Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Night's All That's Left Behind

I've always been a little too comfortable in saloons. Just a little. Possibly an Irish deal. No one but my internist and a couple of women I dated years ago ever viewed it as a problem. The thing was, the first time I walked into one of the damn places I discovered I liked just about everything about them.

It must have been like Pete Sampras walking on to a tennis court when he was a little nipper or Bill Clinton standing up to talk to the class when he was 14.

Now I'm not saying I was as good at saloon life as Pete was with the running forehand or Bill was with the patter. But I was pretty good on both sides of the bar, and my standards were high.

I tended bar in Washington DC after college for about five years. Three decades later I have far more friends from the saloon life than from the fine university I attended. And if I could get a slick quarterly magazine that said "Bars" rather than "American University," I'd sit by the fire and peruse every word and photo.

I met my wife, Jane, when she worked day shifts at a pub around the corner from a place I worked at night. And OK, it's true we met in the mid 1970s and got married in 1992, but that's how saloon people are. Careful, except when they're not.

I gravitated from saloons to the newspaper dodge, which was a pretty quick trip in those days. The fact is, I got my first newspaper job and my first byline at the old Washington Star precisely because I tended bar and because I poured whiskey for reporters and editors.

Hey, I was not born rich or handsome, as the man said. But in the words of George Washington Plunkitt, I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.

By the way, I long ago stopped telling this writing bartender story to aspiring newspaper types. It was both inspirational and depressing (for them). Now it doesn't matter. These days, if someone tells me they want to be a newspaper reporter I tell them to lie down until the swelling subsides.

What is it (was it?) about the bars.

I loved that feeling of getting away with a little something. Regardless of your station in life, you could put on a clean sport coat and wander into PJ Clarke's in Manhattan or the Washington Square Bar & Grill in San Francisco or the Lodge or the Billy Goat in Chicago or McDaid's in Dublin or too many other good joints in too many places, throw down a $20 and act like you belonged there.

From the beginning, I knew better than to talk to the other customers. Usually a bad idea. I was there to talk to the folks I was with, or with the bartenders and servers. Much better audience, and usually a better story to tell. And the rules are largely pretty simple. Don't be a jerk; understand that the dishy bartendress/waitress is likely not interested; leave 20 percent or better if you plan on coming back.

Trust me on all this - some things don't change.

These days, my interest in saloons is largely anthropological. I'm a snob who thinks most urban gin mills are too expensive and filled with youthful bores. With notable exceptions, of course. A few years go, before the smoking ban in DC, I would espy a brace of young lawyers in suits from Joseph Banks firing up $20 cigars while sipping $22 single malt whiskeys and think, what a gaggle of chowderheads.

That said, I'm now just the sort of drinker I used to be amused by. A couple of drinks after work and home by 7:30 or so. That guy. Which is just fine.

As my friend and saloon companion Chris Reidy phrased it a while ago, we've stopped aerobicizing our livers. And just in time, too.