The Conversation

Mom told you not to talk to strangers for a reason.

Mustache Dave and I are sitting at the corner of the Emerald's bar nearest the door. Mustache Dave has just switched from Diet Coke to Absolut and OJ when one of the older, bedraggled afternoon/evening regulars bellies up, buys us both a drink, and starts looking for an entrée into our conversation.

Between the hours of 3 and, say, 8:30 p.m., this is a regular occurrence at the homey St. Pete dive. Not the "scruffy old dude buying strangers drinks" part (both Mustache Dave and I are stunned by that), but the "scruffy old dude unselfconsciously bullying his way into a dialogue" part.

Before Mimi Peterson and Susan Riggs of Star Booty, a downtown cool-kitsch rock shop/hair salon, started throwing their annual Christmas party at the Emerald three or four years ago, its clientele leaned toward retirees, veterans, inordinately brave or thirsty tourists, those drinking their disability checks and the quasi-homeless. These days, the bored hipsters, the young artsy crowd, the fortysomethings deluded enough to believe bored hipsters and young artists want to be picked up by them, and the loud music usually drive away most of the lifers by nine.

But before then, the bar belongs to a handful of wizened diehards, perhaps half of whom are getting around with the aid of wheelchairs or walkers. And many of them are always looking for a new ear into which to pour their stories and opinions.

Often, I don't mind. Often, listening to a man ruminate on the differences between the whores of the Philippines and the whores of Korea is far more interesting than listening to two friends argue about whether the latest Death Cab for Cutie album is a piece of shit.

Naturally, the subjects aren't always so arresting; for every story I've heard about something like selling bootlegged German beer in Vietnam during the war, I've heard a dozen about how getting old sucks, and how wrong it is that young kids want their underwear to stick out the tops of their pants (does anybody even do that anymore?). And the tellers often lapse into forgetfulness, or entreaties for free drinks ("my mouth runs better when the whistle's wet, son"), or are just nearly too drunk to speak coherently in the first place.

But you've gotta pan a lot of gravel to find a little gold.

So when the elderly man with the slicked-back gray-white hair and the tattered green jacket buys us drinks and asks us if we're partners — the guy's missing his dentures, so what actually comes out is "are you guysh partnersh?" — Mustache Dave and I don't automatically decide to pretend he doesn't exist.

We allow that we are, in the friendship context, we guess, and thank him for the drinks. He introduces himself as Frank, and Mustache Dave and I go back to our own discussion, knowing that Frank has something else to say, and when he's ready to start saying it, he will, no matter what Mustache Dave and I happen to be talking about.

Sure enough, a long enough conversational caesura presents itself, and Frank begins speaking. The lack of dentures and the effects of God knows how many Busch drafts make the subject of Frank's monologue difficult to discern. I can only make out select words and phrases:

"hallway"

"dining room between the Mensh Room and the Ladiesh Room"

"only have to control shix or sheven"

"I had a partner let me down onesh"

I'm not completely sure, but I think Frank is talking about a retirement home. Maybe he wants us to help him get a friend out of there; maybe he wants us to get him out of there — I don't know. But he keeps acting like a guilty cartoon character trying to act innocent every time the bartender, Dawn Marie, comes over to make sure he's not harassing us. I'm pretty sure he thinks he's getting into some serious shit here.

When I go to the bathroom, Frank follows me in. There's another guy in there already, so he doesn't say anything. He also has to wait to use the can, so I have a few minutes to confer with Mustache Dave when I get back, before Frank returns. And when Mustache Dave clarifies two things he heard that I hadn't — namely, that Frank had said "money room" instead of "dining room," and that he was talking about a Wal-Mart instead of a retirement home — it all suddenly clicks into place:

Frank is trying to recruit us for an armed robbery.

Frank wants us to knock off a Wal-Mart with him.

Mustache Dave and I stare at each other, agog. Us? Hardened criminals? A crew? The guy who couldn't grow a beard if given a year to do so, and the guy whose giant glasses and bushy upper lip make him look like the most fun and most demented Christian youth group leader ever?

It can't be.

When Frank returns from the head, I just up and ask him if he's talking about committing a robbery. His exaggeratedly pained expression at having it stated so baldly makes it clear that's exactly what he's talking about. He gestures toward Dawn Marie again, and bisects his lips with his pointer finger. Mustache Dave and I face each other, both trying hard to suppress braying laughter at the idea. It wouldn't do for Frank to think we were laughing at him. He might get all Mister Blonde on us.

But we must be sending off waves of skepticism, because after an elongated, uncomfortable silence, Frank delivers what he obviously thinks is unassailable evidence of his bad-assedness.

"I robbed a Kash n' Karry," he says, with quiet dignity.

It's just too much. Mustache Dave and I make the usual standing-and-stretching motions intended to telegraph the fact that we're leaving. Frank gives up explaining that he still has the money hidden, that it's still too soon to use it, and asks me for a piece of paper and a pen.

He writes down his phone number, then pauses, pen still in hand.

"For God's sake, Frank, don't write down your name," I tell him.

He gives me a look that says he might've been born at night, but not last night.

"I'm trying to think of a code," he says.

I tell him not to worry, that I'll be able to remember whose number it is.

Unless, of course, somebody tries to talk me into ripping off an armored car between now and last call.

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