At eighteen, armed with a driver’s license, I found an entirely new way of indulging my old love of shortcuts. Traffic-light-evading routes, corner-cutting byways along the length of the hypotenuse — it was hard to beat the rush of arriving at a terminus milliseconds earlier than Google Maps had predicted.
In my childhood, verbal shortcuts had delighted me, especially when I watched Westerns. There was Rowdy Yates, say, after long months on a cattle drive. He would settle on a high barroom stool and drawl, ‘The usual.’ The bartender would pour the beverage and skim the glass across the long stretch of mahogany. Rowdy would tip his hat.
My love of the short-cut had become less ardent as I aged, though memory sparked as I walked past the old ice-creamery. It had long been replaced by a glitzy chrome-and-mirror confection (Every Day’s a Sundae) but I still remembered entering the original for the very first time.
‘I’d like a chocolate milkshake — but one made with vanilla ice-cream, chocolate flavouring, skim milk, a squirt of whipped cream and a sprinkling of cocoa.’
The proprietor had a bartender’s intelligence. He absorbed my instructions and delivered the brew in under two minutes. In this way he became my go-to man. Then, one day, I wandered inside to be greeted from behind the counter with ‘The usual?’ I nodded and slammed down my $3.80. If I’d had a hat, I would have tipped it.
Now in my sixties, with the coming of summer, I feel the call again. I can’t explain it but I can’t ignore it, either. Not for milkshakes but for my feet to sink into the fragrant grass as I jog along the outside track of the racecourse.
‘The usual,’ I tell my legs, finding I have lost some of my speed and some of my stamina but can still go the distance.
The water is calling me too — what are these urges? I’m too old for a mid-life crisis — the icy sting of the waves and the prismic glint of the sun flickering through the sides of my goggles.
‘The usual,’ I tell my arms and legs and, in fifty minutes (it used to be forty), I have swum my kilometre. The bartender in my brain still gets it…
Of late, I have been watching my mother struggle with age and illness. I remember how, for almost thirty years, that tough, unyielding woman had risen at five o’clock every morning to jog four miles around Como Park before work.
Now she is confined to bed and I suspect that her personal bar-tender has gone on strike, left the building. Or perhaps, like her, he has just become old and is now too deaf to hear her when she says, ‘The usual.’