The first bar I drank in (and became a regular in) had waitresses with ties in cummerbunds. It was a little pricey and the clientele was upper middle class, middle aged. But it was my sure thing. This is where I started drinking and this is where I finished my drinking career.
The years in between: the waitresses changed from ties and cummerbunds to jeans and t-shirts. Soon there were no waitresses, but you could order wings and such from the bartender. Next? The tables were gone, replaced with billiards. Then there were dartboards. Then there were bands. Then there was no food, save the 25-cent M&M machine in the corner and the single-serve potato chips on the wall. Then there were fights. Then there were brawls. Then there were stabbings. The bar made the front page of the paper when someone was shot in their parking lot. People did lewd things to each other in the bathroom for rock. Sometimes they left the doors to the stalls open for kicks. With all this going on, I’d laugh about it to my friends and talk about how the place has “gone downhill.”
The first time I went there, I felt like I belonged. My last night in there, I felt like I belonged. That’s progression. That bar progressed right along with me. If I tell people this story locally and then tell them the name of the bar, they laugh and nod vigorously. They know. It’s true!
One time, sober for 7 years, I ran into a guy I knew who used to drink there. He laughed about us playing pool one night when a huge fight broke out. The ruckus came near us. He said to me, “You grit your teeth and said, ‘if they spill one drop of my f**kin’ beer, I’m going to go berserk.'”
I cringed. He was probably right. Alcohol’s importance superseded my personal safety – or anything for that matter.
One night, when I worked in a restaurant, there was a fairly epic snowstorm. There was a cute little dishwasher dude and for some reason I felt protective of him. He was a goth kid with glasses and looked like and talked like Daria, the nerdy girl character from Beavis & Butthead. But I dug him and he possessed this vulnerability about him. He walked everywhere and lived across town. I offered him a ride and he hemmed and hawed. “I couldn’t put you out,” he said.
I insisted. At 11PM, I found myself driving slowly across town, my tires firmly lodged in my predecessor’s tracks like some kind of railroad track. The sound of snow grinding against my undercarriage left something to be desired, but cranking the radio helped.
The 10-minute drive to his house was just over half an hour. He suggested I come in for a beer, and I knew he had my favorite kind: free.
Walking inside, I paused in the doorway with my attention turned down to my feet as I tugged at my boots. It was warm in there, and the golden hallway light playing on the condensation on the window to the kitchen door made it seem even more cozy. The little dish dude presented me with a can of beer, cracking it for me. Its thundering crack followed by its soothing “shush” was more than I could bear. I greedily reached for it when I noticed the Big Red Flag. Its sheer size was startling – I don’t know if it was that someone would have this kind of a commitment to what it stood for or that it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed it. BIG red flag – the kind that would hang over a tall building so people could see it for miles and miles – white circle in the center with a big black swastika.
A slight lady ran up to me with a blonde crewcut. “What are you?” She demanded.
I stared at her in disbelief. I knew what she meant by “what.” I knew what she was looking for, but I couldn’t help but ask her what she meant.
“What race.” Her eyes were piercing, but her teeth divulged what could be a cute smile – square white tiles with a gap in the middle. It gave her some kind of “girl next door” cuteness, and yet it seemed so misplaced.
Glancing at _____________ [the dishwasher dude], I sensed he was nervous. Feeling protective of him, I opted to play along and make “nice.”
“Half Norwegian and half Scottish.”
“Scottishhhhh………” she trailed off, her eyes sizing me up. She turned promptly and scurried into another room. A large-framed silhouette sat in there, in the darkness. “Norwegian?” I heard her ask.
“It’s okay. It’s a protestant country,” the large frame grumbled authoritatively.
She scurried back, smiling at me. “Come sit down,” she said sweetly. Suddenly I wasn’t a threat. Suddenly I was okay. I had been cleared. _____________ [the dishwasher dude] looked relieved.
Approaching the living room, I cautiously eyed the flag. Someone turned the light on and the large silhouette turned into a man with a fluffy black beard and bottomless black eyes. He had a thick silver chain around his neck, like the kind you might use to leash a pitbull or some other badass dog. His black leather vest was teeming with patches – swastikas, hands doing that “heil” greeting, confederate flags, and a crest that brought to mind the KKK. Was it really from them or was I making an association?
The big guy and the skinhead girl stared at me. The girl looked kind of amused but more in a curious way. He was sizing me up.
“So you’re part Viking?” He asked, a note of approval in his voice.
I nodded, my eyes darting to the dishwasher dude who quietly sipped his beer. I mumbled something about being thirsty and swallowed my beer can in on fell swoop. I was outta there. The dish dude offered me another beer. I gestured to the window and grumbled about having to get home. I was outta there.
Many years later, I married a drinking buddy. Our honeymoon consisted of a roadtrip from Nevada to San Francisco via Yosemite, the desert, and other key places. I look back now and think of the beautiful places I had been to and the views being dulled by alcohol and hangovers and states in between. One day, when we could drive NO more, we pulled off the highway. We immediately saw a motel chain we were familiar with: Comfort Inn. Checking in was interesting. The office had “tellers” behind bullet proof glass – something akin to a bank. Your credit card slid into a metal contraption and the teller pulled it toward them. You could have exactly zero physical contact with them. This amused me, but it was an indicator of the kind of town we were in – and we had no idea. In our room, there was a big red-brown stain on the carpet. Clearly it was blood. I photographed it, chuckling. I was so dulled in my drinking days.
We were hungry, so we drove about looking for a place to eat. There was nothing. NOTHING. Just an occasional strip mall with the same blase dry cleaners and such. Finally we saw a mall and knew we could count on a TGI Friday’s or at the very least the food court. Walking through the mall, the security guards were armed. There were bulges in the patron’s ankles and smalls of their backs. Everyone seemed to be carrying a gun. Today? This would have terrified me. But at the time? It was another amusing story to tell to the guys back home in the bar. We went to Subway and while I ordered, I glanced in the mirror lining the length of the wall in their kiosk/restaurant. A man was sliding his hands into my hoodie pockets. Knowing little more than used tissues were there, I didn’t let on that I knew.
I live rather close to New York City and I’ve taken wrong turns and wound up in bad neighborhoods. I’ve felt compelled to lock my doors and get the f**k out of there. Let me assure you, the bad neighborhoods were CHILD’S play compared with this. This was gangland. And my radar was broken. That mechanism that ALL of us in the animal kingdom – including humans – possess was not only broken, but it was loosely rolling around and rattling. I may have ended up a statistic in that city. It never occurred to me to get out of there. I finished my meal, did some people-watching (and JOKED with my husband about it!), and we headed to the package store. Headed to the package store, to the ice machine, and dumped our cache in the bathroom sink to chill. How romantic.
But it was what it was.