I always considered myself to be smart. It’s something that came naturally to me as a child. In school, I was ‘that guy’ who wouldn’t study a lick and still ace the test. I had the capacity for knowledge, but I rarely held on to it. A lot of students I imagine have a similar experience; take a test and then remember nothing as soon as it’s over. Only I could remember, I just chose not to. Why fill my brain with references to Mary and Percy Shelley when I could fill it with Marge and Homer Simpson instead? As far as I was concerned, television was my renaissance. It filled me up in ways that no Cliff-Notes classic ever could. It stills does. Conversations with friends aren’t philosophical, they’re pop-culture trivia. The pace of quotes flying around the room could power a small neighborhood with the energy they generate. That energy only outpaced by trying to find something that’s exists only for you in that moment. Something your friends haven’t watched yet. Waiting to hear those three words that mean victory.
Please, no spoilers.
But I do have a spoiler, so consider this your spoiler alert. As much as I revel in the television driven tête-à-tête, I fantasize of transcending being ‘smart’—which knowing television doesn’t even qualify—into an intellectual. Oh, I long for sipping on coffee and discussing surrealism as a reaction to the times or Flannery O’Conner’s penchant for spelling out common vernacular to make every word count. But, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. It’s a romanticized notion of that world at best. I’m not even sure people still talk that way, or ever did. It just seems like we should. Like I should. Maybe it’s because I watched Dead Poet’s Society for the first time this year, or maybe I’m finally tired of wasting the brain my mommy, daddy, and Jesus gave to me. Maybe I just need a drink.
The bar was dark and filled sparingly with both kinds of men. Men that have beards and men that have beards on purpose. It was my favorite place to go when I needed to think. It was a hole in the wall with no sign at the entrance to let you know you’ve arrived. Despite the other half dozen or so patrons, I was pretty sure I was the only person who knew about this place. Even the bartenders seemed unaware of its existence. Though with a couple of gentle reminders, it usually came back to them. The reminders worked even better when accompanied by a couple dollar bills. Coins were less effective.
As a rule I sit at the bar alone. Not in the depressing, alcoholic way—I hope. But, more in the way that introverts do things alone. It’s recharging. Small talk is the opposite of recharging, whatever that word would be. Again, I’m not an intellectual. Unfortunately, not everyone follows by my rules, despite how many times I write my congressman to make it official. On this day, one rule-breaker sat right down next to me. A real chatty Cathy, as the kids say. He was clean cut, and didn’t smell like he belonged in a bar at this time of day. Before I even knew what was going on, he had me sharing where I worked, where I grew up, and how I was feeling about the temperature being below average for this time of year. I knew all of the answers, so it wasn’t a problem of difficulty. It was simply a problem of ugh, why is this happening? We made it pretty deep into the small talk playbook before I realized I hadn’t even gotten his name. And, he hadn’t gotten his drink.
“I’m sorry for asking so late in the game, but what’s your name, man?”
“H.G. Wells? That’s fun. What kind of drink are you waiting on?”
“The kind that’ll soak into my veins”
I raised my hand to signal to the bartender. The universal sign of ‘a little help here!’ Although universal, it appeared not to work. I adapted my style to try to match the local dialect and pretty soon I had a fresh craft beer for me and a neat two-fingers of scotch for H.G. I took a sip, wiped the excess moisture from my mouth, looked up and found myself in a booth, surrounded by six more bar patrons who have joined the conversation. Not just joined, but owning the conversation; howling and having a good time.
I don’t know how I got there. It was just a strange passage of time, not unlike something you would find in a Wellsian piece of science fiction. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think I had run into the true H.G. Wells for a split second. But, I’m pretty sure it can be better explained by the number of empty glasses in front of me. Those also resulting from the time jump, I imagine.
This group in front of me was something to behold. All chatting like they’ve been doing this together for years. Interrupting each other to make their points heard and sarcastically referencing each other’s perceived missteps. Sharing stories and barbs just like I was used to with my friends. As I leaned in to listen and join in on what I assumed was an analysis of the finale episode of Mad Men I heard it. I heard a literary reference. Not the kind of literary reference I would make, but the kind of reference you could only make if you read page 89. And, understood page 89. I needed to be a part of this group.
I was a part of this group.
I remained silent for what was probably 12 to 13 minutes. A true baker’s dozen of minutes, which might as well be a conversational infinity. I was waiting for a moment to showcase the literary prowess I only pretend to have. It was harder to find that moment than I anticipated. While I waited, a nice wavy-haired bohemian woman began complaining about her parents. She may have been embellishing a bit by invoking Hamlet, but I decided this was a game I could actually play.
“My mother is a fish” I said.
In that moment, I would have traded anything to have that baker’s dozen minute feeling back because this was a whole new eternity. Waiting for a response. Waiting for validation. The room was either silent or I was having a stroke. I was sort of hoping for the stroke at this point. But, just as the sweet release of death was pulling me in the clouds broke and I heard what sounded like laughter. Then a curly-haired man in a professor’s costume jumped on top of my reference to add his own. The race was back on. He had great parents, but he had a wife who he referred to as Frankenstein’s monster. It was a little lazy, I thought, but when I found out she was sitting at the table too it felt a little bolder. She just took it in stride, held her hand over the table’s candle and groaned “fire bad.” This kind of conversation continued for hours. Back and forth. Learning so much about these people without directly talking about anything. Nobody said they grew up in New York, but it was crystal clear in the way they talked of Fitzgerald. Family life, childhood, political views…it all seeped through the literary chatter like honey through the comb.
Where once seconds felt like years, now hours felt like seconds. My new friends, of whom I had only officially met one as far I remember, began closing up their tabs and putting on their coats and way-too-cool hats. H.G. settled up my bill, and I couldn’t thank him enough. For everything. I was an introvert refreshed by social interaction. A mythical creature thought to only exist in the murky lakes of Scotland. I headed to the bathroom because even if I didn’t remember the drinks, my body wasn’t so easily fooled. When I got back, the table had been cleared off and my new family gone. The bar was quiet except for a bro putting some dollar bills into the juke box. Presumably to hear Journey or The Band depending on what kind of bro we were dealing with.
I was left alone. The way I had come. It was time to just hop on the bus, go home, and wake up in the morning presumably like this never even happened. I got my taste at least. It was nice, and actually quite familiar in tone and style to my own group of friends. Perhaps Colbert and Stewart were worthy of being discussed in the way Twain and Swift were before them. Or maybe I’m just talking to myself at a bus stop. I’m definitely talking to myself at a bus stop. The girl with the purple iPhone case and long dark hair waiting for her bus must think I’m a lunatic.
What’s that book she’s reading?