February 18, 2009

It has never ceased to amaze me that, as our stalwart editor commented to me, “€œit reveals much about our age that the term “€˜adult fun”€™ evokes pornos and strapons and not black-tie outings and champagne.”€ Indeed it does. As this writer lamented in an earlier piece, there seems to be an absolute hatred on the part of the Boomers, and many of their chronological predecessors, for any mixture of formality and frivolity. But do not think for a second that that hatred is restricted to the doings of the upper echelon”€”by no means! It extends downward to that most beloved and truly democratic of institutions, the neighborhood bar.

Now, much as I love the highlife, I also love the low dive. How missed is that tavern of my youth, the old Shamrock on Hollywood Boulevard! Open from 6 AM to 2 AM, it was denizened by an incredibly eclectic cast of characters”€”not surprising in the down-at-heels eastern end of Tinsel town. One morning at 5:30 AM, some two and a half decades ago, I found myself, while returning from a social engagement that had run late, passing by its hallowed doors. Already, a line had formed of folk anxious for their eye-openers!

But that is the essence of a neighborhood bar. In an age that prides itself on being non-judgmental, these places, at least for their regulars, have always been fairly uncaring about any non-lethal behavior. As a character on the witness stand in an old Perry Mason episode one opined, “€œafter a few hours, a bar becomes a fairyland. The people there are so courteous, and considerate.”€

Well, maybe not always. But often enough that, for a while, the annoyances of everyday life fade away. Alas, innocent adult fun is not to be tolerated by those whose lot in life is to regulate our lives. Next to drinking, the major recreation in most bars has traditionally been smoking. But as all the world knows, the dangers cigarette smoke poses to one’s health outweigh the dangers of casual sex with strangers”€”lung cancer being a far greater threat to the body politic than AIDS or STDs of various stripes. So, rather than campaign against more, shall we say, carnal pleasures, the powers that be in state after state (and many foreign nations) have outlawed smoking in watering holes. This has led to the rise of an institution best dubbed a “€œsmokeasy.”€

You know the kind of place I mean. Usually a very old establishment, its proprietors have some sort of understanding with the local law. Except for the occasional cosmetic raid, patrons can usually enjoy their cancer sticks in peace, flicking their ashes into what are euphemistically called “€œcandy dishes.”€ Although this writer is a pipe smoker, he takes advantage of such places whenever he can. Is not participation in such activity non-violent resistance, in the spirit of MLK and Gandhi.

Unfortunately, bar life has been troubled for many years, for a number of reasons. President Carter’s abolition of the tax break on five martini lunches is partly to blame; widespread cocaine use in the “€˜80s of the last century pushed many who would have drunk cocktails in times past into the clutches of white wine. Rising property prices led many heretofore indulgent landlords to refuse to renew leases, replacing neighborhood watering holes with chain outlets of various descriptions. Most galling of all were interventions by local government, some minions of which believed these boîtes to detract from their environs (although, if they featured strippers, civil libertarians often rallied to their rescue).

The result is that virtually every week for the past several decades one hears of some storied old tavern in this or that locale closing forever. Every time such an affront to decency occurs, a host of memories die with the place. One is reminded of Rod Serling’s masterful Night Gallery episode, “€œThey”€™re Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar.”€

Today’s young people often seem to those of us who are a bit older to come from a different planet. Their tastes in clothing, music, and many other things run from the bizarre to the disgusting. One cannot help but wonder if they, too, formed attachments to such places, and known the bitter pain of their ending. In a bittersweet way, I was reassured by a note from Michael Feidt, Jr., a 24-year old kinsman of mine who was mourning the demise of TT Reynolds, a century-old establishment with a mahogany bar imported from Germany. Doomed by the city fathers of Fairfax, it, Mike declared to me, “€œwas a straight shot back to what bars across the United States used to be before the Boomers came of age and decided to make people “€˜better,”€™ whatever that means, by taking away our ability to smoke in taverns.”€

After praising the joint as both a safe refuge, as all good bars must be, and a showcase for local musical talent, he made a point that our social engineers ought to consider before demolition of such haunts. “€œWhat we had was a place where people young and old, goths and preps, old draft dodgers and ex-altar boys could sit down, leave their baggage at the door and, to borrow from Billy Joel, “€˜forget about life for a while.”€™”€

Never are such places more important to the national psyche than in times like these. But for all the intentions of the do-gooders, it may be that innate human sanity will save the neighborhood bar. Young people appear to be rediscovering the joys of real cocktails, and the unlooked for resurrection of Hell’s Kitchen’s famed Holland Bar gives hope for the future. Doubtless, as our economy flies ever further into the doldrums, people may begin to wonder what right governments that are apparently unable to do their proper jobs have to regulate their hapless subjects”€™ smoking and drinking.

To those who would point with thinly veiled glee at the terrible damage that alcoholism and smoking can do, this writer would reply that we happily condone behavior that can do much worse. In a good old neighborhood bar, what little remains of an organic community life in this country can often be found. As conditions worsen, let us hope this kind of unity grows.


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