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The Sideline Lounge - Rhythm of Life

The music started and someone shouted, “This one’s for Mr. L,” as glasses were raised then lowered, before being raised again to mouth levels all around the bar as Frankie Beverly sang about happy feelings being in the air. There truly were happy feelings in the air, even on this sad occasion. Mr. L, Luther Livingston, was a fixture at The Sideline Lounge for over thirty years. For many of those in the bar that night, he was a drinking buddy or elder they respected. For others, he had been their history teacher or later their principal over at King High School.

That evening, his death was the reason a few extra shots were being poured. Not that his death was a joyous occasion, but in his honor, the patrons of Sideline were going to drink and laugh and talk shit, as if he were sitting in his usual booth near the bathrooms. Truth is, there never needed to be a reason for the drinks to be flowing at Sideline, someone was always celebrating: new job, fired from your job, child or grandchild born, son arrested, wife left you, someone else’s wife now living with you, it didn’t matter, there were always going to be reasons for shots around the bar.

The bartenders on duty scrambled to keep the shot glasses full, as the orders were coming rapidly and the bar was especially packed that day. Michelle took a second to survey the growing crowd and wondered if Mr. L’s death brought so many people in; then she looked at the calendar on the wall and realized it was a pay week. There was definitely a routine on a pay Thursday; the regulars spent a little more and there always seemed to be five or six new patrons on payday as well. Michelle wasn’t a psychiatrist, but she knew better than others that a few glasses of your favorite liquor often helped whatever was on your mind…if only for a few hours. 

Ricky poured three-double shots of Johnnie Walker – Mr. L’s favorite drink – for Charley, Harvey and Gwen, three of his oldest friends. Naturally, they didn’t seem as jovial as everyone else, as they essentially huddled in the corner drinking their shots and talking quietly to one another. Harvey and Gwen had grown up with Mr. L and Charley began working with him back in the early ’70s. His death wasn’t that of someone they drank with, he was their brother and a reminder that death is never too far away.

As Ricky moved back towards the center of the bar, he noticed another face that didn’t seem to be particularly enjoying himself. Jamal was among the younger regulars, Ricky figured him for 25, 26, but he found his way to a stool a few days a week for two shots of Hennessy and a Heineken. Nothing more, nothing less.

“What’s going on Jamal?” 

“Nothing man. Just trying to figure out how everyone in here drinking and celebrating death like this?”

“I don’t think they’re celebrating Mr. L’s death, but remembering his life and how he touched theirs in some way.”

“I’m not talking about Mr. L. I’m talking about the death around us man. Two young boys were killed on the other side of the football field last night. The police choked a man out on Staten Island the other day. There’s death everywhere and everyone in here is laughing and drinking like it’s okay.”

Jamal was visibly aggravated, so Ricky was careful in how he was going to approach the rest of the conversation. He wanted to tell Jamal that he was in there drinking just like everyone else was, but he could see the young man wasn’t in the mood for that sort of truth today. Instead, he grabbed a bottle of Hennessy and poured a shot.

“I didn’t order this.”

“I know, it’s on me. It’s obvious you got a lot on your mind. But look around and tell me what you see?”

“I see people with no idea of what’s going on in the world. They come in here, get drunk, tell lies, then go back out to meaningless lives.”

“That’s what you see huh? I see people who have been fighting for this community for years. Did you know Shirley was on the city council for about 15 years? Could’ve been mayor too, if some shady shit didn’t go down. Charley over there coached at the field across the street for twenty years. That’s a lot of time. That’s a lot of young men who learned what it takes to be a man from him. Shoot, a couple of them went on to the NFL too. No superstars, but the direction of their lives was changed.”

Jamal was listening and looking at a few of his fellow drinkers with new eyes.

“Now, some of these no-count niggas ain’t never done nothing for nobody. A couple have stolen from their mommas, but everyone in here knows how heavy the world is. They come in here day-after-day to have a drink or two and lighten the weight they carry on their shoulders from it every day. You do too. But, that's just the rhythm of life.”

Ricky poured him another shot and moved back towards the corner where Mr. L’s friends were, leaving Jamal to ponder their conversation. He could see his words had landed in Jamal’s heart; Jamal’s shoulders loosened a bit, his face became a little less contorted, at least until he downed the shot and placed the glass over a bill and stood up from his seat.


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