One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons–marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who use them, he has taken the wrong turning.
—C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity
I’ve written about it pretty freely, here and there. Spoken it when it happened. I like to hang out in bars, when the setting’s right. And by that I mean, I’ve never hung out in a bar like they did in “Cheers.” Not that way, not as a daily thing on the way home from work. But still. I’ve always been pretty comfortable there. Restless, but still more comfortable than the world I came from, back when I was running around. I don’t know what it is, the thread that keeps those tense and desperate days connected to these good ones in such a generally accepted “sinful” place. I think it’s because when you’re in a bar, everyone around you just accepts the fact that you are there.
I’m not talking about biker bars and such, because I’ve never been comfortable in those. Strictly personal preference, though. I got nothing against those who are. And I’m not talking about the fights and confrontations and such, the tales you hear now and then. I’ve never been around that kind of stuff, much. That’s just the human element, and it can come at you in any setting out there. But no one has ever questioned my presence in any bar. I’ve always been accepted just as I was. And you always want to go back to a welcoming place like that.
It’s one of the most judged words in the modern “Christian” world, ever, I think, at least in this country. An evil word. Bar. He hangs out at the bar. What more needs to be said? That alone justifies judgment and condemnation. Jesus would never hang out in such a place. And He’d sure never hang out with such sinful people. And it wearies me, such moralistic chatter, about as much as it wearies me to wonder if an Amish man will follow up on his threat and stop by at work and scold me about my book. I get so tired, hearing all that talk. And all that scolding.
And I got no problem with anyone abstaining from anything because of personal convictions, or for any other reason. I got a problem with the moralizers, the ones who loudly proclaim that the thing they choose to abstain from is in and of itself is a sinful thing. It’s just silliness, such incessant braying. I’ve heard it all my life. They read and recite rote words, people who speak that way. It’s not real talk. Not face to face. And you reach a point where you try to talk face to face, wherever you are. And that’s why I can tell you I enjoy sitting at a bar. I enjoy it a lot, now and then. Judge me all you want, but that’s just the way it is.
It’s been so sporadic, though, for me to even get to one. I do, when I travel. Just to talk to people and of course drink a little scotch. But I’ve never been a regular in any local bar. Well, except for those days back in Florida, way back. We did it then, every week. And knew we would again the next. But not since then have I been much of a regular anywhere, except for maybe back in my law school days. We hung out at Blondie’s pretty often. But other than those two aberrations, never. Not anywhere I’ve lived. And it never was any conscious thing at all. It’s just the way it all went when it came.
And a little side note, here. If you’ve read the profile on this blog all the way to the end, you’ll know that one of my little dreams is to tend bar some day. Not because I have to. But because I want to. I want to serve drinks to people who are sitting there, hanging out and getting comfortable in one of the most honest places they know. You bet I want to do that. And I think I would like it, and I think I would be good at it. I’ll never get that itch scratched, unless I step out there a bit and talk to people. And keep an eye out for a place where it all could work. If it never happens, I’m totally fine with that. If it does, that’ll be fine, too. It’s not that big a deal, one way or the other. OK, side note over.
And all that, to say this. I got a call one Sunday afternoon, way back last summer, July, I think it was. From a couple of friends from church. Hey, we’re going to watch Nascar at Vinola’s, just down the road from you. Come on over and hang out. And I didn’t really want to go. Sure, hanging out would be fun. But I wanted to watch a little football, and maybe take a nap. And I made some sort of excuse of some kind. Thanks, but it just won’t work out today.
And they waited a little while. Never mentioned nothing, for a month or two. And then again, the invitation came. And again, I wanted to go. But not enough to get there. And they didn’t mention it again. Not until I brought it up to them, oh, probably about a month ago or so. At church. I was going to the home of some real good friends for lunch. And I’d be up and around, anyway, a little later. And I asked them. Will you be there watching the race this afternoon? “Oh, yes,” they said. And they told me the time. I calculated it would all work out, that little loop. And I told them. All right, I’ll plan on stopping by to hang out.
And I looked forward to it, even though it meant that I’d have to step out of my hole a bit. It meant that I had to make an effort to go somewhere, meet people, and interact. Thing is, I’m pretty comfortable right here at home. Just putzing around, doing a little writing, watching a little football, checking Facebook now and then. That’s the way it’s been, ever since I started writing. You’re just comfortable at home. Not that I don’t like to get together with friends. But going to a bar to get that done just never seemed worth it, much.
And I drove over when it was time. Late afternoon. Just a couple of miles down Rt. 23. It’s a real nice place, Vinola’s. A new owner completely gutted and remodeled it a few years back. It’s a full service restaurant, with a nice pub room off to one side. I’ve heard all kinds of good things about it. Just never bothered to stop in and check it out for myself. And I walked in through the double swinging doors, and looked around, my eyes adjusting to the dim lighting. It all looked real cozy. And there they sat, my friends, off to one end. The race was roaring on the big flat screen TV up behind the bar. It was a long bar, with a couple more TVs spread along. Small crowds huddled, nursing their drinks, mostly watching football. And yelling or groaning, now and then, as a group.
My friends welcomed me, and I took a seat. A tall, real bar stool. The barmaid approached. These folks dragged me in here, I told her. So I’m hanging out for a bit. She smiled and welcomed me. She was the owner of the place, I found out later. Get me a scotch on the rocks with a little water. Glenlivet, if you got it. She had it, and she went and poured me a good stiff one. A glass of water, too, when you get a chance, I told her. I always try to drink a lot of water, when I’m in a place like that. Keeps your system cleaned out a little better, I’ve heard. She brought that to me, and I just settled in with my friends.
And I instantly felt a sense of connectedness such as I’ve not felt in a long time. Not in a place like that, not outside church. It just came at me, and I walked right into it. We chatted. Talked about the race, who was leading. Nascar is a good thing to watch, but I’d rather watch football. It made no difference what we were watching, one way or the other. We were together, hanging out at the bar. And just talking like good friends do.
And this will seem strange, if you haven’t been there. But it all just flowed out on its own. We talked about a lot of things, sitting there at the bar and drinking our drinks. And we talked about the sermon we heard in church that day, too. I probably brought it up. Because it just seemed like a natural thing to do in that setting.
I attend Chestnut Street Chapel in Gap. It’s a tiny church group, but the most comfortable one I’ve ever found. And there’s some real heavy stuff being taught in there by Pastor Mark Potter. He could go wherever he wanted to, and preach at a mega church. But he doesn’t. He stays right where he is, feet planted firmly on the ground. And he preaches some pretty wild stuff. Stuff that has taught me so much about what it is to walk with a free heart. He’s not right where I am with everything, especially my views of the state. But it doesn’t matter. No pastor ever will be, I don’t think. And he preaches freedom from his pulpit, freedom in whatever world you’re walking through. And he claims they’re all connected. You walk free through one, you walk free through them all. Or something like that. The church is a hospital, not a country club, he keeps insisting. And when you really grasp what that means, it changes how you see things. The man’s preaching has deeply affected how I think and how I view the world around me. And it has deeply affected the writing that comes out of me.
And that’s what we talked about a good bit, while watching the race at the bar that first afternoon. We watched what we came to see, but we talked about what was inside us, how things were in life, the things we’d seen getting to where we are. And it all was a good place, a place I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. There’s always honest talk at any bar, don’t get me wrong. But not about what you just heard in church that day. That’s what made this whole thing seem a little freaky in my mind.
But it was real, and I embraced it. All of it. The setting. My friends, who had persisted in dragging me out of my hole at home. Persisted in telling me. “Come and join us here at the bar. Come out from where you are, and just live this moment with us.” That’s a powerful and moving thing, to have friends like that. It really is.
And from that day, I was all into going to watch the race at Vinola’s with my friends. Not because I pay that much attention to Nascar, not when I can watch football instead. But I wanted to go watch the race with them, because I wanted to hang out with them. It’s a pretty simple formula, when you think about it. And this whole thing just came at me, and all of a sudden, I was a regular again at a bar. Sunday afternoons. Such a place I have never seen before. And it was like it was before, when such a scene came at me. Walk into it, because it’s coming at you. Not a whole lot of anything else going on. Just walk forward, and enjoy it as it comes. And I have, pretty much every Sunday afternoon since. Right up until the racing was over, all of a sudden. And now I’m trying to figure out another reason for us to gather and hang out there, now and then. Somehow, I think that’ll work itself out. And I’m looking forward to all of it.
I guess things come at you in bunches, because just a few weeks ago I had another good experience at another bar. Actually, I just thought it was hilarious. No big lessons on anything in this little tale at all. And it happened at a real nice local place right in the city of Lancaster, a place I usually stay far away from. I don’t like cities. They’re evil. But Janice planned this little event, and there was no way I didn’t want to be part of it. She and Wilm had made the plans last summer, when Janice was around for a day. She found the place online. The Cork Factory Hotel and the Cork and Cap Restaurant. It’s one of those big old vacant factories that was sitting around all gutted and doing nothing. Some enterprising group got together and made it nice again. And alive again. It’s a beautiful four-story hotel, with a restaurant and bar attached. And a spa and coffee shop, too. It’s a full service place. We met there for Sunday brunch, back last summer. And we were all really impressed. The food was outstanding, the help was totally professional, all of it was good.
And Janice got to musing. How would it work sometime this fall to just meet here on a weekend and get rooms and stay? Wilm and I agreed instantly. Yes. That would be fun. A lot of fun. So we decided to do it, sometime when it would work for Janice, when she was stationed in Philly or Baltimore. And a few weekends back, it came together.
Janice took care of all the details, booked my room. And they were doing the spa, too, and I would take some sort of treatment there, too, I was told. I will concede that I did actually allow those girls to drag me to a spa. And I will admit to getting some sort of treatment there. I will never concede exactly what that treatment was, because my man card would surely be revoked. And that’s about all I got to say about that, except it was a little more enjoyable than I ever figured it could be. Probably because I went with such good friends.
And yeah, yeah, I’m getting to the bar part. Gotta lead up to it first. We ate dinner at the Cork and Cap Friday evening, and everything was absolutely perfect. The food, the drink, the setting, the company. And soon after seven, Janice was fading. She’d had a hard week, been up since 3 AM that morning, so they went back to their room and she crashed. I just putzed around in my room, surfing the web and such. And so the first evening passed.
And Saturday rolled in, and you could feel it was going to be a good day. We ate a late breakfast at The Baker’s Table, a rather upscale little coffee shop. Not sure if they’ll make it, with those prices. But we weren’t complaining. Around midday, the girls went shopping, and I just drifted around the place and hung out in my room. And later that afternoon, Janice rode with me as I came home, did a few things, ran some errands. We stopped by to see my good friends, David and Esther. They were rushing around, getting ready for the youth singing the next evening. Esther and Janice hit it right off, just like I knew they would. On the way back to town, I stopped off to pick up some Superfood from my good friends, Elmer and Anna Beiler Lapp. Anna had just baked fresh pumpkin pie, and insisted on giving us a warm/hot slice on a paper plate to take with us. I told Janice as we headed back to the hotel. These people I took you to meet, they are the people, they are some of my friends who keep me half sane. They know me from way back, and they are the ones who make sure I stay right who I am.
The girls had made reservations at Checkers Bistro, and very nice little upscale restaurant downtown, over toward Franklin and Marshall College. And we just had the front desk call a cab for us. Not because we were figuring on getting all smashed or anything, but because you just can’t be too careful these days. Especially not in evil cities. They’ll nail you for DUI when your driving’s as straight as an arrow. Most DUI stops and convictions are just a money racket. It’s all a MADD power play that destroys countless lives and makes the insurance companies and the state a lot of money. I got no respect for any of it. Except I make darn sure I don’t drive buzzed.
We got dressed and went down to the lobby to wait. And I’d told Janice. I don’t know how fancy this place is we’re going to. I’m wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. That’s about the only status I’ve claimed as a writer. I’ll dress how I feel like, when I feel like it. If anyone has a problem with that, well, then that’ll just have to be how it is. Janice had no problem with it.
The cabbie was a good seven minutes late. Just as I was about to march in and tell the nice lady at the front desk to call again, he pulled up. He seemed a mite confused. Turned out this was his fourth day on the job. He got us there OK. I didn’t think his driving was all that bad. But the girls fussed a good bit. Still he got a nice little tip. I made sure of that. And we walked in. It was all it claimed to be, looked like. The place was packed out. Tables and tables of diners. And the maitre de led us straight to the best table in the house, right by the only window in the place. Somehow, good things were coming at us. And we settled in, ordered our drinks, and then our food. And of course our order got lost. About an hour later, I waved the waitress over. We’re having a real good time, the drinks are really good, and all that, I said. But some food would sure be nice. Two minutes later a kitchen helper rushed out and gave us free salads we hadn’t ordered. Just to get us to eating something. That, and lots of apologies. And a few minutes after that, here came the food. And it was all good. Beyond good.
We had the Checkers people call us a cab, then, and they fell over themselves to do it. And we tipped the waitress extra well. I know how that is, when an order gets lost in the kitchen. I’ve danced that little dance with customers many times, back in my college days. And we got back to the hotel around nine, probably. Walked up to our rooms and hung out there for a while. The girls figured they’d settle in for the night. And I told them. I think I’m going downstairs to check out the bar in this place. “We might come down later,” they said politely. I pretty much knew they wouldn’t. So I wandered down alone. It’s a beautiful setting, the barroom. Walls of old stone and brick, just as they were when the place was a factory. The bar is rectangular, a box, kind of. The bartender works out of the middle on three sides. I sidled up and took a seat beside a man and woman sitting there. The place has no TVs blaring anywhere. So people will talk to each other, I figured.
The bartender approached and greeted me. A young kid in his twenties, probably working his way through college. Seemed like that kind of guy, maybe. And I told him what I wanted. The Executive Manhattan. A martini. I’d had one with dinner the night before when we ate at the restaurant. And it was just right tasty. Yes, sir. He went to where the bottles sat, and poured this and that into a shaker with ice. Shook it all around a good bit. Then he sat a martini glass on the bar in front of me, and strained it out, keeping the ice back. And it filled, right to the brim. This guy was real good at what he did. I sipped my drink, and the woman sitting next to me couldn’t help staring. She smiled and we said hi. Then she turned to her husband.
“Would you look at that?” she asked. Clearly I was meant to hear. “This guy sits there in a red flannel shirt and jeans and drinks a martini. He must be pretty comfortable with himself.” I laughed. The husband peered over and smiled. “That’s a foo-foo glass,” he announced. I laughed again. And he smiled at me. Look, I said. I usually drink scotch from a manly glass. I don’t know a thing about martinis. But I had this drink last night with dinner. So I knew it was good. It doesn’t matter to me at all what glass it’s served in. I could do without this orange slice and the cherry at the bottom. But hey, that’s how they serve it. Doesn’t bother me at all. The woman kept exclaiming. “He’s in a flannel shirt and drinking a martini.” As if that were somehow odd.
The bar wasn’t real full right then, and the three of us sat there and talked. Spoke our names, although I don’t remember theirs. It was just a good, fun thing. They were locals, had stopped by to see some of their friends who were in a wedding party upstairs. The Cork and Cap does a LOT of weddings. They told me a bit about themselves. What he worked. They had four children. And I told them what I do. General Manager of a building supply business. The woman got a little persistent, though, as we visited.
And soon my glass was empty, and the bartender hovered. He’d heard what I had said about scotch. And he told me. “We can mix that same drink, except with scotch. It’s called a Rob Roy.” Do it, I told him. And then he asked me, and I saw it in his eyes, how he was testing me. About whether or not I knew anything about scotch. “What brand would you like?” He might have been expecting me to say Dewars or some other awful blend. But I told him. Nothing less than Glenlivet. He smiled. “We have some fifteen year Glenfiddich here (as opposed to the standard twelve year stuff). Will that work?” I beamed. That would be just beautiful, I said. And he went off to the side and started pouring and mixing and shaking.
And he stepped up a minute later with his shaker. Set a clean martini glass on the bar in front of me. And he poured it out. “I figured you wouldn’t want a cherry or any fruit in it,” he said. “So here it is, bare. What do you think?” he asked, watching me closely. You are the man, I told him. And I sipped at the drink he’d served me respectfully in a martini glass. A foo-foo glass. And it was better than the first one. Way better. The scotch did it. That, and no fruit. He must have overheard me talking about that. I gave him a big thumbs up. This is delicious, I said. This is real good. Thank you. You’ve outdone yourself. He smiled. No, beamed.
I chatted right along with my new friends. And like I said, the woman was persistent. And eventually she got to it, the question. “What’s your hobby?” And right there, she had me. What am I going to say now? And yeah, I had some whiskey in me right then. Maybe more than some. Because for the first time ever, I told the strangers sitting next to me at a bar. I’m a writer. That’s what I do, when I’m not working. The word “writer” has some kind of mythical ring to it, I think. It’s either boasting, or it’s real. And the woman’s face lit up. “A writer!” She exclaimed. “What do you write?”
And that right there is why I don’t like to tell strangers I wrote a book. Because it diverts the conversation from its natural flow, makes it go where it wouldn’t otherwise. (Not talking about a formal “book talk” here. I’m talking about sitting at a bar.) It gets all plastic and contrived, when it’s all about the book like that. But I’d come this far, and there was no shutting the barn door after the horse had already left. So I told her. I wrote a book. And I told her the title, and my name. And bragged a bit, about how far it’s gone, the book. All in humility, of course. She had to pry this far, so why not tell her? I never would have, if she hadn’t asked.
And they both made the proper astounded noises. She asked again, so I repeated it. My name, and the title of my book. And yeah, I had to brag a bit that it was a NY Times bestseller. I’m not sure if they believed me, but they claimed to. And thankfully, right that instant, a swarm of people suddenly swept into the room and surrounded us. Their wedding friends from upstairs. Thank goodness, I thought. I have been saved from having to talk about how I’m a writer.
And I just sat there on that barstool and drank my drink and talked to the husband sideways down the bar behind his wife’s back. She had turned away and was way busy talking to her friends. And the husband and me talked. About life, about things. He was a rum man, he told me. The Captain. That’s the only thing he liked. I can respect that, I told him. Our tastes are our own. Don’t care much for rum, myself. I like scotch. And he agreed. To each his own. And we just talked on about whatever you talk about at a bar. Just life, I guess.
There were lulls, though, in our conversation. He turned now and then to chat with the people in the wedding group. And suddenly, through all that noise, in a little pause, I heard him speak. Or start to speak. Fortunately, no one was listening to him. So no one heard him when he said, “This is our friend, Ira.” I heard it, though. And I leaned into the bar and looked over. Hollered. No. He heard me. I made a slicing motion across my throat. No. No. Let them talk. Just leave me out of it. He grinned a huge grin. “I only know two people in that whole crowd, anyway,” he admitted. I laughed hard. Just keep me out of it all, I said. And he laughed, too.
And it was time to get out of there, then. Head on up to my room. I waved for my check, and the bartender brought it over. It seemed real low, but I paid it. Tipped about double the amount on the bill. Not sure what’s going on here, I thought. But something ain’t quite right. And after the man took my money, the husband leaned in and looked over. Beamed. “I took care of one of those for you,” he said. Ah, you didn’t have to do that, I said. But thanks a lot. It was real fun, to hang out. I paid the guy what I would have paid him anyway. “And I’ll do the same thing, when I pay up,” he said. Maybe we shook hands sideways along the bar behind his wife’s back as she was talking to her friends. Maybe we didn’t. I don’t remember. But, either way, we understood each other. We’d probably never see each other again. But tonight, we had hung out in a real way.
I got up, waded my way through the swarming wedding crowd, and walked back to my room. And no, I wasn’t staggering or anything like that. I was just feeling good.
Take such a scene or leave it. Whatever works for you, or doesn’t. If you’re honest with yourself, there is no wrong choice, as far as I’m concerned. The way I see it, you’ll never walk into an experience like that unless you hang out at a bar. You can judge that any way you want, from where you are. From where I am, I figure it’s a good thing.
And the season rolled right on in again. Thanksgiving. It was a good day. I could go off, listing all those blessings I saw and felt this year. But I won’t. I pretty much wrote those out as they came at me right here on this blog. No sense in repeating all that. It was a good day, yesterday. I hung out and feasted with my brother Stephen and his extended family. They invited me, and it was a great time. Good food. Family. I generally stand off to the side a bit, try not to intrude too much. But they include me. And for that, I am grateful. It would be harder to celebrate such a day if they weren’t around. But they are. I’m grasping it more these days in my heart, I think, that all of life is a gift. I am thankful for all my blessings, and so grateful to be right where I am.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers.Share