I knew it was going to happen. I knew there was going to be a moment when I suddenly realized I’d moved to the other side of the country and there was no going back. But I didn’t expect that moment to happen the first night I arrived in LA. I did not expect to be sitting cross-legged on the cement ground of a park somewhere, sobbing on the phone to my best friend and my sister, hyperventilating as they tried to calm me down.
As I sobbed and sobbed and tried to grasp any leftover, coherent thoughts—all of which seemed to have disappeared in the last two hours I’d been driving in the glorious reality of LA traffic—several homeless people passed by. They seemed to shrug and say, “Well, at least my life isn’t that bad.”
Eventually I got up off the ground and went in search of food. I wandered into a restaurant called Mateo’s. I almost fled when I saw how empty it was. Fading into anonymous obscurity would be difficult to achieve in this quiet little bar with dark paneling, leather seats, and Sinatra’s singing voice wafting about. But I was too tired to try to find someplace else. I took a seat at the bar, and after staring at the menu for what must have seemed too long, the bar tender said I looked like I could use some red wine.
How did he know that’s what I was about to order? Or would have ordered eventually, once I’d taken a nap—I was so, so tired.
After a while, I noticed a small gathering of people at the other end of the bar. The one who stood out was a man with a very elaborate mohawk. mohawks are hard to pull off no matter how old you are, but this gentleman was close to seventy. And he was wearing his mohawk proudly. He said to his friends, “Joe likes my mohawk. Don’t you Joe?”
“You’re a dumbass, Dot,” Joe the bartender replied.
“Joe, you should try a mohawk,” said the older women beside Dot (Mary Jane, I later learned). “You’ve got great hair for your age.”
Joe really did have great hair. He was also probably in his seventies and had a thick and puffy head of gray.
A few other people wandered into the bar. They greeted Joe by name and took their seats. He immediately supplied them with drinks before they ordered anything and they each ordered food without looking at a menu. What I began to notice, as my fuzzy brain became less congested with the help of food and wine, was that ever person at the bar was over sixty. They were also on first-name basis with the bartender—and each other.
A man who had come in after I arrived introduced himself as Eric. “We’re like that TV show—Cheers, I think it’s called. Only the old-people version.”
I’ve never seen Cheers but I nodded and smiled like I had.
We watched the Dodgers game together. The bar closed down around us, but none of Joe’s patrons made any sign of leaving, so I stayed, too. It was way past closing time when we all pealed ourselves off the barstools and headed for the door, saying, “See you later,” to Joe, who waved a disgruntled dishcloth in our direction as he cleaned up the remaining wine glasses.
On the sidewalk outside of Mateo’s, I told Dot I liked his mohawk. “It’s taken me four years to get it this way,” he told me. Then he walked up beside me and looked deliberately down both sides of the street. “I’m going to make sure you get across the street okay,” he said.
I went back to Mateo’s the following Tuesday. Tuesdays and Fridays are the nights the Cheers club gathers to poke fun at Joe while he takes care of them, knowing what they want before they ask and religiously filling their water glasses as they drink way too much.
In a city where loneliness is an epidemic; these seasoned residents have found a place of connection. And during one of the loneliest moment of my life, I happened to walk in on their oasis.