“What’s your favorite bar?”
“What, in Iowa City?”
“No. Ever,” I ask as I sip my Magners in the mostly-empty Dublin Underground. The bartender looks bored. That episode of the Twilight Zone with the creepy ventriloquist doll is playing on the TV to my left.
“The Drunken Sponge in Phnom Penh,” Peach responds.
“The Drunken Sponge?” I know that Peach spent 6 months in southeast Asia, primarily Cambodia, but I had no idea she hung out at such a bar, or made the connections she did.
“Yeah, the bartender was this guy from north England and he had this really thick accent, so most of the time he’d say something and I’d be like, ‘huh? what?’ But he’d let me wash dishes in exchange for free drinks, and some nights I slept there, on one of the couches. And sometimes after close we’d lock up, then get fucked up and dance around.
“It was really an amazing time. Yeah, there were bad things. After my friend died, I kept seeing all this shit that I couldn’t do anything to fix. Like seeing dead bodies in the streets from car accidents. Or child prostitutes. Things that were so fucked up, but things I couldn’t do anything about.”
Peach is one of the most compassionate people I know. On our walk to the bar, she stopped and said hi to an old man sitting in the dark on a bench. As we left and walked on, she explained how she’d seen him one night sitting outside of The Foxhead.
“And there were lots of people out, talking and smoking, but nobody was even acknowledging him. They all treated him like this inanimate object. So I finally sat on the bench next to him and asked how he was doing. And after that we became friends. On that bench he told me, ‘You know, I think you’re the first person who’s talked to me in 48 hours.’ And he’s a good guy. He’s a veteran, and he was in the Peace Corps, traveled all over the world, so we’ve been to some of the same places.
“I didn’t find out he was homeless until a few months ago. And he’s such a nice man, just a really interesting, good person. He just has the bad luck of being homeless. And people treat him like he’s invisible.”
Peach seems to seek out the people that many (including me) write off as lost causes. She was there for her friend through a bad morphine addiction, recovery, and then rebound, and her current sort-of boyfriend is a serious alcoholic, to the point where he drinks a bottle of vodka a day, and if he doesn’t, he has seizures.
“He can’t afford to go to the hospital, so he drinks. And he’s such a good person,” Peach says. She is always there to defend someone as a good person, as someone who is kind and well-meaning but has a problem to get through. I don’t think I have the courage or compassion to be like that toward a lot of people I see and label as “messed up,” but I sure do have admiration for Peach for doing so.
Tonight we went to a friend’s house for an all-Amurrican barbeque (Happy 4th), then went to watch fireworks in the park. Even though fireworks stand for bombs and warfare (if our national anthem is anything to go by), they’re so beautiful, and I love hearing the kids’ yells of delight as one after another goes off…however mad I get about what’s going on in America, I can’t be mad at a field of families sprawled on blankets or lawn chairs, especially when I’m in the midst of them, my gaze fixed with everyone else’s on the lights fizzing and expanding overhead.
On the drive back into town Peach played me some Silver Jews, her favorite band, and I fell in love.
I drove through lights and past stores through Coralville, loving that voice that always sounds sad, those lyrics that I know I could listen to dozens of times and pick apart over and over again, those guitar riffs that drift and expand and fill the car with their sparse simplicity.
And then, after I finished my Magners and was done listening to Peach’s story about her favorite bar in Cambodia, I went home and listened to all the songs The Silver Jews had on YouTube on repeat, listening and wondering if I really was doing right by staying here.
I’m thinking right now if I’m doing right for staying here. Will I get old and regret not going off to live somewhere richly and strangely while I could? I’ve always said that I just will avoid the emotion of regret since it’s such a fruitless one, but can I? I’ve been content here, but is it in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way or a spiritually-awakened, “I can be happy anywhere” kind of contentment? I honestly don’t know, but I’m grateful for people like Peach, who challenge my view of what life can be, of what friendship can be, and of compassion.