Bar offers a brief respite from reality

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 08, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The young woman behind the counter, holding a cigarette in one hand and somebody's beer in the other, says the drinkers start coming here to the Southway Bar at 6 in the morning.

"Night shift workers coming off the job?" somebody asks.

"Some of them," she says softly. "Some are just people who get out of bed and need a drink right away."

The bar's on Cross Street, across from the market. Outside, rain is falling out of a dreary morning sky, soaking wads of vagrant trash lying in the street. Inside, it feels like people seeking shelter from reality.

They're mostly drinking beer at 11 in the morning. The woman behind the counter, wearing an Ocean City sweat shirt and tight jeans, moves quickly enough to serve three customers at once without anyone getting restless.

"Too high," somebody calls out.

"You don't know nothing about cars," somebody else says.

It's a couple of guys with their eyes on a television set perched atop a shelf. The television's showing a program called "The Price Is Right," and some blond kid who looks like a

surfer has been called out of the audience to bid on a shiny new automobile.

In the Southway Bar on Cross Street, it's a vision of the American dream that's fading from view. Somebody ought to clear up the focus. In the year 1991, the dream exists in spite of itself.

In Washington, the man in the White House grapples with a recession he insists does not exist.

In Annapolis, the man in the State House says he's cutting into raw bone in the Maryland budget.

In City Hall, the man in the mayor's office is closing libraries in the city he once solemnly devoted to the reading of books.

And on Cross Street, the people at the bar are pulling for the surfer as though he's pinch-hitting for them.

"Higher," cries a guy in a lumberjack shirt, as if the car could be his if only the surfer used his head.

"Now you take jobs," says a woman two seats away. She's ignoring the surfer on the TV. Surfers exist in another world, and now, in the current climate, so does the chance of a brand-new car.

"It used to be," she says, "there was always a job this time of year. You know, the stores were hiring for the big Christmas push and all. It's a little extra cash. But I went down to the harbor DTC three straight days, and there wasn't nobody hiring. I went up Charles Street -- wasn't nobody hiring there either."

"The big thing now," says a woman nearby, throwing back a Budweiser, "is the welfare cuts."

Heads nod in agreement at the bar. This is a working-class tavern, a place for people who never felt comfortable with welfare and food stamps and such. Handouts were for others. Around here, there was pride in the getting and the holding of a job.

"Now me," says the woman with the Budweiser, "I can't work full-time no more, not with my diabetes. But the government just cut me from $81 a month to $58, so I have to cheat a little."

"That's right," says a woman next to her.

"See, I cheat by baby-sitting," says the first woman. "And that gives me a little money to make up for the cuts in the government. But don't put that in the paper, hon. I'll have all the government people down here trying to take away my $58."

In Washington, George Bush talks of the possibility of cutting taxes, although mainly for rich people. This, it is said, would stimulate the economy. But in Annapolis, William Donald Schaefer talks of raising taxes. This, we are told, also would help the economy.

Can both be correct? You give with one hand and take with another, and doesn't everything get canceled out in the end result.

A decade ago, Ronald Reagan was cutting taxes at the federal level and simultaneously cutting funds to localities. So the localities had to raise taxes. What's the good of one if it necessitates the other?

"Oh, everybody blames Schaefer for the economy," says a man with one hand wrapped around a shot glass. "Him with his big spending and all."

But there doesn't seem to be much heart for Schaefer-bashing in the bar. It's as if people have momentarily exhausted their anger at the governor, or they've seen him in the news and watched a man simply overcome by events, or they've figured out that it's not all his fault.

Schaefer's view has always been firm: Government is there to help people. Bush, and the man who preceded him the White House, have always talked of getting government off of people's backs. Somewhere between the two views is a workable theory, but we have all these brilliant leaders of government today who haven't a clue how to find it.

"Now," says the woman behind the bar, "you hear more people talking about Bush. During the war, he was everybody's hero. But now the news come on the TV, and people will say things."

"What kind of things?" she is asked.

"Oh, you can't say them in the paper," she says. "They blame Bush for the troubles."

"Nah, not Bush," says a man nearby. "They blame Reagan. He started all this trouble, and Bush has just taken it over."

The bar is quiet for a moment, and then somebody talks about hanging Christmas decorations. The rain is still spilling outside, and the sky is dark. On the television, the kid who looks like a surfer has just won himself a brand-new car.

Everybody in the bar should be happy for him, but nobody seems to have the heart for it.

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