Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Through A Whiskey Glass, Darkly 

“What the fuck? This is why I put ten dollars at a time into the jukebox—to prevent the fuckwads from playing shit like this!”

It was half-past midnight and the jukebox was filling the air of the Village Tavern with a mournful ballad. I didn't need mournful music that night because I was mournful enough. It was only Tuesday and it had been a tough week. The temperature had spiked down to the single digits. There had been trouble with my boss. My dog had an appointment to be put down by the vet later in the week. The world seemed a colder, darker and less friendly place than it had just a few weeks ago.

It wasn't just me. You could see the song’s down-tempo and sadness working its way into the hearts of the bar attenders. Glasses were lifted with a bit of hesitation. Glances shot toward the door to the street. Women remembered that they had power point presentations early in the morning. The hunger in the eyes of the men as they watched the women lost a bit of its ferocity.

Danny got up from where we were sitting at the end of the bar. He walked through the crowded room to the juke box, passing through groups of men and women and some mixed groups. The exclusively female groups were the easiest to pass through, the exclusively male groups the most difficult. The women made way and watched as Danny passed. The men needed to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to move aside, which they did so only after a grudging pause.

“People used to get killed a lot more in bars,” Sully said to me. “I’m not sure why but killing people in bars is out of fashion. You can see why it happens though. Interactions between unacquainted males always have the potential for trouble. I think it’s the presence of women that has helped calm things down.”

I wasn’t listening closely because now that Danny had made it to the juke box without incident, my attention was focused on the pretty Irish bartender who should have been refilling my glass with whiskey but was flirting with a guy near the beer taps. After a moment what Sully had said sunk in and I replied, “Shouldn’t the presence of women make it worse? Sexual competition and all that.”

“I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t. Maybe women don’t want overtly violent males. Or maybe nature has selected for women who favor men who don’t commit violence around women because guys who don’t hit each other around women are less likely to hit the women also,” Sully said.

“Good point.” I had the bartender’s attention now. She smiled at me a smile that made me feel like I was the most charming drunk in the western world. “Three glasses of Jamesons, please. Two on the rocks. One neat. Thanks.”

Danny got back. His songs hadn’t hit the jukebox yet. Now we were listening to someone inquire why a desperado won’t come down from his fences. “Tough fucking crowd. I thought I was going to have to throw down on that guy in the Abercrombie hat. It’s anarchy out there.”

“Not anarchy,” Sully said. “It’s just a reversion to a primitive state of organization.”

“Fucking Hobbesian war of all against all, alright,” Danny said.

“Not that either. Not such thing as a Hobbesian state of individuals. People organize in packs, groups. It’s a war of groups of friends against groups of strangers. Help your friends, hurt your enemies,” Sully said.

The bartender reached our corner with the whiskeys. I slid the money across the bar. I knew I was tipping her too much. I knew that it wouldn’t make her fall in love with me or loosen the grip of Christian morals and good taste that were likely preventing her from bunking with me for the night. But she was a good bartender and she made us feel welcome, and feeling welcome is something I’m willing to pay extra for these days.

Sully and Danny were still discussing the politics of small groups. They had moved from warring bands to the formation of state while I was paying for our drinks. I forget which represented the state—the bartenders or the bouncers. I thought I should get in on the conversation.

“According to libertarian theory, the state is imposed by outsiders who come in to exploit the stateless, peaceful folks. Like a fucking extortionist hitting up this bar for ‘protection money.’ Or that’s what Alfred Crock says,” I said. I’m pretty sure I meant Albert Jay Nock.

“That’s bullshit. If it was purely exploitative, purely imposed from the outside, how the hell would it become so prevalent? There’s got to be an efficiency operating here,” Danny said. When he isn’t drunk, Danny is an economist at an investment bank.

“There is. And I’ll tell you what it is,” Sully said. He took a large swig from his neat whiskey. “In primitive, stateless groups, every male has to fight. All are warriors. This makes the death in war rate very, very high. It also retards progress because everyone needs to be a warrior as well as whatever else they do.”

“Right. No proper division of labor,” Danny said.

I took out my little moleskin notepad and started taking notes. This was getting good and with six or seven whiskeys already down my throat I doubted that my memory would operate at full power. A few minutes earlier I had caught myself admiring how handsome I was in the mirror behind the bar. I knew I was drunk. I’m always better looking when I’m drunk.

“So at some point the guys who are good at fighting, who might even like it, make a deal with the rest of their tribe. Look, we’ll fight if you feed us," Sully said.

"You work; I'll eat. Sounds like great deal to me."

"Shut up a minute. Because it turns out this is a very good deal for the tribe. It lowers their mortality rate and allows for increased productivity from specialization in non-warrior skills,"Sully said.

"Three more of these," Danny called out to the bartender. And then to Sully, "Don't tell me to shut up, yo."

"So if this productivity increase is great enough, the warrior tax almost pays for itself. So tribes that are inclined to specialize out populate those that insist on the ‘everyone fights’ rule,” Sully said.

I noticed two girls standing behind me glance over my shoulder at my notepad. They were slender and had bright eyes. One was blonde and wore wireless glasses. The other had brown hair and a short, woven sweater skirt. Both pulled their hair back from their faces in tight pony-tails. “Is that your little black book?” the girl with wireless glasses asked.

“Sort of,” I told her. I turned to face her and held out the notepad. I had just written ‘Sully’s is Platonic theory of the state—guardians organized internally to ward off outside aggressors.’ They passed the notepad back and forth. Sully and Danny were still talking but I wasn’t listening anymore. I was concentrating on being a very good looking drunk.

“I see. Instead of writing down numbers of girls you pick-up, you use your little black book to pick-up girls,” the girl with the glasses said.

“Only the sort of girls who are impressed by esoteric, whiskey soaked political philosophy spruced up with references to ancient Greece,” I said.

She smiled. Danny's songs kicked in on the jukebox. "Breaking my back just to know your name," the Killers sang. Through the dim lighting of seven glasses of whiskey I thought I detected the possibility that she was exactly that kind of girl.