On the night John Lennon died, I was weaving in and out of the small streets of Greenwich Village—buying earrings on Bleecker Street, browsing a novel by Walker Percy at the corner bookstore on West 4th, and admiring my new black jeans and T-shirt (also black, of course) in the reflection of the late afternoon sun. An elderly man sitting in front of the bar where I worked called out to me.
“Someone just shot John Lennon,” he said.
“What did you just say ?” I asked, thinking either that I had heard wrong or Happy had just lost his mind for good. Happy, at age 83, had the saddest face I had ever seen. It had the deep lines of one who has lived a hard and lonely life. His eyes were intelligent but carried the look of one who has been cast off and thrown aside many times.
I took out my keys and began unlocking the door to Arthur’s Tavern, a piano bar on Grove Street where I was a bartender. Still in shock, I asked Happy if he would like to come in. “I’ll give you a shot of whiskey,” I told him.
He shook his head sadly and looked across the street as young people walked around, singly or in pairs. I myself was 27 years old. “They won’t let me come in anymore,” he said, looking at the ground from where he sat, leaning against the wall. “They’re afraid I’ll fall down the stairs again.” Finally, he got up and shuffled on down the street, as though he were afraid he would be swept away by the street cleaners.
I don’t remember how I met Happy, only that once I had met him he seemed to have always been there. He was always hovering about the bars of Greenwich Village, for he loved jazz, but he usually listened to the music from outside the bar instead of coming inside for a drink like everyone else. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I was young, enthralled with myself and the city, and hadn’t a clue what it was like to be old. I never knew where Happy lived, where he came from, or what his last name was, only that he was always around when I got to work, and often still there when I left at 4 a.m.
John Lennon, though—that was a name, a person, a being, a presence you could never forget. Everyone who came into the bar that night talked about the life and death of John Lennon. Why would anyone want to shoot John Lennon? How could they—why would they—shoot such a great man? they asked as they sipped their margaritas, threw back a shot of tequila or whiskey, and listened to the bad singers at the piano bar trying to imitate Billie Holiday. Bored, boring people finding entertainment and excitement in a famous person’s death; instead of wondering why their lives were so unfulfilled, they had to find sustenance in the shooting of John Lennon. Outside, Happy darted back and forth like a sparrow looking for scraps of food. Only for Happy, it was scraps of affection.
When I went outside for my break he had returned and was sitting on the street leaned up against the wall. People walked around him or stepped over him as though he were of little more importance than an empty liquor bottle someone had tossed aside. During my break, I smuggled out shots of whiskey for Happy and me and we toasted sitting there on the sidewalk. “To John Lennon,” I said. Happy raised his drink high in the air, then clicked his glass with mine. “To John Lennon,” he said loudly, but there was a tear in his eye. We sat there and smoked Gauloises cigarettes, which I despised, but hey, they were cool, so I smoked them anyway. Happy began talking about John Lennon.
“Do you remember when the Beatles went to India to meditate?” Happy asked.
I remembered well when the Beatles when to India to study transcendental meditation. I did it. Everyone was doing it. I don’t know if they hated it as much as I did, but I tried and tried, saying my meaningless little mantra over and over, trying not to think any thoughts while thinking all the while, “Well, what’s the big deal about this thing called meditation?” The 20 minutes I had to sit there was utter torture, and usually I either got up after three or four minutes or fell asleep.
I thought back to the time when I was still in grade school, when the Beatles were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. It was an agonizing struggle for me, trying to decide whether to go to Sunday night training union at the First Baptist Church. Training union was where kids were forced by their parents to learn more about the Baptist church and its teachings. Like it or not, though, I knew if I wanted to buy my way out of hell I’d better go. That night I decided to take a risk: I stayed home and watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Like most young girls at that time, I fell in love with these quirky Englishmen with their weird haircuts and plain suits.
I read everything I could about the Beatles in teen magazines. I knew that John’s wife was Cynthia and that it was probably a sin to think about him so much since he was married, but I couldn’t help myself. I became the lead singer—John, in fact—in an all-girl group that sang and imitated the Beatles. We practiced after school every day, as seriously as though we were rehearsing for a concert at Carnegie Hall.
When I was admitted to the hospital with hepatitis B that year, I made my parents bring my tiny record player so I could listen to Beatles songs while I lay there pining away for John. I listened to “Yesterday” so many times that it finally started skipping and I had to move on to another song. And finally, I had a white plastic notebook with a picture of the Beatles and their shaggy hair plastered across the front of it. I carried it everywhere I went, along with my Beatles purse and wallet. Every now and then, when I thought no one was looking, I would reach down and kiss John Lennon on his smiling, plastic mouth.
When I left the bar on my way to an after-hours club the night of John Lennon’s death, Happy was still walking back and forth in front of the bar. It never occurred to me at the time that he might not have a place to live. A lot of things didn’t occur to me then.
As I got into a cab, I called out to Happy. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Happy.”
“Thank you for saying hello to me,” he said, as I trailed on into the night, soon forgetting about both Happy and the death of John Lennon.