Sunday, September 26, 1999

Skalawags

This story originally appeared on the Secret Garden website and is archived here at the request of author Doug Rogers.


Sometimes the wildest, most absurd ideas are worth a million dollars. You never think it's going to happen to you, but it can. And it finally happened to me.
I suppose the club actually started in a dream when I was about 10 years old. Of course, I knew I was a devotee even back then. I just didn't know what you called the attraction. I also didn't know that there was anyone other than me who had it! We had gone to California to visit an aunt, and I was sleeping fitfully. My vision of California centered on night clubs and movie stars. I was vaguely disappointed that I hadn't seen any. Maybe that was what triggered the dream.
The dream was in black and white. Like a movie. I suppose it was a low budget dream. It consisted of nothing but scenes at the door of the club, and shots of the dance floor. All of the women were dressed in evening gowns, and the men in tuxedos. But all of the men had one thing in common: they were all sporting crude peg legs... the kind that look like the bottom half of a crutch. I even remember asking the doorman about it. He explained that the place was called "The Peg Leg Club" and that the only men who could get memberships there were those who had lost a leg and could wear a peg leg.
I woke up the next morning to find that my bed was wet. I had experienced my first nocturnal emission. It was a memorable first wet dream.

Some twenty years later, there I was in Chicago, looking for something to do to make money. I had about $100,000 from my parents' estate, and I had determined that I was going to put it into a business rather than let it languish in a bank. I had been a waiter in too many places to not know that there were big bucks to be made it you could just put your hands on a liquor license. Buying a bottle of booze for eight dollars wholesale and selling the 22 drinks you can get out of it for $3.95 each had always made great economic sense to me!
The major problem was that the licenses in the desirable parts of town were extremely hard to get, and that was saying that you could find someone interested in selling. I couldn't even come up with a down payment. And then I saw that small classified ad:
For Sale: Bar and Grill, cheap. Lease through 2020. License in good standing. Good living for owner-operator. See Max 223 Costanza.
Costanza was in a really rough part of town. I couldn't help but shudder at the thought of what the clientele would be like, but it was the only lead I had, so I drove down to check it out.
Max's Place was right there on the docks. It was a grubby storefront stuck in the end of what appeared to be a small warehouse. When I pecked on the door, an older man behind the bar yelled "We don't open until 11!"
"I'm here to talk to Max about the place!" I yelled back.
The guy came to the door and opened it. "Come on in," he said over his shoulder. "I gotta get ready for the lunch crew. Make most of my livin' off those guys these days."
"I'm Carl Connors," I said offering my hand.
"Max," he replied. "Max Poloski. Good ta meet ya." He wiped his hand on his apron before offering it.
"I'm interested in talking about your bar," I offered.
"Well, this is it!" he replied. "Got a lease on 'er through 2020! And a damn good rate too!"
"You said the lunch crew is your big crowd?"
"Yeah. We used to have a big turn at night, but what with re-zoning and all that not many o' the guys live 'round here any more. There's some that drop in after work for a couple a brews, but most nights I can close by nine and never miss a dollar."
"How much help do you have?"
"I'm it. One man store. Don't need no help. Can you cook short orders?"
"Sure."
"Then you can run the place too."
"You got a liquor license or beer only?"
"Both. But I ain't offered a mixed drink in 10 years. These boys just want brew with their burgers and fries. I got several cases of booze in the back room that I never even opened."
"How big a back room? Or is this it?"
The old man laughed. "You want a back room, young man? I'll show you a back room. Come here!"
He took me by the arm and escorted me through the door in the rear of the small bar. It opened onto a single, huge room that must have encompassed the entirety of the building.
"How's this for a back room?" Max said simply.
"Amazing. And all of this is yours?"
"Yep. Came with the lease. The owners are somewhere in New York. Too much trouble to lease it out as a warehouse. They make enough to pay the taxes and upkeep off o' me."
I stared there, wondering at the area. The space was unbelievable!
"I gotta get back to work," Max said as he led me back to the front area.
"What were you thinking of for the place," I asked.
"I'd take $50 grand for everything," he said simply.
I almost collapsed from a heart attack on the spot. "Did you say 50 thousand Dollars?"
"Yep."
"May I ask why the price is so low?"
"That's about the turn for a year. And I need t' sell it."
"Well, I'm certainly willing to pay that..."
"You got it now? In cash?"
"Yes, I do."
"You sure you want this place?"
"I think I do. May I ask why you're selling it?"
"Easy. I'm dying."
I looked at the old man for a moment. The flatness of his statement chilled me a bit.
"Doc says I've got leukemia. It's a blood disease. Says I've probably got about six months left to live unless I get on another damned round of chemo. Makes me sick as a horse. So I ain't doin' it. If I can sell this place, I'm takin' my savings and that money, and I'm going to see how far around the world I can get before it gets me. Wherever it is don't matter. I ain't never been out o' Chicago in my life, and I'm gonna see some places before I die. There's some nice places out there, they tell me!" He smiled at the last.
"Yes, there are," I said simply.
"What's your favorite place?" he asked.
"I've only traveled around the States," I said. "I really liked Kentucky and North Carolina. They're pretty places and the people are nice."
"I'll make sure I drop by there before I hit the ocean!" he said smiling. "So, you wanta buy a bar or what?"
"How long will it take to draw up the papers?" I asked.
"About a day," Max said. "Of course, the ABC license transfer will take a little longer, but I'll name you as my business manager until the transfer's complete. And it's really ready to go. This here is a one man corporation, and the credit on this place is great! I pay my bills on time or early every month!"
Driving back to my apartment, I could hardly believe what I had found. True, it wasn't in the part of town I'd hoped for, but this had real possibilities! I could start small and expand as the business warranted! The little 30x50 bar would be a tight fit at first, but walls are easy to move inside a large building. Carpenters work cheap when the work is down and dirty.
Max was a man of his word. He called the next day with the transfers. He and I walked out of his lawyer's office, and he went with me to the Alcoholic Beverage Control office to get the license transfer underway. The officials there assured me that as long as I had no felony criminal record, there should be no problems, since the permit was in an area zoned heavy commercial and industrial. "All trivial stuff," the girl had said.
My final errand was to take Max to his bank, and then to his apartment. It was the last time I would ever see him. He looked happy. Like a kid with a new toy. I hoped he would enjoy what was left of his life. God knows, he had set me up in mine!
I closed Max's Place that day. I'm sure there were a lot of his lunch regulars that were disappointed, but there were other beaneries in the area. I needed to do some redecorating, and start hiring some people.
The redecorating was pretty simple. I went by a theatrical supply house and hired their in-house guy to come turn Max's Place into what looked like a pirate pub! I didn't even blink when they wanted $17,000 for the job. I probably could have had it done a little cheaper, but I had other fish to fry.
The carpenter wanted $5,000 to move the kitchen area into the back. Not bad, because I had added a little used equipment in the move. Food would probably play a bigger part in my business than it had in Max's!
The four thousand dollar sign for the door said "Scalawag's". Not a bad name for a pirate pub! But I needed more than the theatrical setting! I needed the people to bring it off... the people to make the atmosphere complete.
For them I went to the Film Board.
Now, stop and think about that for a moment. If you were in a large city and you wanted to find amputees to work for you, in a setting where their missing limbs would be shown off, where would YOU go? It had occurred to me months before that to an amputee actor, this would be nothing more than a role! They ought to be willing to wear hooks or peglegs for the sake of the atmosphere!
I was surprised when the film board could only provide me with five names. In a city of millions, they had only five names. The first two turned the job down. The third was pay dirt.
Scotty arrived at Scalawag's on time. He was a neatly dressed young man in his twenties. He wore an artificial leg, but was so adept at its use that no one would have suspected it below his trousers had they not known. He was attractive, dark, and out of work.
"What have you done in the past?" I asked.
"I've been a waiter before, if that's what you're asking, sir," he answered.
"What else?"
"I've done some local theater, and some head and shoulders modeling." He knocked on his wooden leg. "Not too much body work for a guy missing a leg."
"Are you above or below the knee?" I asked.
"Below. Why do you ask?"
"How would you feel about waiting tables here wearing a peg leg as part of a pirate costume?"
He grinned. "Sounds like quite a trip." He looked around. "This does look kinda like a pirate's hangout. Who did your set?"
"Carousel."
"Yeah, they're good. A peg leg, huh? You gonna have me fitted? I don't have one."
"I'll take care of that," I smiled. "I have a prosthetist who has researched it, and knows how to make old fashioned ones."
"This is a head trip," he laughed. "OK. What are you offering?"
"How about ten dollars per hour. That OK?"
"You must be expecting me to get a hell of a lot of tips! What's the base?"
"That is the base. You keep your tips."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No. I'm very serious."
"I've never had a job that paid this good!"
"You've never had a job where you fit the employee profile so closely!"
We both laughed.
"You gonna need some more help?" he asked.
"Yes. Several. Why?"
"Well, there's these guys I know at the gym where I work out..."
"Do they share your disability?"
"Three do. One of the guys is missing his right leg above the knee. He's got his own pegleg! I've seen it! And another's missing a hand. Could he wear a hook and qualify?"
"Send them all by to see me. If they have your attitude and character, I can put them all to work!" I picked up a card and handed it to him. "Go see this fellow. He'll fix you up with a pegleg."

Two weeks later we opened.
It was as gala an event as I could have wished for. There was a local contingent there, of course, as the guys who were working there had told all of their friends to come check the place out. But the out-of-towners fascinated me!
I had posted the opening date of the bar to the "Garden" message board. A number of the regulars there had promised to fly in for the opening, but I never expected any of them. Was I ever wrong!
The greatest distance flown was by a rotund little man from Germany. His broken English and ever-present video camera punctuated the evening. I smiled as I watched him taking video of anyone and everyone who would let him. He never did give us his Garden name, but I'm pretty sure I know who he was!
Amy was there. I had known she would be. Tell "Mom" that there are going to be good looking guys on peglegs around, and she'd have been there if she'd had to walk it the whole way. She had written to tell me she was coming. I placed her at the head of the VIP table I had reserved just for this crew.
"Cousin" Jethro had driven all the way in. It was the first time that he and Amy had actually met face to face, so it wasn't long before they were in animated conversation.
Jesse arrived next. The prolific author had flown. I suspect that there will be at least seven stories flow from his pen based on this one evening alone. He didn't have a notepad or anything, but I noticed the sharp eyes taking in everything above his handlebar moustache. He was definitely absorbing the event!
The biggest surprise (both in terms of not expecting him, and in terms of pure physical size) was Doug. His health being what it is, no one expected the webmaster himself, but there he was. He strolled in, his shillelagh walking stick in one hand and Tigger on a leash held in the other. The Maine-coon cat spent most of his time either nestled in the crook of his master's arm, or on the bar where he meowed piteously when anyone within arm's distance was not petting him. Doug drank rum and cola, and Tigger had cream with a shot of catnip. Both were soused before 9:00.
The dancers were performing when the problems began.
There was a non-descript man in his early thirties who had come in with no fanfare. I hadn't even noticed his limp when I had seated him. In the middle of the dancer's number, he walked over to me at the bar and tapped me on the shoulder.
"You the owner of this place?" he asked.
"I am," I answered.
"I think you need to re-examine what you're doing here," he said flatly.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I think you need to look at how badly you are exploiting these poor guys you have working here."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," I said politely.
"You goddam devs are all alike. We'll see about this!"
And he left.
I didn't think much more about it until the next morning. All of the out-of-towners had left, and I was getting the place ready for the second night. A knock at the door brought me face to face with a man in a suit.
"You Carl Connors?" the man asked.
"Yes."
"Good. Greetings from Judge Markham. See ya in court!"
The summons server tuned on his heel and left. I sat down at one of the nearest tables and looked the document over. It was an order complaining that I was exploiting handicapped people in a lascivious way, stating that I was to appear in court the following morning to show cause why I was not in violation of several provisions of the Americans with Disabilities act!
"Who is this Sean Gerkson?" Scanlon asked.
I looked at my lawyer and shook my head. "He's a professional amputee," I told him.
"Do what?"
"I have no idea what he does for a living. But he has a very high profile on the internet. His main purpose seems to be to bash those people who find amputees attractive: the group known as 'devotees'. He even has a website where he lists the names and addresses of anyone he thinks has an 'unhealthy' interest in amputees."
"A site like that sounds like a lawsuit looking for a place to happen! Is your name on it? I hope? You can make some money if it is!"
"I don't think so. But look... is there anything to this? Am I breaking any laws here?"
"Hell no," the lawyer answered. "The provisions that he's worrying about have to do with discrimination. Hell, if anything else, you've hired a population that might have trouble getting this sort of work in other clubs! There's no problem here! We just need to go into court and fight it!"
So, the next day, there we all were. I had dragged the entire crew down to the courtroom, just in case the judge wanted to know what was going on. Lew Scanlon came in and sat down next to me. I glanced over at the other table. Gerkson was there, sans lawyer.
I was wondering what THAT was about when the bailiff called "Hear ye, hear ye! Court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Robert Markham presiding!"
The judge was a rather thin man in his early sixties. He LOOKED like a judge. Grey hair, horn rim spectacles, dark robes. He walked to the bench, sat, and rapped his gavel.
"Order in the court!"
The chattered died away.
"What's this order before me gentlemen? I've never seen anything quite like it before."
Gerkson rose. "Perhaps I can shed some light on this matter, your honor."
The judge looked over his glasses. "I don't believe I've seen you in my court before, sir. Are you a member of the bar?"
"No, your honor. My name is Sean Gerkson. I have filed this petition as a friend of the court on behalf of all amputees in this city."
"So it appears," the judge replied, glancing back at the document. "What in particular seems to be the problem?"
Gerkson pointed a finger in my direction and began with venom: "The defendant operates a night club where he forces his employees, many of whom are amputees, to display their disabilities for all of the patrons to see. Many of these patrons are devotees, Judge. They are sickos who think that the disabilities are 'sexy'! This perversion must be stopped!"
The Judge looked at me, then back at Gerkson. "And your interest in this is?"
Gerkson rolled up both pants legs. His pylon type prostheses protruded from each pantleg. "As you can see, you honor, I have lost both legs below the knees. I understand what a disability is all about! And I have spent a great deal of my own time and money trying to see that these perverted sickos don't exploit people like me! It has to stop! We have to be treated just like everyone else!"
The judge looked at me like I had crawled out from under some rock. "Is what he says true, Mr. Connors?"
"Not at all, your Honor," I began.
"He's lying!" Gerkson screamed. "Here! I have pictures! Look! These were taken at his club night before last. See? See the waiters wearing peg legs?"
The judge took the pictures. "What about this Mr. Connors? What's going on?"
"It's very simple, your Honor. I do, indeed, operate a night club that has a pirate theme. The name of the business is 'Scalawag's'. In keeping with the pirate theme, I thought it would be a nice novelty touch to have waiters who fit the stereotype most people have of pirates. I did spend some time recruiting young men who have lost limbs to fill these jobs."
"And you force them to wear these primitive prosthesis and display their disabilities as a condition of employment?"
"Not at all, your Honor. I have my entire staff here in the court room. I believe if you wish to speak with each of these gentlemen, you will find that they all think the club is a lot of fun. And your honor, there is one gentleman here in the group who wears a fake peg leg. He has both of his natural legs, but wears a fake peg with his leg strapped up just to be in character for the club."
The judge looked at the crew. He went down the row asking each of them in turn to comment on their feelings working in the club.
"And none of you feel exploited or embarrassed by this employment?" he finished.
There was a round of "No, sir"s.
The judge cleared his throat and looked back at Gerkson. "I'm at a loss here, sir. Just what do you hope to accomplish by shutting down this night club?"
"I want honor and dignity for my people!"
"You speak like you are the representative of all amputees in this country, Mr. Gerkson."
"I represent those disabled people who are mocked and persecuted because they are different! I want justice! I want these sick bastards run out of town!"
The judge pursed his lips. He looked at Gerkson for a moment, and then at me. He cleared his throat and began to speak.
"It appears to me, Mr. Gerkson, that you have apparently been persecuted or made a victim at some point in time. And I'm certain that there are injustices, as you suggest. But I've looked at this from all ends. It appears to me that Mr. Connors has created an environment where he is offering employment to a group that has had difficulty finding it in this profession. And he's doing it in a setting where they are looked upon as 'normal' and 'typical'. The fact that able-bodied persons doing the same job are required to adopt the same uniform shows no discrimination. I find your filing to be without merit. It is dismissed."
"But your Honor!" Gerkson began.
"Get some therapy, son. I think you need it!"
"You... you wouldn't speak to me that way if you understood! You're just like them! Like everyone else! I bet you're even one of those devotees yourself!"
The judge rapped his gavel three times for quiet. A faint smile crossed his lips. Looking straight at Gerkson, he slowly raised his left hand in front of his face. The sheen of the split hook reflected the lights of the courtroom. Gerkson slowly collapsed into the chair.
"You need to do your research before you accuse anyone of anything," the judge said sternly. "And you," he said to me. "You serve any ribs at that club of yours?"
"We do, your Honor! With Jamaican rum sauce!"
"Good," the old man smiled. "I'll be by with my wife tonight." He paused. "I'll wear a short sleeve shirt, so you can recognize me!"

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