Barflies I’ve known

by Brian Clarey

I got struck between the eyes by a great idea a few weeks ago, while beating feet in downtown Winston-Salem.

It was in a ground-floor art gallery — Urban Artware, to be precise — while recruiting artists for YES! Weekly’s Outside the Box caper, about which you’ll be hearing much in the near future. There on the gallery floor, talk eventually turned to imbibery, as it often does when in the company of professional artists (and, for that matter, journalists). As we dissected Triad bar culture, its proponents, adherents and participants, Camel City artist Clark Whittington — who some may remember as the man who turned cigarette vending machines into coin-op art galleries — came upon a peach of an idea, snatched it right out of thin air.

“We should do an exchange program with our barflies between Winston and Greensboro,” he said, or something to that effect.

A plan was quickly hatched wherein a bus loaded (no pun intended) with local inebriation artists would depart from each city just before cocktail hour and meet somewhere in the middle, say Kernersville, for a cultural exchange program in which information about bars, bartenders, drink specials, jukeboxes, attractiveness of clientele and other pertinent data would be swapped. Then each team would forage into the other’s territory with loose itineraries and goals — not like a scavenger hunt, but more like a checklist: see a band, try a local beer or specialty drink, shoot a game of pool or play video golf… whatever. Afterwards the bar-hoppers would pile back into their respective buses and meet back in K-Vegas for a debriefing session, and maybe some cheese fries.

I know: Brilliant, right? If this program ever catches on, I am in. Though I am but a shadow of the elbow-bender I once was — age, a family and a career will do that to you — I’d like to call an honorary seat at the back of the shuttle.

I’ve always had an affinity for bar culture, possibly because my family has its fair share of alcoholics, but I believe it’s more than that. There’s just something about a barroom… a place of sanctuary and release… where everyone’s your friend, at least for a few hours, and the cares of the wider world dissolve like a sugar cube subjected to a slow stream of absinthe.

I like a bar even — or especially — when it’s quiet: the hum of the beer coolers, the clink of ice in a glass, the gurgle of a liquor bottle poured at just the right angle.

I like it when it’s noisy, the perfect song on the juke and the bartenders

slinging double time, or in the afternoon when the workaday folks loosen neckties and watch the clock. I like it when the booze has saturated the crowd to that perfect juncture when everybody’s had exactly enough and things start to get interesting.

A good bar can put you under its spell, a hazy reverie where conversation flourishes and the hours pass in quick-cut rapidity and the only thing that can break it is bright lights or a fight.

And I like the people who choose to spend their time in bars, the skirt chasers like Uncle Richie’s nephew whose favorite pickup line was, “Hey, we should go do it,” and the red-faced old-timers like Oscar, the WWII pilot who got shot down on D-Day and then was requisitioned to lead a charge up Omaha Beach. That was his story, anyway.

I knew a lot of them in my time as a bartender, these lost and lonely, joyous and beautiful souls who chose to spend much of their time in the company of others, in a public house, subverting the rules by which the rest of us live.

I liked Crazy Jake, who used to talk to the ice machine, and Old Rick, who came down to New Orleans from Baltimore for Memorial Day weekend in 1957 and never left. I remember Big Bill, the probation officer good for at least a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, taken in large pours over a light scoop of ice. There was South African Sean, a former army helicopter mechanic living in the States on cash jobs; Good Guy Joe who once lost his pants as he stood at the bar rail; the Finish Man, who likely still prowls lower Dectaur Street as I write; Tyrone T, who announced before every trip to the bathroom that he was “gonna go pay my water bill;” that one high-end prostitute who would drink a tall rum and Diet Coke, make her guy pay with a 20 and leave me the rest. What was her name?

How can I forget Manhattan John, Navy Dave, Cable Guy Paul and Mikey in the Morning? And how do I even begin to explain Painless Paul?

There have been dozens, scores of barflies in my life over the years.

And it’s not insignificant that a goodly portion of them have taken their last drinks — some of them by choice after years of the drinking life proved fruitless, others because they got 86-ed that one last time.

But it’s good to know some of them are still at it, drowning out the white noise of the world even as they solve all its problems over drinks at the bar.