On the night of Oct. 2, the Amber Lantern was full the way it used to be. I couldn’t walk to the Kingston tavern’s bathroom without rubbing shoulders with a friend, co-worker or acquaintance. It was the eve of our friend Jill’s birthday, and we were out in force to celebrate.
The gang had all but taken over the bar: The lights were low, right where we like them, and the TouchTunes was blasting our signature mix. Tea lights and pictures of the birthday girl adorned every ledge.
I leaned over the bar, flying a $20 bill where I had hoped Joyce could see it, when Pat came in from the street.
“Hey, is somebody sitting here?” he asked me.
He smiled and thanked me. I didn’t know his name then. I wouldn’t learn his full name for another two weeks. To me, Pat was “Dave Brubeck Guy.”
A few months earlier, on a warm night early in the summer, a few friends and I were drinking at the Amber Lantern. Bored with the silence and possibly the conversation, I played a bit of jazz on the TouchTunes. My first selection was “Take Five.”
An older man at the bar posed an open question: “Who played Dave Brubeck?”
A bit nervous, I fessed up.
“Thank you!” he said. “Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.”
I tried to return his excitement with my face, but could only offer a confused, “Yeah, of course.”
“When I was a boy,” he told me, “my father and I would listen to Dave Brubeck every Sunday morning.”
He told me how his father owned every Brubeck LP, and he played them while he read the Sunday paper. The journalist in me was enthralled by the story upon which I had staggered when my idiot friend interrupted.
“Jazz drum beats are so smooth.”
I could have killed him. That useless interjection was the end of my conversation with Pat, and as he went back to his business I was crushed.
That was the night he became Dave Brubeck Guy.
Fast forward to our October encounter. Pat took the seat next to me, and we began to talk. I told him I’m considering Temple for my bachelor’s degree, and he told me a story about getting swindled in North Philadelphia in his youth. We talked about Meyers High School, and I introduced him to my girlfriend Andrea.
“If I was twenty years younger,” Pat said, “I’d still be too old.”
Always the charmer.
They were instantly friends.
As they discussed the medical field – Andrea being a physician assistant student, such talks can last a long time – my first few drinks reached the end of the line, and I excused myself. On my return from the restroom I snapped a few pictures.
With no subject in mind, only a desire to capture a slice of the moment, the candids show my friends in their natural state: wafting in smoke, reacting to television, locked in conversations they’ve almost certainly forgotten.
For whatever reason we were all wearing dark colors that night, and as such, one figure stands out from the others. I had no idea that Pat, with his white hair and white dress shirt, had probably just been captured in photographs for the last time. Though he appears in four or five photos, in my favorite he’s sporting a big Irish grin.
Andrea and I departed shortly thereafter. I opened the passenger door directly into my shin, and she drove us home. I think we argued about whatever young couples argue about when one has been drinking and the other is driving. Neither of us would ever see Pat again, and perhaps if we knew that then, our drive might have been different. Maybe I would have shaken his hand a second longer on our way out.
That night I had played a Dave Brubeck song for him on the TouchTunes. I didn’t get to hear it before I left, but I hope he did.
Over the next week I would hear from friends how happy Pat was that night. He would thank Jill over and over for letting him be a part of her birthday. She told him the Amber Lantern was his bar, too, he didn’t need to thank her.
The following week, Amanda, a co-worker of mine at an area pizza restaurant, approached me. She asked if I knew Pat Whalen. Of course, I didn’t know him by that name.
“He comes in here all the time,” she said. “You guys always see him at the Amber.”
“You mean Dave Brubeck Guy?”
He was in the hospital, she told me. He had fallen and hit his head while walking home one recent night. He was in a coma. The doctors were saying it didn’t look good.
It was a Sunday afternoon, right around five o’clock, when I was told Pat was dead.
I didn’t know him terribly well, but his presence brought a certain quality to the room. He and I didn’t always talk, especially while I worked. Often, just a smile and a nod were enough, and I’ll miss that.
The Amber Lantern won’t be quite the same without him. But should you ever find yourself in that tiny Market Street bar, have a drink and play a song for Pat Whalen. Anything Brubeck will do.