In celebration of the Toad In the Hole Pub & Eatery’s 25th anniversary on Oct. 3, I salute some of the characters and good times I shared at my favorite watering hole in Winnipeg’s eclectic Osborne Village…
THE BUG-EYED BARMAN
The Bug-Eyed Barman was rude, offensive, profane, narcissistic, intrusive, interruptive, ignorant and fancied himself as quite the ladies’ man.
He is the most self-absorbed person I have ever met. I mean, Howard Stern is shy and mousy meek compared to The Bug-Eyed Barman, who needs attention like a trout needs H2O. By way of evidence, consider this: Once challenged by the Ol’ Turnkey to go at least 30 minutes without talking about himself, he balked.
“You know I can’t take that bet,” Phil the Bug-Eyed Barman said.
“It’s only 30 minutes,” the Ol’ Turnkey countered. “For chrissakes, surely you can go half an hour without talking about yourself…I’ll even give you odds.”
“Nope. Can’t do it.”
I am, of course, painting a rather unflattering portrait of The Bug-Eyed Barman (one that has been well-earned), yet I must confess that, once on the patron side of the bar, Phil was quite an enjoyable fellow. Very funny even. Oh, sure, he talked about himself ceaselessly, but he also got into the juice (with a few side trips to the back alley for some wacky tobacky) and he was quite the happy drunk.
When Phil got enough firewater and Mary Jane into him, his face turned elastic and sloppy and featured a non-stop crap-eating grin, and he had much difficulty staying upright on his stool, listing fore and aft like a legless sailor on leave. More often than not, we would find Phil in this state on a Friday night, because he worked the day shift and was wont to hang around and get pie-eyed after surrendering the business side of the bar to Mick.
On one such occasion, he was well into his cups when he awkwardly propped himself up on the stool to my left. Heather, the owner and his longtime boss and friend, was standing to my right, engaged in conversation with two regulars, Gloria and Transcona Sid.
“You see that woman there,” The Bug-Eyed Barman said, every word a slur.
“What woman?” I asked.
“That one,” he said, sloppily waving his drunken right arm in the general direction of Heather and Gloria.
“There are two women there, Phil,” I said. “Which one are you talking about?”
I studied him. He had his left arm draped along the bar to provide support, he was bent over like Lon Chaney in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and his head was scarcely at bar level. In short, he was a train wreck.
“That one with the red hair,” he said. “That one right there beside you. The one in the black sweater and red hair.”
“OK, what about her?”
“What’s her name?”
“What’s her name?!”
“Yeah, what’s that woman’s name?”
I was dumbfounded.
“That’s Heather, Phil,” I told him.
“Do I know her?” he replied.
“Do you know her? She’s your boss. You work with her every day. She’s been signing your paycheques for about six years. Good grief, man, how many drinks have you had?”
“She seems nice. Would you introduce me to her?”
We ordered him a cab home instead.
THE SEA CAPTAIN
A lecherous-looking chap with thinning hair, a salt-n-pepper goatee, a built-in smirk and all the smoothness and charm of barbed wire, the Sea Captain dropped F-bombs like kids in the ’60s dropped acid. Every time he opened his mouth, a plume of blue smoke arose and, at last report, there had never been a documented moment when he actually said something positive. About anything or anyone.
Oh, wait. I retract that statement. He did once say something nice about Leonard Cohen, declaring him to be the best singer ever produced in Canada. Overall, however, life for the Sea Captain was not a question of the glass being half full or half empty. It’s more like, “Why should I give a shit about some fucking glass and whatever the fuck’s in it?” (Did I mention he’s a charming fellow?)
And so it was on a quiet Saturday afternoon when the Sea Captain’s constant griping took aim at the music Scottish barman Des was dispensing.
“Bob Dylan…why the fuck do we always have to listen to Bob fucking Dylan?” he ranted.
“Do you have something against Dylan?” Des asked.
“Yeah…he’s a one-hit fucking wonder.”
“Bob Dylan? A one-hit wonder?” I said. “What tune out of his catalogue of about 1,000 tunes he’s recorded in the past four decades was the one hit?”
“I don’t know, but there was only one of the fuckers.”
Des turned up the volume on the stereo.
“Maybe this is the one hit,” Des growled. “If not, we’ll listen to Dylan until we finally hear his one fucking hit!“
I always very much enjoyed Renee’s company. A wine drinker with a preference for red, he always wore a sailor-type cap, he sprouted scattered chin whiskers and flashed a warm smile. He was also given to making silly sports bets, but this was not a character flaw so much as it was a beacon of amusement for the rest of us, who were the beneficiaries of his misguided notions about the games grown men played.
An on-and-off kitchen employee at the Toad and a night owl with considerable endurance, Renee had no difficulty laughing at himself, which I regard as a personality trait of merit. Like the rest of us, he knew he did and said dumb things. Especially when enough of the vino had soothed his throat.
And so it was one night when myself, Muscle Rick and Renee were engaged in conversation at the left flank of the bar …
“There’s one thing I want to know before I die,” I said. “I want to know, without doubt, who killed Kennedy.”
“That’s no mystery,” Muscle Rick declared. “It was the Mafia.”
“No, no,” I responded. “That’s your theory on who killed him. I want to know as an absolute fact who killed Kennedy. I want someone to step forward and say this is who it was, this is how it happened and this is why it happened. And I want them to provide the proof. No speculation, no theories, just the truth. That’s what I want to know before I die.”
There was a brief pause, then…
“I know who killed Kennedy,” Renee said with conviction.
“Who?” I asked.
“Eisenhower? Dwight Eisenhower, as in former president of the United States?”
“Yup. He killed Kennedy.”
The notion that good, ol’ Ike Einsenhower arranged to have President John F. Kennedy gunned down in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, was like telling me Sophia Loren is really a man in drag. It simply isn’t believable.
“You know, Renee,” I said, “I think maybe that little sailor’s cap of yours is a tad too tight. I have to tell you, I’ve read and studied a lot about the JFK assassination and this is virgin territory for me. I mean, I’ve heard theories about the Mafia doing it, the CIA doing it, J. Edgar Hoover doing it, the Cubans doing it, the Soviets doing it, Lee Harvey Oswald doing it, Lyndon Johnson doing it…if you told me Homer Simpson did it I’d believe that before believing Eisenhower did it.”
“Eisenhower did it,” Renee insisted.
“To get his buddy into the White House.”
“Oh, so now Richard Nixon also killed Kennedy.”
“He knew about it.”
“So this is what you’re telling me: One president of the United States killed another president of the United States and a third president of the United States knew about the plot but chose to keep it a secret.”
“There’s just one little crack in this wacko theory of yours, Renee.”
“Killing Kennedy didn’t get Nixon into the White House. LBJ became president. And Bobby Kennedy would have become president if he hadn’t been killed.”
“Exactly! And who do you think killed Bobby Kennedy?”
“Let me guess: Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.”
“My God, man, what are they putting in that wine of yours?” “Wine? Have I been drinking wine? I shouldn’t do that. It makes me say stupid things.”