Public Houses I Have Known and Loved

My mother’s side of the family — the Baptist side – considered alcohol an abomination, Satanic spittle concocted to rob the imbiber of his or her moral wits, or to shift to a perhaps more accurate metaphor, concocted to de-magnetize the self-polluter’s moral compass.

My father’s people, on the other hand, despite their Protestant names – Luther and Wesley – didn’t much adhere to Holy Writ. My mother – praise be — was a non-judgmental, fun-loving redhead with a heightened, countercultural aversion to self-righteousness, so she didn’t consider drinking sinful and enjoyed a Crown Royal and Coke on occasion.

Mama's childhood residence, the setting of one very unmerry Xmas

Mama’s childhood residence

Nevertheless, her father when he drank could be a belligerent drunk, and my own father reacted to alcohol in Jekyll/Hyde fashion — either he had you on the carpet rolling in laughter or cowering as he hurled some odd or end across the room. So I suspect that early in their marriage, Mama might have followed in her own mother’s footsteps and attempted to discourage my father from drinking.

Perhaps Mama’s antipathy to Daddy’s drinking explains how I ended up hanging out at bars at a very early age — even before I acquired language and therefore memory. These bar excursions must have occurred when we lived on Wentworth Street or when my parents lived at Clemson. The story goes (and my parents shared it together on numerous occasions to numerous audiences) that sometimes when Mama left me in Daddy’s care, he absconded with me in tow to the most obscure bar he could think of, only to have the phone ring there and the barman to ask if there were a Wesley Moore present. Daddy, according to this legend, awed by Mama’s preternatural ability to track him down, would come straight home to face the wrath of his red-headed Scotch-Irish wife.

No telling the impact the conviviality of taverns — the blinking pinball machines, the raucous laughter, the seductive perfumes, the voice of Nat King Cole on the jukebox — had on my tiny developing cerebral cortex. Some studies claim that exposing infants with their rapidly developing brains to classical music enhances math skills, so perhaps my exposure to cigarette smoke, vulgar jokes, and male camaraderie helped to develop my Dionysian social skills, my ability to strike up an amiable conversation to the occupant of my adjacent bar stool, whether he be a vacationing Wall Street bigshot at Rue de Jean or a bushy bearded homeless rummy at Chico Feo.

Truth be told, I like hanging out solo at what my ancestors called public houses.

The Pool Room

My first post-toddler bar/tavern/pub hangout was the S&S Sporting Center (aka the Pool Room) located on Main Street in my hometown Summerville. Although it wasn’t literally a tavern, Mr. George, his wife Monkey, and son Boise served draft and canned beers in an establishment that featured a long bar with at least twenty swivelable bar stools. I sat at that bar many a Saturday afternoon or summer day slurping down delicious chilidogs, sipping Cokes, eavesdropping on beer swilling rustics or wayward Episcopalians.

Scrupulously honest, the Pool Room proprietors demanded proof of age, and when you turned 18, handing your license to Boise as you ordered a draft was a rite of passage. You could go there by yourself and be sure to know someone — if even if were only Boise, who not only had a degree from Brevard College but who had also served his county in the arm forces. He was our hometown Hemingway, a stoic who had seen the world.

Once I hit college and my hair had reached my shoulders, I quit hanging at the Pool Room in the summers. The last time I remember being there, some white stranger with a Hendrix-sized jew-fro and tie-dyed tee shirt strolled in, and I overheard a native son say, “Let’s kick his ass before he puts one of them psycheee-DEL-ic records on the jukebox.”

Morris Knight’s

I don’t know how exactly to characterize Morris Knight’s. Because it was within walking distance from my house, and not far at all if you cut through the woods and later people’s yards, we would go there in the daytime to buy firecrackers. There was a bar with floor-attached stools and a coin-operated pool table. This was back in the days before pop tops, and I remember the bartender, a fat woman, opening the cans with a church key, puncturing two triangular openings across from one another. I’m pretty sure they didn’t serve draft.

I only went there at night once on a camping out excursion when I was in junior high, and the joint was rocking, as Chuck Berry might say. The odor of beer mixed with cigarette smoke was heavy in the air, and I saw a man staggeringly drunk try to traverse the narrow front room. Whoever ran the joint immediately ran us off when we tried to cop some firecrackers.

Later there was a place on the north side of town called the Teepee Lounge when I was in college, but I only patronized it a couple of times.

By then, we had started driving to Charleston to hang out at College of Charleston bars like Hogpenny’s or to the Isle of Palms to destinations now long gone.

USC Bars

IMG_1468Let’s see, the Campus Club, the Opus, the Second Level, Don’s, the Senate Plaza, Capitol Coal, Oliver’s Pub — and, of course, the Golden Spur where my late wife Judy Birdsong and I met as bartenders.

Located in the back of the student union building, what the Spur lacked in style — it felt sort of like a cafeteria — it made up in convenience and prices. Happy Hour beers cost 15 cents and a pitcher a dollar. Also, sometimes the Spur featured musical and comedy acts. Steve Martin performed there before anyone had ever heard of him, and I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee play there for free. sonny-1

Being a bartender at the Spur made you sort of a minor celebrity around campus in that seeming strangers recognized you and called you by name, but I tended not to dig lots of the regulars, a few of who seemed to be nascent alcoholics. We had this irritating promotion where you’d by your own Golden Spur mug and carry with you to the bar and receive your first draft free.

In the dead summer time, when I was the only non-managerial bartender, some kids would come in at 11 and stay virtually all day and night. You could set your watch by their coming and going. Then in the high season during Monday Night Football or Columbia’s big party night Thursday, the place would be packed wall-to-wall, and occasionally you’d have to deal with belligerent drunks or puke-bespattered restrooms.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time there. It might be the best job I ever had.

Charleston Bars

Rue de Jean is my downtown hangout, and back before the pandemic, I’d show up there around 9:30 on the second Tuesday of each month after my book club dispersed. Although he no longer works there, what distinguished the Rue from any of the other bars was Mr. Steve Smoak, a world-class bartender who on a busy night moved with the grace of Nureyev as he glided over to grab a bottle and in one fluid motion scooped ice and poured while seeking eye contact with the next customer. When things weren’t busy, he was a witty raconteur, a cat who knew his way around, a latter-day Bosie, if you will.

Of course, the so-called City of Folly Beach probably has more bars per capita than any other municipality in the Palmetto State. I suggest the Surf Bar for visitors and the Jack of Cups for beer connoisseurs, the Sand Dollar for Saturday Night dancing, the eponymous Sunset Cay for marsh vistas, but, by far, my major hangout is Chico Feo, an outdoor Caribbean bohemian confab of the homeless, the homely, and the hip. The superb bartenders reach for an All Day IPA, which costs a mere 3 bucks, when they see me at a distance parking my bike.

Some of the clientele are down and out but seem happy, like characters from a Jerry Jeff Walker song. When I was teaching, I’d grade essays there on fair-weather Saturdays and Sundays. Once, my friend Greg, who was at the time homeless, chided me for grading my essays at the Jack of Cups when the temperatures were what I’d call uncomfortable. “You should grade them outdoors,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep indoors ever again.”  He said it as if sleeping under a roof was somehow inhibiting.

“What about the winter,” I asked. “Don’t you get cold in the winter?”

“I have a sleeping bag,” he said and smiled and ordered another PBR.

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