The Identity Question

Stephan Gräfe
The Identity Question
Time thickened in an Irish pub; it would be another hour or so before the barkeeper could close up and call it a night. During the week, especially on Thursday, business was very slow. On this night, only two regulars were lounging in the smoky back corner sunk in a game of cards. Over the racks of drinks behind the bar – mostly whiskey – a stuffed boar’s head looked out with a fixed, spacious gaze into the room. In spite of the overall cleanliness, the guests always had the feeling that everything was covered in a thin layer of dust. This was due to a successful combination of the classic style and accoutrements of the bar that had since 1970 consistently refused any optical change, along with the owner, who insisted upon a general propriety; rudeness was distasteful to him.

Finally, another guest entered the bar: a lean man with a face as chiseled as a woodcut. He took a place directly across from the barkeeper at the counter, waited a moment before ordering a dark, English beer. His voice and his soft eyes contrasted strongly with his embittered appearance. For a while, both were sunk in their thoughts. Every now and then the barkeeper passed his hand through his hair, which was white but still full. He let himself be carried by the trumpet music playing in the background. It sounded like jazz, but a very calm and mature kind, which let it play along without ever becoming very consuming or penetrating. Then the man with the hard appearance broke the mutually agreed-upon silence. He squinted a little and motioned to the far left corner of the bar counter.

“Is that a figure of Charlie Chaplin?”


“Then you surely know about the imitation story, the one in which he entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and only came in third place?”

“Of course, I’ve heard of that one,” answered the barkeeper.

“It’s crazy how real an identity can become when dictated to another … so real, that a person is in their eyes no longer who one really is.”

From then on they conversed about the general question of identity, actuality, played roles and Max Frisch. They debated over the loss of humanness, over how the current dominating urge towards individualization ultimately leads to the alienation of our own particular selves. Meanwhile we have all become social lone-wolf fighters. The foreign man seemed to be exactly the right conversation partner. During the course of their conversation, it came out that he was an actor. Very excitedly he told of a casting that he had been invited to the next day. He had been offered a very promising role, a crime thriller for TV and he would play the role of the villain. The barkeeper was extremely interested; the thrilling talk loosened up noticeably the rather dull day he had been having. Over the second beer, the stranger clarified that he had been having problems with one particular key scene. His face lost nearly all of the entire hardness while he was talking. In the scene, he was to hold up a gas station and, while doing so, get wildly aggressive. The lean man was not entirely keen on this since he had always played calm characters. But this scene was asked for in the casting.

The barkeeper thought for a moment, then offered to practice the scene right then and there; after all there was hardly any other business going on at the time. After a moment of uncertainty, the stranger agreed. The barkeeper was now all gung-ho and rummaged in a drawer, handing the man with the distinctive face a bottle opener mounted on a curved deer horn.

“Here, use this as a weapon! You have to have one …”

The stranger nodded.

“ … Good, good. Let’s do it real authentically. That will certainly make it easier for you.”

The stranger gave the barkeeper rough instructions about what he should do, then he went out the door. A few seconds later, he barged in with the bottle opener thrust out in his hand. His gaunt face seemed in this context even more threatening. The once gentle voice was now quite raw; he nearly screamed his monologue. The barkeeper saw nothing of the earlier uncertainty as the man played his roll brilliantly. In fact, the barkeeper’s fascination as spectator almost made him miss his cue. At the end the stranger ordered him to open the register and hand over the money. The pale, yellow light from the chandelier threw deep shadows into his eyes. The barkeeper handed over to the man pointing the bottle opener at him. Naturally not everything: the coins and the hidden stash of cash would be too much a good thing, but still it was a thick wad of bills. After his successful performance, the stranger could no longer hold back his delight and he laughed as he ran towards the heavy front door. The barkeeper and even both of the regulars who had been awakened from their comatose card game applauded. They would surely have further congratulated him on his performance if he had ever returned.
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