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He Needs a Drink
One writer searches for a bar of his own.- August 20, 2003
Three years ago, after being gently guided off the platform at Johns Hopkins University by a man in a dark robe, I realized that I was alone in the world. I was down and out in Baltimore, armed only with an M.A. in creative writing. I don't want to complain; I had a great time at Hopkins, and I met a lot of nice people there. But I knew that something was missing. Yes, I had been given an opportunity to teach. No, I hadn't exactly been promised blurbs by major literary figures. But I had breathed the same air that they did. I'd gotten what I came for, but—but—somehow that wasn't enough.
Then a friend gave me a copy of Richard Yates's Collected Stories. I had long since stopped reading books—after getting my master's, I didn't have any money to buy books—but this Richard Yates guy on the back cover caught my eye. It must have been his face. There was nothing baby boomer about it. No ear-to-ear grin. No upward-inclined stare. He had a huge, pocked nose, greasy gray hair. And he had a glimmer in his eye—a radiance, a je ne sais quoi. It was a photo of a man who had mapped out his own turf. It was a photo of a guy who knew where he wobbled. It was the photo, I realized, of a writer who had found his own bar.
Mr. Yates indeed had found his own bar. I've read a review of his recently published biography, and, apparently, it was the Crossroads Bar in Boston. Although he didn't technically drink himself to death at the Crossroads, he took great leaps there in that direction. So when I was in the Back Bay not long ago I decided to check it out. I was impressed. The Crossroads isn't a bad bar; it's got character, and it's in a pretty nice neighborhood. And although Mr. Yates died in 1992, people there remembered him drinking and signing copies of his out-of-print books, smoking between gasps on his respirator.
I was jealous. I wanted a bar of my own.
I was further inspired in this regard by the work of Frederick Exley. Exley died in 1992, and he had drank and smoked himself to death at roughly the same rate Yates had. Decidedly less prolific than Yates, he was a one-shot wonder whose book A Fan's Notes chronicled the life of a depressed football fan heading into middle-age while snuggled up in his beer-stained sofa and with visions of the Great American Novel dancing in his head.
This time I bought the book. A Fan's Notes had a great blurb on the back cover. Back covers emphasize the positive in a writer's life, and when I read it I realized that Frederick Exley had a very impressive resume for a failure. He was nominated for a National Book Award. He was the recipient of the William Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Harper-Saxton Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. And, if the blurb on the front cover is correct, he wrote the best novel in the English language since The Great Gatsby.
Maybe I was just in a bad mood, but compared to me, Exley didn't seem to have a whole lot to complain about. Even throwing out all those awards, and reducing Exley to his lowest common denominator, there's this: He was published by Esquire. I'd probably drink myself to death if I was published by Esquire, but it wouldn't be because I was unhappy.
I wanted to be as successful a drunken failure as Exley. I headed out to find my own barstool.
Baltimore isn't a large town, but it has a higher BPP (bars per person) rate than most cities on the East Coast. It is therefore an ideal place to drink, but it is not necessarily an ideal place to drink in one place. Edgar Allen Poe was probably one of the first major literary figures to find that out; he met his maker after an extended bar crawl. The crawl itself was remarkable, and there are still celebratory tours of the route that he took on that fateful night. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify his demise with one particular bar. If there was, I'd be there now—along with most of literary Baltimore.
So I was left to my own devices. There was a string of disasters. The Charles Village Pub, for all its virtues, is a sports bar. The Mount Vernon Pub was allegedly filled with artists, but it was too dark to see who they were. The Brewers' Art had so many varieties of gourmet beer that it was impossible to figure out what I was drinking—or even pronounce it. Then there was this huge bar that looked like a stadium. I can't remember what it was called, but I wasn't allowed in because I was wearing a t-shirt. The Horse You Rode In On had an idiosyncratic name, but it was, despite its assurances to the contrary, a tourist bar. When I wandered into the Chestnut Bar, two scrawny old men had each other in a headlock, which was too much local color for me. There was the Raven, but it was about 70 miles from the center of the city.
And then I found it. It's called the Rendezvous. It's in North Baltimore, not far from my house. It's dark, seedy, and it smells bad. They write bad words on the mirror in the bathroom, but they don't have fights. It's racially mixed up, but doesn't go overboard in that direction. They have free popcorn. The juke box plays Dokken. I don't go there every night—I don't make enough money—but every once in a while I head out there and put my quarters on the table, and drink beer at the rate of 8 cents an ounce.
One caveat for those of you who are headed out the door already: The Rendezvous isn't exactly a places where you would make an impact by telling anybody you are a writer. In fact, because no one can hear anyone in that place, it isn't one of those places where you would make an impact by telling anybody anything. To lift a phrase, the Rendezvous isn't a place for writers with drinking problems; it's a place for drinkers with writing problems.
But it does have character. For instance, there's a pink blotch on the wall behind the pizza oven, with receipts taped to it and names painted next to the receipt. I spent months trying to figure out what it meant, until the bartender explained that it was shaped like a huge asshole. After looking carefully, I realized that, yes, it looked like an asshole. Lining the aforementioned blotch were the painted names of customers who apparently hadn't paid their tabs. Immortality is possible at the Rendezvous, but it's not necessarily something one would want to achieve.
I had doubts about spending the rest of my life at the Rendezvous; everybody does. But on a cold Saturday evening in March, those doubt vanished. I was sitting alone, legs wedged against the bar, staring at the tattoo on the barlady's lower back, trying to figure out what the rest of the word said. Someone had Anthrax blasting from the jukebox. I was a little discouraged. Was the Rendezvous really the right place, or was there another bar? I had reached the bottom of my popcorn bowl, so to speak, and I was chewing on the seeds, spitting them out on the floor, moving in for the peanuts, thinking about life in the larger sense. Then my eyes raised to the level of the mirror. There, sitting a few seats down the bar, was a little man, balding, gaunt, with a thin mustache, drinking a National Bohemian. I'd seen him somewhere before.
All the gin joints in this town, and he'd picked mine. Mr. Waters didn't stay long, but, hey, he didn't need to. I had arrived. This was where I wanted to be. It was my bar.
John Barry is a Baltimore writer.
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