By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Butterbaugh's laugh is forgiving. "Aww, Hal didn't mean anything by all that," he says. "He just had a dry sense of humor. Of course, a guy gets frustrated. You see young people come in with an attitude, or they can't add or subtract, and you think, 'Who are these people? What are they teaching them?' But we used to joke about it. Hal really didn't mean anything by it."
Price chuckles nervously at the memory. "I always thought Hal was funny as hell," he says. "But sometimes, after I'd seen him go from a little testy to out-and-out surly with the customers, I'd have to tell him, 'You know, Hal, we don't need to offend absolutely everybody.'"
As time went on, however, Price began to notice that Durham wasn't getting his point—or that maybe he couldn't get it anymore. "Hal had been in the business way too long," Price says.
Johnny Jones, a Long Beach singer/songwriter, worked as a soundman at the Foothill. "I used to use the cover of 'Stagger Lee' [by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds] as a sound check until Hal had a serious meltdown one day," says Jones. "He broke a Budweiser bottle on the bar and told me he would gut me if I ever played the song again. He had cut his finger and stuck it in his mouth. I still remember his cold blue eyes and the little speck of blood on his bottom lip and the moment toward the end of the song when Blixa of the Bad Seeds begins shrieking. It was very surreal. This song is sort of a soundtrack to Hal for me, God rest his angry soul."
Price insists that Durham was still a good bartender. "He took lots of the workload off me, dealing with all the everyday bull, doing it automatically. But he full-on didn't like people. Anybody who has been bartending a long time gets to where they're tired of dealing with people who are drunk and stupid. It's got to take a toll, and Hal was in it for, God, I guess 35 years."
In other words, it didn't seem like the worst thing in the world when Price sold the Foothill last September—not for Durham, anyway. Another piece of Southern California history was slipping away, a classic boomtown honky-tonk that had been in business since the Big War. But after two decades of grousing beneath the Foothill's phony full moon, Durham hated his job. It was perhaps the only secret he hadn't kept from anybody.
Friends created Hal Durham's nickname from an old shaving-cream commercial—a 30-year-old catch phrase bellowed by a comically overbearing doofus who somehow lived on the other side of a man's bathroom mirror. When the bewildered man staggered to the mirror to shave each morning, the large, loud intruder would greet him with a gushing, "Hi, guy!" Durham's best friends thought he resembled that character. They called him "Hi Guy." They were never sure he liked it.
"That was his nickname," shrugs Ronnie Brashier, his voice creaking with the unapologetic nostalgia of an old rocking chair, "and he accepted it." Brashier is known as "Frenchy" among that same crew. He used to own Frenchy's Machine Shop until he retired a few years back. Now he keeps up by making the rounds of the dwindling number of Signal Hill's old restaurants and watering holes—especially Curleys Diner, a combination coffee shop and bar surrounded by still-pumping oil wells in the parking lot. "I knew Hi Guy as well as anybody," brags Frenchy. "He was a good friend of mine—a good friend for a long time."
But that long friendship doesn't translate into insight about what might have induced Durham to kill himself in January. "Hi Guy and me, we were good friends," he says. "But we never talked about his personal life."
It's not much use asking others among Durham's family or friends or colleagues, either. "Hal kept his feelings pretty close to the cuff," says Butterbaugh in a typical response. "He didn't discuss them with me."
Those closest to Durham say they were shocked when they learned how he died, but they struggle to explain exactly why they were surprised. They usually rummage through their own views on life and death rather than illustrating how something so drastic as suicide might fit or oppose Durham's philosophy, spiritual condition or circumstances of life.
"I believe in Scripture," Frenchy begins adamantly. "That means it's premeditated murder when you kill somebody, even yourself." But after sitting with that hard assessment for a few moments, he softens a little. "I guess, in certain situations," says Frenchy, "those things happen."
Despite their many years of good-buddy camaraderie, however, he admits he can't say what happened to Durham. "It's just not the kind of stuff we would talk about," Frenchy explains. "See, for example, I know Hi Guy liked chili cook-offs. We went to a lot of chili cook-offs. Hi Guy liked to make chili, and he was good at it. We went to the state championships up in Bullhead City." Frenchy considers his dead friend a little longer. "Hi Guy loved the blues, too," he says. "Yes, he loved his music. See, so what I'm saying is we had a good time. But I never asked him personal questions about his family or what his problems were."