By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
It's hard to say exactly when Hal Durham finally ran out of gas. His tank was already empty and his engine silent by the time a passing motorist discovered his classic 1973 El Camino on the gravel shoulder of Nevada State Highway 95, just beyond the neon glow of Las Vegas, in a ghostly desert town called Indian Springs. Durham was slumped behind the steering wheel. A note in his handwriting, scrawled on a cocktail napkin, sat beneath a can of beer. A rubber hose stretched from the car's tailpipe through a rolled-up window.
"We got the call on Jan. 21 at 8:35 a.m., but Mr. Durham obviously had been out there for several hours," says Ron Flud of the Clark County coroner's office. "We recorded his official date of death as Jan. 20, 2001. The cause was carbon-monoxide intoxication from the inhalation of motor-vehicle exhaust. A suicide."
Lots of people will tell you that Hal Durham was the meanest bartender they ever met. Most of the rest don't feel right speaking ill of the dead.
"Everybody who's honest will tell you the same thing," says Ron Price Jr., who was Durham's boss at the last two bars where he worked—now-defunct clubs called the Hillside and the Foothill, once-legendary watering holes in the oil town of Signal Hill. "They'll tell you that Hal Durham was a crabby old bastard."
Even people who liked Durham don't argue with that. "He always treated me great, but that could be kind of embarrassing sometimes," acknowledges Tim Grobaty, a longtime columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and a longtime Durham customer. "He'd be giving me free drinks while he was telling everybody else to fuck off."
Durham was in his mid-50s. He was a stocky guy, about 5-feet-8 and 200 pounds. His face was round. His hair was reddish-brown and receding but still parted on the side. His florid complexion made him glow even in the darkness of a bar—the only place most people ever saw him—which seemed to lend credence to his reputation as a hard drinker and those nagging rumors of drug use. So did his mercurial temperament.
Then again, Durham's coarsely split personality wasn't completely out of place at the Foothill. The barn-sized honky-tonk had endured—albeit increasingly scuffed and frayed—since Signal Hill matriarch Bonnie Price founded it in the mid-1940s. It was Bonnie's grandson Ron Price Jr. who finally closed and sold the Foothill in September 2000. Four months later, Durham was gone, too.
Maybe there was some poetry in that. Or maybe it was the last pathetic act by a royal pain in the ass. To say for sure, you'd have to know something about what made Hal Durham tick. And now, almost eight months after he killed himself, no one can guess why.
"Hal was a very old-school Signal Hill-type character," offers Steve Zepeda, the promoter who booked most of the shows in the 1990s that maintained the Foothill's reputation as an important music venue. "If you knew Hal and he liked you, he would do anything for you. The thing is not that many people knew him. Or wanted to. He upset a lot of people—let's just say that."
Actually, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people knew of Hal Durham. But all that most of them knew about him was gathered in the time it took to order, receive and pay for a drink. Often, that transaction did not go well.
"Gimme a beer!" someone would bark.
"I'm not givin' you anything!" Hal would snarl. "If you ask right, I may let you buy one."
Thereafter, Durham might take the orders of the next several people in line or just dawdle for 15 or 20 minutes before coming back to the offender.
"Hal did that to a woman once, and she finally asked, 'Are you ignoring me?'" recalls Marty, a longtime bouncer at the Foothill. "Hal just stared at her and replied, 'Why shouldn't I ignore you? You're not pretty.'"
Marty shakes his head at the memory. "My title was 'bouncer,'" he says. "But when Hal was working, I spent most of my time apologizing for him."
Customers tended to extrapolate these conflicts into hard-and-fast opinions of Durham. It's hard to blame them. Then again, that's the way it goes for so many of the characters who occupy regular, if compartmentalized, roles in our lives. The supermarket clerks. The pizza deliverers. The receptionists. The postal workers. Their faces become very familiar to us, but we rarely get beyond that face value.
"Hal had a heart of gold," insists Gary Butterbaugh, who knew Durham for 25 years—so well that he handled the disposition of Hal's estate. But the evidence of un corazon d'orowas anecdotal. Durham was a guy who circulated birthday cards for co-workers; kept an extensive, dependable Christmas card list; did charitable work with the Long Beach Century Club; and posted bail for his blues-buddy friend, White Boy James, about a dozen times. He wasn't, however, a guy who smiled a lot.
"I think we all have a tendency to prejudge people or go on first impressions," says Butterbaugh. "But maybe that's not fair. A lot of people, you can't stand them the first time you meet them. But maybe they're having a bad day. I think that happened a lot with Hal."