This is a Christmas story.
But it’s not one about chestnuts over an open fire, or the chaos of mall brawls and black fridays. There are no cookies. No milk. Spruce trees? Maybe — but less green and red and gold, and more silvery pines below an overpass, frozen in time and awaiting spring as the snow piles on and then sloughs off. These are the kinds of images that have made me grateful for what I had over some of the harder years of my life: my found family.
Like many of you — many of everyone, maybe — I have a complex relationship with my family. With dinners. Being told to stop slouching, then poking fun at my height. Eating spaghetti wrong, soup wrong — things that, among others, left me in strange relationships with hot food and drink. Things like that vanish in the kind of anonymity of a darkened bartop, reliably bad hamburgers, and dark Alberta trad ale. Found bitters. And though I sometimes felt alone, I never did when tipping back my glass, and taking my seat amongst the other sad old men. It was a seat I’d taken up by the time I’d turned twenty-five.
Christmas was something we talked around. It was the big cliche in the room, even while sharing my second-hand baking, which is too-sweet for any other time of year. Even when the long tails of dollar-store Santa hats left white tufts floating on a red-nosed two-ounce rum and coke, or on various forms of cheese-on-bread, half-eaten.
We would talk about work; about politics;about love; about girls and small kindnesses—the two were never mutually exclusive. We performed our bids for machismo and acceptance. We commiserated our lives, all of which seemed to brim equally with the feeling that we were all so close to something great, every minute and at all times.Then, something came up, and we were always one year away.
One Christmas away.
And the time between was padded with our isms and codes:
‘Oh, she’s goin.’
‘Take ‘er easy.’
‘Living the dream.’
I came to know that these were different ways to say the things that weren’t allowed:
‘I see you.’
‘I love you.’
‘I’m here with you.’
There were a lot of things we didn’t talk about.
Christmas reminds me of all I did seem to have, or what people gave up in the name of ‘normal.’ Debts piled high while families fell apart by death and divorce while posing for postcards between bouts of mourning the potent matriarchal glue that was my grandmother, Jerry. Her shoes never did get filled, but nature abhors a vacuum.
Christmas is “what people do,” so we kept “doing Christmas,” even though I felt alienated and estranged without grandma Jerry. I tried so hard to put a foot forward that someone could be proud of for years (and years, and years). Despite the gymnastics, it seemed all anyone could see hanging from that particular branch of the family tree was a crooked-toothed clumsy boy—a picky eater who spent too much time on the computer.
That’s when I started to take my Christmases alone. Here, we could play the charade of belonging, like any other day. Except, in time, it became more than a charade. Even those on the other side of the bar, we became more; we became family.
“The family we choose,” says my old bartender Rachel Muise—a fitting last name. I’ve never known anyone with that kind of warmth, detectable even over the tin of speakerphone. She’s worked the shift and knows the sad old men. Her and I are both part of that dying breed: the type that grows up on dive bars. Rachel puts it better than I ever could, I think.
“It was just such a gathering place for people that loved each other… everybody knew everybody’s business, but everybody cared about each other’s business, if that makes sense.”
And that was it. Rachel and one of the cooks, my fellow Zach-in-arms, were from out east. PEI, and New Brunswick, I think. They would volunteer for those Christmas encounters, to “get that dose of family,” she said.
Admittedly, it sometimes got a little wilder than my memory serves.
“Gallagher’s Christmas Eve? I remember it might have been the last one that Tracey owned it, and I think Grier might have brought in her like pin the dick on the hunk,”—exactly what you think it is, by the by.
“…and everybody was running around in Santa hats and ugly Christmas sweaters with cutout zebra penises in their hands.”
Yeah, I remember that, specifically. Vividly. The wild, zebra-print penis made of construction paper.
Tracy’s dead now—the owner. Heart attack, December 2022. We’ve grieved a lot of friends since then.
A lot of sad old men that ran out of time, ones that had no one left to check on them. Tracy and Rachel and other reliably warm folks were all veterans of dealing with sad old men. They used to keep tabs on the regulars — call them up, make sure they were okay, and wish them ‘happy birthday.’ Things like that.
It took me a while to realize those things were more than just good for business, as the more cynical bones in my body might say. These small kindnesses—they were saving lives.
‘I see you.’
‘I love you.’
‘I’m here with you.’
There was a lot for Rachel and I to talk about. We talked about marriage. Growing up into your thirties and forties (or maybe never). We talked about grief—grieving the space, the distance, and the people. But there’s value in that; there’s hope. There’s beauty in that, ultimately, life goes on.
“So is it still grief? Not in a melancholy kind of way. Like, I’m so glad that those times happened. And I met all of you lovely people and that most of those friendships have carried on years down the road. I think that speaks volumes of the connection that we were able to make.”
How best to honour those sad old men, I wonder? The ones that I shared hours of conversation over uncountable pints. The ones who never made me pay for a game of pool because they just wanted someone to play with. The ones who always put on the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” on the jukebox, so we could cheers and sit in silence before some fresh new hell came raining down in a yuletide cacophony of dick jokes and photo ops and laughter and joy.
So much joy. So much joy that it doesn’t seem right to remember them this way—as sad old men.
So, maybe, even as one of them, I won’t.
And though we are fewer, we are never less.
Photo by Amanda Erickson