The first bar that I remember going into was the one at the Knights of Columbus hall. I was a little girl, and my devout Catholic grandfather was often there, and for a while he was even the bartender. On occasion, my sister and I would be paraded through to say hi, or allowed to stay if there was a family friendly event. We knew we didn’t belong, so it felt a little bit wicked…and we loved it.
My one and only underage in-public drinking excursion was in the summer before my senior year of high school. I had a major crush on a boy who was a year older than I was, and a mutual friend set us up on a double date with her and her boyfriend. I was a nervous wreck as we walked into a small pub after being told to, “act like you belong here!” I fully expected to be found out as a fake at any time, but I was worried for nothing. The four of us drank beer and chatted, and it was a comfortable, fun time. It wasn’t until later that I found out that the object of my affection didn’t at all like me, other than as a friend. He actually had his eye on the gal who orchestrated the event, and he had agreed to go in order to spend time around her!
Even though my first illicit drinking date was disappointing, the experience of being in a bar was a good one. I started going to that same establishment when I became legal (18 in S.C. back then). It was not too far from my dorm and was fun, but there was nothing really special about it. A couple of years later, a new venue opened up a few blocks away. It was called Group Therapy (still one of the best bar names ever), and it was my home away from home for about five years. It was the first bar that I felt that I was supposed to be in. Strangely, my connection to the place wasn’t really so much about the alcohol (not that I didn’t do plenty of drinking there–I did), but I was mostly connected to the bar itself. I loved the employees, the atmosphere, and the patrons. Group, as we called it (the damn place even had a nickname), was where I first realized how smart it is to make friends with bartenders, and it was the first place where I was thought of as a ‘regular’. I loved to sit at the end of the bar next to the front door, and was obsessed with knowing everything that went on there.
One of the best things about Group was the mix of people who passed though the place. Late nights were mostly college kids, but weekday happy hours featured a colorful mix of students, old coots, blue-collar guys, local celebrity wanna-be’s and just plain crazy folks. There was the local TV weather man who was truly brilliant, but who was usually so drunk that he would try to pour beer into the bottom end of a glass. He was a sweet soul with a booming ‘radio voice’ who could read backwards and upside down, but who was one of the saddest people I’ve ever met. Then there was the strange older German hairdresser with the beret who fawned over any new good-looking guy who walked into the bar. He claimed to be married (to a woman), but he also claimed to have had sex with all of the local male athletes. Neither assertion was particularly credible, but he was a fixture in the place, and he gave me a wonderful recipe for shrimp scampi that I use to this day.
That bar was like a big old dysfunctional family, and I fit in just perfectly…but I eventually had to move on. After marrying husband #1, I started spending most of my time building a ‘real’ life, and my barstool connection faded. It wasn’t until #1 and I moved to Portland that I found another bar worthy of such devotion. It’s called The Space Room, and is a kitschy place with a 1950’s interior that you might see in a Tarantino movie. It’s one of those neighborhood dives that (at that time) hadn’t changed significantly in at least 40 years, and it felt like my kind of place the very first time I walked in.
The thing people usually notice first about this spot are the red and black flying saucer light fixtures hanging over the bar. The wallpaper in the main bar once featured velvety red accents, but is now a washed out sepia from decades of cigarette smoke. If you venture up three steps to the main seating area, you can’t help but notice the black light murals featuring moonscapes and a Portland skyline. The drinks were (and are) strong and cheap, and there was a great old-fashioned jukebox. Basically, the place was perfect.
When #1 and I divorced, I started spending more time in this eternally dark, smoky spot (I wasn’t good at staying home alone). It was just my flavor of dysfunctional with a quirky, interesting patron/staff mix. I became a ‘regular’ once again, and it suited me. (Several people thought I worked there because they always saw me there…I’m not proud of that, but life isn’t always the stuff you want to write about now, is it?) I found my sweet spot with the happy hour crowd…a mix of local hipsters (and wanna-be’s), employees from other bars, older guys who grew up in the neighborhood (some of whom had their 21st and then their 50th birthday drinks sitting in the exact same spot), and an assortment of teachers, business people and even a few homeless folks thrown in. The bartenders had all been there forever and didn’t take any shit, and everyone got along. Once again, I found a ‘family’ that accepted me.
I took a few years off from this family to get married to (and subsequently divorce) husband #2, but when I came back, everything was just about the same…in fact, some of those guys may have not even left their seats! I waltzed back in and things were just so normal. Between then and now we had some good years…we lost a few more of the old guys, and a few of the kids grew up and had babies, and Portland passed a law to stop indoor smoking. The ‘circle of life’ was playing out right in front of me, and I sat there, once again at the end of the bar…taking notes.
(If this were a movie, right now there would be calendar pages flipping…fast forward to the present.) I don’t go to this old haunt much anymore. It’s changed too much in recent years and just doesn’t feel like the same place. Some of the old men day drinkers died off, and the crusty old lady bartenders were all replaced. Hell, the great jukebox is even gone…replaced by a soul-less digital one. New owners redecorated a side area that once housed a diner…now it’s full of ET and other newish SciFi paraphernalia that just doesn’t ring true with the spirit of the place. There are still some great people on staff, but minus most of the older, seasoned crew that made it seem so alive. I guess I just decided to remember my family the way they used to be. Maybe I’ll stop by on a holiday for a visit, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll have a place at the end of the bar set for me.