Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Bars and Churches on Corners
There are no bars in Virginia. I didn’t know places existed that had no bars. I tried to take my parents to a little hole-in-the-wall I’d discovered when I passed it on my way to the pancake supper down at the firehouse. There would likely be good atmosphere. Perhaps some fiddle playing and foot stomping. A farmer in overalls raising a bottle of cold beer to his lips, the heels of his rubber boots hooked onto the chrome legs of his stool, reeking of cow manure. Perhaps the brothers Dewey and Fred, on each side of him, slinging back a few themselves. The bartender would have a charming southern drawl and my parents would keep tipping him so they could hear him say, “Why thank you ma’am,” and “I surely do appreciate it sir.” But when we went down there, there was a sign on the door: “Closed Saturdays.” My mother asked incredulously, “What kind of bar is closed on a Saturday?”
The only bar that I found down here.
There are plenty of places to get liquor though. There are these ABC stores that are run by the state. The government is in the liquor store business down here. I don’t know how that works. I’ve never been inside one but I can imagine that there’s no Frangelico and no imported chocolates with raspberry liqueur centers.
You can also get booze from the convenience stores. Beer and wine coolers and I’m not sure what else because I’ve never really scrutinized it but I did see some MD 20-20, aka Mad Dog, in one of them, and I haven’t seen that grape flavored junk since I was 17-years-old and it was coming back up out of me after I drank too much trying to be cool.
You can also get some from your neighbor. The real McCoy. Moonshine. Just go next door and hint around. While leaning on your pickup truck door and he’s leaning on a rake, say, real casual, “I sure wouldn’t mind getting me some of that moonshine,” and then drop it. If your neighbor is not cooking up the stuff himself in the woods behind his barn, his cousin Jeb twice removed is, or the mayor’s nephew is, and one of them will be over right shortly. If you’re having a baby, you might get some without asking. It’ll be in baby food jars marked “For Teething” with a black Sharpie pen and there will be jokes about you not sneaking any.
Now, up in the city, what they call a city (it’s like no city that I ever knew, more like a large town, but it’s all we’ve got city-wise and who I am to say it’s labeled incorrectly?), there are restaurants with bars in them. But they’re not really for drinking. They’re more like, for waiting. I suspect the bartenders aren’t even real bartenders—just waitresses or dishwashers or the hostess who is filling in and they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t even know what a call drink is or what straight up means and they certainly don’t know how to keep ‘em coming.
In the city, there are clubs where you can go to hear music and potentially get a load on. But every time we go up there, they are closed or the parking lot is wind-blown empty except for a tinkling beer bottle rolling to the other side. It was eleven o’clock on a Friday night when we stopped at one after the movies. I got a bug. I said, “Let’s go dancing.” Then, “It doesn’t look like it’s opened.” Kurt said, “Maybe they didn’t get going yet.” So we went inside. The bartender turned with a case in his arms and the manager looked up from his calculator. “We’re closed,” they said.
There are more places down here that have music and no booze. In Jersey, that would be a place that lost its liquor license for serving underage people or for gambling or selling eight balls out the back room and they’d close down until they got it back, losing many thousands of dollars in business and perhaps never catching back up after such a blow. Depending on how long they’d been shut down, they might even go out of business. No sense to open if they can’t sell booze.
There is a whole music trail down here that is mostly booze-free and you can get maps from the Chamber of Commerce or on the counter in the antique store that also sells apples and jars of honey, and hit one music place after another. Tuesdays there’s music at the 77 Restaurant where they sell delicious BLTs and hamburgers but no food when there’s music. Free coffee though. Thursday mornings they have music in the Dairy Queen. Fridays there’s something in the back of Layman’s Container and Mulch. Saturdays nothing. But Wednesdays you can go down to the Piney Holler Community Center and catch something good. Maybe the What-in-Tarnation Gang if you’re lucky. Or the Glory Gospel Singers if you’re not.
At any rate, there are no real bars. Not that I really care. I just think it’s weird. Where I come from, there are bars on every corner. Here, it’s churches. Brick churches, white churches, churches inside metal pole barns where lime and fertilizer is sold, churches in tents that have revivals, and cowboy churches (these move around from farm to farm and cater to the horse show set like me because we need all the prayers we can get, risking life and limb riding bucking horses and all, and skipping church on Sunday because there’s a ropin’ or a barrel race).
There are churches with steeples and up in the city, churches with tall spires poking the sky, and most churches have their very own cemeteries encircled by wrought-iron fences with ornamental curlicues and scrolls like metal mermaid hair. There are flags, rebel and American, and fresh carnations on the tombstones because the dead are not forgotten around here. Basically, there’s a church for every taste (at least architecturally, if not spiritually—they’re all Christian, mostly Baptist) and I’ve often wondered how such a small amount of people can support so many churches. Do the math. If there’s one on every corner and a half dozen houses on the average road, that’s a lot of religion.
I have to admire it, even though I’m not a church-goer myself. I’m not a drinker either. Which is surprising since I practically grew up in a bar. When I really did grow up, I worked in one. It was a tavern and had a diamond-shaped window in the door and Sinatra on the jukebox. I can play Liars’ poker, darts and pool righty or lefty. That’s a big advantage.
It’s also a big advantage that I don’t drink. I can drink. I’ve just never been big on it. Other than when I was seventeen and really stupid. I’m too much of a control freak. I don’t like the feeling of being out of control in any way. Even if it’s just being a little buzzed. Nah. Plus, I’m high on life. I’ll get you drunk though. I can make Fuzzy Navels, Sloe Gin Fizzes, Kamikazes and B-52s. I’m not sure what’s in style nowadays drink-wise. I heard about something called a Blue Suicide. Whenever I’m writing one of my bar stories, I have to do research because I’m out of it now and so I call someone from New Jersey who still goes out bar bouncing every weekend or attends christening parties, children’s birthday parties, horseshows, business meetings or picnics, whatever, whatever event it is, there will be drinking, and I ask, “What are they drinking nowadays?” and “How would they order it? How would they say it? I need a young person’s drink.” Or “I need an old person’s drink but not a highball.” Depending on the character. I’m a certified mixologist but I’m retired. I push wheelbarrows full of horse manure now, not drinks, and I can tell you how much sand a horse has got in his gut by mixing some manure in a cup of water but I can’t tell you what they’re mixing vodka with nowadays.
So I read about bars. I buy books about them. Not only to refresh my memory but because there are interesting characters in bars. I had a customer one time who lost her teeth in a glass of Michelob and had no idea they were gone. Kept right on drinking. And then there’s Old Man Scottie, who won the lottery but still carried his change to the bar in a Maxwell House coffee can. Not to be confused with Scott the Lobsterman, whose ex-wife had three nipples but who left him anyway because she said he was too nice. He liked to complain that nice guys always finish last so I went out with him one time just to prove him wrong. But now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I proved him right because nothing ever came of that.
What did come from my time being in bars was the realization that they are kind of a microcosm of real life. An entire community, not unlike any ordinary neighborhood or family or even congregation, where you can find an array of colorful characters who will advise, support, annoy, entertain, pick you up and back you up in more ways than one. If you’d like to read about folks like the lady who lost her teeth or Old Man Scottie, without actually going into a bar, or if you live in Virginia and can’t find one, check out the funny and touching novel-in-stories, Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry. Either that or you can try that hole-in-the-wall place by me. Just don’t go on a Saturday.