opinion

Uncle Charlie

Heard the one about the drunk old aborigine and the blonde barmaid? It goes a bit like this:

I have a bar in a neighbourhood known for its eclectic mix of locals. Originally an Italian area that got a bit gritty with dosshouses and squatters, it’s now gone way past being gentrified and is one of the most expensive, sought after suburbs in which to live. Even so, there’s enough of the old incarnation to keep it a pretty interesting mix, and it’s close enough to the main nightclub area that there’s always the seedier element of city living hanging around the streets.

For the most part, I find the characters highly entertaining. I’ve seen hookers brawling in the middle of a traffic intersection, fixed in a turf war death match that resulted in one broken handbag, a ripped skirt and a bleeding nose; I’ve had a junkie who wanted to know if the reason I wouldn’t serve him was because he’d left his specs at home; I’ve watched a pregnant hooker get more clients than all the others; been robbed by ratty little kids whose getaway vehicle was a foot propelled scooter; overheard endless drug-addled conversations about needing to buy a packet of smokes; caught a drag queen in a Marge Simpson wig & eight inch heels pissing in my outdoor ashtray, and a 70 year old disabled tranny with rainbow hair, eye makeup that looks like he’s been attacked by toddlers wielding paint guns and an assortment of plastic beads around his neck tells me at least three times a day that he wants to take me home to his boudoir. I’ve seen more male genitalia in the last four years than I have the previous thirty-two years, and I’ve disturbed a prostitute giving a bloke a quick blow job between my wheelie bins. What can I say? It’s a romantic life. There is one character that stands out more than all the others though. His name is Uncle Charlie.

Most people know Charlie; the local police and social workers certainly know him. I first met him when he stumbled down the street and decided to perch on my window ledge with a crumpled cigarette and a Tooheys longneck, much to the consternation of the patrons already seated in that window. I went out to move him along, only for him to get me in a headlock and drag me halfway down the street. When I finally got out of his grasp, I’d lost a diamond hoop earring somewhere in his big, white beard. I never did get it back. It was a fairly dramatic introduction to him, but for some reason we’ve developed a kind of friendship despite it.

Charlie is in his late sixties, although he looks much older, with a massive mess of white hair and a scruffy white beard. If Santa Claus was indigenous and had been on an alcohol-fuelled bender for twenty years, he’d probably look like Uncle Charlie. Occasionally someone gives him a haircut and trims his beard, and he looks great. Handsome, even. I’ve noticed his shirts are generally pretty nice, well ironed and clean, although his jeans are always the pits. And he is always somewhere between very drunk and comatose.

Uncle Charlie’s been banned from every pub in the area, even the really dodgy one up the hill that’ll serve any old derelict. He can be a handful. He likes to shout and call passers-by “bastard cunts”, and he’s always pushing people to see how they’ll react to his presence. He used to cause me a few dramas too, but one night I caught a glimpse of something soft and funny in him and realised it was all a big act. I told him he was full of shit and should give it a rest. Just when I thought he was about to take a swing at me, he broke into an amazing smile and let out a huge belly laugh.

“Ahh, sista. You’re alright.”

He realised I wouldn’t put up with his bullshit, but he also knew I’d seen a bit further than his obnoxious behaviour normally allows.

That was a couple of years ago, and he’s never caused me any drama since. He visits fairly regularly, always at the end of a night when he wants a chat. And it always starts off the same.

“You gonna let me in, my friend?”

“Maybe Charlie, how drunk are you?”

“You being a racist cunt?”

“Don’t be a dickhead”

He laughs, comes in and shakes my hand. He’ll do his best to get a free beer out of me, but he has to pay like everyone else. Then we sit and talk.

Initially our conversations were nonsense, him rubbishing on about what he’d done during the day, and trying to shock me with stories I knew were bluster. Then a shift occurred. It was like I’d passed his test and was now to be trusted. One night he decided to tell me about his life and how he got to be a drunk, old bum. Bugger me if Uncle Charlie didn’t turn out to be one of the wisest, warmest, most thought provoking people I’ve ever spoken to.

Charlie’s been around. He’s travelled all over Australia, and can rattle the names of towns he’s passed through off the top of his head as though his brain wasn’t screwed from too much alcohol. He fell in love with a woman from somewhere in the Northern Rivers area, but stuffed that up by being a drunk. He had a brother he was very close to who died in a car accident, an event that became the catalyst for Charlie’s drinking. He never got over it. He has a huge scar down his stomach from where he tried to kill himself while driving drunk some time thereafter, and he’s got a bit of bone missing from his skull. I’ve felt it; it’s as disgusting as it sounds. He never tells me his stories looking for sympathy; they’re always relayed with a shrug and a “that’s life” kind of feeling. He tells me them simply because I’m listening.

But last time he was in, he really floored me. Bored with talking about himself (“why you gotta be so curious about me, woman?” he blasted when he was sick of my questions, and the answers he had to give) he turned his attention to my life.

“I been watchin’ you. You work too hard.”

“Oh, yeah. But I’m the boss. I’ve got to do it.”

“You workin’ for the man. Don’t do it.”

“Charlie, I’m the boss. I work for myself.”

“I know you the boss you stupid bitch, but you not workin’ for yourself. You not happy sista.”

He was right. It’s a complicated story and not one that needs retelling, but I do what I do out of obligation, and it doesn’t make me happy. Blinded by alcohol as he often is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his skills of perception. He’s seen enough to recognise a few things in people, and for all his drunken antics, he knows what he’s talking about. That night proved to me he deserves to have his wisdom heard. It was pure luck that Charlie broke through my prejudices and proved to be more than just another derelict I had to deal with, but he’s made me think about where I’m headed nonetheless.

He reckons he’s going to Darwin when the weather gets a bit warmer. I’m certain he’s talking rubbish, but on the off chance he’s not, I can honestly say I’ll miss the silly old ratbag. It can be a lonely life, being self-employed and working nights, knowing there’s no one to go home to. He’s provided me with decent company and a refreshing view of humanity on more than one occasion, and it does make me wonder just how much knowledge we miss out on as a society by discounting that people like him have anything of value to offer us.

Mostly though, I just shake my head in wonder at the anomaly that is Uncle Charlie. I always watch him as he trundles off home, zigzagging down the road. Even on the nights when he leaves pissed off that I won’t serve him because he’s too drunk, I am rewarded with a wave and a cheeky grin as he turns the corner. The man is too damn charming for his own good.

I suspect that’s half his problem.

by caz.