I go to a bar—call it DSK, since that is its name–in my Brooklyn neighborhood. You could call it my local, and I am somewhat surprised that it is my first local since I was a teenager. I often feel that I go to this biergarten around the corner from where I live to further my education.
It seems surprising only now to have a local again because I grew up in a bar culture. My Wisconsin town had strong Germanic roots, and neighborhood taverns were everywhere. In fact, there was one next door to our house; a block away was another, and this was not unusual. Sheboygan had a population of 45,000, and it was said, over 140 drinking establishments.
The grandfather went to the one on the next block and played skat there. The father went to a different one, Dick’s Club, on the town’s main street most days after work. Neither patronized the one next door because the family had a long-running dispute with its owner over noise that emanated from its attached dance hall especially when the hall hosted the schuhplattlers with their slapping of thighs and accompanying yips and shouts.
Almost all of the bars I knew in my birth place were for the working class. (I don’t think the upper crust went to bars. Instead, they drank–a lot it always seemed to me–at home or perhaps in the country club or in establishments that I did not know existed.) My working-class family was similar to most in that we seldom had non-family guests in the home, so a bar was a place to meet friends and others.
Each bar had regulars, and the father knew almost everyone who came into Dick’s Club. (I don’t know the source of the name. The owner in the father’s time was not Dick.) The father ordered an eight-ounce, draft Pabst Blue Ribbon, then the Wisconsin working man’s beer. It was never then called PBR, and it was not drunk “ironically” as became the fashion in hipster circles. The beer, as was usual in working-class Wisconsin, was accompanied by a shot of brandy. The brandy was not one you are likely to know. E & J was considered high class, and this clientele would not drink high class booze. When I was of age, I once bought a fifth of Christian Brothers brandy as a treat for the father. He would not drink it because it cost too much, and he said that he would not appreciate it.
The bar for him was a comfortable place to discuss current events—elections and the civil rights movement and more—and to talk again and again about sports, with the father known for his dislike of the manager of the Milwaukee Braves as well as his, and everyone else’s, admiration for Vince Lombardi. (Vince comes home after a December practice and gets into bed. His wife says, “God, your feet are cold.” He replies, “Dear, at home you can call me Vince.”)
Women did not patronize the place during the work week except when families came for the Wisconsin tradition of a Friday night fish fry–breaded perch with limp French fries and coleslaw. Dick’s Club was also part of the father’s Sunday ritual. The father would drop off the siblings and me at the First Baptist Church, go to Dick’s Club, and then pick us up after the services.
I joined him once on a Sunday morning when I was home from law school and no longer a regular churchgoer. He was happy to show off to his friends the son who was going to be a lawyer. The bar then had a pool table. After we had a couple beers and shots, the father challenged me to a game. We did not grow up with the game, but I had expanded my higher education by playing a bit of pool (and billiards—it was a fancy school) at college. As we played, we had a few more beers and shots, or perhaps more than a few, but I was on fire and far ahead until the table, for some reason, became a bit fuzzy, and I aimed at a wrong ball, pocketed it, and lost the game. The old man had seen me lining up this mistake and did not utter a word although I could see that he was trying to suppress a smile. To my surprise, I found that I admired him for his reticence. He wanted to win. He wouldn’t cheat, but he wasn’t going to help me. We went home to the noontime Sunday dinner, and the mother wondered why the father and I were in such a good mood. He and I both just tried to hide our more than a little buzz and said nothing about the bar.
Children were allowed in the bars when accompanied by a parent, but I did not go to Dick’s Club often. Instead, my bar attendance started when I was eighteen. Wisconsin in those days allowed eighteen-year-olds to drink beer, but not wine or distilled spirits, and beer bars–establishments that served only beer–is where we headed, most often to The Patio, after our slow-pitch softball games. There were dice games for beers at the bar. Sometimes there was dancing. (I thought then that I was a good dancer. If my present ability is an indicator, I deceived myself. I prefer to believe, however, that my skill just deteriorated through the years as rock ‘n roll became less meaningful.) I often hoped to pick up some girl. (To protect my ego, I will not go into my attempts and my cool lines. Let’s just say I mostly failed.) I did not go for conversation. I remember only one. The guy next to me at the urinals was in the Coast Guard stationed in Sheboygan, and I thought what a disappointment it must be to join the Coast Guard, expect to see exciting places, and end up in Sheboygan. But he was eighteen and drinking, and passing, beer. He was happy.
I went to the Patio with a friend also to play the pinball machines. There were generally two there, and it was always intriguing when a new one came in as we tried to figure out the tricks to get the high scores. In those golden days, the games cost a quarter for five balls, and you got five games for four quarters. If someone was playing it, you slapped a quarter down on the surface to indicate you had next. You could stay on the machine as long as you had games remaining, and since the machines granted free games for certain scores and difficult shots, the goal was to keep getting free games to continue playing. The friend and I generally played what we considered doubles. Sometimes we alternated balls; sometimes we each took a flipper. And we were good. Often when the bar closed, the machine would indicate that we still had a raft of free games. We would try hard to be there when it opened next evening to make sure we got the freebies we had won the night before.
(Continued on September 17)