Old man in a bar, or: A meditation against entropy

The old man in a rumpled linen suit at the end of the bar stood out like a weed at a garden show. All around him the young couples and swinging singles, so impressionable and so eager to impress, went on laughing and talking about whatever they laugh and talk about. The old man might as well have been another fern. He seemed not so much lost in thought as found in it, nursing the dregs of a tasteless house white.

"Why, don't mind if I do," he said on being interrupted by the offer of a real drink. "Make it a Scotch. Single-malt. Laphroaig 10 Years Old, if they have it. I realize, sir, I might look like a bourbon man in this disreputable state my 79 years have brought me to, but appearances can be deceiving. Once I, too, was going to be Atticus Finch out of "To Kill a Mockingbird," but the malice of time intervened. Now I am the wretched sight you see before you -- less Atticus than Seb Cooley courtesy of "Advise and Consent," only without the high office and low oratorical skills."

The old man smiled no smile. As if he were just locating himself scientifically in a catalogue of moth species. "Scotch has been my comfort and downfall," he reminisced, "since I outgrew Early Times my freshman year at Ole Miss. And I was such a promising student, too. Still am. Just never graduated to prosperity. Just as well, just as well. Wouldn't know what to do with prosperity if I ever bumbled into it the way I do everything else. It would doubtless be wasted on me, as poverty is wasted on the poor. We live and don't learn. Here's to you, generous sir, and to the last gentleman. I think his name was Walker Percy."

The old man took a tentative first sip and savored the peat. "You know, it's strange. My so-called specialty at law (my card, sir) is that of analyzing, explaining and generally mucking about with trends new and used. And yet I've never really been good at explaining things, especially the inexplicable. I can, however, cast a fraudulent air of understanding over what was never meant to be understood, just accepted. I love a mystery and would never disturb it. Which is why I never darken the doors of a modern mainstream church. I don't want explanation, just faith. I want to believe again, like from minute to minute. No renewal, no faith. No conversion without its being continual. No ice, thank you. Well, one sliver of a shaving of a suspicion, just to set the aroma free."

. . .

The savoring got him admiring. "Ahhhh, the Scots knew how to make whisky," he sighed. "And how to fight, not to mention philosophize, usually against philosophy, which somebody certainly needs to do. Hume, that's my man. Unless it's Adam Smith -- both Scottish, you know. We speak of the Enlightenment, meaning only the French one, not the real one, the Scottish one. When they weren't making whisky and philosophy, they were making money, the Scots were, like our own Alexander Hamilton, that 'bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.' Wasn't that what crusty old John Adams called him. Lord, was old man Adams ever young at all?

"Ah, the Scots. They could buy from the Jews, sell to the Armenians, and still make a tidy profit. I fear, sir, they have fallen upon evil days, like the rest of us in love with hope and change, not valuing what has been and still is. These days, I understand, they wish to be both independent and wards of the English, much as we wish to be our own masters and in thrall to those geniuses in Washington. Bring on those earmarks! We don't want it just both ways today, no sir, but every which way."

. . .

Twirling the glass as if in admiration for the color of the dark yet light whiskey, but probably just to pass the time and punctuate a sentence, the old man paused. Much like a lawyer in his summation, just for the dramatic effect even if what followed would be of no effect whatsoever. It was what passed for a style, or used to.

"Hope and change were all the rage in the old days," the old man mused, "which were when -- about three or four years ago? Now it's despair and decline that's in -- and how we're going to manage our last act, though of course those aren't the terms used. Instead, we're told of the need to adopt Sustainable policies. For, really, there's nothing to be done. About anything, really. Except maybe hold those insufferable, pointless international conferences our celebrities much favor, and jet to with some frequency. For we've peaked, you know.

"As in Peak Oil. Remember that theory? The world was running out of petroleum and there was really nothing to be done. Except maybe manufacture solar panels, probably in China by way of Solyndra. Remember it? 'Solyndra's solar power solutions offer strong return on investment and make great business sense. Our cylindrical technology was designed for the rooftop and offers the benefit of lightweight, low cost and the fastest, easiest installation of any solar technology. In more than 1,000 installations around the world our customers are converting underutilized rooftop space into clean energy from the sun.' Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end. They did, of course, like Solyndra itself. Just as soon as the government money ran out. Our money, if anybody cares. But we're not supposed to. The masterminds in Washington certainly don't."

. . .

The old man made a futile gesture at straightening his bow tie and thinning hair, cleared his ever-clogged throat, and then continued: "This election year, we're all supposed be outraged at how Mr. Romney spends his money, not by how Mr. Obama spends ours. Lower taxes, cut spending? Favor work and saving over government grants and more spending? Reform the whole tax structure to encourage investment, not punish it? Why go to all that trouble when we can just squeeze the rich a little more -- even though every Alternative Minimum Tax just passes the tax burden down to the middle class soon enough.

"It's called trickle-down taxation, and we're not supposed to notice. Instead, we yokels are to be distracted from real reform by shiny trinkets like the Buffett Rule. Quick, look over there! And the pity of it is that we do -- even while our pockets are being picked.

"Decline's the ticket now, my young friend, don't you know? Our best days are behind us. We've just got to sustain what's left, nothing more. Just like in the Carter Years, when there was nothing to be done about it all, either, except ration gas and sit around in the dark wearing sweaters and shivering. Cheers!"

The old man had reached the bottom of his glass, but not of his remarks, not quite. "Do you believe any of that, even for a moment?" he asked without expecting an answer. "We've found more oil and natural gas than ever before. Thank you, George P. Mitchell, not that anybody may know his name. Or just who invented fracking and where the hell the Barnett Shale is down in Texas.

"And, oh, yes, we're in decline all around the world, too, and must seek detente with whatever tinpot despot is riding high just now for the usual, inevitable fall. Ah, good old Detente. Does anybody dare use that word now that Kissinger and Nixon no longer bestride the globe? Allow me to submit, young sir, that it's all a crock of cheap bourbon."

After one more sip, my new friend seemed to grow reflective, and then announced: "The one definitive, ongoing refutation of the whole scientific theory of entropy is the United States of America. It keeps coming back. I wouldn't ever bet against it. We in these Southern latitudes should certainly know better than that, having tried it one fatal time."

With that, the old man set his glass down like a period at the end of a sentence. I motioned the waiter for another round, but when I turned back, the old man was gone, leaving only a kind of grinning, star-spangled presence. And the check.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos