by JIM KNIPFEL
April 15, 2012
Sometimes Bars Go Sour
Before heading out to the bar Wednesday afternoon, Morgan and I decided to go some place different. There’s a comfort in familiar bars, where everyone knows you and you know you’ll be well taken care of. But sometimes there is a strong drive toward anonymity as well, where you won’t be expected to give a full accounting of your activities since the last time you were there, and you won’t be accosted by familiar and friendly drunken losers from down the bar every three minutes who just want to say hi. Someplace where the bartender will just bring your drinks, take your money, and otherwise leave you the hell alone, and the regulars don’t know who the hell you are and don’t give a fuck.
The question was, where to go? It had taken us years to track down a couple of home bars that weren’t hotbeds of rampant youthful stupidity accompanied by blasting hip-hop and bartenders so overflowing with rancid hipster attitude the very concept of refilling a glass was alien to them. Since that description now seems to apply to well over ninety percent of the bars in New York, the idea of stepping into a new place was not to be taken lightly. The results could far too easily be disastrous.
What we decided to do was try an old home bar. That was tricky, too. We’d spent many long hours there back in the late nineties, but as these things always seem to happen, a once quiet and sedate bar with a certain charm and character was discovered by the assholes. Within weeks it became impossible to get a seat at the bar and the crowd was hateful and shrill. Every night we found we were leaving the place in a rage until we finally stopped going. A few write ups in slick hipster magazines and on slick hipster websites later, the place was a complete madhouse. The few times we’d walk past, the crowd of loathsome, hooting cretins was so overwhelming it spilled out across the sidewalk like so much vomit.
Still, we’d snuck in there late one Sunday night during a snowstorm not that long ago, and it seemed okay. For that brief moment anyway things were all right. So given that it was an off hour fairly early on a Wednesday, we’d try it again. It had been so comfortable in there once. If we got there and found it was the nightmare I was expecting, we could head over to one of the more familiar places and deal with the questions.
It was a longer walk over there than I recalled from all those years ago, but when Morgan pulled open the door she said “It’s almost empty.” That was a good sign. Another good sign was the Sinatra on the stereo. We took seats at the end of the bar. Not our old seats, but close to the door should we need a quick escape. I folded the cane as Morgan went to check out the taps. A moment later the unfamiliar young bartender, apparently not having seen the cane, asked suspiciously, “Are you still trying to make up your mind?”
“No,” I told her. “There’s nothing to make up yet. My gal is seeing what you have.”
She left, and I waited. When Morgan returned, I learned that we were in a bar with forty taps, not a one of which dispensed anything I would drink except under great duress. Given the names, I couldn’t even tell you what most of them were. It was all a little too damned fancy for my plebian tastes. Still, when the bartender eventually returned I ordered some damn thing and made the best of it. It was quiet in there after all, and we had seats. All the same, the way the bartender snapped the money away I got the impression we shouldn’t count on any buybacks along the way.
As we drank and talked, or at least tried to talk, the music coming from the speaker above our heads switched from Sinatra to Elvis. That seemed fine at first, but then I started to notice something. Although it wasn’t loud by any stretch, the music was tinny and piercing, all treble, the percussion sounding like someone hitting a sheet of tin with a ball peen hammer. Not only was I having trouble hearing Morgan, but the music was almost painful.
I began to notice something else as well. I was happy to hear Sinatra when we came in, but as time went on and it shifted from Sinatra to Elvis to the Beatles, it struck me as banal and uninteresting. I mean, I like all those people and listen to them at home, but the song choices were so obvious and fundamental that when you gather them all together and play them in succession in a bar atmosphere it comes off sounding so generic it’s almost creepy—especially when the music itself is metallic and painful.
As I was distracted by this thought, Morgan was noticing something else. We no longer knew any of the regulars here, but it wasn’t hard to tell who the new regulars were. And at the far end of the bar, one of them was being berated by the bartender. She was keeping her voice down so from our end of the bar it came off as a pantomime, with violent but recognizable hand gestures. She’d had it just about up to here with him. At one point he left his stool and moved around behind the bar until she chased him out again. I was unaware of any of this until I heard his voice.
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—it won’t ever happen again, I promise.” He sounded plaintive and ashamed for whatever sins he’d been found guilty of.
As I finished my first beer, Morgan asked, “You feel like moving on? I know you hate moving around once you get a seat, but there’s something wrong with the vibe in here.”
She was right. There was a dank sourness about the place that had nothing to do with the bar itself. I generally feel safer when the bar itself is dank. But there was something wrong here. The bartender was angry, the regulars were near tears, the beer list had an attitude, and the music was canned. They could’ve played 101 Strings versions of all those same songs and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. When a commercial for Miracle-Gro came over the speakers during a break between songs, that was the last straw for me. It was like we were in a Disney-designed simulacrum of a dive bar that could, with the flick of a switch, become any kind of business you wanted it to be.
“Yeah, I hate moving, but let’s go. This place is giving me the creeps. Better get out of here while we still can.”
I was glad we were so close to the front doors. We were outside again before anyone could grab us, and ten minutes later we were at one of our regular home bars.
“Hey, what’s been going on?” the bartender asked as we took our seats at the bar. I knew that question would come, and neither of us cared much to answer it.
“Oh, everything’s fine, yes,” I said. That was that, and when a beer I liked appeared in front of me without my having to ask for it, I found I could relax again.
You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:
With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.