The Dumpster King

Daniel Winters was the most vulgar man I was unfortunate enough to meet.  That he was a homeless veteran made it that much harder for me to simply ignore his barbs.

The Dumpster King

by BETTY L. MARTIN

Daniel Winters was the rudest, most vulgar man I was unfortunate enough to meet in my thirty-two years of life on the planet.

Whenever I visited my neighborhood bar, he was there, a permanent fixture on the third green vinyl stool from the front door.  He was as immovable as Finnegan Bar’s stone fireplace, pool table or construction-paper shamrocks and four-year-old “Happy New Year 1979” sign that permanently hung from the mirrored bar.

That I so disliked a Vietnam war veteran — some said hero — who lived in a non-running car in the bar’s parking lot was a source of considerable guilt. My spirit of patriotism, however, was greatly diluted by Daniel’s quarrelsome, bitter nature and his flagrant use of his veteran status to cage drinks off fellow veterans and unsuspecting patrons.

Besides, he more than returned the antipathy.

“Ah, the bitch’s back again. Mitch, stand ready to water down her drinks for the good of us all,” he called to the bar’s owner and evening bartender, Mitch Finnegan, whenever I passed behind him on my way to the furthest empty seat at the opposite end of the bar.

For the most part, I was able to ignore him.  But every once in a while, it was impossible to let his barbs pass without comment.

“Mitch, open a window in here. The odor of your most regular drunk is making me sick.”

The hurled insults had flown back and forth, to the anxiety or delight of the bar’s regulars, for more than a year. They started the moment Daniel and I first set eyes on one another, a night when I’d finished work earlier than expected and decided to try the new bar rather than return home to my empty condo a block away.

The bar was nearly deserted when I stumbled onto a bar stool, exhausted from a 12-hour day spent mostly on my feet, putting together the finishing editorial touches on a weekly community newspaper.  There were only two men behind the counter, neither of them seeming to be in any hurry to wait on their sole customer.

“Excuse me,” I said, rubbing my tired eyes. “I’d like a vodka soda with lime.”

Nothing. The men continued to talk and act as if I had not spoken any more than the sign propped between bottles that read, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone”.

“Hey, can I order a drink here? You are open, right?”

The tall man, well over six feet, broke away from the fiery redhead and walked as slowly as possible toward my bar stool.

“We’re closed,” he said. “Go home.”

“It’s not even one in the morning yet. You don’t close until two. I’d like a vodka soda with lime.”

“Well, I’m not serving you. You’re drunk.”

I glared at him and he seemed to smirk.

“I most certainly am not drunk. I haven’t had a single drink. I’ve just gotten off of work, I’m tired and I want to order a drink. If you don’t have vodka, I’ll take a white wine.”

“I’m not serving you vodka, wine or anything else. You’re drunk. Go home.”

I could feel my face redden.

“I demand to see the manager and to get your name.”

“My name’s Dan Winters and that” — he pointed to the redhead man — “is Mitch Finnegan, owner of this bar.” Dan said. “Mitch, we have a complaint from this drunk bitch.”

“Handle it,” Finnegan said, not looking up from tallying his night’s receipts.

Dan Winters pointed to the sign that backed his refusal to serve anyone he chose.  As if that weren’t final enough, he cupped his right hand into the shape of the letter “C” and rapidly pumped it up and down in front of the zipper of his frayed blue jeans. At the same time, he flicked his tongue like a thirsty dog at a water bowl. It was the most obscene gesture I had ever seen.

I grabbed my purse and rose from the stool, hearing his deep laughter behind me as I shoved open the door before slamming it behind me.

As the weeks went by, I went to work and came home to my silent answering machine, my route taking me past Finnegan’s. I noticed more cars at night in the parking lot in front of the bar’s big bay window, particularly an orange and white junker that occupied the same parking space when I left for work and when I returned home in the evening.

My resolve to never put one foot inside that bar again shattered during a Friday night call from my younger sister who lived in a condo down the street from mine.

“I’m at Finnegan’s and there’s a guitar player you have to hear,” Mary Sue said. “He’s fabulous! Get on your going-out duds and c’mon.”

“I hate that bar,” I told her emphatically.  “If Jimi Hendrix rose from the dead and played there, I would give it a miss.”

“Look, I’m here and I’ve met a lot of nice people,” she insisted. “Most of them are former military and they’re a lot of fun. Besides, you really need to get out of the house.  You’re in real danger of becoming a work drudge.”

“Is there a tall guy there named Dan Winters? Any guy who’s over six feet four and who has piercing blue eyes and dark blond hair cut short and is angry as hell?”

“Nope. Nobody here fits that description. C’mon.”

It had been a particularly trying day at the newspaper, and I liked to party with Mary Sue, whose sunny nature assured that she made friends easily. Besides, I trusted her taste in guitarists and the bar was, after all, within walking distance from my doorstep.

I decided to give Finnegan’s a second chance. This time, the parking lot was full and inside, it was standing room only. The guitar player in the corner was more B.B. King than Hendrix, but good as advertised. Mary Sue was waving from a bar stool.

Seated right next to Dan Winters.

I made my way through the crowd to say hello and to ask Mitch for a drink.

He handed me a vodka soda with a smile.

“Glad to see you back — and sober, too.”

“I was sober last time.”

“Now sure you were. All the little faeries around you thought so, too.”

A gentleman on the other side of Mary Sue offered his bar stool, and I took it.

“The guy sitting to the right of you is Dan Winters,” I whispered to my sister over the din. “You said he wasn’t here. But there he is, tall, blue-eyed, blond hair cropped short and mean as the devil.”

“Well, he wasn’t here when I called you,” my sister said. “Just relax and enjoy the music.”

Dan put a stop to any potential problem by getting up and leaving, just mumbling something about the bar’s decline as he passed in back of me.

Mary Sue introduced herself to the man who had forfeited his bar stool. His name was Alan Johnson and, in the next hour, between laughing at Johnson’s one-liners and talking with Mary Sue, we met a few more people we would come to know as regulars.  On weekends, after my paper was put to bed, I was one myself.

There was Crazy Mike, a Vietnam veteran who sold guns out of the trunk of his car. I considered a purchase, having experienced three burglaries in two years, but thought I’d probably be arming the next burglar.

Big Al from Alabama claimed to hate black people but seemed to play no other ethnic group’s music on the bar’s antique jukebox. Linda Finnegan, Mitch’s wife, a Harvard graduate, knew she didn’t need to keep a hawk eye on her handsome Irish husband to ensure his loyal devotion.  Mitch had crinkled half-moon eyes, a talent for jokes and the art of a liberal pour, and liked to play spoons like drumsticks on his knee when things were slow.

Mostly, there were a few Vietnam war veterans and a couple from the Korean conflict. On the surface, at least, the former military among the regulars appeared to have come out of their various wars unscathed by any residual damage.  But I gauged Dan, on a scale of one means sanity and ten equals bat-shit crazy, in the infinity column.

Regulars and newcomers played darts or pool, talked about their kids, their cars, their jobs, their girlfriends, boyfriends, wives or husbands, good restaurants and barbecue shacks, neighborhood store openings, music and movie stars. No one mentioned politics. It was a Finnegan rule that politics, like religion, would be left at the door upon entering.

That rule didn’t keep everything on the even keel Finnegan had hoped. As the weekends went by, there wasn’t a regular who wasn’t aware of the tension between Dan Winters and yours truly.

“He’s not a bad guy,” said Alan, a Vietnam veteran who had been in the Navy about the same time as Dan had been in the Navy Seals. “You two just got off on the wrong foot. Try talking to him. Buy him a drink. You two are both nice people and you should be friends.”

“Friends? He’s a complete loser. Do you know what he did the first night I came in here?”

“Everybody knows that story, right Mitch?  But he really did think you were drunk.”

“I had just gotten off work. I was tired. Anyway, I don’t make friends with cretins and I don’t buy drinks for idiots.”

“That guy needs all the friends he can get. Special Forces in Vietnam and now he’s homeless,” Alan said. “His wife dumped him and ran off with his divorce attorney.  Now he lives in that orange-and-white car out front and eats out of the McDonald’s dumpster next door.”

“Why doesn’t he get a job?”

“He has no phone except the bar phone, no home except this bar and no talents he can use in peace time,” Alan said. “He can’t very well do what he did as a search-and-rescue operative.”

“He could work for the police or the fire department. They do search and rescues.”

“Not his kind. But there are a few guys who are alive today because of rescues he did.”

“Probably some people are dead because of the rescues he did.”

“You don’t count the enemy when your racking up the score.”

I began making a few inquiries at the bar about Dan.  I learned that he had come home from Vietnam with a Purple Heart and Vietnam combat ribbon but no future prospects. He had tried bar tending and various odd jobs for a while, but nothing seemed to stick.

The next time I saw Dan on his bar stool, I braved a smile and said hello.  I might as well have been talking to empty air.  He said nothing.

Encouraged by the lack of a caustic comeback from him, I made the trip across the room to stand beside him and asked Mitch to give him a beer on my tab. Dan looked straight ahead, accepted the beer from Mitch, drained the bottle in five long gulps and slammed the empty bottle on the counter. Only then did he turn to scowl at me.

“You still here, bitch?”

“Your welcome, asshole.”

“That’s a shame,” Alan said once I was re-seated at the opposite end of the bar. “You’re both nice people. I don’t know where all this anger comes from, but you two just bring out the worst in each other.”

The regulars began making bets on what would ultimately happen between us.  One suggested Dan might hit me or me him.  The most outrageous were from the few romantics in the bunch who wagered that we were undoubtedly headed for an affair.

The animosity became palpable as the hot summer gave way to fall and then to a frosty winter. Finnegan hung Christmas lights on the pub’s bay window and above the rock fireplace where oak logs burned brightly. Country, rock, blues and Irish ballads on the jukebox were replaced with carols, seasonal jingles and more Irish ballads. There were a few more hot toddies, but Finnegan mostly poured whiskey and dark beer as usual.

On the Saturday night before Christmas, I came in the bar door, removing my muffler and gloves. Dan suddenly made a big show of scooting back his bar stool.  He stood up and turned to face me.  Except for the strains of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” it was a silent night inside the bar.

Dan swayed in his boots, obviously the recipient of several regular’s largese.  For a fleeting second, I thought we must look like two gunfighters facing off at high noon, both itching to draw first.

Then he slowly sauntered up to me, a smile on his lips, as I stood frozen to my spot in the doorway.

“You know what your problem is, bitch?”

“No. What, exactly, do you think is my problem, asshole? I really would like to hear your answer.  Not that I give a damn.”

“Your problem — exactly — is that you want to take me home with you,” he said. “You’re hot for me and you won’t admit it.”

I considered all manner of comebacks to that, mostly comments having to do with his inflated ego.  But before I knew it, other words came tumbling out.

“You’re wrong about one thing. I’m definitely not hot for you. You are a good looking man when you’re somewhat sober, but you are so offensive, irritating and rude that even flies are turned off by you.”

He made a grab for my waist and suddenly bent me backward as if in preparation for a big kiss.

Somehow, I found my footing and ducked under his arm, leaving him swaying in his boots.

“But you’re right about one thing,” I said, unable to stop the flow of words. “I do want to take you home. I think you could do with a good, hot meal instead of left-over garbage, a night on the extra bed instead of laying in the back seat of your broken-down, ratty old car.”

I had started that speech as the ultimate put-down. But as I said it out loud, Dan’s face visibly softened, his eyes bright.  And I shocked myself with the realization that I really meant the words I was saying.

The tears in his eyes were in danger of overflowing.

“Do you have a shower?” he finally asked, a slow smile beginning at the corners of his lips.

“Yes. I also have food. I can’t cook worth a damn, but your welcome to put together something from whatever’s in the fridge and pantry.”

“Oh, I can cook,” he said. “Do you mean it, that you’d take me home with you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s go then,” Dan said.

And we did.

That night, we stayed up until the early morning, talking about our lives, reasons we had missed the love boat and were “retired” forever from further attempts at relationships. About 4 a.m. that morning, Dan made eggs, sausage and grits for both of us.   The next day, he fixed my bathroom sink. The day after that, he began moving his few belongings from his car into the condo’s spare bedroom.

On Christmas day, he made the best barbecue I ever tasted.

In the weeks and months afterward, I kind of liked telling people that my home was protected by a trained Seal. The truth was, I liked the idea that I had a notch up on a burglar alarm.  And I was beginning to really like Dan, who I found to be one of the most interesting and intelligent people I knew.

As trying as I could sometimes be, Dan had a real home, a base from which he could scour for a job. For me, I not only had burglar prevention, but a cook, house cleaner and all-around fix-it man.  As well as a friend.

During several months, we discovered we had a lot of tastes and interests in common. were fans of Pink Floyd, Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zepplin. We liked the action movies and comedies played out on Dan’s video cassette recorder he brought in from the back seat of his still-stationary car. Though neither of us would ever admit it out loud, both of us appreciated having someone to talk to, someone who listened.

About five months after moving in, Dan found a job as a security guard and brought home groceries with his first paycheck. That afternoon, he grilled steaks, baked potatoes and corn.  I complained that I was gaining weight from all of his cooking, but I said it with a smile.

Neither of us drank much at home, but we sometimes went to Finnegan’s on weekends.

By Dan’s estimate, I kicked him out at least two hundred times over the next thirty years, but he never seemed to actually go anywhere. I got so used to my friend puttering around in his room, cooking and helping with the bills — especially after I retired from the newspaper business —  I’d have cried if he’d made good on his frequent vows to leave.

“You saved me,” he told me one day after we’d lived together for nearly thirty-five years. “I was living out of a dumpster and you came along and saved me.”

I reflected on my routine I called life before Dan became a permanent roommate — my work-sleep-work schedule periodically punctuated by horrible relationships — and how we had seen each other through thin times that included financial straits and medical scares.  We also had shared happy times,  such as training and parenting our beloved lab mix puppy that some idiot with no soul had left to die on a rainy street.

“You saved me right back.” I told him in all honesty.

I couldn’t have said why, especially since we were best friends and not lovers, but somewhere along the line, Dan and I had gradually, quietly stretched the boundaries of love to become each other’s family.

It was a different sort of living arrangement that suited us both, though it initially caused quite a stir in Finnegan’s Bar. Since no one knew exactly how to define the relationship, no one knew how to call the bets.

As Dan and I began our fourth decade together, not one of our friends’ wagers had earned a single cent.

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About betmartin

Kicked out of Texas's best universities, I was Houston's worst sales girl, bar maid and waitress. In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Navy didn't know what to do with me, either, and they sent me to journalism school. I've been writing ever since, for community news, a museum exhibit company, a magazine for history professionals and until recently, shortly after my 60th birthday, for the Houston Chronicle before being caught in the massive layoffs. Blogging is an entirely new venture, but I think I'm going to like it. (The guy that convinced me to do this said it will help me get a new job, but if I do it right, I'm damned if I see how). I'd like to know what any passing reader thinks about my efforts to fill up these pages.
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