Ten years ago today I walked into Charly's Bar to run a solo shift for the first time. It was a Wednesday, and I had been training for the previous two nights with Jed, who promised he'd make an appearance that evening to hold my hand, should I require hand-holding. That evening was also the first time I met Charlie Gibson, who had put the bar manager Cindy in charge of hiring me. He was drinking a gin and tonic at a barstool right in front of the drink well, and though he was kind and unintimidating, I was nervous. I was 22, and had only been bartending for a year. I'd walked out on my previous job as a cocktail waitress at Black Angus, though I was in the process of paying off my DUI fines at the time, and I knew I needed this job. I knew I was fortunate that the employer took a chance on me, an unemployed, under-experienced 22-year old girl who may or may not have had a drinking problem at the time.
In those days I was known for two things: Long, thick dark hair and naivate. Though when I first started at Charly's I was already recovering from some trauma, not the least of which was the still-raw feelings I was wrestling from having been raped by two aggressors less than 3 years earlier, I found that doe-eyed innocence served as the best schtick for me among my fellow-bartenders. It was a persona that was missing among the staff, the niche that needed to be filled. I wasn't cool like Jed, I wasn't busty like Cindy, and I wasn't old like Charlotte with a gravely smoker's voice, and so feigned innocence it was.
That night Sean Talbert walked in at about 11:00 p.m. Although I had served Sean for the past two nights during my training with Jed and Sean drank the most popular call, Bud Light, I struggled to remember on my first shift what his regular drink was and had to be reminded. He sat at the end of the bar near the game machine, where I would see him many times in the next year, and where, after his suicide, I would be able to imagine him most vividly.
Some might say it took courage to return to work at Charly's after I discovered Sean's dead body in his apartment nearly one year later. The place for me was drenched in his memory. But I couldn't stay away. I didn't want to stay away. I wanted to be where we first met, I wanted to be where we had made so many memories. I wanted to be where, when I was alone at closing time, I could still feel his presence. I wanted him to haunt me because in my guilt I felt I had to be haunted by him. I didn't think I deserved to move on, even when I did.
And I did move on. I pushed myself through the rest of the year at CSUB. I continued to bring my homework to the bar during my shifts, five of them per week amounting to 40 hours a week, to work on during the down time. Customers quizzed me on French vocabulary and encouraged me to keep moving forward. They urged me to smile, even when I didn't want to. They delighted in my updates as I applied to law school. My first acceptance letter, from Whittier Law School where I ultimately attended, was circulated proudly among the patrons. It was a group accomplishment.
Sometime after I received that admissions acceptance, Marcos Lopez walked into my bar on his first date with a girl. There was nothing eventful about the evening for me, that I can recall, and even for Marcos that first date never amounted to much more, until years later when we encountered each other again on Match.com.
In the years following that first meeting with Marcos I went to law school, returning to Charly's which by then had been sold to Rick and Lynn Wright and become The Wright Place during the summer and during winter breaks to fill in shifts here and there. After having my offer with the Public Defender's Office revoked due to a county hiring freeze, Rick and Lynn let me come back to work as a floater. I took on shifts as they came up, and did some legal practice by day.
Shortly after I was married I learned I was pregnant, and at two weeks proudly made the announcement to Rick and Lynn and patrons of the bar. I endured the inquiries from patrons after I miscarried 7 weeks later. I held the secret of my second pregnancy until I thought I had passed the danger zone, at which point I announced the impending birth of what I knew in my heart was my son. I'd intended to leave the gender to be a surprise, and so it must have come as some surprise to the patrons who received my letter in March, introducing my son Gabriel to them. Of course, the bigger surprise was revalation of Gabriel's birth defect and fatal prognosis. Still, when I returned to The Wright Place after the great reveal I was met with love, support, encouragement and kindness. My customers, who over the years had grown to be my friends, watched my belly grow and waited with anticipation on the day that I delivered. They rejoiced with me in my son's birth. They helped fill a church and cried with me over his death. They allowed me to continue serving them even when I wasn't happy, even when I couldn't listen to their problems because I was drowning in my own. When I needed it they made me feel the way a bartender rarely gets to feel - Like I mattered more than the customer. They made me feel like I could make it through this, even when I thought I couldn't. They reminded me how I'd survived Sean's death years before. They reminded me that I would survive even the divorce that followed Gabriel's death.
Gabriel lived for ten days, and in that ten days he changed the world in a way that few people get to do in a much longer lifetime. I've been in and out of Charly's/The Wright Place for ten years, and those ten years have shaped my world.
My schtick has changed. No one would mistake me for naive anymore. My hair is a little thinner, my skin a little thicker. I'm now more than a persona - I'm truly the bartending lawyer with strength, intelligence, and endurance.
Sean's ghost still sits on a barstool at the end of the bar. Gabriel's picture is displayed prominently above the register. Sometimes I stumble across pictures from my bachelorette party, when I was still so full of hope in my upcoming marriage. The memories of the last ten years are still very clear in my mind.
But I continue to make new memories. I find myself behind that same bar, pregnant again with my rainbow baby. The love of my life and I find ourselves sitting on those same old bar stools on the occassional Friday night. When I am there I am surrounded by the people I may never have met but for a little dive bar in East Bakersfield, but who have become the friends that have carried me through the most difficult times in my life and who I am pleased to celebrate this new phase of my life with. After a decade of major life changes, some things remain the same. That little hole in the wall is more than just a neighborhood bar. It's the place that built me.