Sunday, September 7, 2008

Last Call

During my college years, I worked part-time as a bar manager for a student pub at the university. It was one of the smaller venues on campus, but had a solid reputation as the place to go for good live music, since it was housed in the same college as the music department. We had a popular house band every Tuesday night, Johnny Hotstuff and the Smokin’ Trio, and they could play any kind of music, although they opted to present themselves in a punkabilly fashion – a weird blend of the Stray Cats meets the Sex Pistols.

Johnny Hotstuff (not his real name, of course) was remarkably talented. He was a music student studying jazz guitar, but he favoured rockabilly and blues when he played with his own band. He was a sweet and polite young guy, shining bright with frontman energy and fair good looks. He packed the bar every Tuesday with a steady following of smitten college girls, and since those girls preferred expensive exotic fruity cocktails to cheap beer-on-tap, he was great for business.

The other thing that made him great for business was his willingness to play every week for beer, instead of money. Well, this might have been a profitable arrangement for the boss, but it really sucked for the staff, because it left us to deal with four rambunctious musicians in the wee hours of every Wednesday morning. By the end of their Tuesday night set, the Smokin’ Trio were usually a little bit drunk and stoned. After dismantling their gear and packing it away, the guys would sit at the big booth near the front of the stage and share a couple pitchers of beer, while the staff cleaned-up the bar around them. We all wanted to go home after a long shift, but their party was just getting started at 1 A.M.

Most of the boys lived just steps away, in the Fine Arts dorm next door to the pub, so I didn’t mind much that they hung out after the show. No one was driving anywhere, and I figured they had earned their reward, so I would often send the other staff home to catch a few zzzz’s before class, and wait for the guys to wrap up their night before I locked up.

It was in those early morning hours on a chilly October night when Johnny Hotstuff suddenly remembered something that send him into a wild panic.

“HOLY SHIT!! I totally forgot I drove here tonight!!!! OH NO – how the hell am I gonna get home???”

Okay, I have no idea how can a person forget something like that. I really didn’t think that was possible, but I guess Johnny could be a bit of a blond bimbo now and then. The drummer invited Johnny to crash in his dorm room and drive home in the morning, but it was much more complicated than that.

“I can’t!” Johnny cried, “I have to get home! My god, I totally forgot that I’m meeting the recruiters tomorrow at nine for my induction. I don’t have to do the exercise tests, but they’re giving me a physical!...FUCK I hope they don’t do any blood tests or anything!...”

So in addition to forgetting that he drove his car to the gig, it also slipped his mind that he had a very important appointment in the morning – he was enlisting in the military reserves to earn some money and “serve the country”. This came as a bit of a shock to me. I didn’t peg Johnny for the army type, but he explained that he came from a long line of soldiers and it was not only his desire to serve, it was also highly expected of him. But he got the appointment dates mixed up in his head, and now here he was, just seven hours before his appointment, half-baked and three sheets, freaking out over a major error in judgment.

I couldn’t help Johnny reverse the series of events that led him to his nightmarish epiphany, but I was the only sober person in the room, and I knew I could at least help get the guy home. A taxi was out of the question, since Jimmy needed his car the next morning to get to the recruiting office, so I offered to drive him and his car to his house, then he could just pay for my cab ride home.

Well, it turns out that Johnny lived a good 30-minute drive from the bar, right downtown near the lakeshore. I didn’t know much about Johnny’s personal life, but we had a chance to bond during that long ride, and he talked my ear off in between repeated apologies and thank-you’s for helping him out of a big mess.

Johnny told me about his dad, his uncles, his cousins and his grandfather – all military men with a wealth of exciting stories. It was the early 90s and the Gulf War had just ended, so he hoped he wouldn’t have to see combat. He was doing it for the adventure of it all, and for his family. All Johnny ever wanted was to be a working musician, but his family didn’t think much of that. If he just did a couple years in the army, and got it out of the way, then maybe he would be free to go. He joked about auditioning for the military band – anything to save him from a deployment overseas.

“I sure as hell don’t wanna die!” he said with a laugh.

Those words still haunt me to this day.

We got to Johnny’s place and parked the car, then he invited me up to his apartment to call a taxi, since students didn’t own cell phones back in those days. He lived on the top floor of an old three story Victorian-style home that had been converted into a bunch of small studio apartments. We made an awful lot of noise getting inside – Johnny was a bit wasted and dropped his keys a couple times, and then tripped and fell in the front foyer near the stairs. I was laughing and he was a loud talker, so we accidentally woke up Mr. Landlord who occupied the main floor. He was a hippie-looking dude, probably mid-thirties, wearing a wife-beater and sweatpants, rubbing his eyes and squinting.

The Landlord was pissed off. “Do you have any idea what time it is?! It’s almost 4 AM!”

Johnny apologized, introduced me, and explained the situation in a rambling manner that made no sense whatsoever, which did not impress Mr. Landlord one bit. We headed up to Johnny’s one-room bachelor pad and I could see his panic rising as he paced back and forth while I was calling for my taxi.

“Man, I have such a fucking headache,” he muttered, rubbing his forehead.

I watched him go to his tiny bathroom, grab a bottle of pills, and return to his kitchen where he poured out two glasses of water. He handed one to me and took his pill with the other, insisting it was probably the stress of the evening that had led to his pain. I tried to assure him that everything would be alright, that he could always reschedule his appointment, and that it was not the end of his world. We chatted softly for about fifteen minutes until my cab arrived, then he hugged me tightly at the door, and thanked me for the hundredth time.

“You really saved my sorry ass tonight, Kat.” he said. “I won’t ever forget this.”

“It’s gonna be okay, Johnny.” I replied, “You’ll see – everything will sort itself out.”

I like to believe that Johnny felt better about his situation by the time I left, but I’ll never really know, because that was the last time I ever saw Johnny Hotstuff. In fact, I could have never imagined that I would be the last person to ever see him alive, and that his last words would be “See you next Tuesday.”

Johnny Hotstuff died in his sleep from a brain aneurysm around 6 AM Wednesday morning, just 90 minutes after we said goodbye. I got the news on Wednesday night, when one of his ex-girlfriends called me. The unthinkable had happened – Johnny was dead, and everyone was buzzing about the mystery woman he had brought home to his apartment that night. Could she have murdered him? How could someone kill such a great guy like Johnny? The cops were looking for that bitch right now.

Although I wasn’t terribly close to Johnny, his sudden passing hit me like a transport truck. I’m not going to lie to you, most of my immediate thoughts were selfish ones. Several days would pass before anyone knew his cause of death, and I instantly assumed it was alcohol poisoning, or a drug reaction, or something that could have been my fault. I was with Jimmy all night. I served him his last beer. I watched him take some kind of pill. I knew he wasn’t feeling well, but I just left him there alone.

The police thought I was responsible for his death, too. By Thursday morning, an investigation was underway, and affidavits from Mr. Landlord and the boys from the Smokin’ Trio led them right to my door. They knew I was with Johnny that night, so I told them everything I just told you. I was scared shitless, but the officers were very nice to me. They took me to a precinct, and took my statement, my photograph, and my fingerprints. I had read plenty of novels and watched lots of TV shows where innocent people suddenly became murder suspects, but do you ever really think it could happen to you?

It took over a week for autopsy results to confirm that Johnny Hotstuff had been a ticking time bomb for quite some time. He had an undiagnosed blood clot in his brain that had most likely been there for several months, maybe even years. I was absolved of any responsibility in his death, but not from my own guilt, and a growing obsession that I could have done something to save him. Maybe I hadn’t saved his sorry ass at all? Maybe the drinking made things worse? Maybe if I hung out just a while longer, I would have been there to call 911? If he had just made it to his army physical, they would have detected the blood clot and done some surgery? I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that any of us can leave this earth at any time, with no long goodbyes and no fanfare.

I was in a very poor state of mind during the six weeks that followed Johnny’s passing. His funeral was a private family-only affair, so a musical tribute night was organized by his friends and fellow students just before Christmas that year. I wasn’t planning to attend, since there were still many people who refused to believe the coroner’s report and the results of the police investigation; folks who still suspected I lent a hand in Johnny’s early demise. My best friend convinced me to go with her, insisting that some closure and a chance to talk with his family would put an end to my sleepless nights and fits of depression.

That night changed my life, because it forced me to rethink all of my ideas about death. Johnny’s mother bought me a glass of wine and invited me to talk quietly with her at a dim corner table. She hugged me, and thanked me for getting her son safely home, and for being kind to him when he needed it most. She told me she didn’t believe in God, but she knew for sure that we are all here for a good time, not a long time. She smiled when she told me her son had enjoyed a very good time indeed.

“None of us know when our time is up,” she said. “So that’s why it’s important to do everything right now. It’s so sad that we wait around for life to happen. One day we will all find out how much we’ve really missed.”

That talk with Johnny’s mom jump-started my evolution. From that day forward, I began to live my life like a series of episodes in a long-running show enjoyed by a small, but fiercely loyal group of viewers. Over the years, I learned to worry a lot less about my future, and focus on individual moments, instead of wondering where all those moments would take me. I took up photography again at that time, because I became interested in documenting the events in my life - as they happened, without any sentimental filters of romance or bitterness to distort my memories. I started to travel the world without the luxury of a big bank account, knowing full well I can’t take any of it with me, armed with one goal: I need to see everything I can today, right now, before it’s too late.

It’s been fifteen years since I’ve thought or spoken about that night, but looking back, it’s absolutely clear to me now: Johnny Hotstuff saved my sorry ass.

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