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Story Time with Sgt. Scott: Cowboy

Let me tell you a tale, young private, of my time after the service. Back in civilian land, a stranger to my own people. I got drunk for the better part of a decade. You think you want this life, listen up, because there's a price to pay for those stories.

When you're a drunk, your social circle is mostly in bars. I had my local. It wasn't the nicest or the grubbiest, it wasn't a meat market. It was a quiet, steady bar with a slightly older clientele. Dark inside, even darker booths. Stamped copper ceiling, left over from a wealthier time. A bullet hole over the bar that the owner claims happened during Prohibition, but I heard was from a drive-by in 1996.

This is the Nasty, and it's right on the strip. Hamilton Street. Five blocks of bars, restaurants and coffee shops with assorted tattoo parlors, barbers, bike shops and bail offices. Just across the river, the East side. One of the worst square miles in the US. Perennial murder capital contender, desperately poor, the abandoned urban underclass in the wake of de-industrialization. There were once over a hundred factories in Saginaw. Now there's three.

That's one three hundred yard bridge away from Hamilton Street, and it's the meeting place for the three sides of town. To the south, the Mexican quarter, to the west, the Township. The business owners on Hamilton are young and old. Some old proprietors hanging on for dear life. Some new ones filled with vision and ambition. All of them with more hope than sense. The town is dying.

I'd only been in town about four years at the time, fresh out the service and living with my younger brother, also just back from Iraq. It was a rough town, but we'd come from rougher.

Down to the pub, I like to think I was an excellent patron. Quiet, polite, my tab got paid in full, the staff got tipped every time, and well. A good pub can take years to get “in” to, but it's faster if you don't stiff the staff. You join the community. Learn the rules. Follow the code. The regulars and the semi-regulars. You start to learn about people slowly, over time.

John, an ever-so-slightly aged queen holds magnificent court with his coterie of fag-hags. It's always a fun time when they're in. Dom is rich or something and is forever buying rounds. Regulars stalk him. Neil, the manager, is forty and dating a different twenty-year-old every week. Nan, the heroically ugly and cantankerous bartender. She once threatened to “slap the dipshit out of your [my] face” for calling her “ma'am”. I wasn't going to try her.

But this story is about another regular. Name of Cowboy. He only comes in early in the day or late at night. A bit shorter than average, rail thin, all corded muscle, bad ink and long scraggly goattee. Works second shift, and hustles afterward. He makes the rounds at the bars late at night, sells beef jerky. Looks sketchy as hell, comes in a ziplock bag, but it is excellent. Kind of like Cowboy.

Now, Cowboy likes a drink, and I like drinks and beef jerky and we can both smell blood on the other. He's wizened, old before his time. Hard living, no doubt. He has full dentures, teeth knocked out in a prison fight. He's been in three times, he rides for the Outlaws, has the badges, has the ink. He's on parole for another ten years. I still don't know the details.

We bond over telling scar stories, every old soldier's favorite game. The stories start funny and get dark. There's some things you can't discuss with someone who can't directly relate, and when you find someone like that, there's a context to it. You don't understand now, you may later. It takes a while. You don't kiss on the first date with a guy like that. You gotta feel it out, get comfortable. Here we were, relative nobodies to the rest of the world, a broke-dick soldier and a lifelong criminal. But within our respective tiny subcultures, we were powerful and respected elders. The reason you're listening to my stories, young private.

Three terms, three deployments, three war zones.

Let me tell you son, my stories got nothing on old Cowboy's! I mean, mine might be crazier, and happen in a more exotic location, but his were so much more traumatic. It's one thing to go into battle with the might and money of a world superpower at your back, and another to have nothing and no one but yourself, and no win but more prison time with your opponents at the other end. Dude was a hard, hard man.

Generally kept my nose clean, by infantry standards. A bit of jail here and there for fighting, public drunkenness, stealing the flags off a golf course once...nothing serious.

So anyway, back to the story. The bar. The community.

I've been drinking in this bar for four years. I'm on my third set of owners. I've been here before most of the bartenders started. Now, one of the benefits of being a trusted regular is the lock-in.

So the boys hold a lock-in without us one night, lo and behold the cash is all gone in the morning. The whole night's takings. And half the liquor. None of this is discovered until Neil opens in the afternoon, and my brother and I wander in not ten minutes later.

The place is a bit of a mess, we help clean up and start figuring out what happened. Neil checks the security footage, and there it is, plain as day. The night bartender left the keys with one of his friends to lock up, and the guy cleaned the place out. We know this guy. We know his address. Nobody can think of his name right off, but who gives a shit?

The cops are no help, they'll take a statement but don't have time to waste on a few thousand in loose cash. This is bad for the bar, but it's really bad for those of us who like lock-ins.

Cowboy turns up, we brief him on what happened and he has a suggestion. For ten percent of the lost cash, he'll go over to the kids house with a couple of his Outlaw boys, put a bit of a fright into him, get him to give back the stuff. Way faster and cheaper than the cops!

Neil calls the owner, he says handle it. Cowboy goes outside to clear it with his boss in the MC. Comes back with bad news, the club won't sanction its guys for debt collection, and apparently this counts. Plan B.

What are the odds this popped-collar fuckwit knows what a proper Outlaw cut looks like? Are we outsmarting ourselves? Dan rides, he has a cut from a veteran MC. I used to ride, but sold my bike in Cali. We get on the phone.

Raoul is sixty-four, single, alcoholic. Looks like hispanic Colonel Sanders. I think he's been drunk since the seventies. He had a tough tour in Vietnam, I met him at the Purple Heart meetings. Sweet guy, a quiet and melancholy drunk, but good humored when roused. An inveterate poon-hound. He's a good dude, and hooks us up with a bike and a convincing-looking vest.

Cowboy has to work, so Dan and I do a basic recce. Walk the street, check the alley, count the exits. Windows are small and mostly high up, he's not gonna crawl out through those most likely. Three doors, one to the garage.

Back to our apartment. We talk over the plan, the scope. We leave weapons at home, pepper spray only. We're in sketchy legal area here. We aren't committing a crime, but we're going to be on his property and not necessarily friendly. If things go sideways, we don't want to escalate any more than necessary to break contact. We can always come back with more hardware, or men.

Cowboy turns up at midnight, and we roll out into the damp, dark night. Loud. This isn't a sneak operation, this is about intimidation. The whole neighborhood is going to peek out at this little show.

Fuck, I nearly forgot how much fun motorcycles are. And how incredibly scary they are when you ride with maniacs. I'm a highway cruiser, Dan has a death wish, and Cowboy was born on a bike or something. We come down that quiet cul-de-sac like thunder, line all three bikes up with the headlights pointed at the front door. My adrenaline is off the charts, I am not that good on a bike.

Dan splits off to the back, the garage is to our right, but the external door is closed. Cowboy mounts the steps to the porch, I stay one step back and to his left. The cut is a bit loose, Raoul is a lot thicker. Three loud raps at the door. Just enough to bounce the hinges a bit, you know? Take note, young private. Your knock should loosen a screw or two. Makes a good first impression.

Fuckwit comes stumbling to the door, must have slept the day. Queasy looking. Comes out of the door! Ok, we got this, this dude is not going to be a problem. If he barricaded, we might have had a time. He's quite a bit bigger than any of us, but that won't matter now.

He's disoriented, blinded by the lights behind us. He looks for a long moment at Cowboy, then at me. He's outside, the door is behind him. He's wearing sweatpants and flip flops. We're both within four feet of him. He knows us, but not by name, and not with biker gear on. We're both holding our helmets. He turns to go back through the door, and he can see straight down the hallway through the back sliding glass door, to where Dan is standing on his patio.

Cowboy puts his hand softly on Fuckwit's shoulder.

“Put everything back in your car, and take it back to the pub. We'll follow you.”

Fuckwit looks back at me. I give him my best evil grin.

He packs his car. People are looking. It's nearly one AM now, and suddenly people are wandering up and down the sidewalks, cell phones in hand. Whatever, Nasty PD ain't crossing the river for a noise complaint. It takes an uncomfortable amount of time though. That was a lot of hooch.

The escort is a good excuse for me to fall back and tail Fuckwit's ancient Buick. Dan and Cowboy are blasting up and down the wet, empty streets, popping wheelies, Charlie Mike. We take the scenic route through the neighborhood. It's last call when we roll back into the pub.

Neil boots the stragglers, makes Fuckwit restock the liquor and bans him from the bar. The whole of Hamilton Street already knows. Cowboy gets his ten percent, Dan and I get what turns out to be quite a lot of free drinks, and a special reward. We call Raoul to come down to pick up his bike and join us for a lock-in.

And that, ladies and gentle privates, is how I got a seat at the bar.

They've torn the place down now, but somewhere there is a small brass plaque that used to be nailed in front of the back corner stool of the pub.

Excuse me, but that's my seat. Is my name on it? Yes, yes it is. Would you like to speak to the manager?


Cowboy died last year. Mid fifties,god knows of what. My brother rode up from North Carolina for the funeral. Six hundred people joined his wake. I had to borrow a bike. Older now, softer and relatively sober. I gave up the seat for a wife and a quiet life in the Nasty burbs. Dan has two kids and travels for work. Raoul is dead, years ago. There were no women at his funeral. I still see Neil from time to time. He's still dating twenty-year-olds and managing a bar. I never saw Fuckwit again. Still don't know his name.

I sometimes go back to the old neighborhood and walk its mountainous sidewalks, check in on old neighbors. Maybe have a drink at Neil's new place. Remind the streets. We're only old, we ain't dead yet.

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What do you do if fuckwit decides to retaliate?

It's never really come up.

Let me use a sports analogy. Tomorrow, you're going to get revenge on someone in a game of tennis. You've never played a game, not one. Your opponent is the worst professional tennis player in the world, ranked dead last. How you feeling about your chances?

You’re a great writer, thanks for the story.

Too kind (really), and thanks!

Again, I want to say that I deeply appreciate you writing these and wish that I had the talent for story-telling that you manifestly do. It's funny, as much as I am thankful to have put those days behind me your stories make me feel nostalgic in a way that is difficult to explain.

I have few pictures or mementos from my time in, and even fewer from the Interregnum when I was going to school while working as a PMC over the summers. Part of me thinks this is a good thing, shit sucked, I (or rather "old me") sucked, and it is better to leave it behind. At the same time I can't help but feel a bit of loss. Was that me or was it a dream. My better half met me towards the end of that phase in my life and never really knew me while I was in it, she just heard the stories my friends would tell. My two boys know almost nothing of my old life, as far as they know I'm just another fat balding little-league dad and always have been. It's Uncle Tony who tells them stories about waging war in Iraq and wrestling Baboons in East Africa. I occasionally find myself wondering whether I'm doing them a favor or a disservice, but I also have a good 8 - 10 years before I got to worry about one of them wanting to join the Marines.

As an aside it feels like every dive/neighborhood has its archetypes and my "Cowboy"'s funeral was only a few weeks ago, and maybe the reason I'm feeling reflective is that it was interesting to see who had moved on and who was basically in the same place they'd been a decade ago.

stories make me feel nostalgic in a way that is difficult to explain.

Nah, I get you. Feels weird to write them. I have a lot of these in one stage or another of writing, but some of them just ain't for consumption.

When you sand off the edges, it just sounds fun and wild. When you have to live it, you want to make sure people think twice before following your example.

But youth is wasted on the young, and no amount of aged wisdom is going to stop them trying to climb that hill. And frankly, someone has to.

Man, that is a great yarn. I'll spot you a round if you're ever up my way. I've bar fought some bikers in good faith, more respectful than you would think, but a little bullying and dangerous for sure, and I never really liked the the crazy "fuck you" aesthetic some clubs run . Never been stabbed so that is a plus.

Biker gangs are really the last people you want to be on the wrong side of. It isn't good.


What is a "cut" in this context? Do the Outlaws all have a certain haircut?

The vest, properly set up. There's a heirarchy of clubs, insignia, arrangement, patches etc.

The subtitles on Sons of Anarchy would spell it as “kutte.”

Lol, ze chermans?

Ze chermans ah rollin' throoo ze bocage, ze Nat-seez son bay-zee ;-)

It’s the dress code for bikers acting as part of the gang. Typically a special vest, and usually a very bad idea to imitate if you’re not a member.

A thumb-billy? Here? :P

And I gotta ask, which hospital?

Nah, probably not, unless he was a regular on the strip or in the MOPH.

Behind Covenant is tough, I lived in that area, a dozen blocks south roughly. Behind St. Mary's makes Baghdad look like Bennington.

Excellent story!

Was this inspired by the comment in last week's thread about what to do about low level antisocial behavior?

And stupid question, but what does "lock in" mean in this case? I'm only familiar with that term in regards to youth group stuff, which is very obviously not the use here.

Yes, and Far covered the lock in.

After legal closing hours, you lock up (allegedly) but it's really a bunch of regulars etc. continuing to drink until the owner/barkeeper decides to genuinely close up. That's a lock-in round these parts, anyway. Police may or may not be aware it happens, may or may not turn a blind eye to it.

Aaaah, gotcha.

I'm guessing it is more common in places/times where the legal closing hours are/were earlier- I see the article mentions 11pm, which would be quite early by the standards of places I've lived (usually in the 2am to 4am range).

Early closing hours were the attempt to tackle the drinking problem in my country and the British Isles in general, with little success. People always find ways and loopholes.

2AM closing time.