I meet all kinds of people as I tend my bar. We get the professionals, blue-collar workers, street people, alcoholics, movie stars, schizophrenics who pound the bar reciting Revelations, drug-dealers, revelers, and people trying to work scams. As a bartender, you have to settle conflicts, and usually you can tell when there’s going to be trouble. This Sunday, there was trouble.
It was a hot, summer day and the bar offered a cool, dark respite from the heat. I was working to the blare of a local ball game on the television. This afternoon was particularly slow, with nothing more than a few regulars gathered around the bar nursing their drinks. Occasionally a guest from the hotel across the street wandered in for a bite to eat and to catch the latest score.
As I leaned against the bar chatting with one of my regulars, a young stranger came in the door. He was an exceptionally thin, dark-skinned man with hair that curled almost to his shoulders.
I walked over and greeted him, “What can I get you this evening?”
“Just a glass of water,” he replied.
“It’s fifty cents for a glass of water.”
The high volume of vagrants that had begun to loiter around the establishment, drinking water and eating the free popcorn while scaring away the paying customers had compelled my boss to make this rule. I stuck by it unless it was an emergency, like someone needed to take medication.
“If I were white, you wouldn’t be telling me that,” he snapped back.
“No sir. This is a blanket policy that applies to anyone who isn’t making a purchase.”
I shrugged and walked off to take care of another customer who was waving me down impatiently.
A few minutes later, the stranger called me over.
“Give me a Tanqueray and tonic.”
“You got it.” I poured his drink, set it in front of him, and laid his bill on the bar.
“Let me tell you something,” he said, “you need to find Jesus. If you take Jesus into your heart, you won’t be unhappy anymore. Jesus is the answer. Go to church and pray.”
“Ok,” I said, unsure about how to respond. I looked for an excuse to move away. My excuse came in the form of two regulars, a man and a woman, who came in and sat at the bar next to the stranger. I diverted my attention to my new patrons.
“How’s it going today? What can I get you?”
“Two draft beers.”
I drew their beers and set their check down. The stranger struck up a conversation with them, leaving me free to tend to the other customers at the bar. The voice of the game announcer droned over the loudspeakers, and I moved around the busboy to get one of the waitresses her order. Occasionally, I drifted back over to the threesome and refilled their drinks, each time noticing that the conversation seemed to be getting more and more agitated. Eventually, the woman got up to go to the restroom and her partner turned his back on the stranger. As I wiped down a nearby table, I heard a commotion behind me.
“I already told you, I am not interested, man. I’m straight! Now leave me alone!”
The stranger mumbled an unintelligible reply that only seemed to anger the other man more.
“Lay off, man! Go bother someone else!”
I sighed, dreading what I had to do next and headed over to diffuse the situation.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but either you quit bothering the other customers or I am going to have to ask you to leave.”
“I wasn’t hurting anything. I was just trying to make conversation.”
“That may be, but this gentleman has already asked you to leave him alone several times.”
“Ok, ok,” he said, finishing his drink. “Listen, I’ll be right back. I am going to the bathroom.”
Alarms went off in my head. The stranger had had two drinks so far and hadn’t paid his bill yet. I knew that there was an outside exit from the bathrooms that would enable him to easily slip out leaving me holding the tab.
“That’s fine, sir. I’m just going to have to ask you to pay your bill first. That’ll be ten-fifty.”
He suddenly became very sweet, “I’ll pay you when I get back.”
“No,” I answered firmly, “You’ll pay me now. Ten-fifty.”
“Sweetie,” he said patting my hand. “I’ll pay you as soon as I get back.
“Pay now or I will call security.” I said, feeling myself getting angry.
“Honey, I am about to pee my pants. I’ll pay you later.”
“You will pay me now,” I said. I reached for the phone to call security, and he headed out the bar door into the lobby of the building. My only thought was, “He had the nerve to call me racist and tell me I needed Jesus, and now he is going to walk out on his tab! Not possible!”
“Watch the bar,” I said as I ran past the waitress. I caught up with the stranger as he neared the main doors for the lobby that led to the street. He spun around at me squealing, “I’m going to come back and pay!”
“Then come and pay now!”
He bolted out into the street. I ran after him shouting, “Police, police!” Where the heck were they? “Somebody call the police!” I shouted at passersby. I pursued him into the lunch hour traffic as he dodged cars trying to catch a waiting bus.
“Don’t go anywhere,” I shouted at the driver. “This man is a thief! He hasn’t paid his bar tab.”
The stranger stopped in front of the bus doors and turned, flapping his hands at me.
“Get off me! Leave me alone!” he shrieked.
He ran past me and I turned in pursuit, screaming, “Police, somebody call the police. This man’s a thief!”
People just stopped and stared. I jogged along, keeping a short distance between me and the stranger. Although I could easily overtake him, what was I going to do if I caught him? Who would help me? Should I keep chasing him until I saw a police officer, or should I give up? We had gone two blocks and were now headed to a more desolate area of downtown. I started feeling nervous, not wanting to find myself alone with him. Just as I was about to give up my pursuit, I heard a voice behind me.
“What’s the problem, miss?” I turned my head and saw a tall, young black man with a muscular build catching up to me. I felt relief.
“That man ran out on his tab at the bar,” I answered. “Are you a policeman?”
“No, I work banquets at the hotel. My name is Sammy. I’ll get him for you.” With that he tackled the stranger to the ground.
“I’ll call the police,” I said and ran two blocks back to where I had seen a pay phone and dialed 911. I explained the situation to the operator and ran back to where Sammy had the stranger pinned. Moments later as I filled Sammy in on the details, I heard sirens wailing. Five police cars, a fire engine, and two ambulances pulled up quickly to the curb as a crowd began to gather around.
Three male officers walked up to me and I told them what had happened. Meanwhile, Sammy released the stranger who was now surrounded by police. The stranger, covered in blood attempted to stand only to be repeatedly pushed back down by the officers. “Sit down!”
“I was going to go back and pay!” he whined.
I twirled around. “If you were going to pay, then what are we doing here at 4th and College Street?” I retorted angrily.
A woman drifted by on a bicycle, reached out and tucked two dollars in my hand. “Here you go honey. Here’s the tip he didn’t leave you,” she called out as she rode away.
I was beginning to become aware of the growing crowd and began to feel embarrassed by the attention. Just then, three female officers strode up to me as the stranger was being loaded into the ambulance.
“We’d like to shake your hand,” they said, “Not many people would have had the guts to do what you did.” I felt my face begin to burn as they each took my hand. I knew bravery had nothing to do with it. I had just gotten mad. I tried to downplay the incident.
“Well, I just didn’t want to have to pay his tab,” I stammered.
A bit later, hotel security arrived to escort me back to the hotel and make a report. When I arrived back at the bar, and the boss had quit laughing about the ludicrous event, he gave me the very serious lecture on “Why employees should not chase people down Trade and Tryon streets.” He was particularly concerned about the danger I could have gotten myself into. I agreed that maybe I hadn’t exercised the best judgment, and traipsed off to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat. I could feel my blood sugar was low.
Two days later, the strange man appeared at the bar, looking very somber and sheepish. He had been sent by his father to make a formal apology to the hotel, pay his tab, and leave me the corresponding tip. I felt a bit sorry for him. For several days, I suffered jokes and comments from my coworkers. Various employees had nicknamed me “Kojak” and “Killer.” I couldn’t wait for the excitement to finally die down.
Two weeks elapsed and I was finally putting the incident behind me, when hotel security handed me a newspaper clipping.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Read it,” said the security officer.
I read it. The story stated that a man had stolen a Greyhound bus in Charleston, South Carolina and had raped a woman passenger on board.
“What does this have to do with me?” I asked the officer.
“Look at the picture,” she replied.
I did. Staring back at me was the face of Sammy, the man from banquets who had helped me capture the stranger who had walked on his tab.
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