I drove home from work late Saturday night wondering how long it would take for me to see the flashing lights.
You see, there had been rioting in my neighborhood, or looting, or call it what you will. The term civil unrest certainly fits the bill.
I live on the outskirts of a little town called Temple Terrace, which is essentially Tampa. All night long at work, an incredibly busy Saturday night at the bar, I heard servers and customers and others randomly telling me “they’re burning this down” or “they’re rioting here.” All the while, I was making service ticket after confounded service ticket, which is what my job as bartender has now boiled down to. Thanks to the Coronavirus that has barricaded our country, customers are no longer allowed to sit at the bar. No customers, only service tickets… but that’s a story for another time.
Miles away but not for long, protestors, or looters, or vandals, depending on how you choose to describe them had allegedly burned down a mall, and a gas station, a mere, few miles from where I live. Meanwhile, eight more tickets for Angels Envy Old Fashioned popped up on my register. The news made it rather hard to concentrate.
The proliferation of social media and misinformation – one and the same these days – kept giving us snippets of what was happening. A local Mobil station had been burned to the ground. Pawn shops, jewelry stores and sporting goods stores looted. All I could trust was what people were telling me… and it wasn’t good.
When I picked up a co-worker on the way into work earlier that day, I saw helicopters flying overhead at the intersection of 56th and Fowler. One could see hordes of police cars from a mile away. A peaceful protest had been planned. This had been hours earlier.
Someway, somehow, the protests turned foul, not surprising with the rising tension in America. After nearby stores were looted, we heard rumors those same people were on their way to Ybor City, where I work, where my good friends gather. No one knew what to believe at that point but it was still best to take precaution. Bars closed early. Other local businesses boarded their windows, an event normally reserved for oncoming hurricanes. A storm was a-brewin’ alright. For all we could tell, the damage caused could have been significantly worse than any act of nature.
The protestors never made it our way but that didn’t stop the evening from having a dreadfully eerie feeling. The way those service tickets kept popping up, it was as if people were drinking away their last rites.
A tightly knit group, our Irish pub, people of all ages and creeds, hugged one another and tried to make sense of it all but there was none to be made. America is fed up. We are a nation that is spiraling downward quickly. It doesn’t really matter on which side of the political spectrum you fall, it’s hard to see the light at the end of this tunnel. I can honestly say, I’ve never been less proud to be an American. We are living in the final scene of Do The Right Thing with no one, unfortunately, doing the right thing.
At four in the morning, I finally left work. Curious, I drove by the mall that was set afire. I had to see the damage for my own eyes. I had to make it real. It’s not that I didn’t trust the (second or third or fourth-hand) accounts but I needed to see for myself. John Coltrane played “Central Park” on my car stereo, reminding me of another area I grew up that has also all but been shut down.
And there I finally saw it. You couldn’t get close, with good reason. Police cars with lights bright barricaded the entire, multi-lane intersection. It was an upsetting state of affairs.
Mine wasn’t the only city being torched that night. Protests in urban areas around the nation put headlines of Coronavirus on the backburner. Shit had gotten real. People had had enough.
A friend paid me a great compliment the other night. I was pouring drinks behind the bar as he was coming in for a cordial hello. I wasn’t my usual cheery self, he noticed. Something I don’t recall had me down, but he came to me, saw something was amiss and said that he always looked to me for guidance, for cheer and positivity. That’s the joy of my chosen profession, the ability to still affect a person’s life in a positive manner, whether with a whiskey, a story or both.
Sometimes, especially on nights like Saturday night, maintaining that smile can be incredibly trying. Another friend drove by my apartment, just to let me know it wasn’t ablaze with the rest of the area. Fortunate, relatively speaking.
I’m not sure where the answer resides. Smarter men than me have preached about the respect we should hold for others. Heck, we’ve done that on this website in one way or another for the better half of eleven years. I guess enough people aren’t reading.
So, I turn to my smile again because that’s what I do and all I can wonder is who’s with me. And hope that the fires will eventually stop.