Lessons from Polk Street, by T.C. Jones

If you are a regular, Sam knows your drink. He’s the only bartender who gives a damn about the place. At least the behind the scenes sort of stuff: beer orders, liquor stocks, keeping the damn place clean. If it weren’t for him the Shamrock would be the Palace Hotel for rats.

The regulars haven’t arrived yet, except for Hal who practically lives here. By accident a woman sat in Hal’s barstool earlier. He got pissed and told her real indignant like: “That’s my seat.” When she didn’t get up fast enough he grumbled and moaned the way he does then said: “Move it!” She walked out without paying and said something along the lines of “Chivalry is dead.” What she didn’t realize was at the Shamrock chivalry had died long ago.

Sam talked to Hal about this sort of behavior, about how when Hal kicks unknowing patrons out of “his seat” it’s bad for business, that the person he booted will never come back and furthermore will log on to Yelp to tell their cyber friends that the Shamrock is an unfriendly place.

“Yelp?” Hal said. “What the hell is that? Some sort of new hippy stuff?”

“Hipsters, Hal.” Sam explained. “There is no such thing as hippies anymore.”

“To hell with Yelp,” Hal said.

“Unfriendly places serve nobody but regulars,” Sam said. “And regulars are the sort of people that put bars out of business.”

Hal grunted, “The Shamrock has been here for over one hundred years and will be here for one hundred more.”


Tommy walks in and takes a seat at the end of the bar—his normal spot in the corner by the window. He’s a loner. Sometimes the regulars coax him out by buying him a shot, but he always finds his way back to sip his beer by himself. There’s a vague air about him, a jarring aloofness. Sam knows when Tommy is in a mood to sit jotting in his pocket notebook or simply to submerge into his own thoughts, and he leaves him alone then, but other times they trade stories. They are surface stories, superficial. Sam really wants to know what he’s doing here; what in his past he’s was running from. Sam doesn’t always notice everything, but he can recognize loneliness.

For the last few weeks a young Filipina woman had been showing up with him. She’s a little stick of dynamite; beautiful, witty, her mind quick as hell. And though he’s only a bartender, a job like this gives Sam insight into people. The perception to realize now that Tommy has been arriving alone again something is wrong.

Walking over to greet him tonight Sam notices that a different woman is with him. He hasn’t seen her around here before, but there is something about her that jars his memory. Like a fading dream after waking you try to remember. Perhaps their lives had touched briefly—a friend of a friend or something along those lines.

“The usual?” Sam asks.

“Yeah,” Tommy says adjusting the baseball cap on his head, cocking it a little to the right like he always does. “And a backer of Jamison.”

“Tying one on tonight?” Sam laughs and slips the shot next to his beer.

“I need it,” he sighs. It was a real melodramatic sort of sigh.

“What about your friend? What can I get for her?”

Standing in front of the woman, pierced by her violent blue eyes, Sam is overcome by the ruby streaks in her hair. His heart drives toward his throat. Sam knows this woman; he is sure of it. He knows her from the Polk Gulch where he used to play shows back in the days when he liked to fancy himself as a musician. Back then there were lots of girls, and probably for her lots of boys, and somewhere along the line everything and everybody was lost in the shuffle.

“I’ll have ginger ale,” she says. “My name is Mira by the way. Tommy has a wonderful way with introductions doesn’t he?”

Sam lets out a nervous laugh as he cracks open one of those little six-ounce bottles of ginger ale. Strange, he thinks. Summers ago on Polk Street she used to drink as hard as anyone. He remembered she had said she was from Jersey, and by all accounts did her best to make everyone know it. Loud and boisterous, she had held strong opinions about everything.

“What brings you here tonight?” Sam asks, not letting on.

“Special occasion,” she says and sips the soda with a straw.

“Hey Sam,” Tommy interrupts. “I need another shot.”

Sam nods and pours another round.


Drinks flow. The SF State students who were monopolizing the sofas leave in a stumbling, boisterous mob and brush past a group of clean-cut flannelled hipsters from The Haight arriving to take their place. Hal keeps pounding PBR and Vince enters reeking of pot. Kelsey stops in after her waitressing shift at Park Chow and slugs back drinks at a sprinter’s pace.

The regulars have arrived, but from behind the bar Sam watches only Tommy; the boy is smiling, but there is a cocktail of fear and sadness stirring in his eyes. He watches Mira too. He watches as she takes his hand.

“Another drink, Tommy?” Sam interrupts.

“Double Jamison.”

“You get plastered every time we are together,” Mira lectures, sort of mother-like.

This entire situation confuses Sam. He is certain she is the same girl he once knew from Polk Street, but she won’t acknowledge him. Then again, that was during the point in his life when he was always on so much shit he can’t remember much of anything. But this woman, the drunk of Polk Street, the girl from The Gangway, always posted up at Shanghai Kelly’s, R-Bar regular, drink guzzler, the go-home-with-him, go-home-with-her, go-home-with-both-of-them, the-go-home-with-anyone-then-wake-up-in-the-morning-and-do-it-all-over-again is now preaching moderation. Life is full of contradictions.


Tommy stands up and walks toward the restroom. Sam nods at Hal to watch the bar for a moment and follows Tommy back. He catches up by the sofas near the gas fireplace—flames dancing orange and blue and hot, fighting off the chilly marine air.

“What’s going on? You alright, kid?”

Tommy whirls around, with the face of a mad man, manic, a gambler all-in and out of chips. It’s the look of a man who has been viewing the world through a jaundiced eye.

“Sam, I’m fucked,” he says, sad as Sam ever heard him. “I swear it was an accident. I was tired and drunk and lonely. It just happened.”

Sam nods. He knows about those things. He knows what loneliness can do to a man. He knows loneliness can be more dangerous than a gun.

“What are you going to do?” he asks, sincere but not overly sympathetic. Sympathy wouldn’t solve anything.

“I’m gonna leave.” Tommy pulls a plane ticket from his back pocket.

“You’re going to run away? Tonight?”

“Outta sight, outta mind,” says Tommy, carefully folding the ticket back into his pocket.

“You don’t get it do you? Keep running and you’ll be lost forever,” Sam wanted to say more but stopped himself. Advice usually falls on deaf ears. Some things people need to learn on their own. Experiences can’t be taught and they can’t always be explained. Like Sam’s lessons from Polk Street; they were only powerful to him.

“Maybe you’re right, but tonight I’m not going to find out. I want to say goodbye to this girl I used to work with.” Tommy shakes his head slowly, eyes sort of gazing down at the floor. Then he mutters: “Should have been her.”

And Sam knows what he means, knows at one point everyone finds out exactly what Tommy means. The difference is that some people face things the way they are and some people run.

“But she’s the one here with you tonight.” Sam motions toward where Mira is seated.

“Let me out the back,” Tommy pleads.

Sam stares silently for a moment then concedes. He opens the back cement patio where they store the empty kegs. Climbing ivy had taken over the chain link fence enclosing it. He watches as Tommy stacks a couple kegs, and watches as he sprawls over the top of the fence and into the wet Pacific fog.

As he makes his way back to the bar Sam wonders if he’ll see Tommy again. Not for a while at least, but it’s almost impossible to keep a regular away forever. Sam walks over to Mira and opens another ginger ale. He turns away and scans the familiar walls of the Shamrock, watches the dreamless drunks sitting on the old sofas drinking up all their money. The regulars have grown roots on their barstools. Hal waves him over for another Pabst. Vince covertly packs his glass pipe. Kelsey flirts with a youngish looking USF student. Sam’s eyes lock on Mira, entranced by her smile and the way her hand cradles just below her stomach. He thinks about those faded years on Polk Street and wonders why she didn’t keep it when it was theirs.


T.C. Jones lives and writes in Miami. He is the associate editor of fiction at Burrow Press and Gulf Stream Magazine and a fiction reader at The Indianola Review. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atticus ReviewThe Monarch ReviewWhiskeyPaperStraylight MagazineDos Passos ReviewPrairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland (Ice Cube Press), and others.


T.C. Jones

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