By Will Burden
Seldom does one go to a bar to drink; more often, they’re the setting to something else. Pure background. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my time at a great many different kinds of bars in a great many different places. I’ve been to a place in Alaska that is serving cold beer at 8AM on game weekends in the Fall because the state is about five-hours behind the lower-48 when it comes to kickoff. I’ve boozed with lobbyists and politicians alike at receptions held in the lobby of the hotel where LBJ ran his senate campaigns back in the 40’s. And in Saint Francisville, Louisiana, I’ve drank whiskey at a place that backs up to the Mississippi River and listened to strangers tell me about their latest felony convictions. Where I once only drank the Keystone Light that I had been weaned on at pasture parties in high school, I’ve moved on. So too with my surroundings. But there are some places that become more than watering holes. More than a place to spend a Saturday chatting with whoever happens to belly-up next to you. There are some places that become more than, dare I say, a place where everybody knows your name.
The first place like this for me was an Applebee’s in East Texas. While it’s easy to laugh at the notion of an Applebee’s bar being more than a place to get a Bud-light alongside your mozzarella sticks, in my hometown, it might as well have been a Spanish café out of Hemingway. Back then, as a newly-minted twenty-one year old in a town that had one other bar, Applebee’s is where the nightlife began to take form. All stripes, from roughnecks to retail employees, were represented. It’s where I watched what kind of adults the kids I grew up around were becoming, and it’s the place I learned to responsibly drink, though that’s not to say drink responsibly.
Around the bar, people would sit beneath the golden light, in cookie-cutter ambience, surrounded by the same decorations and faux sports memorabilia that you’ve seen in a thousand other such places, and we’d talk. Rarely was the dialogue anything of consequence to anyone beyond the city limits of my corner of East Texas, but in a small town, the dearth of substance in a topic has never stopped a story-teller. In short, the bar at that Applebee’s was where I first learned to think of the place I came from as having any distinct identity. By watching, and talking, and listening to these people I had often known all my life, I came to appreciate them as people with their own narrative that they were doing their best to write. In a place as commercial and devoid of personality as comes, I learned to appreciate the humanity in what I once thought of as ordinary.
Those same nights in East Texas didn’t end after a few Lonestars though. Before too long, I graduated to the honky-tonk. While “honky-tonk” is often overused now, conjuring up places in Nashville that are owned by whatever millionaire new-country act is hot, the Gin in East Texas is the kind of place where, not only could you still smoke in it, you could put your cigarette out on the floor with your boot.
Like a place out of time, the Gin of my memory was a former cotton gin that became the kind of place Baptist preachers warn you about. Dark and smoke-filled with a wooden dance floor, it’s where I first tried to hone the craft of line-dancing and talking to women with about the same success rate in both. It’s where you first see the various ways a night can end, be it in drunken huffs, cussing under your breath, or with an arm around a pretty girl, or somewhere in between. It’s where you make friends with strangers who you couldn’t pick out of a line-up the next day, and where you first see the rougher-substance of your hometown that you always knew existed but had never seen up close. In a world that so often values the staid, sanitized, consumer-friendly version of a place – your local Applebee’s notwithstanding – the Gin was genuine and one of a kind, and I am sad to have not seen it in many years. I only truly knew the Gin while spending a summer back in my hometown, but it’s the kind of place that matters in a young man’s life as he becomes who he is becoming.
As with many twenty-somethings in Texas, I later found myself in Austin for about eighteen months before I decided I had had enough and left. During that time, I was fortunate enough to fall head-over-heels in love and have my heart-broken all within the span of six-months. Now, when I say head-over-heels in love, I don’t mean to suggest that it was anything worth much. But it was that kind of teenage love that gets colored by you being in your twenties so that you think it’s something far deeper than it really is.
The Cabaret is a narrow and deep bar next to the Colorado River in Austin. It’s got a juke-box, and pool-tables, and furniture in it that looks like something from any Southern church’s potluck lunch after Sunday service. Lonestar was about $3 a bottle and the juke-box took quarters, and there’s a whole lot of neon on the walls. Couldn’t have picked a better place to carry on a relationship in secret that was always destined to never be realized. From across that same church table, we fell in love. And just outside the Cabaret, we said those goodbyes that took an hour because neither wanted to leave. But she’s gone now and so am I. And it’s alright for that to be the case because I loved her at the time, and I liked being with her at the bar, and I was content with where I was at. I’ve always got that memory even though times have changed. And I’m better off because they did.
And so I moved on and moved east and came to Mississippi where I met a girl from Memphis and I asked her to marry me and she said yes. I don’t recall exactly when I first came to City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, but I do know it’s been my favorite of the bunch. Located on the second-story of a building on the Oxford square, City Grocery might be the finest bar in all of Mississippi. Like the Cabaret, it’s narrow and deep, but with brick walls, and beautiful old wooden tables and chairs. Despite the fact that City Grocery is just a mile from the Ole Miss campus, it’s always had a decidedly grown-up feel to it, and the bartenders and patrons alike know one another’s drinks, and spouses, and how their parents are doing. And this knowledge is passed down through generations.
I didn’t meet my soon-to-be wife at City Grocery, but it’s where we grew to love each other. Between football games, and weddings, and spur of the moment weekends out of town, we came and went from City Grocery. Not falling into love across a table over a matter of months but growing in love over years. Each time we visited, we had further developed our love for one another, and matured into who are as a couple instead of two people infatuated with the other and drunk on love. While I can’t say I have come to know City Grocery in the same way I have other bars, it’s certainly had the most impact.
As I reflect back on these places and people, I can’t avoid the conclusion that bars are never the main attraction; they are, at their root, just places to drink –– bartenders at Applebee’s can pour whiskey and beer as well as anyone. What matters is the sense of place that they confer, and the way in which we take in those moments while we’re in’em. If you’re like me, they’re the background to a swath of our lives that cuts wide and deep. And as we change and grow and come and go, these backgrounds change. They can add some luster and color to a memory, but, at their best, they’ll always just be be a backdrop to sitting across the table from a pretty girl in the confidence that no one else has ever had it as good as you.