|Scott Stavrou● com • Award-Winning Writing •|
I remember a joint called The Burgundy Room and a time when I was shorter than all the other patrons and younger than the scotch on the shelves. The Burgundy Room was one of my mother’s hangouts and I was fortunate enough to sometimes tag along. I always tossed back several more Roy Rogers than were good for me, heedless of my limits even then. I actually much preferred the sissy Shirley Temples but I would never have admitted it. There’s a protocol to behavior when you’re in a joint, you know. Everyone talked and joked with me, there was a veritable financial windfall of pocket change and – if I was lucky – the bartender would hoist me atop the long, mahogany bar making me even taller than some of the grown-ups. Much of this attention was no doubt because my mother was young, beautiful, and single. But much was simply because most people who go to bars do so because they like people. Sure, there are those who go only to drink, but you can toss back hooch anywhere. Ask any closet alcoholic and he’ll tell you that you can tie one on at home, cheaper and quicker.
But a place where people gather to relax and enjoy themselves and to forget for a while about the worries of this world that are too much with us – that my friend – is a special place. That is a hangout, a joint you love, perhaps the very highest ideal of a place to go. In our brief and busy time in this world we all have many places we have to go to: school, work, our in-law’s houses, the principal’s office, the company Christmas party, our second cousin Fred’s wedding, christenings, showers, births, funerals, perhaps afterwards even Heaven or Hell or just off into oblivion. But a place where we go solely because we want to is quite possibly the mortal equivalent of lofty Mt. Olympus.
Hanging out, you see, is an exalted thing to do. It’s not just about doing nothing. The real fun is in having lots to do and then, well, do nothing. This requires the right setting. It could be a clean, well-lighted place or even an unkempt, murky place. There was a time in the Dark Ages when crowds were discouraged from ever gathering together anywhere, and it wasn’t until the serfs received some much-needed freedoms that Public Houses, which quickly became “pubs,” were even invented in merry old plague-ridden England. Serfdom and the plague are extinct. Pubs are thriving throughout the world.
The Burgundy Room was the first bar of my halcyon days of youth and its presence lingers on the dusty barshelves of my mind. The family still banters about how often I used to say, “I wanna go to the Boogundy Room.” Even if I wasn’t old enough to drink, I was old enough to have fun and that, after all, is the true and noble purpose of a good bar. We moved away from that town but there were other towns and other bars of my childhood. There was a time when I was still a child and my step-dad worked in a bar called The Golden Tee that was filled with other retired Marines who had been drinking and fighting together so long that they didn’t know what else to do. From what I saw, MacArthur was wrong - old soldiers don't fade away. Not quietly, anyway. This was a good place to visit, too, and I learned more about war than I ever did from history books, M*A*S*H* or Private Ryan. These were my parent’s places, though, and a hangout is a very personal thing.
As is the way of children, I grew up and sought out hangouts of my own. Of course I would never take a kid with me to a bar, not today. Today we have rules about that sort of thing (as a matter of fact it seems increasingly like we have rules about every sort of thing). Try and hoist a child atop a bar in the People’s Republic of California, where I live today, and you’d be carted off to the pokey quicker than you can say “puritanical totalitarian regime.” Even Stalin, Duvalier, Hitler and Castro weren't so strict when confronting minions thirst.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. These are laudable laws and ideals. We wouldn’t want America to become anything like so many nations that don’t have a drinking age at all. Or even worse, the ones that do but where going out and having a social drink is such a part of life that you’ll often see three generations sitting in a café or taverna while the adults drink and the children frolic. Some of these nations don’t even have Jerry Springer or Big Brother reality series to otherwise occupy their time. No, Americans know that there’s a time and a place for families to hang out and that’s at home in the living room watching sophomoric sit-coms on the luminescent phosphorent hearth. Which is digital, if you're lucky. I, for one, applaud our laws and even obey many of them during the course of an average day. Moreover, having over-zealous politicians and bureaucrats who measure their worth solely by the amount of new freedom-restricting legislation they draft gives bar patrons great fodder for drunken discussions. As long as it’s still legal to drink, that is. And some shreds of peaceful assembly remain, despite Ashcroft's attempts.
But I digress. My point was that I learned at an early age that bars were places people went to hang out. I always liked hanging out and I still do. I didn’t become a raving alcoholic (not raving, anyway) and drinking was never the tantalizing forbidden fruit for me that it was for so many of my more sheltered friends. I developed a fondness for meeting and appreciating interesting people and enjoying a social drink. The people were always the paramount thing, the drinking just an activity to accentuate the socializing. These admirable pursuits of hanging out and meeting people require the right bar.
As I grew to an age that was quantitatively greater than all but the finer single malts, there were more bars in my life. Early on there were the select dive bars that everyone in the know could get served at even though the drinking age in my state was 21. The allure and excitement of sitting in a bar with your under-age friends and deciding what to order and getting away with it made the drinking that much more intoxicating. In adolescence few pleasures are greater than doing what people tell you shouldn’t.
One of our first illicit bars was The Rum Runner, a local dive that advertised fifty-cent well drinks and was very dark and always had open pool tables in the back, which meant that it pretty much satiated our adolescent needs. There’s something about a dive bar that’s been good to you over the years that inspires a bittersweet allegiance. The Rum Runner is the scrawny pound dog of my drinking career; a little forlorn but if we did not love it, who would? And like the loyal mutt, you sometimes like it even more when no one else does and you know that because of that it will always be there for you.
If I met the Rum Runner for the first time today, we might never have bonded. But I got to know this dingy little bar in a strip mall in Las Vegas back in my bold and optimistic adolescence when my friends and I had our whole lives stretching limitlessly before us. We grew older and perhaps more accustomed to limits, but we still make the occasional pilgrimage to our former haunt when I’m back home visiting. Today the well drinks are a shocking $1.75, and we always feel old when we mention to the cocktail waitresses, who nowadays are always younger, fitter and more single than us, that we remember when the drinks were just half a buck. I order things there, like Vodka Collinses and Tequila Screwdrivers, which I’ve rarely ever consumed outside those dingy, beer sign-adorned walls. Things that I used to drink to seem grown up and now drink as a grown up only when trying to recall what it was like to be younger. And less responsible. Today when I go back with my friends, all of whom, like me are older, most of who are very responsible, married, and professionals, well, we’re a little bit less old, less responsible, less married, and less professional. We’re just us guys, only more so, and that in itself is good. Sometimes it’s good to be less than you can be, no matter what the U.S. Army says.
When I went off to Washington, D.C. for college, the drinking age there was still 18, and there were more bars. First in my heart was the Georgetown Center Pub, a small and dingy bar deep in the bowels of the century-old Healy Building. This was quite possibly the most disgustingly dirty, loud, and over-crowded bar I’ve ever been to. And it was a sublime place for the drinking and hanging out sports. Georgetown University had just under 6,000 students at the time, small by university standards yet the ever-crowded Pub served more beer than any bar in all of D.C. It was rich with beat-the-clock happy hours and near-constant beer-chugging contests. Much of the cheap Budweiser and Busch that we purportedly drank was spilled all over the floor as we all drunkenly slurped out of our own private pitchers. This is why The Pub was a breeding ground for a toxic substance lovingly known as Pub Scum, a fetid mixture of cheap beer, sweat, mud, and sometimes snow. On a busy Thursday night you would have to wade through it to get to the bar and it was probably the slayer of more pricey-preppy-footwear than any bar on the Eastern Seaboard. This was the type of bar where my college roommate (let’s call him “Joe,” instead of “Matt,” which was his real name), once stood outside after closing and accosted a girl walking out with another guy by saying to her: “Don’t go home with him, go home with me.” And where it worked (I reiterate his real name, “Matt” has been changed to “Joe,” in order to protect the guilty and innocent parties involved). Yes, it was that type of bar. This was a bar that played “American Pie” for the last song almost every night for four years and where everyone, drunk and sober (mostly very drunk), joined arms and danced in an inebriated circle, celebrating the joy of being alive and striving to figure out whom to go home with. This was a bar that ushered people out at its 2 a.m. closing time with the nightly refrain:
|“The Georgetown Center Pub is now closed. If you don’t work here, and you don’t sleep here, and you don’t sleep with someone that works here, then get the hell out.”|
In short, this was a bar to be loved, and I did. But love is not always simple and pure. I had another bar on the side, you see. I worked at a bar called Pardi’s on M Street in Georgetown where the drinks cost much more and the tips were much greater. I happened at the time to be the only college student working there, so I had a whole other secret bar life. A place where I went out with the waiters, where we befriended other neighborhood “professional” bartenders and drank after hours in each other’s bars for free. There is no question that the tiny D.C. enclave of Georgetown is one of the Mecca’s of great bars areas. Like hiding a mistress, this subterfuge added an element of mystery to my imbibing, almost like having a secret life and this made things there all the more tantalizing.
Seeking an even more inspiring bar scene after college I moved to San Francisco, a city where the neighborhood bar is an institution. Just a 5-minute hop-skip-and-stumble from my first apartment was a little tavern that had been there since 1906, and it too, was called The Pub. Of course the name coincidence was too great for a Georgetown Pub veteran to ignore and it ended up being my home away from home. A place where you could get phone calls if – and only if – you wanted to be found. It was a place where I started and finished nights on the town that included other more glamorous spots.
When I first started hanging out there, they were looking for a bartender and I, having found myself ill-suited for real responsibility and having just quit my first highly paid professional after-college job, was looking for work. But it was too valuable a hangout to ruin by toiling on the wrong side of the bar, so I kept looking for work elsewhere and kept hanging out at The Pub.
I ended up working at the San Francisco Brewing Company in North Beach, an historic place that still has the original flamed-mahogany bar, replete with a long, tiled urinal beneath it from the Barbary Coast days when the only women in bars were “professionals.” The work was simple and the place boasted an eclectic mix of North Beach characters. I still remember Riley who came in for two beers each day at six-o-clock. Upon hearing about my “temporary bartender” status and fuzzy future plans, it was Riley who said to me:
“Just be careful, this town is littered with lost souls who’ve been working behind bars for so long they don’t remember. And who were just doing it for a year.”
Riley was a man wise far beyond his beer intake.
I quit shortly thereafter and abandoned that fair city of fine bars to go off to Europe. Europe, of course, is redolent with history, culture, cathedrals and museums. It veritably reeks with that stuff. It also has the highest bar-café-taverna-pub-ratskellar-bierhaus-pivnice-discoteque-nightclub density in the world. After investigating as many of them as my bankroll and liver would allow and compiling valuable research notes for my book, Wasted Away: The Worldwide Party Guide, I settled in Prague, The Czech Republic (still Czechoslovakia at the time) which was a better place then most places in the world then if you were young and didn’t know exactly what you wanted to do with your life. And if you were very thirsty. The Czech’s boast the world’s highest per capita beer consumption and drinking is something like religion. Indeed, during the dark days of communism, drinking and wanton sex were among the few freedoms afforded the citizens. With regards to freedom, it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters. Habits are hard to break and, fortunately, it’s much easier to pick up “bad” habits than good ones.
Back in the early ‘90’s, before Prague was besieged by legions of American expatriates, there were only a few bars where most of the Americans hung out. I gravitated to the Sports Bar Praha, a little place just off the Vaclavske Namesti, where I ended up meeting friends, new roommates, girlfriends, and finding apartments, reading my mail, developing some handiness with a pool cue and generally not missing a day without calling in to do all these things. And to just drink and hangout. There were many long, drunken nights when, having missed the last metro at midnight, I ended up firmly ensconced in the bar with my drinking companions until the rise of rosy-fingered dawn ushered in the new day and the first metro home at 5 am. Decadent? Yes, but it was the heady life of a young expatriate, and as far back as the 20’s, the icon of American expatriates, Hemingway, said it best in the bible of the expat, The Sun Also Rises:
“You’re an expatriate…you drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”
Like Hemingway said, sounds swell, where do you sign up? Your local bar, of course. Not bad work if you can get it. Yes, The Sports Bar was very good to me but I couldn’t be true to her either. I had two other bars on the side. First there was “my local,” a small and unpretentious Czech kavarna hidden away in a large house on a small street just around the corner from my apartment. There were long, cold winter nights in Prague when the trek downtown to my beloved Sports Bar was just too daunting no matter how thirstly you were.
Fortunately, we discovered The Local, a strictly neighborhood hangout where it seemed no other Americans had ever been. One small step for American man, one giant leap for American mankind. They served cheap and simple fare (hearty meals for less than $2) and the incomparable and inexpensive Czech beer (a pint for less than thirty cents). You ordered it either light or dark and they placed it before you, adding a tally mark to your coaster, which was also your tab. You didn’t even have to order at all. Every few minutes the waiter came out carrying as many pints as he could hold and dropped them off and marked the coasters. It was assumed if you were there, you were drinking. We whiled away many nights filling up our bladders and coasters. We were emissaries of our country, after all, and saying no would have been impolite. When you’re young and living abroad the answer is “yes, always yes.” The questions don’t always matter so much. Life there is distilled down to its very basic and so intensely concentrated that it seems like dog-years with their 7:1 ratio.
Like any good bar, The Local took some time to really get to know. On some nights it would be filled with families for dinner until about 10 p.m. when they generally cleared out and left the place for the drinkers and when things picked up. Sometimes you’d go for dinner and they would just not have food. So you drank. Those little details were just that, little details.
One cold and fortuitous winter Tuesday night, my three roommates and I happened to have strolled in to The Local for a few cold ones and some casual conversation. Then, enigmatically the Czech waiter came around and made another tally mark on our coasters without dropping off any more beer. In our rudimentary Czech we inquired why. He explained that it was “extra charge…special for Tuesday night.”
With the wealth that their economy afforded us, there was no need to quibble over it. But it was strange, as it had never happened before. But then we had clearly never been there on a Tuesday night. At exactly 9:00 p.m. the lights dimmed and a woman strolled out in a cheap imitation fur, placed a battered boombox on one of the tables and turned up the volume. The room grew more quiet than usual as Madonna blared out of the little stereo and the young woman in question, leaving very little to actually question, shrugged out of her fur and revealed a sheer harem outfit – which she proceeded to hastily shed as she cavorted around the room. Having had some experience with these matters from America, when she came to us I tried to give her a tip, which she adamantly declined. She continued dancing and disrobing and, well, just didn’t stop. Not until she was done, anyway, which was by the end of the second song, when there was absolutely nothing left to question, which left her the third song for the full nude dance. Then the radio was turned off, the fur donned and a small, smattering of approving applause before everyone turned back to the more serious business of their beer.
This was Tuesday night at the local. Every Tuesday and only Tuesday. Always a different woman and always three songs and always fully nude. Thankfully, not always Madonna. Then always more beer. It was hard, but we managed to make Tuesdays at the local a part of our routine and even with my loathing of schedules we always managed to make it there before 9 p.m. You have to make some sacrifices to immerse yourself in the local customs and mores, even if only to be a good sport.
Yes, both my beloved Sports Bar and The Local kavarna were good to me, but in my youthful expatriate greed, I wanted more. Yes, always, yes, and more, always more. In the noble and Quixotic quest for the perfect bar it’s important to leave no stone unturned, no bar door unopened, no drink undrunk. I had one more bar on the side, you see.
It was Lavka, just below the now-world-famous Charles Bridge. After many years drinking and traveling, I’m confident in saying that this bar wins the worldwide best bars (outdoor category) handily. The inside was small and consisted of a two-story nightclub setting dedicated to dancing and drinking. Outside was a large stone patio with another small bar and tables overlooking a magical panorama of the slow-moving river and brightly-lit medieval castle that made you sometimes question your very reality by its spectacular beauty. Or it could have been the drinks. Lavka was for special occasions, which we managed to find many excuses for.
These well-lubricated times of swift-moving passion were often more special and eventful by the very fact that nothing so special or eventful actually happened. We concentrated all our energy on having fun and it was an easy task. I have vivid memories of starting a small conga line with some drunken friends on the patio that ended up consisting of a couple of hundred people from Lavka who actually followed me across the patio, inside the bar, across the dance floor, up the steps and all the way outside the bar into the street. When I looked back at this awesome spectacle of strangers whom I didn’t know, of different cultures and languages, all joyfully traipsing along in pursuit of fun, I was truly proud. Even prouder when I led them back into the bar and walked into a completely empty bar – all the customers had jumped on the fun bandwagon and followed me out and back inside. If you’ve never brought a couple of hundred people behind you into an empty bar, it’s a good feeling. It was a small slice of the kind of enthusiastic abandon that you could never plan for nor that could ever happen in America. It was impossible for me to pay for a drink that night and that was a good feeling too.
Unfortunately, life is not made up of just cheap beer and conga lines. There were other pivotal nights at Lavka. One stands out, because I had not planned at all on going out, but with little experience at avoiding fun, had easily acquiesced and let my roommate talk me into a quiet beer. We ran into acquaintances that carried us along with them to a party. The party adjourned around midnight to Lavka and then I found myself someplace I was not at all supposed to be, but where I would have rather been than anywhere else; frosty pilsner in hand, new and old friends around me. My meager expectations were well sated.
Until later that night when I ran into Laurent, a Frenchman I’d happened to meet several days earlier. Like most all the foreigners, he was new to Prague and over beers some days earlier I’d offered him tips on the good local nightspots. I’d never expected nor hoped to run into him again. If you’ve met many Frenchmen, you might understand. Nevertheless, he accosted me amongst my group of friends at Club Lavka and wanted to buy me a Pilsener Urquell to thank me. He’d enjoyed the places I’d recommended. I didn’t want to leave my little group, but it seemed important to him, plus if you’ve ever had Pilsener Urquell, you’ll know what a savvy and thirsty expat would do.
The line at the bar was long, turgid with other thirsty customers all wishing to deep drinkly at the well. Frenchie’s accent was as thick as the swollen techno. I waited for my beer and a graceful exit from my pushy French friend. Then two women walked up and spoke to him in French. Relieved that he had French friends there, I was pleased to not have to baby-sit him all night. I stood by, idly ignoring their French conversation while staring out at the Charles Bridge, the meandering Vltava River and the well-lit Hradcany Castle, and waited for my Pils. Life was simple and it was good to be me, to be right where I wasn’t supposed to be at all.
Then one of the winsome young women spoke to me. In French. Now, I had spent enough time in France to have been lectured one too many times by zealot Frenchman about how uncouth I was for not speaking their sacred language. And I hadn’t got my beer yet and I had good and true friends that were having fun without me. So without considering her looks (breathtaking), I uttered the first three words that came to mind:
“I’m not French.”
Terse, perhaps but true also, and it made me feel smug and superior to say so. Which is a nice way to feel with French people and an opportunity that does not often present itself. Then she smiled at me. There are several quintessential moments in a man’s life, and for me, this was one of those.
“Neither am I,” she answered.
She was an American and had met Frenchie earlier and was just in Prague for the weekend because her friend had lost her passport. The traveling gods, the heavy hand of fate, a lost passport, an unwanted swarthy French friend, a party I hadn’t planned on attending, a bar I hadn’t planned on going to, all these things had unfolded in the only way they possibly could have for us to meet there at that precise and pivotal moment in time. If I hadn’t been there at that exact moment when I was not supposed to be there at all, I would never have met my wife. My life would not be the life it is today.
Oh, we didn’t get married right then. First I had to get whacked over the head, literally, with a baseball bat by a Czech cab driver who deposited my drunken body on a dark sidewalk in the Prague suburbs before taking my wallet. Then we took off for Greece for a couple of months of quality time under the Hellenic skies in the lands of the gods. There are some damned fine bars in Greece. We were in one of them just before I proposed. And another one or two just after she accepted.
Yes, bars have good places for me to hang out, and great things have happened to me in them, things that could not have happened anywhere else. I like to think it’s because I chose the right bars. Or maybe they chose me.
Now that I’m in my 30’s, married, own a house, have a couple of dogs, and have accepted a modicum of responsibility; bars aren’t always quite as central in all my social plans. But really, where else are you going to hang out? It happens that there are two bars just across the street from my little over-priced piece of Southern California real estate.
I don’t love them yet, but they are there. If it was enough reason to climb Everest, well, you just never know what might happen. For me, that’s the very best part.