It’s a little after ten in the morning on a Saturday, I’ve just retrieved a bucket of ice, and the phone rings.
I set the bucket aside and grab the phone on the fourth ring.
“Is this Randy?”
“No, Randy works nights.”
“Oh, okay. Sorry. Um . . . Sorry, I was in there last week and . . . I just moved into the neighborhood. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find an honest plumber? Right away. I’m drowning in here.”
And so the day begins. “Sure. Hold on, I’ll get his number.”
It doesn’t happen every day, but it is not uncommon. Keep your nightclubs and trendy dance halls; I love a good neighborhood bar. And by that I don’t mean the place “where everybody knows your name.” Sure, those people are there, but the stranger is accepted as well. And not based on their bankroll or what they drove up in, either. More than just a place to drink, these small and often humble purveyors of libation are a hub for information, services and escape. Need a job? That contractor over there in the corner is looking for day laborers. Did your girlfriend kick you out? The guy at the pool table has a room he wants to rent. What’s the best first date meal on the cheap? Talk to the girl feeding dollars into the juke box. Under these roofs one can see careers made and broken, love found and lost; impromptu book clubs spawned, financial advice (good and bad) whispered in an ear and, buddy, let me tell you something about the horse in the sixth race.
They are historical archives. Especially in older establishments (the bar I work in has been around for 70 years), the stories and tales provided by the octogenarian set are windows to times in the city that the younger folks never knew. And since you never have to prod a Barfly to tell a story twice, they won’t be lost.
These are just some of the qualities that I love about a good neighborhood bar. Always a place for one’s immediate and short-term needs, now they have become more. Recently, as the sadly sober world outside has become menacingly sober, these atolls of protection now serve a much more vital function than ever; they are one of the last bastions of true democracy in America.
I should explain that.
With the possible exception of the right to bear arms, the philosophies and rights laid out by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are best represented here. Under low light and neon signs, in the mumbled conversations during the one-hand lean at the urinal, what America was and should be is preserved:
The Pursuit of Happiness. This is obvious, but still worth mentioning. When that first sip of whiskey rolls past the tongue, when the warmth spreads through the body, when the job and family and bank balance fade on the other side of the scarred doors, is there any better way to describe precisely what is taking place? These fine institutions are more committed to sanctuary than the churches you stumble past to reach them.
Freedom of Speech. A good local bar tolerates nearly everything except intolerance of intolerance, as it were. Who killed Kennedy, why you should never see a doctor, the oil company’s conspiracy against hemp, what to drink for your sour stomach from the night before, why it’s better to smoke menthols instead of regular cigarettes. Go ahead, rant and pontificate; demagogues, revolutionaries, politicians, philosophers, welcome one and all.
Freedom of Assembly. Try to get a bunch of guys together throwing down beers and talking trash in the outside world and see how far you get. Any given day in these regional havens will see reenactments of anything from the Boston Tea Party to Burning Man. No permit is required.
The 21 st Amendment. The spirit of the speakeasy lives here, the American commitment to self determination and not dictatorial rule by those who, because they cannot be pleased, would deny us pleasure. Every swing of the door is a celebration of the reversal of our most inane law; every drink raised is a flag of freedom.
All Men are Created Equal. Most important and peculiar to your neighborhood tavern is this fundamental precept of our history. Your past, your income, your social standing does not pass these doors. This is where janitors talk comfortably with vice presidents, where a District Attorney and the man he put away buy each other drinks. A man condemned to insignificance outside these walls can demonstrate Socratic wisdom in this sanctuary. If you plan to make a million dollars by the time you’re 25, great. If you work just enough to buy the next day’s drinks, we don’t care. In here our collective achievements and failures merge into a single shared understanding of why we are here.
So, my young and amorous Drunkards and Players, the next time you’re straightening that tie in front of the mirror one last time and thinking of exactly what you’ll say to the girls at that downtown club, add a stop before you leave your neighborhood; before heading out for a night of debauchery and bad pickup lines, stop at that little dive down the street on your way. Ask the guy next to you how that hole in the bathroom door got there. Give the lady next to you a dollar for the juke box. Buy a drink and look around. Watch the diverse landscape of lives spread out before you and think of the place you are on your way to, “where everybody looks the same.” You’re standing in one of the last lines of defense against a world outside that is rapidly forgetting what this country is and what it is supposed to be about. Then buy a round for the house.
It’s the patriotic thing to do.