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 way to wind down, sort out your thoughts, escape; it’s the ultimate way to not be anywhere. The second way that bar bars can be therapeutic is in the cozy and utterly democratic friendships one enjoys with other bar barflies. Sitting around, holding forth, or just listening can always improve a bad day and make a decent one even better. Fellow bar barflies don’t care who you are, what your shortcomings might have been that day, what missed ambitions you’re still carrying with you. You’re okay by them so long as you show up and abide by the basic rules of bar bardom.
I eventually lost track of Fred, and, for that matter, the Green Glass Bar. It’s still there, and I’ve even dropped by a couple of times, though it’s just not the same since it’s not my joint anymore. As for Fred, wherever he is, I’m sure he has a bar bar, and since he’s the sort of fellow who may not get credit for much in his life, I want to thank him. I’m always going to have a bar bar too, because that age-old adage that everyone’s got to be someplace just isn’t so. The truth is everyone’s got to be no place, at least some of the time. You may like jogging or mindless walks in a park or even-more-mindless browsing through old bookstores. My particular crutch is bar bars, the best places to not be there that there are. In fact, I think there used to be a club in Dallas actually called the He’s Not Here. (Appropriately enough, I suppose, when I asked a fellow bar barfly about it, he said he wasn’t sure, but he thought the club wasn’t there anymore.)
Male customer: You come in here often?
Female customer: I think so. Or maybe it’s another place that looks just like this.
—Conversation from a bar
I’ve often wondered what might happen if one of those macro-thinkers like Gerald Hines or Trammell Crow ever got interested in the fern bar biz. Gad. I can see it now: a huge, geodesic Galleria of a fern bar, stretching for acres and acres, somewhere near an airport. “Big Todd’s Fern Emporium, Munchie Bar, Donkey Kong Parlor, Wine Bistro, and Racquet Club. Try our delicious quiche daiquiris. Piña colada soup special at lunch. Friday night: Everyone not named Biff or Jason admitted free. Saturday night: Pac-Man look-alike contest. Nonstop Neil Diamond on the jukebox.”
Fortunately, Mr. Hines and Mr. Crow have had the good sense to stick to shopping centers and hotels and the like, but an awful lot of other people haven’t. Bennigan’s, Houlihan’s, Gallagher’s. Thursday’s, Friday’s, Saturday’s. Cowboys and Confetti. Taverns, cafes, bistros, discos, parlors, emporiums, clubs. Harvey Wallbangers, Kamikazes, Irish coffee. Fried zucchini, fried potato skins, fried mushrooms. Brass, old railroad ties, fake Tiffany lamps.
America’s being greened all right; it’s being greened by fern bars. To understand this creeping malaise, it’s instructive to analyze it in terms of the three dominant forces in American marketing over the past decade: the gradual but inexorable wimpifying of the American consumer, the trend toward exploitative escapism in the marketing of everything from housing (Swiss Chalet condos) to restaurants (Der Schnapps und Snacks) to automobiles (Le Car), and, finally, a lusty renaissance of good old American greed.
The wimpifying of America, of course, has long been at work in the area of restaurants and cuisine (even the word “cuisine” is wimpy). I am not speaking here simply of ultra-wimp stuff like quiche or cheese soup or Chablis. The wimp ethic has invaded nearly every part of the menu. You’d think something like the basic American potato might have escaped the trend, but what about those midget potatoes with parsley on them? The good old American egg, too, has been perverted. Do you realize that a lot of people out there actually eat something called a spinach omelet? To add insult to injury they usually order it off a blackboard, which is just about the wimpiest thing you can do. For goodness’ sake, the sacred American hamburger has even been co-opted—ever heard of something called a guacamole burger?
In much the same way, the fern bar has gradually wimpified what the American public chooses to drink. At the center of this movement stands a single libation, the piña colada. We’ve become so culturally flaccid that we call a concoction that might make a passable dessert (although desserts are generically suspect) a drink. This might not be so ominous if the piña colada had not spearheaded an entire generation of libations that have bullied their way into even the most right-thinking bartender’s repertoire: Harvey Wallbangers, Golden Cadillacs, Irish coffees, wine spritzers, White and Black Russians, and of course, strawberry daquiris. These drinks in turn have propagated an equally disturbing species of bar food known as munchies. I am firmly of the belief that food has no place in a real bar, with the exception of the time-honored peanuts or popcorn. But munchies—not to mentions the name itself—are especially offensive. Fried zucchini and mushrooms. Nachos with just about everything on them except real meat and real cheese. Egg rolls. You realize they don’t serve this stuff to aid Biff’s libidinous quest after Heather. They serve it to keep Biff and Heather from feeling their drinks. The key function of the fern bar is to let people drink without knowing it.
Atkinson’s Second Rule of Drinking: Beware the fern bar. It can be a sobering experience.
This gradual wimpifying has dovetailed neatly into a second propellant behind the ferny movement, the apparent desire on the part of most of the American public not only to be someplace at all times but to be someplace else. You see this everywhere now: motels designed like Byzantine forts of medieval castles, condominiums patterned after English country homes or Spanish haciendas, shopping centers constructed like Mexican town squares. The idea, I suppose, is to give the consumer a little cheap-thrill escapism and, at the same time, to suggest at least subliminally that the product in question is somehow superior (and therefore worth more) because it is foreign.
In bar marketing this has been manifested itself through names and decor. A lot of places call themselves taverns and bistros and pubs now; these designations are generally prefixed by an appropriately foreign-sounding name. It’s Mulligan’s Tavern or Marcel’s Bistro or Big Sean’s Pub. Some places employ the more direct approach of displaying the name of a city or region: the Balboa Cafe, the London Pub, the Cafe Pacific.
The decorative motif of most fern bars is equally contrived. I sacrificed my body and actually had a drink in each of the countless fern bars along Austin’s renovated East Sixth Street to get an overview of current trends. The scheffleras and sundry items of Irish crapola are still in place, but there’s been a little improvising on the basics over the past few years. One of the stronger themes is this high-tech deco business, which involves plastering the interior walls with shower tile, leaving a bunch of pipes and wires exposed in the ceiling, and putting some forties and fifties music on the jukebox.
A related craze is what I call the soda fountain bar. These joints are like the high-tech deco spots except for a few strategic modifications that target a younger and more casual clientele. The bathroom tile is replaced by brick or old wood, and the molded high-tech tables and chairs give way to tucked-vinyl booths with Formica tables. The food is still listed on a blackboard, but there is a cute soda fountain touch: they get your name when you order and yell it out when your food is ready.
Your basic nouveau English-Irish pub theme uses shamrocks in any possible way, numerous Blarney stone references, ale in place of beer, dart boards, restored church pews for booths, and bartenders wearing striped shirts. These places rest their cash-flow projections on imported beer. There’s Heineken and Beck’s and St. Pauli Girl; dark Heineken and dark Beck’s and dark St. Pauli Girl. I asked for a Coors in one of these places and the guy looked at me like I’d asked for his wallet.
There are some other troubling things I noticed in my stagger for the truth. A lot of bars offer more than munchies—stuff like live music. Don’t get me wrong. I used to call myself a musician and even sang for my beer at a joint in Austin. That is precisely why I find most live entertainment in bars insufferable. I used to make all those poor souls who came in just for a drink listen to me. There are exceptions, of course, but in general I view live entertainment in bars with the same jaundiced eye that I cast upon video games—as a senseless and annoying distraction, yet another way to appease the wimps who seem to fear the straightforward act of drinking.
But I digress. I need to get on to this final matter of greed, for I fear the preceding sociology has been a bit too charitable to the motives of fern bar entrepreneurs. Fern bars are wondrous moneymaking machines. Because they’re after quantity—not quality—they pour their drinks with those awful computer guns, producing a pouring cost (the cost of the liquor as a percentage of the price charged to the customer) about half that of bar bars. And the munchies and other food offered are not merely a device to draw in additional clientele; those plates of fried zucchini make money in their own right. Although food is a break-even proposition in a lot of restaurants, fern bar food can turn a profit because it is simple and cheap. A prudent manager can make more from selling nachos than he can from selling a drink, so what’s the difference?
A bar bar, on the other hand, may best be viewed in financial terms as a charity or a nonprofit foundation. With a solid group of regulars and prudently controlled overhead, a bar bar owner can turn a modest profit. But because he’s in the business of serving whiskey—nothing more, nothing less—he caters to a limited market.
Now, I’m nothing if not a free market kind of guy, and on rare occasions I have even had pleasant experiences in fern bars (see, I was in Witchita Falls once). I have encountered a few—notably Cooper’s Alley in Corpus Christi, the Wine Press in Dallas, and the Remington Bar & Grill in Houston—that have managed to transcend ferniness by the sheer force of good bartenders and good regular clientele. But fern bars must be regarded warily, for they represent the antithesis of the bar bar ethic. Fern bars, more than anything else, are about being there—being there to be seen, to meet women, to think about meeting women.
Most worrisome, really, is the trickle-down effect fern bars seem to be having on all drinking establishments. One of the more disturbing experiences I had in drinking my way across the state occurred at a little joint called Bruno’s Curve in Comfort. Bruno’s had come highly recommended by one of my drinking buddies who had grown up in the Hill Country, and at first glance it appeared to be the real thing: a classic Central Texas beer bar with a pool table, an old jukebox, dominoes, and a terrific array of old bar crapola on the walls. But on my way to the men’s room I had a shock from which I have still not recovered. On a side wall, next to a domino table, beneath one of those great old beer clocks, I spotted a Pac-Man machine. I quickly finished my business in the men’s room and escaped to the sanity of my car. It would be only a matter of time before Bruno’s started serving piña coladas at happy hour.
First bar customer: Stuff sure goes right through ya, doesn’t it?
Second bar customer: Yep, sure goes through ya, all right.
—Conversation from a bar bathroom
At the risk of losing my Texas citizenship and of being excommunicated from my college fraternity, let me go ahead and state
Atkinson’s Third Rule of Drinking: Nothing civilized ever resulted from the drinking of beer.
I realize this amounts to heresy in a state that treasures its suds as deeply as it does its college football but think about it for a minute. Drinking beer makes you belch, reduces your bladder to a quivering sieve, makes a certain sort of individual want to rearrange your face. Why is it that the consumption of five beers can make a man more ornery than the consumption of five martinis can? You never hear about a husband knifing his wife’s boyfriend after a couple of Scotches. It’s always after he’s had three or four pitchers of beer.
Some of this has to do with drinking demographics. Your basic beer drinker would probably be willing to knife his wife’s boyfriend after a couple of Slurpees. But I think there may also be a physiological rationale. All drinking involves stages, a series of chambers that the drinker passes through on his way to that rarefied state of drinking karma, what writer Dan Jenkins has called invisibility. One of these stages is a certain, let’s say, aggressiveness. At a magical instant, the right amount of booze reaches the proper synapses, and what results is a catalyst for paranoia—your darkest gripes come rushing forth, and you’re just not going to sit still until you’ve kicked the crap out of someone.
Let’s call this stage of invincibility. Beer drinkers reach this stage and never leave it. Three, four, ten more pitchers are not going to coax them into any of the succeeding, more passive chambers. Hard-liquor drinkers rapidly pass through invincibility, almost untouched. Though hard-booze drinkers may get drunker than beer drinkers, they do so with a good deal more grace. You never see a martini drinker doing something like, oh, dancing. Singing, yes; dancing, never. Dancing is for beer drinkers exclusively, as is throwing up on the sidewalk. And arm wrestling. If the piña colada is the potion of wimps, then beer is all too often the elixir of horse’s asses. When’s the last time you heard a martini drinker say something like “You and who else’s army, huh?” That’s beer talk, as is “Hurry up ‘n’ sit down Junior, before somebody sees ya!”
I included some beer bars in my tour but only grudgingly. The very idea of a beer bar is distasteful; in Texas, however, it’s a when-in-Rome sort of situation. Texas drinking is inextricably tied to brewski. Because of the prevailing climate and the peculiar conjunction of German and Latin culture, beer is part of the Texan blood. From the old icehouses in Houston and San Antonio to the beer gardens of the Hill Country, from the saloons of county-line areas like Mingus to the surviving urban beer joints like Kay’s in Houston and Willie’s in Dallas, it’s clear that when most Texans say, “Let’s go have a drink,” they really mean, “Let’s go have a beer.” After a dozen years of liquor by the drink in the state, beer still reigns supreme. Last year Texans consumed a staggering 462 million gallons of beer—32 times the amount of distilled liquor they drank.
Many bar bars in Texas are, in fact, beer bar bars. I must confess that I developed a reluctant affection for a number of these places. I grew particularly fond of icehouses, not 7-Elevens or Stop-N-Goes but the real old icehouses, like the now defunct Bill’s Ice House in Fredericksburg and the Gomez Ice House in San Antonio. If Texas drinking—meaning Texas beer drinking—has real roots, they are in these peculiar little cinder-block affairs that, depending on which area of the state you’re in, sell everything from beer to live bait. Originally they sold block ice and bottled beer—hence the distinctive boxy architecture of most of them. As business got better, Bill or Mr. Gomez or whoever saw additional profit in serving beer on site. There followed pool tables, pinball machines, jukeboxes, sundry junk food, and ultimately, tables and chairs and, on occasion, hot meals. As the years passed, an eclectic array of other goods and services attached itself to the icehouse. Bill’s in Fredericksburg, for example, used to advertise beer, groceries, live ammo, and hunting licenses; the Gomez in San Antonio complements its food and beverage business with some key cutting.
I grew somewhat less fond of the urban neighborhood beer joint, though it’s only fair to point out that with the exception of what’s being drunk, these places fulfill most of the obligations of a good bar bar. They’re dark and completely unpretentious, peopled by an assortment of regulars, presided over by good bartenders. And because of their age, most of them have marvelous collections of bar crapola on the walls and ceilings: beer signs and calendars, those cute little sayings like “Nobody can force me to drink. I’m a volunteer,” tattered business cards, and endless snapshots of satisfied customers in various poses. The outstanding place in this vein is Little Hipp’s in San Antonio. Aside from Willard the Amazon tortoise—no kidding—and several of those terrific old four-color, laminated photographs of plate dinners, the adornments at Hipp’s are kitsch that only Andy Warhol could love: small beach balls suspended from the ceiling in fishnet and attached to plastic paper plates. You figure it out.
What I’m getting at is that beer bars have sufficient funk to be bar bars, but they lack the requisite soul. That elusive quality is inseparable from booze—whiskey, martinis, and of course the ever-present shooter of tequila or schnapps—and the special kind of stupor it creates. Beer can just never quite get you nowhere, and thus, while beer bars are vastly superior to many other genres, they are forever doomed to being a brick shy of a full load.
First bar regular: Hey, Dave, how’s it goin’?
Second bar regular: Oh, Bill! I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you in the daylight.
—Conversation not from a bar
Now that I’ve exhausted the subject of what a bar bar is not, let me explain what it is as succinctly as possible. The model I will use here is Joe Miller’s in Dallas, not because it is necessarily the best bar bar in the state but because it is my bar bar.
Let’s start with
Atkinson’s Fourth Rule of Drinking: Liquor was not meant to be consumed in the presence of light, either artificial or natural.
This is to say that good bar bars are a lot of things, but first and foremost they are dark. How dark? Mine shaft dark. I don’t mean just shadowy or atmospheric or even dim. I’m talking about total pupil dilation.
I can’t say this with complete authority, but I’m fairly certain Joe’s is the darkest bar in the state, if not the nation. I have been drinking with Joe ever since he moved over from the Stoneleigh Terrace Hotel bar and opened his own joint in 1977, and I have never failed to have the sensation of hitting the wall when I enter the place. In fact, one of the more common pastimes at Joe’s is sitting at the bar watching people’s tortured attempts to adjust to the darkness upon entering. There are two types here: those who take the conservative approach by standing at the entryway in a catatonic pose, waiting for the cornea or the retina or whatever the hell it is to do its thing, and the reckless types who never break stride, gambling that they will somehow make contact with a barstool before they get to the aquarium or to a table loaded with glasses or to some judge’s wife’s chest area. I’m not sure why, but this is definitely one instance in which adaptive learning simply doesn’t happen. I know of no one, including Joe, whose eyes have become even vaguely proficient at adjusting to the dark in his joint, nor have I met anyone who has learned to handle that megablast of sunlight one collides with upon leaving.
A great bar like Joe’s needs to be dark for the obvious reasons. It’s the most economical way to get you nowhere before you’ve had even your first sip. It follows, then, that all other matters involving decor and atmostphere are completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what a bar bar looks like, because you’re not supposed to see it in the first place. Hell, you’re not even there, so who cares what kind of wallpaper or carpet it has?
Joe’s is more than exemplary here. I can’t honestly tell you exactly what the place looks like. As best I can put it together, it’s a little like a set in a Perry Mason episode. It’s vaguely fiftyish with a long, serpentine bar that has, of course, a very kneadable vinyl arm-resting area and cheap carpeting on the front. Elsewhere, there are Formica tables and imitation-leather director’s chairs, a fireplace with a couple of couches around it, a men’s room without stalls, a small TV set, a lot of bar crapola, a whole lot of pictures of Joe and various friends, an aquarium, a large clock patterned after Joe’s distinctively mustachioed face, and an extremely large blue marlin. You get the idea. It’s a little like a Holiday Inn room; the immediate function supersedes everything else, especially what it looks like.
In much the same way, Joe’s stands as an archetypal bar bar simply because of its name. I tend to think that when that often-quoted archeologist of the future digs through our remains, among the things that will vex him most will be the names we give our bars. A quick jaunt through the Yellow Pages: The Family Affair? Concorde Casablanca? Georgie’s Kemosabe Lounge? Come on. The Bwana Dik Club? Barton’s Boozery? The Cool Million? Wet and Wild? For goodness’ sake. The Brass Asp? This is Texas? Gregory’s Penthouse of El Paso, Inc.? Boy! The Common Interest Restaurant & Piano Bar? Harpoon Henry’s? Randi’s Stagecoach?
I don’t want to have to get Freudian about this, so let me make my point quickly: you can generally tell a good bar bar by its name because it is simple and straightforward. Call this
Atkinson’s Fifth Rule of Drinking: If you can’t say the name of the place when you’re drunk, it’s not a bar bar.
(borrowed with deep gratitude from Fred). The exquisitely simple “Joe Miller’s,” of course, speaks for itself; bars that are named after the guy who runs the place are almost always bar bars. It’s no accident that the best bar bars I found across the state were named things like the Esquire, the Point After, and, perhaps my favorite name of all, My Joint. Ideally, you should be as comfortable with the name of your bar as you are with the name of a good friend. I find it hard to say, “Let’s go to the Bwana Dik Club” with nonchalance and familiarity. But listen to this: “Let’s go to Joe’s.” See?
I marvel at how all this works. The social system of a bar bar is as intricate and mysterious as anything you might find in the primal sludge of a pristine pond. The pecking orders, the patterns of interaction, the endless varieties of symbiosis that compose the social fabric of a bar bar, are governed by a similar cosmic force. When you find the right bar bar, it’s as if you were always meant to be there. Once there, you somehow instinctively know exactly how to act, what to say, when to stay, and when to leave. It is something as natural and visceral as baby’s first cry.
The queen bee of this little ecosystem is the bartender. Here again I will use Joe Miller as the model, not merely for selfish reasons but because he is the archetypal bar bartender. Joe is a rangy fellow of indeterminate age and even more indeterminate background. Physically, he is built of non sequiturs. His dress is conservative, almost preppie, but his hair is in a ferocious Afro and he sports a Fu Manchu moustache circa 1967; from certain angles he looks slat-thin, but from others a well-established paunch suddenly appears. Joe never looks the same twice, which may have something to do with the circumstances in which one usually sees him.
He does always sound the same; his voice may best be described as Rodney Dangerfield with a bad chest cold. The resemblance is much more than accidental, for like all great bartenders, Joe is a frustrated comedian who finds his regular clientele a conveniently captive audience for his latest material, which is invariably of the two-liner, rim-shot variety. Example: “Hey, Joe, you got my check?” “No, but I got a Polack in the basement.”
Actually, Joe is much funnier when he’s just talking. His argot is a curious combination of Jersey street talk, selected idioms from his home country, Canada, and bar bar-ese, the universal tongue of bar barflies. This is served up in a Cagneyesque staccato, which, as the evening wears on, becomes less and less precise. For the uninitiated, a conversation with Joe can be a little like watching sign language for the deaf. You get the general drift, but you’re never really sure what’s going on. Example: “Anyway, this guy comes in, you know, and then it’s like boom and boom and the first thing you know, he pulls a Murphy on me. I don’t know. Anyway . . .”
I know of no one who knows exactly what a Murphy is, but we all nod dutifully whenever Joe mentions it in a sentence. It is but one of the obligations of being a regular. Those obligations begin and end with one rule of thumb, which I call
Atkinson’s Sixth Rule of Drinking: The single responsibility of the bar barfly is to show up.
This is not to suggest that frequenting a bar automatically makes you a regular there. Indeed, there are numerous frequenters at Joe’s who are in no way considered regulars. But it is to say that a minimal presence is required. It can be as little as once a week, as much as twice a day; it depends on who you are. Also, you can build up accrued time one week and apply it to the next month if you’re going on vacation or something.
In any event, when you do show your face, there is really only one other requirement—that you have more than one drink. This leads me directly to
Atkinson’s Seventh Rule of Drinking: There is no such thing as one drink.
I am not sure where the myth began, but it is among the most heinous fictions in all of drinkingdom. Why, just the other night I overheard a fellow bar barfly who really ought to know better utter the immortal words, “I just stopped in for one.” As is often the case when someone announces this, he proceeded to have four and then called his wife to repeat the lie, “I just stopped by Joe’s for one. I’m on my way.”
Aside from those basics, a regular at Joe’s is asked to comport himself according to a wide range of rules of the house, some of which make sense and some of which don’t. A bar bar is set up on a positive reinforcement model—you show up and play by the rules, and over time you are extended certain rights and privileges. The rules are as follows: You are expected to tip or, at the minimum, not to stiff the help consistently, to put your cigarettes out in an ashtray whenever possible, not to hassle the waitresses, to keep the holding forth—especially that of the profane variety—at low decibels, to pay overdue tabs as quickly as possible, not to bounce checks, and to attempt to laugh at Joe’s jokes. If you abide by these simple rules, you will soon find yourself the proud beneficiary of the perks of regulardom, including help who remember your name and drink, an occasional drink on the house, tabs that can be held for short periods if you’re a little light one night, and certain emergency medical services such as aspirin or, in the event that you stumble into what I call a transcontinental drunk (meaning you show up at five, find your favorite stool, strap on the seat belt, and don’t move until two), a cab ride home.
There is nothing formal about becoming a regular at a bar; you just kind of know when you’re accepted into the fold and can ask certain favors. One thing you don’t ever do is get pushy about your privileges. They are the exclusive domain of Joe, and they are extended or retracted according to some abstruse equation that I’m not sure even he understands. Another thing you don’t do is abuse a privilege once it has been extended. That can lead to ostracism or, worse, being barred. Being barred is a punishment reserved for perpetrators of felonies against regulardom. Lesser offenses are policed with a quiet warning from Joe or, frequently, a disgusted glance from another regular. Such misdemeanors include group singing. Other transgressions along this line—loud cussing, getting sick, falling off your barstool, pouring a drink into the aquarium to get the fish drunk—are considered crimes, but only repeat offenses will get you in trouble, and even then you may earn only a night’s probation.
Total barring is rare and results only from the commission of high crimes, things like repeated fighting, intentionally kiting checks, or, worst of all, not shooting straight with Joe. The one fellow I remember getting barred lost his status because he kept putting Joe off on an overdue tab and then ran into Joe one evening at another bar and offered to buy him a drink.
For the most part, good bar bars are self-policing. As often as not, troublemakers are run off by the regulars before Joe has to do anything. As at summer camp, you are expected to pick up the rules on your own, and failure to do so does not merely result in being chastized by your peers, your fellow regulars. In this way, I think that Nick Kralj of Austin’s Quorum is right when he says a good bar bar teaches a certain grace that can’t be acquired elsewhere. It civilizes you in a way that other social units, including the family, can’t. It’s like a finishing school for life, and you can always spot a bar barfly by the way he handles himself.
First bar regular: Listen, Dave, if I could just get the damned seed money in place, this baby would take off and never shut down until it went right through the power curve. You know? But the seed money’s gonna be tough, what with that bastard Reagan and all, not to mention Qaddafi. What this country needs is a little reprioritization, Dave. See what I mean?
Second bar regular: Precisely.
—Conversation from a bar
Much of the civilizing influence of the bar bar stems from
Atkinson’s Eighth Rule of Drinking: Drinking in a bar bar is the only purely democratic experience you will ever have.
All bar barflies are equal in the eyes of the bar, and regulars are expected to treat one another without the slightest hint of prejudice. This imperative cuts across race, creed, generation, and, yes, gender. While bar bars are commonly thought to be bastions of male chauvinism, nothing could be farther from the truth. Granted that bar bars tend to be peopled mostly by men, the women who become regulars in their own right are treated exactly the same as everyone else. You rarely see a male regular putting the moves on a female regular. After all, hitting on any woman—regular or not—is not your reason for being there.
While bar bars do tend to attract birds of a feather, the best cohorts of regulars are rambunctiously varied. Joe’s is known as a media bar, and a lot of journalists do hang out there. But the group at the bar on any given evening may be only 25 percent media; the remaining regulars are lawyers, judges, visiting bartenders, football coaches, and insurance agents. They are old and young, black and white, well dressed and sloppy, wealthy and middle-class. They share only a dedication to the bar and a need for the spiritual sustenance it provides.
You can see the democratic ethos of the bar bar affirmed and reaffirmed every night in a series of odd cants and rituals. One of my favorites is the arcane custom of buying one another drinks. To the outsider, this process may seem silly and inscrutable: what’s the point of buying each other drinks when you can just as easily buy your own? But no bar barfly I know of questions the ritual. Regulars are expected to buy drinks for other regulars occasionally, and it is an unwritten canon that the recipient should try to return the favor before the evening is over.
This must be a universal principle, because I hadn’t been in Elizabeth’s Cocktails in Corpus Christi for more than five minutes before this fellow next to me—a crusty old auto mechanic who was holding forth on his attempt to bail a friend out of jail, the King Ranch, and plane crashes—bought me a drink. I thanked him and dutifully listened to the rest of his oration, a service that is all the more obligatory after a bar barfly buys you a drink. At any rate, I waited through a couple more rounds and then, by instinct, signaled to the bartender in my best bar bar sign language to put his next beer on my tab. (The universally accepted signal here is to point to the other fellow’s empty glass or beer can and then, with a slight flourish, to point at your tab or, preferably, at your stack of change on the bar. This is why you never see bar barflies pay for a drink with exact change or put their change away after purchasing a drink; that stack of change is an important badge and a useful implement of communication. If you’re in a real bar bar you don’t have to worry about someone’s ripping off your money. Heck, I’ve left my wallet at Joe’s and not worried about it.)
Of course, nowhere do the democratic principles of the bar bar come more into play than in the time-honored rite of holding forth. It is here that the mettle of any bar barfly is tested night in and night out. Either you are able to sit there patiently and act not just interested but enraptured with what another bar barfly is holding forth on, or you don’t belong in the joint in the first place. There are no exceptions to this rule of the bar, for you never know when you are going to need a similarly sympathetic ear after a rough day.
The most common type of holding forth is a kind of pontification. This will involve your current events, though frequently—as in the exchange recited earlier—it focuses on some vague entrepreneurial venture that the holder forth in question just can’t quite get off the ground. You tend to get a lot of your investment-tax dodge strategizing. This is because bar barflies share the belief that the government and the economy are screwing them worse than anyone else and that they can evade the ravages of inflation and the IRS if they just give the matter a little more thought.
Another type of holding forth is a form of sermon or exhortation along some moral lines. The master of this is a charming old black fellow named Hawk, who may be my favorite person in the world to listen to. Hawk’s sermons, which revolve around how to live one’s life more happily, are delivered in a perfectly unique street poetry, an endless stream of home-cooked homilies and euphemisms that evoke only a dim and visceral understanding of his point. Example: “Right on, right on . . . really, really and truly . . . multiply, really and truly . . . enjoy life.” And then in a deep growl, “Thank you!” Followed by this in a screeching falsetto, “And I ain’t lyin’, neither!” And finally, “Everybody pick on me, but that’s okay . . . happiness, enjoyment, the vitality of life. Gotta follow through! Take a BC and come back strong.” You get my drift, even if you don’t get Hawk’s.
Sometimes holding forth can be more serious. I ran into a fellow regular recently, and as is usually the case with bar barflies, I could immediately sense that he would be doing the holding forth that night and I would be doing the listening. I’m not sure what it is, but bar barflies learn to emit a complex set of signals to one another that indicates who needs to rap and who doesn’t. And once the appropriate signal is transmitted, it is definitely bad form to ignore or slight the plea to be heard out. In this case my friend said, “Sit down. I think I’m gonna need you tonight.” He explained that an old and dear friend had died suddenly, and there followed a heavy rap about the frailty of life and how you never think to let people know how you feel about them until they’re gone. When he was finished, I could tell he felt a lot better, and so did I.
Holding forth is a form of communication that doesn’t exist outside the darkness of the bar bar. It is one more facet of the peculiar relationship between fellow bar regulars. Most regulars didn’t know one another before they started going to the bar, and most don’t associate much outside the confines of the bar. When you do run into a fellow regular on the street, it’s invariably a somewhat uncomfortable moment because you both realize that you don’t have that much in common. And you really don’t want to. Here again, I find the analogy to summer camp instructive. As you did with the special friends you made at summer camp and then left for the next eleven months, you get the feeling that to try to take the special bond between bar regulars outside the bar would somehow cheapen it, even ruin it.
This is especially true of old guys, who are among my favorite fellow bar bar regulars. Somehow, in the cold light of day young men and older men seem doomed to relating to one another awkwardly and with suspicion. The young alternately envy the older for their maturity and loathe them for their narrowness; the older men both resent and admire the younger for their youth. But in the dark of a bar bar, you’re not an old guy or a young guy; you’re just another bar barfly. The bar bar is a place where you can get to know people—kinds of people—you might otherwise not interact with, and somehow I always feel like a better person for having had the experience.
Bar regular on phone to wife: Yeah, I’m at Joe’s havin’ one, and then I’m on my way.
Wife: Oh, really? I just called over there and they said you weren’t there.
—Conversation from a bar
There comes a time in every essay like this when one must deal with the unpleasant aspects of an otherwise pleasant pursuit. No meditation on the bar bar could approach thoroughness or honesty without at least broaching the subject of the bar bar’s strained relationship to the institution of marriage. There has always been an oil-and-water situation here, and I am not optimistic that that will ever change. But perhaps with some further ventilation of the subject, we can at least fashion a détente, though I suspect it may prove to be about as meaningful as that one we had with the Ruskies a few years back.
First things first. Wives don’t merely regard bar bars with suspicion or mild loathing; they hate them. Without going into a lot of personal detail, let me say that I know this firsthand. It would be easy enough to lay the blame at the feet of petty jealousy, but that would be shortsighted and definitely chauvinistic, and since I think I’m going to get into enough trouble here as it is, I don’t need that to compound my problems. A form of jealousy is at the root of the problem, but it is not petty. It is the natural jealousy—no—the resentment that one gender feels toward the other when he or she feels left out. Let me say right here that men are equally guilty of this. As liberated as we would like to fancy ourselves, we can’t comprehend why a woman would prefer the company of other women in many circumstances. In the same way, wives seem to resent it when their bar barflies go to a bar bar seeking the special bond that only those of the same gender can share.
In truth, the big problem that wives have with bar bars is that the places turn their husbands into pathological liars. Most bar barflies would rather phone home from the scene of a one-night stand and fess up to it than admit to being at Joe’s for “just one.”
The compulsive lying that seizes bar barflies when they must make the inevitable, obligatory call home is not lying of the sociopathic variety. Mythology notwithstanding, I’ve never heard a bar barfly say he’s got a flat tire or the boss kept him late at work. Those lies exist only on I Love Lucy and in Jacqueline Susann novels. The true bar bar lie is more along the lines of a sin of omission. By telling her that you’re at Joe’s just having one, you are stating—sometimes rightly—a mere intention, while in a dark, interior lobe of your brain, you know you’re not giving her the whole story. Having started with noble intent, you will be waylaid, and fate’s cruel hand will make you stay.
In some cases, of course, this is more or less true. After he’s made the call, what’s a good bar barfly to do if a fellow regular buys him a drink? Not only does he have to consume that one, he owes his buddy one as well. By the time all that is negotiated, he’s staring squarely at an unsavory option: making the second call or strapping on the seat belt and winging off on a transcontinental. Fellow bar barflies tend to be more sympathetic about this than bartenders are. A good bar bartender is willing to mother and coddle you in almost every way imaginable, but one thing he obviously doesn’t care about is the health of your marriage. In fact some bartenders seem to derive untold glee from gently nudging you across the invisibility threshold, beyond which any rational or moral activity—especially something like the second call—is completely impossible.
Joe’s especially insidious gimmick here is the perfectly timed drink on the house, what I call a Retrograder. As the name implies, this single drink, because of its perfectly timed arrival, has the effect of reversing your noble intentions and setting you on a new flight pattern. I don’t know how Joe knows just when to push the Retrogader button. Sometimes it’s on your third drink, sometimes on your sixth; it can be early or late, when you’re alone or with a group, on a Monday or on a Friday night. It’s a well-developed sixth sense, refined over a lifetime of watching people drink. He checks your eyes, watches your gait on the way to the restroom, notes the decibel level of your holding forth, and then—whammo!—he kicks in the Retrograder, knowing full well that the rules of the bar dictate that you will drink it.
Joe’s protégé, Louis, who has taken over many of Joe’s bartending duties without missing a beat, has developed an equally insidious variation. When your drink gets about halfway down and you begin to feel smug and secure in the knowledge that this time you really are going to live up to those good intentions, Louis will scoop up a handful of fresh ice and dump it into your glass, creating a whole new drink. In an ordinary bar, this gimmick probably wouldn’t work. If a joint is pouring with computer guns or with a shot glass, most of the booze in there is probably gone by the time you’re halfway down in the glass anyway. But a Joe Miller cocktail is no such animal. It is served in a monster thirteen-and-a-half-ounce glass, and it contains at least two, if not three, ounces of booze. So when Louis pulls the ice trick, he’s in effect making your first normal drink.
Mark, a bar bartender at the Bullington Point, is fond of hitting you with a shooter (a straight ounce gulped all at once) of peppermint schnapps or tequila. It tends to have a time-release-capsule effect, which can without warning blow your good intentions to bits. This delayed reaction can even happen when you’re literally on the road home, producing some rather panicked adjustments in your driving and, at time, a stop—off at the nearest available bar bar.
Whatever the method, bartenders have a way of turning the second call into an awful prospect, leaving you with a moral choice roughly along the lines of being lost at sea in a two-man boat with your priest and your broker and having to decide which one goes. If you don’t call, you can hop on a transcontinental and pay the price the next morning. I have occasionally found this effective because (1) if I don’t call again, I don’t have to lie again, and (2) I look so pathetic the morning after a transcontinental that my condition elicits a begrudging sympathy. If you do call, you may as well face up to the necessity of lying again in some form or another. The second lie, like the first, is based on good intentions, and it usually introduces a third party. “I was on my way and guess who came in and bought me a drink?” That sort of thing. The second call may work, because it shows you’re still thinking of her, but its effectiveness can be severely diminished if and when you have to enter that uncharted territory known as the third call. I can’t give you much advice on the third call because I’ve never made one. But I can tell you that the one fellow I know who did make one is not only not married anymore, he’s not drinking at the bar bar anymore either.
Come to think of it, what’s at the root of this primordial conflict between bar bars and wives may not be the call you make to her but the call she makes to you when, as all bar bar widows eventually do, she gets up the gumption to call you there. When she does, you-know-what happens: someone tells her you’re not there, and at that instant she faces the ugly truth about being a bar bar widow. It’s not that you’re there; it’s that you’re not there, which is where a husband is never supposed to be.
I see no easy solution to this state of affairs, because the fact of the matter is that bar barfly is forever doomed to juggling two marriages—one to his wife, the other to his bar bar. Far be it from me to suggest what another man’s priorities ought to be, but I will offer as some food for thought
Atkinson’s Ninth Rule of Drinking: You can probably find another wife, but can you find another bar bar?
Former bar regular: Hey, Frank, what ya been up to? Where you hanging out now?
Other former bar regular: No place, really. Since the joint closed, I’ve kinda stopped drinking.
—Conversation not from a bar
If you doubt the cultural importance of bar bars, then I offer the preceding exchange. Sad but true; the loss of a good bar bar can drive a man to stop drinking altogether. I mention this because although my stagger across Texas in search of good bar bars yielded some worthwhile results, I returned with ominous feelings about the future of the species.
There are good bar bars out there, to be sure. But the tradition is a tenuous one. After all, Texas has had liquor by the drink for barely more than a decade now. Many of the small private clubs that served as bar bars before then have died, and there’s been precious little time for new ones to develop. Bar bars, like the people who populate them, grow good, or even great, only with time.
More worrisome is watching a good bar bar go bad or (shudder) die altogether. I lost my first bar bar a few years back, and I can’t honestly say I’ve recovered from the trauma. It was a joint called the Point Downtown, and for years it served ably as my daytime counterpoint to drinking with Joe. It was a plain affair, enlivened only by the proprietor, a big bear of a man named Brownie. Brownie could always improve a day with this traditional greeting for regulars, “Oh shit, oh dear! Look who’s here!” and with his frequent exhortation, “Whiskey for my friends!”
But like much of the rest of downtown Dallas, the Point was doomed by progress. Brownie left before the joint did, disappearing to Houston as if he couldn’t bear to be around when the joint went the way of the buffalo. It limped and gasped its way through its final months like a cancer patient. And like the loved ones of that cancer patient, we all finally ran out of ways to ignore the inevitable. A month or two before it lost its lease, I stopped going—thinking, I suppose, that if I created some distance between me and the bar’s instant of death, I would never know what hit it and would barely remember it the next time I was in that area of town.
But I did. Not long after the Point closed, I happened to be in its neighborhood on business. I was preoccupied with my work, and so I was almost upon the spot before I realized it. Sensing its presence, I glanced up at the building. It was swathed in a white façade now, a covering that looked very much like a body bag. I wondered if it would be appropriate to stand there a moment, allowing the proverbial rush of memories to hurtle back. I decided not to—bar bars don’t want to be remembered, they want to be succeeded.
It’s not just that good bar bars are a civilizing influence in an increasingly uncivilized world, and it’s not just that they teach you social graces that you couldn’t otherwise acquire. It’s that they give you a break. I remember the time a friend and fellow regular at Joe’s announced he was going to take a little ride on the wagon to flush his system. We wished him well, but I for one was a bit disturbed because I knew I’d miss seeing him and I worried that he might take this wagon business too seriously. The next week, there he was at the bar again, right at the stroke of six. “You fell off already?” I asked. “Nah,” he mumbled glumly, pointing to his glass. “Soda. Frankly, it’s making me a little sick. Wonder if I should try orange juice tomorrow.” It was the “tomorrow” part that struck me as especially resonant. It’s true—it’s not the booze, it’s the people. That’s why my worries about the future of this sacred institution may be unfounded.
Atkinson’s Tenth Rule of Drinking: There will always be bar bars because there will always be bar barflies.