segue! We had one tape that switched from Donavan’s Mellow Yellow to a recording of the hypnotist Reveen putting somebody off to sleep, right in the bridge, when the horns go: Bup – BUP-BUP, Bup-BUP, bup bup bup – then a jump-cut to the sonorous voice saying “You are getting sleepier and sleepier…” In modern parlance, we had weaponized the cassette deck.

A constant favourite with staff was Sinatra’s version of New York New York. The Clash/Ramones mixed-tape would get yanked and replaced by the silver-piped stylings of the Chairman of the Board, or – honestly, here, no foolin’ – something by Dean Martin. Another number in heavy rotation was The Rodeo Song, by I couldn’t frigging tell you who, which went:

Here comes Johnny

With his pecker in his hand

He’s a one-ball man

And he’s off to the Rodeo…

 …accompanied by country and western twangy guitars and some good down-home fiddle playin’. The chorus went something like:

It’s allemande left

And allemande right

C’mon ya fuckin’ dummy

Get your right step right

Get off the stage you goddam goof

Get off

Well piss me off {interject fiddle riff}

Fuckin’ jerk {same}

He gets on my nerves

This being an age of endless beauty and wonder, you can of course find a version on YouTube. Enjoy!

So put that on real loud at three in the morning, ignore the plaintive cries for more beer and a different song, and observe what happens. Maybe something good. Maybe something bad. That’s just it. Nobody knows. Give it a try, run the scenario a few times just to see.

The downside of being a Domus bartender was that at some point, you had to stop spectating and actually tend bar, and on Thursdays it could get frantic back there. The place would be shoulder-to-shoulder, tropically hot, and so sweaty that condensation would be forming on glass and smooth surfaces. It doesn’t seem to me, in retrospect, that we had the slightest idea how many people in that dark little underground was too many, at what point it became unsafe. Just pack ‘em in, and sling the beer at them. I didn’t like Thursdays, much, actually – I never missed one, of course, but I didn’t like them. The off nights were way more entertaining, you could just lean on the bar and watch as some sort of weird anthropology experiment played out in front of you. Until Domus, I didn’t grasp that there was almost no level of high strangeness beyond the repertoire of otherwise outwardly functional people.

What do I mean?

Well, Mike was tending to a thin crowd early one Thursday night when a woman he’d never seen there before didn’t so much wander in as waft, wide-eyed and looking about the bar in apparent confusion.  She wasn’t dishevelled or anything, she wasn’t in a hospital gown, looking like she was on the lam from the nut hatch. She just acted like it, gazing around in what seemed to be dumbstruck confusion. What was this place? How did it occupy the same astral plane as she? Had it always been here? Would it always remain? Furtively, she explored the little broom closet at the foot if the stairs, a quite unappealing, lightless little space, then stole inside, and closed the door behind her. Mike wasn’t about to go in after her – for all he knew she was turning into a werewolf in there. She stayed in there for a couple of hours, until finally, the door opened a crack and she peered out at the mounting chaos. Thursday Night was starting to happen; all was becoming noise and confusion. She retreated, and shut the door again.

I can’t recall, I guess Mike must have fished her out of there at some point, or maybe she just vanished. Maybe it was a portal to another dimension, and she crossed through to return to her own time and space.

They’d play mind games with you. A pair of arty-looking young women, quite sober I’m led to believe, once paid Kevin for a couple of beers, and then began, well, a sort of little play. Really, a rehearsed and scripted scene, apparently of their own devise. “I think,” says one, “that we should thank the bartender for his service”.

“Oh I quite agree”, says the other, “but what sort of gesture would be most appropriate?”.

They both then turned to face Kevin, who figured maybe they were going to toss him a quarter, but no, they both stuck out their tongues and vibrated them quickly, up and down within their open mouths, making sounds uncannily like those of a turkey on speed – ululating, they call it. It’s common in African and Middle Eastern cultures, it says here in Wikipedia, but not so much in the basement of 1255 Seymour Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1982. It was like this:

“What do you think of that?”, they asked, upon finishing.

“I find myself at a complete loss”, responded Kevin, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Except there was no other shoe. They just skipped away, delighted with themselves. Perhaps it was the off-Broadway debut of their new one-act play: Confusing the Shit Out of the Guy Tending Bar.

Look, could I possibly make this up?

Hey, have you ever seen a bunch of Domus drunks play ping-pong? I bet you haven’t! We had a table up on the main floor. I heard some ruckus coming through the floor into the basement, and went upstairs to find a couple of drunks standing on chairs, taking swan dives onto the thing, breaking it irreparably. When you’re good and loaded, trying to keep track of that little white ball was a real pain in the ass, inevitably it rolled under some couch or other, and I guess at that point you could play Sissy-Boy-Slap-Party with the paddles, but this – now this was fun. Australian rules ping-pong! Dig it!

Meanwhile, who could predict what child of the night might arrive unannounced? Jerry, one of our house managers who lived upstairs – oh yes, you could live there, too, there were a couple of apartments upstairs, it was a real time-saver, you just crawled up there on all fours at the end of the night, and stumbled back down to the bar to start another cycle the next morning – anyway, Jerry was crawling back into his lair one night when he found a strange woman just standing in his kitchen, fridge door open, rummaging around and grabbing some left over pizza, or Sara Lee cake or something. The front door was unlocked, so she figured it was all community property, I guess. It was best not to over-react in such situations. Just keep smiling. I think maybe she settled down for the night after that, on Jerry’s sofa maybe, which was OK, you just wedged a chair under the doorknob inside your bedroom, and likely she’d be gone by the time you woke up. It wasn’t like there was much she could break out there.

Mike, despite the long nights stretching into mornings, was actually married by the time he made bar manager, his wife was a hard-working rookie teacher, so he couldn’t avail himself of the lodgings. Kevin sure did, though, when it was his turn, and Jason too, it was all very handy.

We lived like debauched princes, really.

One thing though: if it started to get ugly, if the place needed defending, that meant you. There were no bouncers, and the Police were out of the question – that was the unspoken deal, leave the cops out of it, and God help you if they were forced to intervene. No sir, it was down to you. This was very much more than a theoretical possibility. An after-hours bar, what they might have called a “speak-easy” back in the day, was the sort of place that your average inveterate drunk just doesn’t want to leave. It’s also the sort of place where fights could erupt in the wink of an eye, but the main problem was always cleaning the place out and locking up. Not everybody was as passive as Laughing Boy, looking for a place to hide until we’d gone. Some just dug in their heels. A particular stand-out was one giant, bald-headed picnic ham in a leather vest who simply refused to go, no, he wouldn’t do it, for the very good reason, as he put it, that “I haven’t had enough fun here yet”.

Kevin, who is wiry but slight – I’d say this guy had about a foot in height and a hundred pounds of bulk on him – tried to confront him in a reasonable way, but it was soon getting heated, and somehow, through the noise and the confusion and fog of war, I became conscious of Kevin saying to the guy “You want to hit somebody? Go on and hit me then”.

WRONG THING TO SAY, KEV!  Buddy did haul off and punch him in the face. The next thing Kevin saw was Jason storm at his attacker like you would in football, and he tells me I did too, apparently the both of us, Jason mostly, ran him right off his feet and threw him down the front steps, and then there was a crowd, and threats, and people coming out of the woodwork, and noise – outdoor noise. The sort of noise that draws in campus police, who will then call the actual Police, and I don’t know how we managed to defuse the situation. I seem to recall we had leverage, because he wore glasses, which Kevin clutched in his upraised fist, threatening to break them in two. I think the guy agreed to go home if he could just have his glasses. Or was that another guy, during another stand-off? There were many, you see. It’s hard to keep them straight.

Jesus Christ, I thought to myself, you’re a Liberal Arts student. You major in Poli Sci.  What the hell was I doing filling in as goddam bouncer? But you had to, really. Sometimes there simply was nobody else. The only alternative would be to stop closing the place down every night – unthinkable.

It could get pretty scary. I was faced once with an alcoholic regular who was ready to fight tooth and nail, literally, to remain and drink, and I toyed with the idea of just locking him in and letting him have at the bar all night, but that wasn’t my call, so now what? So now I had to throw him out. Me. Sure. In the ensuing struggle, he tore the shirt right off my back, and dug at my flesh with his fingernails, and I was bleeding from long scratches all over my torso, and screaming, and found myself in a sort of delirium, with the drunk up against a wall and my forearm crushing his trachea, vowing to kill him, which I just about did. God help me. Some part of me realized that I actually was coming close to killing this almost insensate sack of guts. He was turning a little blue. I remembered reading somewhere – somehow, a rational lobe of my brain was still functioning as I screamed and strangled this bastard, who wouldn’t release his grip on my flesh – that if you put enough pressure on a guy’s throat, it wouldn’t matter if you stopped short of knocking him out, his trachea could still swell from the injury, and if you didn’t know how to intubate him, you’d lose him.

Having no real urge to commit manslaughter, I managed to get a grip on myself, stopped trying to crush his throat – I was terrified for a moment that I’d already gone too far – and wheeled him around, pushed him out the front door, and sort of tobogganed down the front steps on top of him, which was enough to break the spell. He stood up, panting, but he was OK. I made my way back inside with some haste. As I watched he stood there for a bit, and then just walked away. He was so drunk that he was veering all over the sidewalk, kicking his legs high in a weird sort of alcoholic goose step, until he vanished around a corner, and you know what? You can guess, I bet. He was back a couple of nights later. He didn’t remember me, and I guess he didn’t remember the incident either.

So much for my career as an enforcer. Oh well, at least he didn’t give me rabies.

Sean, who often pulled the Friday shift, inevitably faced similar challenges, but he was a few years older than me, had been around the track many more times, and wasn’t dumb enough to get into brawls with patrons. What, then, to do? He was actually flummoxed very late, one Saturday morning, by a bunch of Goth types who huddled in a corner and simply wouldn’t go. They simply would not, I mean, it was surreal. It was impossible to grasp what it was they imagined was going to happen. Sean tried to figure out a way to ease them out the door, and his first idea was that he could leverage the weather, since it was the dead of winter. Maybe he could encourage the Goths to leave if he made the place uncomfortable. So Sean opened up the ground level windows on both sides of the bar, and before long, it was frickin’ freezing in there, a howling arctic vortex crossed the basement between the windows. That would force them out, right?

Not really.

Sean had another bright idea. It happened that a CBC film crew had recently taken a few shots of the Domus interior for a documentary they were making called, simply, Lawyers. I don’t think much of the footage made the cut, but they’d gone to town setting the place up for filming, and one of their challenges had been lighting – it was too dark down in that basement for the cameras. So, they’d brought in these special lightbulbs, God they were bright, they almost blew fuses, they were something on the order of arc lights except they fit into ordinary light sockets. They cast an unbearably bright and incandescent storm of photons, so powerfully luminescent that it made it painful to keep your eyes open. Those Goths, huddled in the corner in the dark and cold over there, would have thoroughly dilated pupils, yes? The fierce light would surely sear their retinas, fry their brains, and force them to run, yes? Sean bustled around the basement, screwing in the special bulbs, and then AAAAAAAAAAAA – turned them all on. The blue-white light was hideous! No place was ever seedier than Domus at 4AM Saturday in the dead of winter, as illuminated by several million candlepower. That would do the trick! Between that and the cold, these frigging Goths would surely, now, scuttle away.

Or stay put.

Desperate, now, Sean unhooked one of the big pressurized CO2 canisters attached to the soda fountain. It was about the size of a scuba tank. As he hauled it out of place, he banged it repeatedly against some other empty cylinders that were lying around, and it made a piercing, clanging noise, like the bells of some church being hammered by a percussionist in the last stages of degenerative dementia. “GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT”, yelled Sean over the clanging, in the punishing cold, under the merciless un-flickering lights.

Still nothing. The Goths hunkered down. So Sean hauled the canister around the bar and opened the valve on top. A gale of high pressure CO2 struck the Goths right in their faces, there was grit blowing around, beer cups were blown off the tables, as Sean kept yelling “GET OUT! GET OUT! GETTTTT OUUUUTTTTTTT!!!!”. He was growling. He sounded almost demonic. It was scary. It certainly scared me.

The Goths, made of sterner stuff, did up their leather jackets, raised their collars, and crouched, clutching their beers. They were like penguins huddling through the long Antarctic winter, the brightest Antarctic winter that ever saw a 100 knot gale blow through, unmoving, immovable.

Sean turned off the stream of CO2, turned off the lights, closed the windows, and retired back behind the bar. He put a new tape on the stereo, and sat on his stool, face down on the counter. Sometimes, you were just whipped, plain and simple.

This entry was posted in Domus.
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