Customer to bartender: Hey, if you-know-who calls, I’m not here.
Bartender to waitress: Hey, if you-know-who calls you-know-who, he’s not here.
Waitress to bartender: Sorry. I’m not here either.
—Conversation from a bar
This is not a story about fern bars, bistro bars, singles bars, jazz bars, disco bars, cafe bars, restaurant bars, or lounges or clubs or taverns. Nor is this a story about places named after fictional Irish guys, places that serve things like Harvey Wallbangers, or places that have those super-diesel hand-drying machines in their rest rooms. And while I’m on the subject of rest rooms—I’m not going to deal with places that have that little guy in the men’s room who turns on the hot water for you and then looks at you like he wants a tip or something. All of those kinds of establishments are fine in their place, so long as that place is Wichita Falls, where I once was, I think. But they are not the sort of bar I want to explore and celebrate here.
This story is about bar bars, which can best be described as places where you can go and engage in the sacred rite of public drinking and not be there. The principle is summed up in
Atkinson’s First Rule of Drinking: If someone knows where you are, you aren’t in a bar bar.
Etiology? Let’s start with my old friend Fred. Fred was one of the elder statesmen at the Dallas Times Herald when I was beginning to wet my whistle as both a reporter and a barfly. He was a shambling, avuncular sort who took an interest in younger reporters; he criticized and coddled our copy, offered sage advice on particularly difficult assignments, regaled us with tales of newspapering Back Then. He also took it upon himself to take a few of us out every payday and get us wasted.
One of Fred’s favorite haunts was a forlorn-looking cracker-box affair within easy staggering distance of the Times Herald building. Officially the place was named the Green Glass Bar or some such, but that had long since given way to the more economical name of Bar Bar, for as Fred once observed, “That other name is too damn hard to say when you’re drunk.” The nickname came from the most visible marking on the exterior of the building, a large neon treatment of the word “bar.” But as several paydays passed, I began to realize that the name had profound cultural implications.
There were a lot of things I grew to like about the Bar Bar, not the least of which was that no one ever went there with any intention other than to drink. By this I do not mean the considerably less civilized process of getting drunk. Getting drunk is okay in its place, and certainly is a deeply rooted tradition in Texas bars, particularly those of the dump, dive, and shit-kicker genres. But it really has very little to do with the sort of imbibing that goes on in a bar bar. Getting drunk can happen as a result of a visit to a bar bar, to be sure, but it is not the raison d’etre of the place, if you get my drift.
The drinking ritual has as its corollaries several other treasured social customs that seem to have been lost on the Bennigan’s generation: the art of conversation, the art of listening, the art of killing time, and, most important, the art of holding forth. Holding forth, I soon learned, is a form of communication as endemic to bar bars as rapping is to ghettos. In its purest form, it is a combination of complaint, comment, oration, admonishment, and, very often, confession. It is in no way a dialogue but rather a series of continuous stream-of-conciousness lectures by various bar barflies. Who gets the soapbox when is governed by some cosmic force, as well as by who’s holding his liquor and who’s not.
Holding forth can involve a myriad of topics, the more irrelevant the better. Sports is fine and unavoidable, but something like just how the government computes your withholding tax is preferable. Also, the presentation has to be tinged with paranoia. One of my earliest orations at the Bar Bar was about how I was certain that the University of Texas had miscalculated my grade point average and how if I ever had the time, I’d run down to Austin and prove it to the bastards.
Of course, Fred was the best holder forth in the bunch. His favorite subject involved some nameless, faceless hit man who was after him for some undescribed stories he’d done years before. We’d huddle in a back booth, sipping draft beer, and out of the blue Fred would say, “Think I saw him again last night. I was on the freeway north and this car pulled up right beside me. Had to be him.” Then he’d light a cigarette and belch, for dramatic effect. “Lost him though. Timed it just right. Dropped back and U-turned it over to the median. He’ll be back though. He always is.” There was never any laughing at or chiding of Fred for his ridiculous fantasy. Any flight of whimsy by a bar barfly is dutifully indulged by the others.
I needed the Bar Bar on a regular basis for psychic nutrition. I’d drop by with colleagues after work, drop in by myself at lunch for a beer or two; gradually the bartender and the waitresses began to recognize my face, as did some of the other bar barflies there. It struck me then, as it still does, that a good bar bar provides two seemingly contradictory kinds of therapy, both of the not-being-there-sort. One is the anonymity—no—the privacy of being able to sip a drink alone and not be jacked with by anyone. I realize that various self-righteous groups believe that drinking alone is a habit akin to kleptomania, but for my money it’s as necessary as talking to your cat or watching bad TV by yourself. It’s a