[Excerpt from “Pilgrimoire” – my memoir of a trip to Europe and its consequences.]
There are a hundred pubs per square kilometer in Glasgow, I’m convinced. At least 50 in Edinburgh. But the kind of pub I love is the Scottish pub outside the main city, in an adjacent town, like Duddingston. The oldest surviving public house in Edinburgh. The Sheep Heid. I did tuck in there, over the hills of Holyrood Park, surprisingly close to the church by Duddingston Loch. You could tuck into the Sheep Heid and not be found by the wife for weeks.
A pub should be warm, wooden, and glistening with glass. The floor can be wood or carpet, but the chairs should be low and solid, ready to house an occupant for much more than an hour. One should not feel that you would be rousted out anytime soon. There may or may not be a fireplace, but in the comfort of a good town pub, you should not be surprised by one, as it will not be out of place.
A dram should be measured. There should be bacon or vinegar flavored Walker’s Crisps. There should be at least one older woman present, with her Wellies on and oatmeal sweater adorned with a pin of thistle with amethyst or celtic knot. Someone’s old walking stick should count among the local treasures hung up or leaned against the hearth. There should be a story accompanying this, including the tale of the auld codger’s death, years later from a freak infection after a small farming accident. “Funny, the sea dinnae take him—it was a rusty fence after all. Always thought ‘twould be the sea.” And a toast will be offered to him. None of the people toasting should have known him personally, except that they were very young when he died.
Maybe I’m too romantic for the current times. Maybe this is a tourist’s view of pubs, but I’ve seen them close up as well. I have the courage to take in a pub slowly and to make conversation with willing locals. I can order a good Scotch and fit in because of my obviously Scottish looks. Nevermind that I have also been tagged as a Russian, a Pole, a German, Irish and “obviously” a Swede.
One day in the Canongate, at Jenny Ha’s Pub, I met a very “local” local. His name was Jimmy, and he may have been over 80 years old, or not a day over 70. In Jenny Ha’s, you had a couple of slow hours in the evening where more people came in for a late slice of pizza than anything. There was a very good pizza, if you don’t compare it to New York or Chicago. I was in for my usual Laphroaig, neat. I sat at the tall stools at the bar. Jimmy swaggered in, settled to drinking quickly and wobbled over to me in due course. I was the shiny object and he was the crow. He took me into his sharp eye and began to poke at me with his well worn stories.
“I – was a boxer, you see,” he explained after introductions. He punched me in the arm as he said it, harder than he was aware.
I don’t like people touching me, particularly men in bars, whatever the age.
I responded coolly. “Oh, that’s interesting,” or something like. I was genuinely curious for the story, being the tourist. Also, if I could find colorful people to chat with as I was getting acclimated to Edinburgh, more’s the better. But difference is the manner and I quickly got the gist that this was not just a friendly pub chat—for me.
“I’ve been a boxer ____ years ago. I was the ___weight champion of ___ for a year, and I have the placque to prove it…” or some such. Punches me in the arm again. Then he nudges me every time he says something, obviously needing more enthrallment coming from me than he was getting. But I started out interested before he started manhandling me. Didn’t seem to matter to him. This may not have been the first bar he began on his rounds today. His jokes were typical old man fare.
I could believe easily that he was a boxer. He had meat hooks on him! It was like being hit with a pillow case full of doorknobs. With every jovial punch, he tried to prove his manhood. He adjusted his snap brim cap as often, too. His hair was very closely shorn, and you could see the age spots in the first half inch behind his hair line. There was a small white foam of spittle in the left corner of his mouth. I wondered if he had suffered brain damage from boxing or from drinking, or which first. Other than his inebriation, though, he was sharp and formidable.
The stool seat was slippery and new, rounded up. I kept sliding off, and it took some abs to hold my ground as he also jostled me by the shoulder, trying to be friendly and also trying to touch me as often as possible. But I was determined. Being from Chicago and having the background of a short blonde, I was used to defending myself assertively. No shrinking violet, I tried to give back as much, and ended up shouting blunt sentences at him to take some control over the situation. He wasn’t having any of that.
Finally, I could take it no more, and stared him straight in the eye and said, “You are hitting me. Stop hitting me.” Jimmy scoffed, and kept pummeling me with his story, very much nonplussed. He regaled me further on How tough he had been, How he can still hold his own, etc.
“I believe you, you don’t have to show me.” I offered. No satisfaction, talking to a drunk.
The bartender, owner James, finally intervened. “Jimmy, now, leave the lass alone.”
“You keep out of this. I’m just telling her stories.”
“Stop hitting me, then!” I pounced.
“I’m doing no such thing.” he scoffed.
“You are hurting my customers. I won’t have it, Jimmy.” James said more forcefully. Obviously, this man has earned a reputation in here.
“I’m not hurting anyone, am I, girlie?” He challenged.
“Yes, you are.” I said, not budging. “You’re bothering me very much.”
When James came out from behind the bar, mildly but authoritative, Jimmy stood back as if to defend his ground. “I can be in here like anyone else—“ Jimmy began, wheeling around to talk to James, taking affront to a man’s challenge. As a woman, it was truly angering to know I didn’t merit such seriousness with my push back. Yet, I was glad this brute was being handled. I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, as the saying goes.
Back and forth, James was trying to be a good proprietor by throwing his ‘regular’ out. Jimmy was shouting the whole time how much money he spends in this pub, and how James is wasting his better business on one pretty Yank. I wondered whether James would rather be shut of him or agreed with him. But ultimately, it was the right thing to do, warning him out. It took some time, and wasn’t pretty. But I felt better for it, and ultimately, felt safer.
He asked if I was shaken, and I admitted I was. I had another dram before I left, so I could cool down and assure myself Ol’ Man Jimmy was well out of the vicinity before I ventured out in the street again.
Pubs. You know what I mean.