Within a month of starting work at Barluga I was much more comfortable behind the bar than when I first started. Sure, I hadn’t memorized and mastered the recipes like Garth, and I couldn’t flair (bartending a-la Tom Cruise in Cocktail) like Gary, but I could make a decent drink, and I was a hit with the customers.
I think it was partly because I was one of only a handful (and by a handful I mean 5) non-white people in town, which made me unique and interesting. Or maybe it was partly because everyone thought I was black — and if it were true, I’d be the ONLY black guy in town. In the end, I think it was probably because they thought I was an astronaut. You heard what I said, an astronaut.
You see, it all began one night after working at Shooters, when Brent, Big Mike and I went to Woody’s and Barluga for drinks. Somehow we got onto the topic of people looking like people, and I told them the story of Robert Curbeam:
Robert Curbeam is one of the more senior astronauts at NASA, and his was one of the many faces that graced the Astronaut Corps poster that was pinned up all around my lab in Houston. One day, my friend Yvette came running over and told me that some new guy asked her if she had seen ‘that astronaut’ hanging around the lab. “Which one?”, she asked. “You know, the bald guy with glasses, hangs out in the control rooms?” “It was you!”, she later exclaimed at me.
She told me to go check out the photo, and even before I got close to it, from about 10 feet away, I thought, “Holy crap, that guy looks like me.” My own brother, after I found the same picture online and emailed it to him replied with, “Holy shit dude, that guy looks exactly like you.”
One morning, when I was walking from the parking lot to the lab, past the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where the astronauts train in a giant swimming pool, a man walking out of the NBL looked at me, nodded his head, and said, “Good morning, Mr. Curbeam.” I hesitated for just a second, nodded my head, and said, “Good morning.”
After I finished telling that story, Gary immediately went online and found the picture, printed it out and showed it to the others. They just ate it up. Big Mike and Brent started calling me (and still do) Buzz Lightyear, and Gary started calling me (and still does) Beamer. From that day and for the next several weeks, anyone that came into the bar would be shown that picture and told that I used to be a NASA astronaut, but I gave that glamorous life up to be a bartender in Wanaka.
During our pre-season staff party one night in June, our bar’s co-owner and I were sitting in Barluga having drinks (you’ll get the whole story about Al later). Al loves giving people a hard time, but is one of those guys who’ll only really respect you if you can shovel some crap back at him. So that night, I spent the whole night just laying into him. After seeing the picture of Curbeam, he told me he wanted me to autograph it for him. I said, “Alright Al, I’ll autograph it for you.” Then I put it in front of him and, while speaking the words out loud, wrote, “To Al, you f**king c**t,” and signed my name. “I love it!”, he said, “I want you to frame that and put it up.” The next morning I woke up fearing that I wouldn’t be employed anymore, but — true to form — Al treated me much better after that incident.
That picture was printed and put up in the back of other bars in town, and soon I was a local legend. At first I rather enjoyed convincing drunk girls that I had in fact been in space, and that the moon wasn’t really made of cheese (the latter one took more convincing than you would think … or hope), but as the months went on I began to despise the rep. You see, no one really cared about what I actually did at NASA, they simply believed the lie and left amazed and astonished. I felt it trivialized everything at which I had worked so hard for 3 years.
I finally started telling people that though I wasn’t astronaut, I did work for NASA, and that the man in the picture just looks incredibly like me. One semi-regular customer, who also works at the grocery store in town, never got the memo that the picture isn’t actually me. Even worse, he’s a bit of a space/aviation buff, so he constantly kept coming up and talking to me (while incredibly drunk) about “my training”. I only realized he was serious months later, and by then I felt bad about breaking the news to him. So … he kinda still thinks I was an astronaut.
More than half a year later, that infamous Astronaut Picture, with the signed dedication to Al, is still hanging in the cupboard at Barluga, and the notice board at Shooters.
As I’m sure you’re very curious, here it is:
And here I am. Though imagine me without the goatee. Wait, no, imagine him with a goatee.