The mornings, evenings, afternoons . . .
TS Eliot, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
I started hanging out at bars at a very young age because whenever my mother left me alone with my old man, he’d throw me in the car and head off to some hole-in-the-wall near the Navy Base. There were no such things as kiddy car seats in those days. Come to think of it, there were no seatbelts either, at least in the cars we owned. Nor were we stowed in the backseat for safety’s sake.
Whenever Daddy hit the brakes, he’d reflexively extend his right arm as a barrier to prevent us from hurtling into the dashboard with its array of dangerous knobs, seemingly designed with poking out eyes in mind. I was only thrown into the dashboard once when my grandmother let me stand up in the front seat. I lost my front baby teeth, and one of my permanent front teeth grew in discolored and had to be capped. The cap kept falling off, and what was left of the tooth had to be drilled down to fit on another cap. Eventually, when there was hardly anything left, it had to be pulled, which made me look like Alfred E Newman until we acquired a retainer like false tooth.
At any rate, sometimes, if you’re lucky, natural selection doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to.
That grandmother, a Baptist, despised demon alcohol and considered bars dens of iniquity, though she and her sisters (Pearl and Ruby) traded pharmaceuticals like jelly beans. My mother, though less severe, didn’t like to come home and discover us missing. The story is that she could mysteriously intuit what bar we were at by flipping through the Charleston phone book, which was much thinner in those days in before the Old South turned into the Sunbelt. According to the dubious story, she’d call the bar, offer a description, get the old man on the phone, and he would come dutifully home with little me in tow.
My vague memories of hanging in bars with my father in the mid-Fifties may be manufactured. They may be based more on movies I’ve seen featuring dark, small, smoky spaces. I do clearly remember him playing pinball machines, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. These were in the days before aluminum cans were equipped with pop-tops, a great invention. Back then, bartenders opened cans of beers with small metal openers [see illustrations below] and had to make two openings to create airflow to help gravity along.
That reminds me. When I was around ten, my father had this foolish idea that I needed to drink one beer a week to gain weight – as if the weight gain would be equally distributed along my skeletal frame instead of creating a stick-legged, stick-armed tween with a beer belly. I absolutely detested the taste of beer. Now that I think of it, it may have been a ruse to allow us to have beer in the house.
The next bar I visited in my youth was a roadhouse called Morris Knight’s, a one-story honky-tonk-like establishment about a half-mile from my house. It consisted of two rooms, one with a bar and stools (where they sold candy and fireworks to kids in the day time) and a back room with a vending pool table and a jukebox. One night when we were camping out, we made an excursion there to score some Squirrel Nut Zippers and encountered staggeringly drunk men and women. The fat woman bartender kicked us out, informing us it was no place for children. It seemed at once both sinful and fascinating, Felliniesque in a po-dunk sort of way.
The S & S poolroom, where I hung out in high school, wasn’t, strictly speaking, a bar, though they did sell both draughts and canned beers. They served the most delicious hot dogs ever thanks to their secret chili recipe. Sometimes my mother would have a craving for one, and Daddy would go fetch her “a poolroom hotdog” because “ladies” didn’t dare step inside.
It was tacitly understood that I was not to go into the poolroom, but I did for the first time when I was a 7th grader, the victim of peer pressure. You couldn’t get away with sneaking in there, though, because you would come home with the telltale poolroom smell, a sort of sour smoky odor laced with fried food.
The poolroom was sort of a grander Morris Knight’s and employed young black boys to rack the tables and collect the dime it cost to play a game of nine ball. When the game was over, you’d holler “Rack!” Gambling was allowed. I saw a friend of mine, Glenn Farrar, win a hundred dollars in about forty minutes one time. It was a Friday, payday. Tensions ran high.
Anyway, my parents eventually didn’t mind my hanging out there, and in the early 70’s a couple of girls actually started frequenting, which sullied their reputations. By then, the hissing sound of the double metal can opener had been replaced by the plunk of tabs you tore off.
You had to be somewhat circumspect in the poolroom, though. Using a word like “whom” might end up getting your “ass cut,” as we locals put it. You weren’t allowed to cuss, though. A “No Profanity” sign was displayed prominently behind the bar beside prints of monkeys shooting pool and playing poker.
You could drink legally at eighteen in those days, so college was where I learned the art of making eye contact with the bartender, the advantages of busing your own tables by returning your bottles, and how leaving a tip could help you get served faster when the joint was busy.
My freshmen year I hung at a place called the Opus that served only Bush Bavarian beer, or at least that’s my memory, but they tore the Opus down to build the new Law School. There was also the Campus Club, a cool space with a wraparound scaffolding-like structure that created a sort of second story but was open to the space below, like the saloons you sometimes see in old Westerns. I liked sitting there in the afternoons after class when dust-moted sunbeams bore down on the tables like spotlights.
I never really liked the Golden Spur, the bar located in USC’s student union building, a sort of cafeteria-like soulless place where unadventurous students hung. Ironically, I ended up tending bar there along with my future wife, who had white-lied to her parents and told them that she worked at “the student center.” The bar did boast some really cool musical acts, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. That may have been my best job ever. If we went out after work, it was to Oliver’s Pub on Devine Street, a private club where you could drink on Sundays.
Like a chip off the ol’ block, I started taking my two sons to bars early in their lives. When then they were pre-adolescents, on nights their mother attended classes to get yet another graduate degree, we’d eat out at bars. Our favorites were the Acme Cantina on the Isle of Palms and Station 22 on Sullivan’s Island. The boys were on a first name basis with the bartender, Fronz, at the Acme, and with Cathy Coleman at Station 22. The big difference between my childhood experience and theirs is that their mother didn’t mind at all, especially on 25-cent wing night.
Now, our sons are in their 30’s, and, of course, we still enjoy venturing out to a bar when they’re home, and Folly Beach where their mother and I now live may have more bars per capita than anywhere in this side of Vegas. Our favorites are Chico Feo and the Jack of Cups, but the Surf Bar is top-notch as well.
By the way, the worst bar I ever visited was outside of Leningrad on the Bay of Finland. Black walls, red lights, bad vodka, the reek of Turkish cigarettes, drunken Finns looking for love. It made Morris Knight’s look like a Dairy Queen.
 My grandfather hid half-pints of rum in his dress shoes in his closet.