Pariah Putnam’s Lament, by Alan King

"What glass is that, Sweetheart? You'll grow gills drinking like that." Pariah Putnam told a woman, who had a little too much alcohol. When he refused to serve her another drink, she put up a minor fuss before stumbling from her stool to the door. "Poor thing." Pariah shook his head as he watched her walk the sidewalk like an imaginary tightrope from his pub to wherever her destination was. He wiped down the copper counter in Putnam's the way his ole man showed him 40 years ago when he was only seven. The city was different then.
Hope Street, once lined with nightclubs and theatres, was known as "Black Broadway." Pariah could still hear his father telling him about life then on one of the major corridors of the city: "Son, it was a place where the life of Colored folks flourished. Our people were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and reporters."
Before there was Putnam's, the building--which, at first, housed a theatre for silent movies--was owned by a black detective who converted it to a pool hall. When Pariah's father opened the spot, it was a hang-out for Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Bessie Smith, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald.
"The Paladium Theatre crowd came here after catching an evening show since we were the only spot opened late that served Colored folks." Pariah's father once told him. This was way before the appearance of Cornbread Othello and Fatback McGristle, two literary figures who emerged among many during the second coming of the Black Arts Movement that regenerated Hope Street in the early '90s.
"Nothing but well-respected, middle-class black folks." Pariah's smile was the same one his father had considering that his establishment had hosted history's best and brightest minds. It had also survived the '68 Riots after the assassination of a civil rights leader, who was a frequent customer.
Overtime, Putnam's was renovated to accommodate a bar after the establishment was granted a liquor license when Pariah and his brothers took over. By that time the white folks, who had fled the city for the suburbs at the beginning of the 20th century, were returning in abundance. With them came increased police presence. Condos and coffee shops sprouted up like some wild weed determined to overrun the city.
"The clientel when my father ran this place were well-respected black folks, who were classy enough not to stumble out of any spot pissy drunk. Unlike these buppies." Pariah shook his head while watching a drunk guy outside palm what little ass his girlfriend had. They were making out on the hood of a parked car.
"No respect, these folks--slobbing each other down in public like that. There was another couple like them in that same spot two weeks ago. The guy was licking his girlfriend. It was a drunken-kiss gone wrong. They missed each other's lips. Then he's licking her like a scoop of French Vanilla."
Pariah turned to the other end of the restaurant from where the loud laughter was coming.
"Hey guys, I got fries up my nose! Look!" It was a guy, whose friends identified him as Chip. He then started making Walrus noises.
"You're flippin' drunk, man!" One friend said, still giggling.
"You see these punks?" Pariah said to his employee Phillip.
"Probably college kids," said the young boy, watching the bunch, who were wearing sandals and shorts despite the 30 degree chill outside.
Phillip had come to D.C. to study film at Howard University four years ago. While working daytime as an office clerk with an accounting firm downtown, he'd walked into Putnam's looking for an evening gig to help him pay his tuition and rent. Pariah took a liking to the young boy, who was 20 years younger than him, almost instantly. Phillip's good looks and flirtatious nature kept women at the bar buying drinks. His discussions on the history of black films and politics kept a steady flow of the artsy folks to the already diverse clientel. Despite the age difference between Phillip and his boss, the two men had a very tight friendship.
"Look at this nut!" Pariah sucked his teeth while watching Chip peel the bun off a soggy burger before placing the vegetables on his face.
"Hey guys. Look! I got pickles on my eyes." The Chipster told his buddies.


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