Letter from the Drinking Town 6 – Kids and Bars

Dear Worcester,

In the last letter I wrote about my time at the Wormtown Brewery (a fine place if I neglected to state that before)  and spied a kid around nine or ten with his family or extended family. He was safe in his smart phone and earbuds and had an impenetrable shield that protected him from the packs of knit capped hipsters appreciating the IPA like it was fine wine gone to vinegar.But it made me think about kids in drinking joints.

Every family has its own tradition of how to introduce their progeny into the ever present world of drinking. Wine at Sunday Dinner. Manischewitz during Passover. A can of Schlitz at their first Packers game for Cheese Heads across the globe.

My friend Bob always tried to ply beer or wine at my son, even when he was an infant. It was a joke. Especially because my response to these vaudevillian attempts was to state. “Not until he’s five.”

This was because my first beer was when I was five. I remember it clearly. A bunch of the fathers in our neighborhood were drinking Pabst in our driveway and we boys were pestering. One of the boys asked his dad for a sip and he got it. Score! So the next boy asked his dad for a sip and he got it. And I asked for a sip next and got it. Boy did I get it. Straight from the can. The aluminum did nothing but improve the taste. Then one of us, maybe Paul Anderson, asked if he could have another sip and his father responded, “No, get your own.”

Get your own. The ultimate DIY statement of independence. It’s the Beatles realizing that they don’t have to settle for Pete Best Backbeats. It was Sam Houston comprehending that this state can be their state. It was Allen Ginsberg stating that the slithery flow of words and imagery that his soul composed must be poetry. It’s Jonny Rotten concluding that music was whatever anger fit into three cords and dissonance. It was someone saying, “Hey you midwestern kid, wouldn’t more of that yellow bubbly elixir be the best way to end the day?” Get your own. Do it yourself.

Paul looked at us boys and said, “We have beer in our house. We can get our own there.” So we three boys trooped over to his house and got Schlitz and dutifully sipped at those damned cans of endless cans of unpleasantness while sitting on the back stoop. But we were now men and there was no place for complaint. We drank at our cans like dogma. When the adults realized that the evening was too peaceful, they searched for us. They found us and ducked in corners to laugh at what they saw. Only when they laughter was done did they come and seriously remove us from our beers.

That was how I came up with the “Only when he’s five” line. When my son turned five, I was petrified that Bob would keep me to it. Only last week, when my son was eight, did Bob bring it up. We were all at a Nick’s for a PFLAG benefit that he said, “You told me that he could have beer at five, we are well past that.” My wife organized the benefit up but couldn’t attend so me and the kid were there. My lame response to Bob was, “You didn’t ask him when he was five so you missed your chance.”

Bob rolled his eyes at that, so I turned to the boy and asked, “Bob wants to get you a beer, you want it.”

My son looked at me oddly and said. “I have chocolate milk.” And that was it. I felt more relief than I can say. Yes, I would not have given the beer if he did ask for it, but it was pleasant to not come across the consequence.

Off and on for three years, my son has been going into Nick’s. I run a bi weekly event there and sometimes I have to bring him. The bartender Sean, one of my closest friends, always greets him warmly and has him make a mixed fruit juice concoction to drink through the event. My son adores Sean.

A few weeks ago my kid stated that for a job, he would like to help Sean out behind the bar. He would get him the beers. Grab him the ice. Do whatever Sean needed to be a good bartender.

I don’t know, but I am not sure that a lot of high school guidance counselors recommend “bar back” as a career goal.

About a year and a half ago, he reported to us that one of his schoolmates said he wanted to be a bartender when he grew up, because a bartender gets all the ladies. We asked him what “gets all the ladies” meant, and he only stared at us.  I told Sean and he informed me that that estimation of a bartender’s life is not exactly accurate. And wait a minute? Why is a second grader interested in the ladies in the first place?

There is nothing wrong with taking a child to a place that has liquor. It is unavoidable. Last year, I went into the Oaken Barrel for a gin and tonic and there were three women at the bar drinking and swearing. Swearing like you will only see in Worcester and Quentin Tarrantino films. One of the colorful talkers had her seven year old son with her. He wasn’t on a stool, drinking and cussin. No he was running around the tables. Some of the tables had people eating there, but that didn’t matter. It was a dull uninteresting place for this kid and he was making his own fun.

It’s like those uncomfortable kid’s birthday parties that we parents stand around, wishing to be anywhere else. You don’t know the people, you don’t what to say, all you do is watch your kid and all these other running noses and skinned knees scream bloody murder and call it a fine time. Many of them are at bowling alleys. Here in New England we wave candlepin bowling, the perfect type of bowling for kids. They can hold onto the ball. They can also easily bash them over their friend’s heads. But hey, birthday parties are so much fun.

There is something weird to me when I see one of these parents get a beer from the bowling alley bar and continue watching the kids run around like they are radioactive particles racing up to nuclear fission. I know that there is nothing wrong with having a beer in front of kids, but this is the kid’s world and an adult beverage seems like a breaking of a trust. I want one of the kids to go up to the grown up drinking the bottle of Bud and say, “Excuse me, do you mind? We children don’t traipse down to your over 21 fetes at the Ship Room at the Hotel Vernon and demand chocolate milk shakes and watch you get sloppy as you drunkenly sing karaoke, then why are you drinking your beverage at our bowling party?” Yes. These are the things I think about at these parties. I am that bored.

There are times when kids have to go into bars.

Like when they are tasked to retrieve their drunken father. I feel like I am in the first chapter of a Horatio Alger novel (before it all turns perfect) and that this doesn’t happen, but come on, we know it does.

I got a buddy in town who gets angry when we go by certain streets. That was the street, he informs me, where his Dad’s bar was. His Dad didn’t own it, he just contributed to it by drinking himself senseless. He didn’t drink himself to death there, only because there were other bars, not to mention the package stores. It was my friend’s and his brother’s job to find him and roust him home.

The bar is gone, but the anger still percolates, still bubbles, like a cut reopening becoming infected once more. I never pressed details. I didn’t ask him how often he had to go into the dark bar. How scared he was? Was it such a typical chore that the drunks on the stool would greet him by name? I am always curious about those things, but decided it is best not to ask. He still gets angry just being near the street. Like the bar is a ghost haunting him, wailing and moaning in the voice of old Patsy Cline 45s.

The only thing close to funny about this story is my friend tends bar at a few joints in the city. He sometimes pours beers to old timers, some of whom sat next to his father in the long ago bar. There is not enough liquor in all the bars of Worcester to mask the acrid taste of sad irony in those moments.

For me, I didn’t have to find my father in bars. Though I am sure he knew quite a few of them. He had a homemade bar in the basement in our house in Naperville Illinois. We kids would use it in our make believe play as the cockpit for the Millennium Falcon.

When my father came home for the day from his high clearance government job (he did something with nuclear weapons, we are not sure exactly what) he would greet me by saying my name and then raising two fingers. That was my prompt to go downstairs and get two cans of beer from the basement fridge. He would be seated at the kitchen table, removing his tie by the time I placed them in front of him. That still is the only bartending job I ever had.

By the time I turned nine, my father had been dead for six months. Heart attack. I was becoming a troubled kid. School was not going well for me. My mother thought that what I needed was a male influence.

I don’t know where she found this guy, but she got this psychology grad student to hang out with me once a week and be my buddy. I must have been a tough nut to crack because after only a few months he ran out of fun things to do with me.

So, he took me to his bar.

It was in downtown Naperville and it had the green glass and low back stools of an Irish Bar you ordered from a kit.  Ostensibly, we went there to play pool and ping pong. But really, he just felt more at ease dealing with this weird kid when he could sit at his bar and be in his safe environment.

We sat at the stools and he had me order root beer for both of us. The mugs were very foamy. By the third time we were there the bartender greeted me by name.

I am sure we played pool much longer than we were sitting at the bar, but that’s the part I recall with any clarity. It was the part that stuck with me.

He stopped hanging out with me soon after. I think I might have told my mother I was not interested in spending time with him, though I am not sure. It was a hell of a long time ago.

There are some of us who love going to bars. Adore the sensation of the stool. The grasp of the cold beer mug, the soul cool of the dark wood interior. If you are lucky to find that place you want to share it. You take your loved ones there. You introduce your girlfriend, your boyfriend, to the regulars with regal formality. Why wouldn’t you want your kid to see the place? To appreciate that wonderful world that is your bar, the bar?

So you have to watch the kid, do you have to abandon your bar life? Well, that is a fine question. A real question. It depends on what you are looking for. It depends on what you think your child needs to learn.

And please do not disregard that last statement. There are lessons for little ones to learn at any bar. That drunk adults are silly. That bartenders have the coolest jobs and that will be a fine thing to be when and if you grow up. That “get your own” is a worthy concept, but that is different from help yourself (bar owners tend to frown at that). Remember that “get your own” is the first step on the road to “be on your own.”  That drinking root beer at the bar might be the basement make believe version of feeling like a man. That despite the countless times you are sent into the bar to bring your father home, you might never find him.  No matter how many doors you open, or how many pint glasses you lift to see what hides underneath, nestled with the coasters, forgotten in the well.

Until Next Time

Dave

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