Where Have All the Barflies Gone?

By LF (4/7/98)

My Pop used to sneak out on weekends to drink when I was a tyke, and as often as not he'd take me along for cover. He'd tell my Mom that us guys were heading out to pick up some fresh produce and zoom out the door. We usually ended up at Charlie Draga's bar, which was a haven for all sorts of ethnic stereotypes. I suppose that I must have been tolerable as a child because the regulars always seemed happy to keep me company when my Father played cards. He'd give me a handful of coins to blow on soft drinks and pistachios from the lightbulb-heated Nut Hutch, and I could always cadge more for the pinball machine or to spin some Roy Acuff or Hank Snow on the jukebox. Once in a while an especially generous juicer would offer to spring for a Blind Robin, a flat slab of fish in stiff plastic pickled in enough salt to threaten renal shutdown. Yum.

I remember that other kids would show up, with or without their mothers. It was a family kind of joint.

As I drifted around Ohio, I ran into plenty of similar places. It got to the point where I could just walk into a new watering hole in the early afternoon and know whether I could blend in. It might be the smell, the vinyl upholstery, an ugly mutt lapping at some beer splashed in an ashtray, or the sight of a huge-ass glass jar containing hard-boiled eggs floating in reddish brain fluid.

Now, a good dive would almost always have a couple of aging drunks just itching to spill their guts, so if there was nothing on the idiot box I could just turn to the person on the next stool and get an earful of what it used to be like to slog around in entrails at a slaughterhouse, pour a heat of steel at the mill that got shut down a few years back, be deserted by a man who ran off with a Watchtower Lady, or hand out comic books at a resupply depot back in Dubbaya-Dubbaya Two. Or I could just smile and nod politely after their introductory spiel and then turn back to my beer in peace and wait for the folks who worked for a living to start rolling in.

Without a doubt the nicest thing about the neighborhood bar concept was that unattached women were much more likely to stop by without bringing along a posse. If someone got inappropriately grabby with them, the understanding was that the bartender and/or one or more of the patrons would happily toss the offender outside, so the sexes could comfortably spar in a loosely-refereed environment. As a result, I never had to learn lines or any of that shit because striking up a friendly conversation was just an accepted part of acting neighborly. So I got used to being considered charming or getting shot down one-on-one. Believe me, it is vastly preferable to the brutal alternative of hitting on a broad in front of her personal Peanut Gallery. If I want to hear perturbed girlish laughter as I stalk hurriedly away from a crowd, I can just start flashing students at the nearest grammar school.

It helped that my chunk of northern Ohio was heavily Catholic, where taverns were an important hub of everyday intercourse. In the sections of southern Ohio I'm most familiar with, the local Protestants were largely of the tolerant variety, so social drinking was considered perfectly acceptable.

Then I moved down to Baptistville.

North Carolina has all sorts of fucked-up laws designed to damage the enjoyment of dedicated imbibers. Lone patrons cannot be served a pitcher of beer. Bars that sell liquor must either make X percentage of their take selling food, or exist as members-only clubs. Kegs cost almost twice as much as they did in Ohio. Happy Hours are verboten, so any offered drink specials must run all day long. Okay, so that last one's a pretty good thing. At any rate, the biggest sticking point is the general attitude towards drinking. It is still viewed as kinda shameful. And it is causing all sorts of problems with the Meskins and folks from further South (Catholics again, eh?) who've been flocking here to perform heavy scutwork all day long before getting busted by the local Peegs for daring to enjoy a libation or two while otherwise putting up with the increasingly hellish rush-hour traffic . . . but that's another story.

The Research Triangle area has plenty of sports bars, meat bars, etc., which I hate. There is a decent variety of niteclubs that feature our surprisingly talented and diverse local talent, but I hit them only infrequently anymore because it's hard for me to feel fully at ease in a place that doesn't open its doors until dark. Another problem is that there aren't any within reasonable walking distance from my current flop, and the DUI penalties in these here parts would make Torquemada wince. I do have five so-called bars within a mile or so, and two more restaurants that are comfortable enough to drink in during off-hours, so I know that it could be worse. The fact that most of them pretty much suck (too bright, uncomfortable seats, sub-Applebee's generic food, no draft beer, sports cranked on the tube even if all ESPN2 has to offer is lacrosse, etc.) is primarily due to the fact that their owners don't know what makes a good bar, and their patrons haven't enough of a clue to bitch. It ain't that it can't be done here. I've been to some pretty fun places like Harry's in Greensboro and the late, lamented Mex-Econo in Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks. But they're sore-thumb exceptions.

Something I really want to know is just where in the hell all of the old drunks hang out? There are very few male regulars around here, and they generally creep to whichever joint has the best daily special. I can understand the economics involved. I tip fairly well, but estimate that I've received maybe a dozen free drinks in the last seven years. It is just not done. So the rootless are not offered any incentive to build up equity in a particular barstool, and as a result are generally washouts as barflies. They don't develop into genuinely interesting "characters" because they're never expected to have much to say about anything other than that most gol-dangdest of dumbass subjects, college basketball (our regional pestilence).

As far as I can tell, North Carolina has no aged female habitues. No doubt they're sitting at home rotting out their livers while watching soap operas and talk shows. That's some depressing shit. They should be out boring strangers or trading war stories with sad but still pert bartenderettes with boyfriends who cheat on them between narcotics busts. If nothing else the time spent yacking with others might possibly cut down on their total consumption, slightly extending their miserable lives.

Up the spout