The bar was quiet. And dark. Glasses hung from the shelves overhead as the bartender aimlessly shifted from one foot to the other, slipping deeper into the familiar positions indented into the old, wooden floor. A Tom Petty song drifted aimlessly through the smoke filled haze of yellow lighting and pool cues smacking against the balls. The stools were mostly empty except a few people on the far side of the room, past the lonely tables and cranky wooden chairs exhaling in pain as overweight men crunched their way through golden beers.
It was one of those scenes out of a movie. The outsider, passing his way through Arkansas, held the attention of what seemed like the entire town as he entered into a "local's only" spot and ordered, not just a drink, but respite from the cold weather sweeping across the Midwest.
I walked through the curious stares and sat at the bar, lined with a halo of TV's filled with ESPN graphics and images of college football games which had already been played.
“Can I get you anything?” the bartender asked, not really caring what the answer might be.
“Yes please, a pint of Guinness and a menu if you don't mind.”
I could see him nodding by the way the back of his head went up and down, his black, greasy hair clinging to the sides, as he had already started on my request for a glass of beer and menu before even hearing the end of my sentence.
“Where ya from?” said the man sitting diagonally from me. He wore an unkempt blonde beard which mirrored sand on his face, a camouflage hat, a flannel shirt tucked in at the waist, and what I can only assume were dirty jeans and thick boots, as only the top half of him was visible from my seat at the bar.
“From Maryland,” I said, keeping it short as to avoid conversation. The drive had been long, and cold, and I just wanted some time to sit and think.
“Maryland, huh? Nice place. I spent some time there a while back. But only as a kid. Don't remember much of it, but what I do remember is liking it,” he stated intently, nodding his head slowly to drive home the point.
“What are ya doing here then? Elaine ain't much of a place to be,” he chuckled.
“Just passing through. I'm making my way across the country. Will be heading south from here, going through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and out to California.”
“Sounds like a nice trip.”
The bartender swiftly dropped a cardboard Coors Light coaster in-between my hands and placed a tall glass of black beer in front of me. I could see the condensation run down the glass, the cool liquid bringing a part of the outside world in. The TV lit up the entire room with pictures of football players taking a knee during the anthem before games. The story had been running around every part of the country it seemed.
“Good for them,” the man next to me said raising his glass in their honor. “I don't see what all the fuss is about. They're just protestin'. Ain't nothing any one of us wouldn't do. Or should be allowed to do. Yessir, protesting is part of being American.”
“Bunch of ungrateful fools,” the bartender whispered to no one in particular, though it was loud enough for us to hear.
“What ya mean they're ungrateful? What have they got to be grateful about?”
“How about making millions of dollars and living comfortably?” The bartender stated sharply.
“Mmmm hmmm,” was all the man said, nodding, but I couldn't tell if it was in agreement.
“Have ya ever heard of this town before?” he said, keeping his gaze on the TV. “Have ya ever heard of Elaine, Arkansas? I suspect not. But you should. Something happened here in 1919 that wasn't too good.”
“What happened?” I inquired, becoming interested now.
“Ha, I knew it. Knew you wouldn't have heard of it. Well now, back in 1919, the United States still had the practice of share-cropping. I suspect you at least have heard what share-cropping was. Well, we can just say it was an unfair practice that put people in tight spots and move on from there. Ok? Anyway, back in 1919, a group of black folks decided their unfair wages were not enough. They were being stiffed and suffering because of it. So they held a meeting, in some church around here, I can't rightly remember. And because they were constantly being harassed, they decided to arm some of them black fellas in the community and put them outside. Hearing about this, some members of the white community also began to organize. And what happens when two opposing groups organize and arm themselves? Well, surely they're going to use those arms. They began firing on each other, fighting, and killing. It became so bad the Arkansas Governor at the time called the War Department and requested troops. They came all right. They came.”
His voice trailed off into the distance as one of the highlights showed the Arkansas Razorbacks push their way into the end-zone.
“Hot damn! Those boys look good this year!” he yelled.
“Wait, what happened? That didn't seem like the end of the story,” I said.
"Oh it wasn't. I can't remember the details particularly but around 600 or so infantrymen showed up, mostly white boys, and were told by the sheriff that a black uprising was underway, due to the fighting around the church. And so the infantry rounded up any blacks they saw in the town and started killing them 'indiscriminately'... is the word. That included the women and children. Even those outside of the church who didn't want to participate. If I remember correctly it resulted in well over 200 blacks getting killed, over 100 unjustly imprisoned, and 12 executed for the public to see.”
“Are there any memorials around explaining this?”
“Not that I know of,” he calmly replied.
“Ancient history,” the bartender interjected, his face dampening into one of suspicion.
“Oh, not so ancient friend. This happened only about a hundred years ago.''
“Those players in the NFL probably don't even know about it,” he replied.
“Who said anything about the NFL? I'm just talking history here. Nothing else.”
“Yeah, well, you're saying something.”
“I'm talking history. That event happened here, in your town. And many other events happened in other places. And many of these other events happened very similar to your hometown one. That's all I'm saying. And even if I was trying to say something, what's so bad about them young guys using their platform to stand up for something they believe in?”
The bartender could not hide his disgust. Instead of arguing he decided to slide down to the other side of the bar, to an empty spot, away from the lights of the TV. He started picking up broken peanut pieces and tossing them into the blue plastic basket lined with a thin checkered paper.
“Have ya ever heard of Huey Percy Newton?” The man asked me.
“Yeah, I think so. He was a member of the Black Panther Party, right?”
“Not just a member, one of the founders. Do you know what happened to him by chance? How he died?”
I sat there blankly, trying to recall any lessons from school that would remind me of how he died but all I could think to say was, “No idea.”
“He was shot. After he tried to purchase drugs in a poor black neighborhood and it went wrong. Imagine that, a founding member of the Black Panther party killed over drugs in a black neighborhood.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked.
“And not only that, back in the 60's he was convicted of killing a man with a steak knife. Stabbed him a bunch of times until he died. Heck, the fella only served 6 months in prison for it too. Only 6 months.”
“What is your point?”
He turned his head away from the TV and for the first time I could see his entire face. His camouflage hat was pushed down over dirty-blonde hair, curly and frayed at the ends, his eyes were gray and cool, calculating everything in the room, his overgrown mustache covered his top lip creating doubt as to whether he had all his teeth intact, and his round cheeks were red, presumably from a past sun, as the days were shorter and colder now it was winter.
“No one gets away with anything.”
“I still don't see your point.”
“Let me put it to you this way. If there was one team, let's say IN THE NFL,” he said, raising his voice loud enough for the bartender to hear. “That was cheating. And I don't mean, under the table cheating. I mean in the open, everyone knows they're cheating and no one is doing a damn thing about it. That kind of cheating. How long do you think the other teams would continue to play the game with them?”
“Not long,” I replied.
“Exactly. Not long is correct. When we play sports, or any games for that matter, we go into it with an agreement that we won't cheat each other. Because, well, that wouldn't be no fun. And it would ruin the game. And it would make one team demand that the other team level the playing field. Make it fair. Just don't cheat. That seems just, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well there ya have it. That's what I'm saying. That's the point.”
“So, you're saying the playing field for the game of society needs to be leveled? We need to make it fair for everyone participating in the game?”
“Yep. But not only that. That's only half of it.”
“What's the other half?”
“Well, once we can do that, then maybe we can start treating each other correctly.”
“If the playing field is leveled. And no one is cheating. Then maybe people will start treating each other like individuals.”
“But that doesn't make sense. When teams play against each other, in a fair game of football, they're still on a team.”
“Are you going to order anything or not?” The bartender asked, returning to our section of the bar, reaching his empty hand out in order to take back the menu he had given me.
“No, not right now,” I said, gently placing the menu back into his hand.
He took it and slapped it against his leg. Turning around, he flippantly tossed it next to the cash register.
“I'm not talking about football,” the man said. “I'm talking about this country. And where it is. Everyone is on a side. And everyone believes that side speaks for everyone in the entire group. It's not good. Hasn't worked in the past. Won't work in the present. Hell, when I look at people I always try to think 'Who is this individual in front of me?' Not, 'What is it they represent? Or 'what is it they represent to me?' I want to know what they believe in, where they're from, what experiences they've had, what hurts them, what makes them happy. There are countless things I can enjoy learning from someone once I get talkin'. For example, when I talk to you, should I expect you represent everyone in the group you believe you belong to? Do those white soldiers who murdered the innocent black folks here represent your attitudes? Does Huey Newton represent every black person you've ever met? Do you speak for all people from Maryland? Hell, do you even speak for everyone in your family? I'm sure each and every one of them have separate beliefs and experiences. I don't presume to understand every belief you have just by the way you dress or the color of your damn skin. I need to know you first. Take for example that sad barkeep over there. Sulking under his Confederate colors.”
I looked down towards the other end of the bar and saw, sitting darkly behind the bartender's head hung a small Confederate flag.
“Sure, he may be racist, or prejudice, or nationalist, or all of them combined. But maybe even more so, he's bitter.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I can tell from the sour look on his face and through our short interactions, that life maybe didn't turn out the way he wanted it to. It's an air he gives off. He ain't being patriotic when he shows his feelings. It's something else. But, instead of taking responsibility for his position, he decided to deflect blame outward. Eventually landing on these NFL players, and maybe even the black community as a whole. If he were happy. If he took responsibility for his own life, he wouldn't give a God-damn what anyone else was doing with their short time here. And then, maybe he'd be more open to listening.”
“So we shouldn't identify with groups of people? Like political parties?”
“No sir. That's not what I'm saying. You can be Republican or Democrat if that's what you want. But what I'm saying is, when you're interacting with people in the world, ask yourself, 'Who is this person standing in front of me?' and more importantly 'What kind of person are they?' Without bringin' assumptions. That's the question. 'Do they have a good heart?' You see, we each have a story we carry around in our back pocket. These stories make us who we are. And the trick is to learn these stories about people without confusing their identity with the identity of their group. And the opposite of that I reckon. Because, well, damn son, that's what matters! You see, I want to know the ultimate minority- the individual. There's only one of you walking around. And well, it's a hell of a lot harder to polarize people when they're treated as individuals who have their own thoughts. More interesting too.”
“Anyway, I think I may be talking nonsense at this point. And it's true, it may be more complicated than I'm trying to make it. But it's there I believe. I mean, I 'magine you had some thoughts about me when you sat down here, right? About the way I dress and how I look? If I had never opened my mouth, I'm sure you would have assumed I carry the same beliefs as that man down there. But I would have to think maybe it's a bit different now right?”
“Well, yeah. Definitely. But isn't how we dress a part of how we present ourselves to the world, and how the world is presumably going to interact with us? How is there a distinction?”
“I don't really know. But what I do know is- people will rightly surprise you. And it's up to you to be open enough to allow people to do so.”
“Are you from around here?”
“No sir, I'm from over yonder, just across the border in Mississippi. I teach high school history classes there. And let me tell you, the South didn't win,” he chuckled and winked over at me.
“What do you think about the Confederate flag then? That's been a big issue lately as well,” I said, eager to hear what he had to say.
“That's a good question. Personally, I don't like it. Like I said, the South lost. And to me, that's that. It most certainly does offend me to see it around public places and I can't even say what it means for the black community to see it. With all it's layered history of oppression attached to it. Do you think they like it at all? To hell with it, I don't think it should be allowed in any public places. But in private homes, sure, go ahead, pretend like it's a part of your heritage. Because, well, I reckon their right to freedom of expression is equally important as my right to not feel offended. Speaking personally of course. I mean hell, when we feel offense then we're given the freedom to express it! That's the beauty of speech. But,” he paused making sure the gravity of what he was about to say sunk in, “We need to make sure everyone has that equal right. Everyone is allowed to not only express that voice they have inside 'em, but an equal outlet for that voice. We cannot let the powers that be, so to speak, silence anyone. Just make the game fair. And hell, bad ideas often come to just ends anyway. Like I said, 'No one gets away with anything.' Just look at that bartender down there. His spitefulness is enough of an advertisement to understand what path to not go down.”
The man took one last sip of foam from his empty glass. Reaching underneath the bar he pulled out a silver money clip holding perfectly creased bills in a neat fashion. Unfurling a couple, he placed them onto the wood and slid his stool out from under its place.
“My name's George,” he said reaching out his hand.
“George,” I said, “Do you dress the way you do to have these conversations with unsuspecting people?”
He laughed, “You might be the first person to ever pick up on that. Even before me. I hope you have a nice rest of your trip.”
I shook George's rough hand, the lines of it ran along like deep rivers through crushing mountain landscapes. As he turned to leave I followed the noise of his footsteps to the door, the sound of a strong wind pushing against the glass. I didn't see him go. I was looking down the bar at the man standing behind it, his greasy black hair matted into place, and his frowning face looking down towards the ground. Behind him hung the flag, drifting farther into the darkness of the bar, the longer I looked at it.