I call it a bar more than a lounge. I’m not sure if what’s-his-name, the guy who owns it (I should know that name, just having an intermediate senior lapse) gave it the name, The Last Mile. And I guess from the name you know it’s not primarily a restaurant or sandwich bar or ice cream shop. Maybe a funeral parlor. LOL. The Last Mile — chills.
I stopped by in the daytime. As I told you before, it’s right on the East Boston/Revere line, not a whole lot more then one mile from the airport, 1887 miles from the farthest place visited by any of its patrons in its century existence. ( I just remembered where the name came from: the original owner had once–before his commutation and aquittal based on new evidence in a murder case back in the early 1900s — sat for a while on death row at Sing-Sing, or was it the old state prison at Charlestown? I think it was a New York crime, hence, Sing-Sing. Hence the “Last Mile” name.)
There was an Australian WWII vet who used to be a regular who fought in Borneo in 1945, the last campaign of the Pacific War. They once wrote a tribute to him on the wall: Aussie Phil Wantuck came 1887 miles for a drink at The Last Mile when it was over over there. And, of course, there was a picture of him, a substantial, golden-haired, moustachioed man, smiling and holding a pilsner of Narragansett lager (he drank cheap) in the Last Mile doorway. I think he died in 1992, but his kid used to come in here and when I was still drinking I spent a night chatting with him at the bar right up til closing time. He was a pressman at the Boston Herald. Haven’t seen him in a while. A fun guy to talk to with lots of stories about his father.
This was a rare daytime stop for me, just thinking I’d catch up with regulars like Jackie the Crow and Stickie Sammartino and the daytime bartender Tashtego Silva, a full-blooded Wompanoag Indian. I met Kenny Foy coming out the door, smiled and shook hands with him. Kenny is Chinese American and he’s always having to smile through a session of rabid international political sound and fury from Jimmy “Jibberish” Jamin, a drunk who starts talking politics, loudly, the second he walks in the door. Kenny warned me that the place was unusually busy because the women who attend the dance and aerobics class down the street decided to drop in that day, about seven of them.
Sure enough, I walked in and Tash Silva at the bar is having to try to figure out the exotic drinks they were ordering. He was too proud to have them stand at the bar coaching him with the jigger and shaker, so he had the Mr. Boston barside handbook out, first time I’d seen that in years. (Deano, the night bartender, know how to make all those silly concoctions. Tash looked like a guy sneaking studious glances at his lawbooks while on the job.)
It looked like the a few guys from the book club were there, too. They usually meet up in the evening up the street on Wednesday nights, either at the branch library, under cover at Revere Beach or at one of the guy’s apartments around the corner. But I guess a few of them had evening conflicts, so they met for lunch — and there they were. But a guy I don’t see that often, Bill Kirner, a younger member, told me they’d paused reading some novel they were working on to read a book about mass shootings. “Topical,” said Bill, ” guy’s a lefty who wrote it but he has some good ideas about seeing these things coming, figuring out who the next perpetrator might be, at home or on the block, if you know what I mean.”
That caused me to take a quick look around the room in paranoid fashion. These were regulars, none looking morose or suspect. The women had just been dancing and exercising and showered off and looked clean-smelling and at peace. I’m a firm believer that anybody who dances and showers works off any desire to shoot anybody. But then, I’m an idealist.
I realized there was a guy in the corner, sitting at a table by himself near the old, still-working relic of a phone booth ( that thing’s going to be in a museum someday). I believe his name is Joe. That’s all I know. I’m on good enough terms with Tash Silva, believe it or not, to go behind the bar, pour myself some tonic, spike it with a splash of cranberry juice, drop a lime wedge in it and go find myself a seat. I chose to go join this Joe. But first I said,
“It’s Joe, right? Mind if a join ya?”
(I knew from past experience that he — and nobody — comes to The Last Mile excpecting to sit alone.) Joe, didn’t say a word, just pulled out the seat near the phone booth for me. That’s the best way ever to be affirmed in a request to give somebody company. If they give a weak smile and say, “sure” or “no problem,” I feel less welcomed.
We chatted about stuff for a minute. He works for a sheet metal shop in Lynn. He knows I go around calling myself a writer. Then he told me what was bothering him.
“I just came back from a visit down in the Florida Panhandle. Real peaceful down there, not like Miami or Tampa. Quiet, remote, peaceful.”
“Great, I said. And now you’re back at work and back in the madhouse?”
Joe ( I think his last name is Cassidy) got real thoughtful and, yes, morose.
“It was the kind of peace that makes you hear noises more, out in the world and in your head. Down there, the birds — chickaees, house wrens, cardinals, doves, and this woodpecker — funny as hell, coming back and back for the seed at my friend’s feeder. And you could see out into this little quiet bay and the house was at a point in a little canal among other houses up on stilts to protect them from hurricane surges. I mean there were boats lifted out of the water but ready for the summer, thought you can boat year round down there. You could fish right off the dock, too. I caught a nice redfish, let it go, but snapped a picture. What to see it?”
He pulled the picture out of a breast pocket. I looked at it. Very nice fish, probably fourteen inches.
“How do you know these people?”
“Children — grown children — of a guy I worked with when I first started at the shop. We used to fish together, boat together off Nahant.”
He got quiet again, like he was down there on the Panhandel again in all that peace.
“The only sound was some hammering from people buiding there dream house across the canal. You build solid stuff down there, but there’s always the hurricanes. They can wreck that area. The Gulf was sparkling down the street, but still, there’s that danger.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s a danger.”
Now he was really quiet, didn’t say anything for a fu ll minute. Then:
“There were no storms, not even a cloud. My plane flew into Logan and I look out the window. Okay, the weather is nice here, too. Spring is here, I guess. But it was crowded and ordinary-looking down below.I swear I saw a patch of snow.”
He looked at me. I guess I probably looked ordinary, too.
“You know — your Greg, right?”
“Well, it’s not about geography, Greg. There are lots of peaceful places — the mountains, the seashore, by the Gulf or by a lake. Down the Cape — the parts that aren’t built up which are few and far between — or, at the right time of day, right in the Boston Public Garden. No, it’s how I need peace and right now I have no peace, no matter where I am. I’ve been in a relationship over forty years, never married, kind of feel like we took each other hostage.” He looked at me. “You’re a single guy, right?”
“I’m with somebody, but I’m not with them, if you know what I mean. And suddenly her and me — we’re having a little trouble hearing and we yell at each other even when we’re not mad at each other.”
“Did your…’friend’ go with you to the Panhandle?”
“Yeah. And she’s a good person, don’t get me wrong. In fact she knows these people we were staying with better than me. Much better. Everybody was great. They made food. I tried to help but mainly they just treated me like a king. Treated her like she was a queen. But I felt like a slave just the same. A slave to conditons I made in my life. Only when I got off by myself, or when I was with them but NOT really with them and they let me be quiet and kind of alone, maybe picking up a magazine, or –I don’t drink like you it got to be a problem — but I might have had a glass of water or ice tea or a ginger ale. I was at peace.
“But it was just the birds and me, and the wind chime. And the wind, and the view of the water. And I could imagine being free.”
He smiled, then laughed. “Like the birds.” He laughed some more.
I said what was on my mind after a minute when he was quiet again. “You sound depressed.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Nothing serious. Nothing you medicate. Just that longing for freedom. Peace and freedom, like people feel after a war and that they can’t feel while they’re in the war. I’ll feel better, and maybe feel a little of that freedom when I get back to work tomorrow, get working in the noise and with the sheet metal. Sometimes noise is good, I guess. And maybe I get talking with the other guys and the few women who work there. It’s a good place. We work hard. It keeps my mind and my hands occupied. You don’t like it, though, when the only way you can be at peace and feel free is when you’re isolated by noise.”
He looked out toward the door, which Tash, breaking away from his complicated bartender duties, had just propped open. It wasn’t warm enough for air conditioning, but an open door might let in an April breeze with the car exhaust from the fairly busy street out there. Of course, it’s dark in The Last Mile.
Now I said something that was on my mind.
“Joe, it’s a real nice day out. Spring time. Why do you suppose guys like us or any of the people here come into a dark place like this in the middle of a nice day full of sunshine?”
“Well, I’m not staying long.”
“Neither am I.”
Joe turned thoughtful. “But it’s company I guess. Human voices,” he said. “Close quarters. This place is intimate in its own crazy way.”
“That must be it, I said. And it’s familiar.”
“But I have this vision of peace,” Joe said. “Nature — maybe a place where God can talk to me.”
I took that in.”That’s heavy,” I said. “I suppose it’s a little like a church in here. Or a chapel.”
“Yeah, I guess. Or maybe it’s not heaviness of it, it’s the lightness. And the company, the voices make a kind of — light. Light in the darkness.” He looked at me. ” What are you drinking?”
“Tonic, a little cranberry, bit of lime.”
“Nice. Sounds refreshing. Can I guy you another one? ”
“No. No thanks. I’ve got to be going after this.”
It was then I noticed he was drinking ice water. Tash had given him one of those blue transparent cups. “Just water for you, eh,” I said.
“Life,” Joe said. Water is life.”
We left it at that — and left about the same time.Outside I watched him walk off toward his car. It was noisy. I walked all the way up to Revere Beach, each street a little quieter as I approached the cold April sand and the surf. I felt like I needed to see water. And maybe find some more peace up there, even without human voices. Just the gulls and me. Those gulls, I figured, were distant cousins to all those wild birds down in the Panhandle that became Joe’s friends. I’m sure there are gulls and sandpipers down there.
As you can see, my occasional bar friend Joe had got me to thinking — about everything; mainly about how you hold onto a vision of peace. How to find that peace.
I guess you pray for it.