The best bartender in Texas—or, at any rate, the only one I knew by name—lived until Sunday in a small room once occupied by a pool table at Ray Gene’s It’ll Do Tavern, in Longview.
Ray Armstrong, better known as Ray Gene, even though his middle name was Leon, closed his bar in early August. At nearly 82 years old, he’d been diagnosed with liver cancer. He decided to wait it out, right there, at the It’ll Do.
When I last saw him, on a Friday afternoon in mid-October, Ray Gene was sitting alone at the empty bar. All the beer was gone. Most of the other stuff was too. I forgot to look for the “Swayzes,” a trio of cutout Patrick Swayze posters that could have passed for stickers on a Dirty Dancing fan’s Trapper Keeper in 1987, if they weren’t so big. One practically life-size Swayze always seemed to smile on patrons when they fed quarters into the jukebox, under the white icicle lights, across the room from the toy cars and trucks.
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“This has never been your normal bar,” Ray Gene pointed out.
True enough. An evening at the It’ll Do felt more like a hangout session in your eccentric friend’s secret clubhouse. A lifelong bachelor and something of a loner, Ray Gene opened the bar in 1997 to pass the time in retirement. He spent the next two-plus decades bouncing around Longview, swapping out bar names nearly as often as he moved locations: from the It’ll Do to the West End, then Dew Drop Inn and back to It’ll Do, ending up in a tiny building on a run-down stretch of U.S. 80, the old cross-country route that once linked San Diego to Savannah, Georgia.
It’s nondescript outside—the sign in front advertised Front Porch Coffee, an establishment that hasn’t existed in a decade or so—but the inside of It’ll Do grew ever stranger and more special as Ray Gene got older. He kept around a lot of books for a while, then moved them to make room for whole shelves of bobblehead dolls. If Ray Gene liked it, we were okay with it. Long and lean at six feet one inch, with pearly white hair, dark-framed glasses, and a denim shirt embellished with an It’ll Do monogram, Ray Gene lived at the bar for years, running his one-man show six nights a week. He sold longnecks for $2 cash and scored most of his profits from tips. Although he’d sworn off alcohol twelve years ago, he just liked being around his “kids,” or youngsters, as he thought of us, including his longest-tenured regulars, who are now entering their mid-40s.
I became one of Ray Gene’s youngsters about fifteen years ago. I also frequented other places, of course (there are a few great bars in East Texas). But most are forgettable, and some are terrible. At these bars, I unfortunately saw plenty of fights, one stabbing, a bunch of Confederate battle flags and—draped across the ceiling of a now-defunct biker bar—one enormous swastika.
The scene at It’ll Do stood apart from all that. With its quirk and kitsch and the kindly yet reserved elder statesman tending bar, it became a refuge for creative types, recent college grads, tattoo artists, LGBTQ kids, and other mildly counter-cultural beer drinkers, whom Ray Gene came to view as family. He kept scrapbooks of his youngsters’ wedding announcements and other ephemera. He took lots of snapshots, which he cut into circles and pasted over the labels of old jukebox records, which he then used to decorate the bar. There’s a vinyl record with my face on it somewhere.
Ray Gene’s youngsters more than returned his affection. One evening last spring, a young woman sitting at the other end of the intimate, L-shaped bar was holding her head in her hands. When she looked up, my friends and I saw that her eyes were puffy and red. Ray Gene discreetly explained to us that she had suddenly, tragically, lost her husband. She wasn’t drinking. She just wanted to sit at the bar and be with Ray Gene.
Another time, when the bar was completely dead on Christmas night, Ray Gene told the story of how he acquired the “Gene” half of his name. A native of the East Texas town of Carthage, he was tending bar in 1968 at the Embers Club in Longview, the only place to catch a burlesque show between Dallas and Shreveport, where good-timing state politicians liked to ease through a back door to watch from a side room, out of view of their constituents. (Ray Gene was always careful to go off the record before naming big shots.) During shows, the emcee at the Embers Club gave fake middle names to all the dancers and the other employees. “Mine is the only one that stuck,” he said.
In mid-October, Ray Gene unlocked the door of It’ll Do so I could visit him one more time. Frail and gaunt, his body hunched over the handrails of a walker, and his cheeks sank deeply behind a silver beard. He settled into a chair beside the bar, and I climbed onto the stool where the young widow had sat the previous spring.
“At your age,” he told me, “you think death is off in the distance. You don’t realize how short a life span really is until you’re narrowing down to the end. You can fight it. You can resist it. You can be unhappy about it, but the fact is, this is how all of us go, and it’s really not that bad.”
Memories of the two decades he ran the bar, which he described as one of the happiest periods of his life, brought him peace and contentment. To his surprise, the Longview News-Journal featured him on the front page of an issue in August. Youngsters and other old friends flocked to It’ll Do to say their goodbyes afterward. Ray Gene hadn’t realized how many people were going to miss him.
At the It’ll Do Tavern, where Ray Gene died October 27, the lifelong loner had found a make-do family.
“It’s been a wonderful experience on my way out,” he said during our last chat. “An unexpected, wonderful experience.”