At five til six the bartender put the chalkboard sign saying "Belgische bier" out on the cobblestone sidewalk. Down the street he could see the huge TV tower; the symbol of Berlin. Up high on the tower, sometimes hidden by clouds, a faceted sphere containing a restaurant spun slowly. When the sun is right the sphere is said to project a cross of light to the streets below. This cross is called "the pope's revenge", from the time when atheists ran the East and erected the massive tower as a symbol of strength. The pope might be entitled to revenge: the Communists blew up a church that stood within the Berlin Wall DMZ, for instance. The atheists might also want revenge on Berlin: the seat of power for that militant Christian nation that incinerated so many of them during the war. Ideologues have been going back and forth here for centuries.
Today a cross must have shone down somewhere because the sky was blue and, though hungover, the bartender smiled in the evening sun that brightened the start of his day. He hadn't finished setting up the outdoor tables when his first customer arrived. This customer was always early. Too early. As the bartender poured the usual he explained about the night before: "These rugby fans came in. Man those guys can drink. They didn't leave until 3am. They were singing. Everyone was singing. Really. Everyone. My neighbor even called the cops. Can you believe it? Thank god we were quiet by the time they showed up.” The bartender crossed himself as he said this and his customer asked if he was religious. “No. Well. I’m Belgian… so I guess I’m Catholic. But I can’t see myself talking to a priest. Telling him my sins. I mean what the fuck does he know?” Then he returned to washing glasses. When he got drunk at work there was always extra washing up to be done the next day.
The barroom was long and narrow with a very high ceiling. The bar itself divided the space in half lengthwise. On the wall behind the bar there were shelves which displayed hundreds of beer bottles, each one different, a colorful tapestry and also a menu. Standing there the bartender was like a priest at the altar in a very abbreviated church.
For a while they both were silent and there was only the sound of washing glasses. The customer finished his first beer and signaled for another, saying “I guess people go to therapists, and therapists probably don’t know what it's like to have some terrible thing happen to them any better than priests know about sinning.” The bartender had poured two shots of Jägermeister and brought them over along with the customer’s second beer. They each drank their glass of thick dark liquid, and then the bartender said: “I couldn’t go to a therapist, all that talking, I don’t want to remember…ugh, oh man...to dig up all of that stuff. No way.” He smiled and looked both ways, left and right, like someone might be after him. Then he returned to the glass washing station and continued his work.
Another customer came in and greeted the bartender in his native Flemish Dutch. Then there were more customers, and the bartender spoke with each of them. Mostly in English, but also in German and French. On the rare occasion that an Italian came in that couldn’t also speak English, the bartender’s Italian was good enough for the basics. The customers learned about how the bartender was doing (hungover, mainly). The bartender learned that they lost their job, or that they just got a job, that they were going to the club later, that their wife was out of town, that they had to go back to their home country because the embassy job was time-limited. The bartender’s favorites: the ones he knew well enough to know they would drink Jägermeister with him, they got Jägermeister shots if they wanted them or not. Most of his customers were his favorites.
“You’re looking better,” the first customer said to the bartender.
“I’m getting my second wind. I’m in the zone, man. In the zone.”
“Hair of the dog.”
“Oh, you know, hair of the dog that bit you. Drink for a hangover.”
“Yeah alright,” said the bartender, and went to get the Jägermeister and two shot glasses. He was sharing shots with enough customers that he was out of glasses and had to wash some. Then he filled them and brought them over. “What is it again? Hairy dog?” They tapped glasses and the first customer said: “Hair of the dog that bit you.” The bartender laughed and they downed the drinks. The first customer said: “They used to think that if a dog bit you, if you ate some of the dog's hair, you wouldn’t get rabies.”
“Oh man. You don’t want rabies. They ate the hair?”
“Yeah. I bet if you believed that would work, you’d probably do anything a priest told you to do. Pray to them for forgiveness – maybe you can eat a priest’s hair and get into heaven.”
“I’d have to eat a lot of hair.”
The bartender returned his attention to the other customers. He explained to a Ukrainian woman who had no idea what she wanted that she wanted a La Chouffe. A group of Russians ordered the strongest beer he had, a bottle for each of them. Eventually his first customer finished his beer and found that he was very drunk. He signaled to pay and then there was one last round of Jägermeister. It was busy now, but the bartender took the time to say goodbye and admonished his first customer to behave himself.
On his way out the door the first customer looked back, down the length of the bar. It was dark outside now and the lights above the bar illuminated some areas well but left most dim. The bartender stood in a pool of light, pouring more shots. As he held a glass aloft the customers looked up with faces showing joy, sadness, amusement, boredom, confusion. Some didn’t look up at all, instead staring into their beers from the dark periphery. From where the first customer stood the effect was accidental renaissance, a chiaroscuro painting, the passion of a saint in the throes of martyrdom.
It was another long night for the bartender. Those rugby players came back. It was nearly 4am when he stepped out onto the sidewalk to bring in his sign. He looked up at the TV tower; at night it was illuminated by powerful lights so that it was even brighter than during the day. The lights projected upwards from the base, so at night there was no danger of accidentally making the sign of the cross on the streets below.