I wanted to share some of the colorful characters one can encounter while traveling. Not every travel experience has to be exotic; the point of doing travel writing is to get a feel for the spirit of the place and the people who call it home. What better way to get to know a place than by talking to those who have been there the most? Yes, I’m talking about the local old guys. This is a somewhat long read but I guarantee a laugh or two!
I was feeling larky that Tuesday morning as I walked down the street across the courthouse in downtown Missoula, having just hit unsuccessfully on a pretty European girl with a smile of gold who worked behind the counter of one of the local museums. Sadly, she was married, as European girls with smiles of gold tend to be. Nothing came of it but an embarrassed (but flattered) smile on her part, just what I was going for anyhow… well, sorta.
Missoula is a hard town to be if you’re a young man with a romantic propensity. It’s a college town with a paradisiac abundance of fair maids walking and biking on the street. In my experience, it must be a close second to Paris in terms of beautiful women per capita. It’s painful on the eyes, hard on a young writer’s bleeding heart, and simply murder on the neck from craning it all day long. Yoga pants are a definite win for my generation, as well as a double-edged sword.
Anyhow, I was feeling a bit poetic in the aftermath of my failed conquista, a dangerous mood to be in as hip a city as Missoula (or anywhere else, for that matter), when I saw an old man sitting outside a coffee shop. He looked at the life passing around him with the calm melancholy that characterizes old age.
He had a patchy, white-grey beard. On his head, he wore an old, beaten up swede hat crowned with a turquoise Indian-style bead ribbon. He wore a pair of beat up, black aviator glasses although, come to think about it, everything about him looked worn.
I don’t know what piqued my curiosity about him, maybe it was my elegiac mood, which is particularly receptive to talking to hippie-looking old people. In any case, I spied the end of a Prussian-blue case sticking out of his right breast pocket. I recognized it immediately as the case for a Hohner Blues Harp, the same harmonica I carried on my travels. Thus, I couldn’t resist myself.
I stopped in front of the old man, smiled at him and fumbled around my backpack for my harmonica. He looked up, trying to discern what I was doing, and cried out in surprise when I opened my palm and revealed the same harmonica.
“Oh, so you’re a harmonica man!” he said, taking his out. We exchanged them, as each of ours was in different keys, and tried them out.
The old man took up the harmonica and played a blues riff, bending and flexing the notes on the harp in a way that made passersby at the other end of the street look in our direction. His fingers handled it with skill, as one would something that has become second nature to him.
Damn, those are good blues!
I responded by playing a Celtic tune, at which I’m particularly adept. He looked at me with amazement, still stunned by the random encounter.
We introduced ourselves. The old man’s name was Sparky. I sat down for a talk with him. In true millennial fashion, I fished my e-cig from my pocket and began vaping as Sparky took out a plastic container filled with chewing tobacco, a pinch of which I politely refused.
The old man proceeded to chew and spit as we talked about harmonica-playing techniques, banjos, and guitars. I told him I’ve been fiddling with going back to learn the guitar (again, a feeling no doubt attributable to my whimsical disposition that day).
“Do you like to drink?” he then asked out of the blue.
“I enjoy a drink or two here and there.”
He then huddled over his backpack and looked up, “I’m an alcoholic,” he said grinning. “Want some whiskey with seven?”
“Oh,” I said, unsure of what to do, the old man had caught me off guard, “um… sure!” I had no idea what a whiskey with seven was.
The old man reached into his backpack and pulled out a plastic flask filled with a piss-yellow liquid, which someone with a little more common sense that I have (remember, I was poetic that day) would have taken as a red flag. I took a swig and hoped for the best. To my surprise, it was a pretty mellow mixture of Seven-Up and whiskey. Sparky knocked back a long swig from that bottle of whiskey as if it would cure him of his alcoholism.
Sparky was a musician. He played the harmonica, the banjo, the guitar, and the mandolin. He used to play in all the local bars for gigs and tips. “I was going to the bar anyway,” he told me offhandedly, “might as well make some money too.” Whether he drank that money immediately or saved up, he never did say.
After telling me the story of the time he escaped from prison by climbing over the fence and got sniffed out by police dogs three days later (“That’s what you get for being young and stupid,” he confessed, a little too close to the mark), the old coot took me on an improvised walking tour of downtown Missoula, which resulted in my almost buying a ukulele in a pawn shop. Thankfully, I was mindful of my romantic condition and decided to think about it rather than giving way to the impulse of a false muse.
“I was born in this town in 1939,” Sparky told me as we walked towards one of the parks where he hangs out with other local fixtures. “I’m 79 years old.” He wanted me to meet one of his friends with whom he hung out at his street corner haunt. He was of Mexican descent and, in Sparky’s words, he wanted me to “outspeak his Spanish.”
“So,” I inquired as we walked, “how was Missoula in the old days?” Sparky walked along slowly, swinging his black cane with the black adhesive tape along the worn concrete.
“Oh, it was a fun little town! It used to be filled with lumberjacks, loggers, and ranchers. Now it’s all academia,” he said wistfully. “There used to be more bars.”
As we approached the park near Red’s Bar, I saw a wiry man with a wispy horseshoe beard and Ray-Ban sunglasses flipping us off from the other side of the street. He was gaunt and swarthy, which gave me the impression that he did a lot of farm work. He had a cap and a silver feather earing that came right above his jaw. He held a carved wooden cane between his legs, which left his hands free to keep giving my guide the middle finger. That must be the Mexican.
“Sparky,” I said, realizing that the old man’s vision had probably seen better days, “I think that guy across the street is flipping you off.”
The old pan squinted hard at the guy across the street. “Yeah, that’s Fer… and he’s sitting in my goddamn spot!” he said angrily.
The Mexican looked away from Sparky, as if with the belief that if he ignored him the old man would lose interest and wander off.
“Hey! Hey, f#$% you! You’re in my goddamn seat!” He then turned to me, “He’s trying to ignore me, you see. He does that.”
“Pinche viejo pendejo,” said Fer, with characteristic Mexican bad-mouth floweriness. “Not you again! You got the whole f#$% street to plop your old ass down!”
“You’re in my goddamn spot!” the old man cried childishly as he pushed poor Fer away from his spot. The Mexican gave way and fluttered to the side like an angry parrot, coming to a rest a foot away, trying to regain his composure
“Pinche viejo baboso,” he cursed. “Siempre vienes a joder.”
“Now he’s just showing off his Spanish, you see…” Sparky told me as he grabbed a hold of Fer’s cane and wrested it out of his hands with the mischievous glee offour-year-old. A brief, if somewhat pathetic, row erupted between the old men which ended with Sparky throwing Fer’s cane onto the ground in front of us. It came to rest at the foot of a tree beside the street, just over a gutter.
Fer cursed unintelligibly and punched the old man in the gut and sides several times. I noticed the blows were purposely soft, more a token chastisement than anything real. He walked over to his cane, picked it up and sat down again.
Sparky began talking about finding me a ranching job, claiming to Fer that I knew my cattle. How he came to that conclusion, I can’t really say. “He’s great with cattle!” Sparky said of me. I’ve never touched a cow in my life.
“Don’t listen to this guy, he’s f%$#ing old,” said Fer. “The senility’s got to him.”
Sparky then began spitting brown tobacco juice onto the sidewalk in front of us, leaving blotchy brown stains on the bone-white sidewalk.
“Pinche viejo cochino, stop spitting on the sidewalk! No one wants to see that, pendejo!”
Sparky looked at him over the corner of his eye and decided to ignore him by spitting on the concrete again.
“Stop spitting on the sidewalk, bitch!” growled Fer. “I’ll f%$& you up! From one senior citizen to another.” Another brief row erupted between them, like a spat between two baby brothers.
Fer looked at me with a look of the utmost frustration and, in Spanish, complained about how annoying Sparky was. “The old man is going to interrupt me─ he always interrupts me and tries to piss me off. Watcha, watcha. He’s gonna say something─”
“Hey,” said Sparky, tapping on Fer’s shoulder and laughing. “Hey! Hey, f$%& you.” I could tell that annoying the crap out of his Mexican friend was the part of the day that he looked forward to the most.
Fer looked at me with desperation, as if appealing to my sympathy at his predicament at dealing with the old man. “See? See?” he told me again in Spanish, “I told you he was gonna say something. He never shuts up!”
Finally, the conversation shifted when I asked them about the best places in town, trying to earn poor Fer some respite from Sparky’s incessant provocations.
“Let’s walk him up to the Oxford,” said Sparky. “He’s looking for a place to write.”
“You’re a snail mother$%er,” Fer snapped back, “it’ll be winter by the time you get him there. He can go by himself without you holding him back.”
“Come on, why don’t you take him to the Oxford?”
“No, I don’t go there without money.”
“If you mention my name they’ll give you a free beer.”
“They’ll throw me out, more likely.”
“You got kicked out of Mexico.”
This went on for a while until I excused myself, still laughing, and left them still bickering the day away. As I walked away, I pondered the joys of old age and I realized there was a lesson to be learned in all of this: Don’t hit on pretty girls in museums if you don’t want to end up in weird places.
Anyhow, even if going out for coffee with a cute girl with a smile of gold would probably still be my first choice, hanging out with crazy old timers was certainly a close second.