How things have changed since 1987. I suspect 1987 probably looks at 2017 and covers its mouth in fascination, envy or even horror. In the last writing masterclass I invited Oyunga and during his talk he used the word “monzo”, a slang word from the hey days that meant cigarettes, and that sent me hurtling back to the very depths of 1987 – pre-internet, pre-selfies, pre-cheers-baba, pre-democracy, pre-happy-hour, pre-single-malts, pre-IG, pre-anything as we know it now. Shit has changed so much that nobody says monzo anymore. We have all changed. Men have changed. Women have changed. Women have changed men. Men have been forced to change because women have changed. Nothing remains the same.
I remember the time I was having a drink at J’s Fresh Bar on Muthangari Drive and flirting with the waitress. I’m saddened that I only realised so late in my life that the trick to great service is to make the waitress laugh. Keep her laughing and she will get you a complimentary guacamole. If she laughs harder she might even consider garroting the chef for you. If you ask nicely.
Sometimes I wish I could nick those waitress’s notebooks and see what they write therein. I suspect those notebooks are full of drawings of stick-men and smileys. I also suspect they write bad things about us. Table 4: Garlic bread and a double cappuccino: Guy with boat shoes (Who wears that in 2017). Roast eggplant and herbal camomile tea: Lady with yellow scarf. Table 2: Roast Beef sandwich: Psychotic man who can’t stop staring at my chest. Caesar salad and strawberry smoothie: Lady who looks like Oprah before the money. Lamb and sparkling water: Gay guy in a yellow jacket. Chicken tikka skewers and cold still water: Hot guy with broken tooth, yum yum.
Anyway, if you have been to J’s you know that all the staff wear suspenders and fedora hats perched on their crowns. Very avant-garde. The cool ones cock those hats to the side to give the whole experience some spice. Sometime back I told one of their waitresses, “You look so good. Back in the 80s you would not find a waitress in a bar wearing a hat, much less suspenders.” She looked at me like you would look at an ancient hipbone at an archeological museum. She must have been born in 1998, around about the time I was pursuing higher education. So the 80s must have felt to her the way the 1960s felt for us at that time; a very distant time when people wore strange trousers and referred to dancing as “boogie.” Out of politeness and maybe because of our earlier banter, she made the mistake of asking how female waitstaff in bars dressed up in the 80s. Even though I never quite stepped into a bar in the 80s I said, “Aprons. They wore checked aprons and rubber shoes.”
The face of the female waitstaff in bars has changed tremendously. Actually, bars in general have changed tremendously. In the 80s when I was a boy, only men and women of ill repute frequented bars. Imbibing alcohol was a sin, a one-way ticket to hell. Both my parents didn’t drink alcohol and so I grew up knowing without a doubt that alcohol was bad and sinful.
Sometime in 1987, when I was ten, a neighbour who was seated on a stone outside his gate called me as I ambled by and handed me some coins to go buy him three Sportsman cigarettes. Back in those days anybody who thought of himself as an adult would send you and you would go. Now you can’t even talk to someone’s child in case you are mistaken for a pervert. So I went to the shop to fetch his cigarettes but when I returned I found told he had left word that he was at the bar and that I should deliver the cigarettes to him there.
That presented a catch-22 scenario because my mother was SDA. We were not allowed to go anywhere near a bar. We were not allowed to talk to people who spent time in bars. There could never have been any scenario where any of us would find themselves in a bar. Bars were for social misfits. If you passed outside a bar you would turn your face from the devil and look the other way because Jesus did not approve of people who went to bars. And who wanted to disappoint Jesus? Actually I didn’t care for Jesus much, I was more afraid of my mom than I was of Jesus. I don’t think there is anywhere in the Bible where Jesus beat up a child with a cane repeatedly and sent them to bed without food. The image of Jesus was of a gentle, long-bearded white man who would pat you on the head and say that you shouldn’t go to bars again because bars are not nice places. My mom on the other hand didn’t have a beard and didn’t believe in patting heads.
So, understandably, I was very scared of going to that bar, mostly because I hadn’t previously stepped into a bar. What if she saw me? Unlike these days, mothers were omnipresent back then. They knew everything. (Now they are busy with KPIs and Facebook groups.) But an adult was waiting for his monzo so I planned to go all Italian Job on it. In and out.
The bar was called Eligawa Bar. It sat next to a big old tree with massive tentacle-like roots jutting above the ground. In the evenings errant high school day scholars congregated under it, bad boys in their teens who referred to themselves as Rude boys, listened to roots reggae and cat-called girls sent to the shop to buy milk. These were boys you would not dare to have your mother see you talking to because if you passed by them there at dusk you would see the red glowing end of cigarettes. I guess spots like that later came to be known as “base.” Eligawa Bar sat next to that tree.
The closest I had been to this bar was in the mornings when a surly bleached out lady would sweep out the beer bottle-tops and we would go to gather them for a chance to win in the promotions that ran underneath the rubber films.
Anyway, there I was, parting the beaded curtains on the doorway and gingerly stepping into the noisy, dark Eligawa Bar. It smelled of adults. And beer. The room was grey with cigarette smoke. Music screeched. Laughter rose from the gnomes I couldn’t see, a sea of spirits. My heart galloped because I felt like I was standing in the midst of sin and I would surely burn in hell, that is, after my mother clubbed me to death. As I stood there foolishly, my eyes trying to adjust to the darkness, I heard the neighbour’s voice call out my name thunderously. I walked towards the direction of his voice and found him seated at a table with other men. I handed him the cigarettes and his change which he pocketed (idiot didn’t tip me) and commanded me to sit on an empty chair next to him. I protested feebly and he repeated that I sit briefly. Then he ignored me.
From the very edge of my seat, my eyes now adjusted to the light inside, I looked around like that girl in Wonderland, what was her name, Alice? There were men seated up at the counter on those long stools called Sina Tabu. Those days counters were not barricaded with grills. A man stood at a blinking jukebox feeding coins into the navel of the machine, picking a number (this is a dark time when they called songs “numbers”) while holding a beer in his hand. The bottoms of his trousers swept the floor. A big poster behind the bar proclaimed that Tusker Export was to be had “mbili mbili kama kawaida.” Come to think of it, I don’t remember beer ads featuring any women in them. Maybe I wasn’t looking. There were no pool tables back then so men in bars flung darts at a board at the end of the room.
Since our neighbour seemed to have forgotten me, I was planning on sneaking out quietly but as I plotted my Irish exit something strange happened; a barmaid came and sat on the lap of one of the men at the table! My eyes popped out. She had her uniform on, which is how I knew she was a barmaid. Maybe she was on her tea-break or whatever break barmaids took back then, but she just came and sat on this man’s lap like it was couch and started drinking beer (beer!) and laughing as if sitting on the laps of a man was the most natural thing ever. Now I couldn’t even leave, how could I? Now things were getting pretty interesting fast. It honestly felt like the Sodom and Gomorrah that I had been hearing about on the Sabbath. This is how the world would end, I thought; when women started sitting on the laps of men, drinking beer!
Remember that this was the 80s when TV was just KBC and all we watched was Joy Bringers and in Joy Bringers no woman sat on the lap of a man. In Joy Bringers women wore long skirts and sang and brought joy to our lives. So I was flummoxed! (And I don’t use that word lightly.) A woman sitting on the lap of a man?! How was that even possible? I felt like I was watching a live sex show.
In the mid-80s barmaids were seen mostly as women of loose morals. Most were bleached. Most had big knockers. Most smoked. Oh and there were no thin barmaids back then because “gluten intolerance” hadn’t been discovered and women ate wheat. Maybe it’s where I grew up, but all barmaids had big behinds that swayed dangerously from side to side like a gunship in high seas as they walked. And everybody knew them in society, they were singled out and stigmatised. So when this barmaid plopped herself on this man’s laps I thought, boy won’t his laps break? Why can’t she sit on a chair?
I don’t remember that bar having many women, maybe three at most, because women who drunk in bars were outliers. A rarity. These days to be an outlier as a woman you almost need to resume work two weeks after giving birth like Marissa Mayer of Google. The mothers in our estate were mostly teachers, nurses, house-wives and secretaries and I wonder what they did after work because in those days they didn’t say, “Si we catch one drink after work?” If our current crop of women stepped into a time machine and back into that time and found themselves seated in a bar alone after 5.30pm for an after-work drink, the male patrons would automatically assume they were hookers. Because no woman went to a bar and sat alone. And of course they wouldn’t be able to get a glass of chardonnay. When did they start selling wine in bars anyway?
Back to Eligawa Bar. Just when I was thinking that I had seen the worst and that I would be damaged irredeemably, I saw this barmaid balancing a tray of beers with one hand, skirting between tables and a man whacking her ass with his open palm as she passed! I was dumbfounded! Two things amazed me; one is that she didn’t drop that tray! She didn’t even break her stride after that man whacked her behind. That seemed like a talent, to take in a slap like that while balancing beers on a tray with one hand and not drop it. I suspect now that it had something to do with balance yes, but also surface area to volume ratio of those barmaid bums and their capacity to absorb the shock of the slap and contain it below her waist. The second thing that took me aback was that she laughed it off. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that such a “violent” act in my young eyes evoked glee from her. I expected her to yelp out in pain and drop all those beers on this barbarian’s head. Instead she laughed? And nobody turned to look at that spectacle. What the hell was happening in this bar?
Can I also say [and don’t judge me] that at that age of 10, sitting there in that bar, I found the woman’s posterior fascinating! Which goes to show that being an ass person is in the genes. You are not socialised to be an ass-person, it’s how you are born. I haven’t seen any man slap a waitstaff’s bum in the bars I go to, but there is an occasional amorous guy who has had a few too many a drink and puts his hand around her waist or shoulders and tells her that he can marry her by Sunday next week and make her happy. So yeah, men in bars have not evolved so much from 1987, only that now there are bouncers and FIDA so people are in check. (I wonder why there were no bouncers then, anyway?)
At some point, a tray of samosas landed on the table and the neighbour who had sent me to buy the cigarettes said, “Take some and go home.” We were not allowed to eat food from other people’s houses back then but this wasn’t someone’s house, this was a bar and nobody technically lived there, so I shyly picked a samosa and stood up to leave. “Pick another one!” He commanded and I picked another and quickly made my way out into the evening sun as Kool and The Gang blasted, the same chap with his flowing pants still standing at the jukebox with his beer. I guess he was their version of DJ Adrian.
Now are in 2017. I wonder how much things will have changed in the next 30-years for kids who are ten years old now. That’s 2047! What will they think of Happy Hour? And cocktails? Will they think having tu-umbrellas in your drink is the height of shadiness? Will our sons tell us casually, “dad, I’ve been thinking of having a sex change.” Will weaves still be a thing or there will be something worse? (Could there ever be?) Will they look at our ads on TV and think “Gosh, how many creatives came up with that garbage?” ? Will Thika Superhighway be a running joke? Will Julys still be as cold? Will they look at how we queued to vote and shake their heads at the sheer primitivity? Will apps be outdated? How will people meet and eat? What will have happened to cancer? When they watch a clip of Cobra Squad, what will they think of us? (We need to hide those things in a tomb).
Things will change.