From The Archive: Boozing In Boston, A Brief Memoir

(This was written in 1995 in order to capture the world of Boston-area bars that seemed likely to disappear at some point. So for posterity, I did my best. I hoped to sell it to the Boston Phoenix, but apparently there was some issue about advertisers, as in they were worried some of these places either were currently that or at least potentials, and they didn’t want to offend them. So it sat on my computer all these years, a testimony from a world long since gone, waiting to be be rediscovered. As near as I can tell after recent visits to Boston, many of these places no longer exist, other than in the minds of other people who drank around the area in the ’80s and ‘90s.)

Every city has a beat to its nightlife, and part of living in that city is learning to move your feet accordingly, but with some individuality. In New York City, the beat directs you to wander around until all hours of the morning, making the rounds with your entourage, never staying anywhere long enough to have your outfit criticized. If your evening goes properly, members of your entourage move along, while others take their place, two for every one, a hydra of drunken revelry. Eventually, you end up on the subway, headed for Brooklyn or Hoboken, listening to a man rant about the people who follow him.

The nightlife beat of Boston has always seemed the exact opposite of the NYC scenario, one comfortable, uncluttered thump which echoes STAY PUT!!!! One look at a map and it’s so obvious you feel stupid for thinking otherwise. The entire city is sectioned off in parts, this square and that square, and to get from one square to another you need to take a rainbow of transit systems. Once you get to “that” square, there’s often no place to hop to, and, just as well, since the transit will be inoperable by 1 A.M., whereas most people in other cities on the east coast are just getting started. Best to just find one place, one good, special, regular joint, where you can function, you can speak and be heard, and, most importantly, hear back. A home away from home, what Beantown is renowned for from one corner of this earth to the other! Every Bostonians dream, CHEERS, only without Shelly Long.

The one major stumbling block to this common dream is a monster we have all encountered, the monster my wife and I first met head on a few months after moving to Boston, in 1988. Being unskilled workers, often in-between jobs, we hadn’t had much of an opportunity to carouse and really begin to understand Boston nightlife. When two visiting friends from Germany showed up, we thought it would be nice to find a little watering hole in which to do our quiet catching up. Very naively, we walked down the block to — I am so embarrassed to even admit this — Crossroads, on Beacon Street. Inside, it was a demented Disneyland for frat boys — the smell of Busch beer, vomit, and studly sweat, wound its way through a dark and overcrowded graffiti-covered room, where the piss swilling Greek system jocks fondled the dizzy college girls they had pegged for the upcoming night of debauchery.

Our German friends were mystified by the place. “Why would farmers come to the city to drink?” they wanted to know. They were very confused by the raised-in-a-barn hick-in-the-big-city atmosphere created by our intoxicated boys in flannel. It never occurred to our young European students that they were face-to-face with their American counterparts. My wife and I, in turn, did not know it then, but we had just encountered something that would define our nightlife struggle for the next seven years. Ours was a search for a student-less bar that is also an acceptable place to spend a few hours AND not cost a week’s salary. Like finding a helpful New Yorker, yes?

The Crossroads certainly was not the only bad decision we were destined to make. There was the Back Bay Pub, formerly one of the fine Father’s establishments, either four or five. Regardless, at one time, you could get a classy Piels beer for a buck. The clientele was far too busy grooving to the funk genius of Prince, though, so it lacked the whimsy which would allow one to play Ray Stevens, a CD available for anyone to play, it was right there on the jukebox. Poor Ray forced the bartender to hit his little “skip” button. No “Bridget The Midget” allowed here. Sorry, we didn’t see the sign. Also, there was Maxwell Jumps, across from Northeastern University. Yeah, free tacos and cheese spread, and a gaggle of students who appeared to be using this place as an alternate dorm. Still, it bothered us far less than many college joints, the drinks weren’t half bad, but we really couldn’t accept the writing on the wall, which proclaimed very proudly “We are young and we rock to Billy Joel!” Nearing our late twenties, we attempted to inject some hard rockin’ danger into the situation by playing, oh, say the Pixies on the jukebox, but the kids will have their say: “Billy Joel is the king of all rockin’ badcats!” Really, how could you expect us to stay?

But if we could learn to drink to Billy Joel, at least for a fleeting moment, then we could certainly learn to drink at Peking Tom’s, across from the Prudential Center, — a good bar with a bad jukebox. Peking Tom’s made the two of us so illusory that we thought we might have found our Holy Cheers Grail. Not only was it almost completely abandoned (except for the regular after work drunks — ALL FIVE OF THEM!), not only did they make the best Manhattans and Cape Codders in town (all varying in price according to who made them), and not only were the owners so friendly that they would step from behind the bar to bask in this wonderful world which they had created (the only purpose for the bar seemed to be so they could hang out with their friends) but ALSO it was located right next door to The Pour House, which gave the Peking Tom’s regular the divine right to gloat and sneer at the pathetic college students lining up down the block and waiting for an hour to get into, what, A TOTALLY UNINTERESTING HUMONGOUS BAR! Meanwhile, you could strut into Peking Tom’s like Capone into a speakeasy.

All good things must come to an end, and we will grudgingly give in to the fact that the owners probably did want to expand their clientele, perhaps make a buck. Weekends began to get crowded, with industrial music types hanging out before they went off to Man Ray. It became the place where the piercing and hairdo set could unabashedly listen to Michael Penn on the jukebox. Like a flesh eating virus, they moved quickly and had crept into weeknights. As we were being edged out of our own establishment, we retreated into other establishments to recoup our losses. We gravitated to the types of places a college student wouldn’t be caught dead in (i.e. no Jell-O shots, no Miller Lite promotional babe visits).

Our first action was to attempt a rather feeble Peking Tom’s replacement. Sun Tueys (or is it the Shangri-La?), near Beacon Hill, seemed suitable, if out-of-the-way, but one shouldn’t stereotype Chinese lounges like that. No students were in Sun Tueys, slurping their scorpion bowls. Students love those things. They’re very boozy and couples think they’re cuuute. Also, guys love two girls sharing a scorpion bowl. One thing was for sure, they put enough rum in their Pina Coladas, which, you may or may not know, is an important and unusual characteristic for a Chinese lounge. The regulars, however, were unavoidable in the worst way. One old woman in curlers kept wondering where Cher was. A businessman kept sending a black gentleman out to buy scratch tickets. At some point, the businessman felt he was being ripped off, and started to make a very big deal about it. Scratch the Pacific Ocean themes, and move a little closer to home, the Atlantic Ocean. It was time to embark on a tour through local Old Drunk Rest Homes, phase one, First stop, Jack Lynch’s, a piano bar with no piano, an establishment shaped like a train car. They made their Whiskey Sours with lemonade and scowled at us. Next stop, The Tam, downtown, near that gay porno theater. A gentleman standing out front informed us that this was the kind of place where old men lined up at 7 A.M. to get in at opening time, 8 A.M. He suggested Guadalaharry’s. He was wrong about Guadalaharry’s, but dead on about The Tam. The old men inside drunkenly gazed up at the movies MIDWAY showing on the barroom television. “It’s like you’re really there” one muttered. It all seemed fruitless, and appeared that God himself agreed. With swift hand, he shifted us to that dread ghetto for creative types, Somerville, and the whole thing was about to begin again. We had bled Boston dry.

If Somerville/Cambridge was our New World, then Harvard Square was our port of entry and, as gateways to the world go, this one must send the immigrants away in droves. We ended up going through the usual maze, the maze everyone must go through before you eventually get lost, become dizzy, and grudgingly plant yourself in whatever dark corner you find yourself in. And, by that point, you don’t even have the energy to even CARE if you get out.. We avoided Whitney’s and the Sports Bar , because they were what they seemed to be. Grendels is like a Harvard student roach motel, as well as an oversized love seat for first date types. We couldn’t look at one more couple threatening to make Grendels “their place”. That was making us more ill than the Rolling Rock. Charlie’s was depressing, filled with old men who played along with Wheel Of Fortune. Besides, you left smelling of beef. The Wursthaus appeared acceptable, they could mix a fine Old Fashioned, which is like the Rubics Cube of bartending. Unfortunately, really geeky college types would find their way in, and the joint was finally doomed when we lifted one of their attractive glass mugs. When we used it at home we found that it only held half of a bottle of beer. For three bucks? Casablanca was a nice place, but for unskilled workers, it was largely a treat place, by no means anywhere we could afford to hang out on any given night. Besides, we were destined to later raise such a ruckus there and break so many things that we were forced into a self-imposed exile from the place. The Hong Kong provided us with the Billy Joel music which we had been lacking since our days in Maxwell Jumps. Also, we had plenty of invitations to the dance club on the third floor by a Chinese woman who urged us “You dance! You dance!” The Black Rose was fine, for awhile, but succumbed to that Boston disease which causes small places with bad acoustics to hire loud garage bands to begin performing by 9 P.M. Once the Black Rose made the absolutely inexplicable crossover from Irish to Mexican, we had long since moved on. Nothing in the Square seemed to be working for us.

So our little dark corner became the Bow and Arrow. We had thrown up our arms, collapsed on the floor, and woken up to find ourselves there. The place is much like a sardine’s singles club, you’re rubbing torsos with eligible boys and girls, while 4 Non Blondes serves as the jukebox house band. But they had dollar beers! The Bow and Arrow was the kind of establishment where girls too young to even step inside seemed to know all the bartenders by name. We spent some long lost weekend there, and I hold it personally responsible for the downward spiral we were about to go on, the amazing fall from grace which sent us to the Land of the Lost that is old men’s bars, our last refuge from the conquering hordes of college students. They had dispensed with the dollar beers. Nothing could force us to stay there any longer.

We embarked on the Old Drunk Rest Home Tour, phase two. The Windsor Tap, near Kendall Square, made Jack Lynch’s seem like Romper Room. First words heard upon entrance: “Heh, heh, ain’t gonna’ be no rape tonight, hon!” It looked like Kentucky Fried Chicken inside, well-lit with fast food tables. It was filled with grandparents not acting like you hope your grandparents act. One old lady kept insisting I stick that popular Whitney Houston tune on the jukebox, the one about Muhammed Ali, so she could slow dance with many old men during the course of the evening. Later, one old gent touched his finger to his nose and pranced around screaming “OOOF!” to any person he came into contact with. Soon enough, the whole bar was ooofing, while I had to wonder what I imagined I was doing with my life.

We refused to pull up a regular stool there, and eventually found our way to the Abbey Lounge, which was in our neighborhood, near Inman Square. It was a quiet hole-in-the-wall (literally) with decorative table clothes corresponding with the closest holiday, which must have been the owner’s wife’s doing. It was never hostile, but on some occasions was way too friendly, as in the case of Phil. Phil, an elderly native of Somerville, cornered us one evening to tell us about his army days and buy us beers we no longer wanted but could not say “no” to (I mean, free beer, you know?). He explained his philosophy of life to us, which included the facts that my wife was special because she was a woman and women could give birth, and that my friend was a drug dealer because he had long hair. Phil also remembered when there was an Army recruiting station right in Harvard Square. One evening, we took my mother-in-law and a few friends there for a beer. Someone asked us if we were “from the theatre”. A stocky young guy rushed in, looking for “Eddie No Balls”. He seemed to want to start a fight with some guy (whether it was Eddie No Balls, we’re unsure) but passed out before he could swing. One of our friends went to the bathroom and found himself next to Phil. “Those are some fine, fine people you’re drinking with,” Phil told him. We felt we really didn’t need to get to know the folks in our neighborhood anymore. We headed to Central Square.

Central Square was home to the Bradford Cafe, now deceased. We had seen it from the #1 bus and, one evening, while trying to avoid the Bow and Arrow, decided we had enough courage and curiosity to take the plunge. We discovered that an evening at the Bradford usually included some sort of fight, often incited by the bartender. At the very least, someone threatened to kill you because you wouldn’t give them a quarter for the jukebox (the best one in the area, by the way). One evening, an irate fat woman decided that the bar was far too bright and the bartender told her to shut up, so her solution was to climb up all the tables, rip the light bulbs from the fixtures, and toss them down on the floor. The bartender began to incite her further, but the very old waitress felt she could solve everyone’s problem. She held a beer bottle up to the woman. “Hon,” she said, matter-of-factly, “just have a Rolling Rock.” All to the tune of Latin polka music pouring out of the jukebox. Hipper students did, in fact, wander into the Bradford, no doubt attracted by the lovely Brady Bunchesque beads which hung inside, but they were usually too much in awe to be irritating, and often brought their own six-packs. Eventually, though, we had to stop going there, as we felt the inherent urge to remain alive.

That inherent urge didn’t stop us from sinking to further depths. The levels of Drinker’s Inferno go far lower than the Bradford, and certainly one of the awful bottom levels is Hank’s, downtown Boston, in an alley, up a staircase. A friend suggested we go. He had, one Saturday afternoon, and found it to be a jolly singing and dancing establishment, where everyone joined in for a chorus of “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose”. It just sounded so happy! What better enticement to return to Boston bar culture! In reality, Hank’s was a dark and cramped pit where drunken, sweaty, and dangerous Celtics fans, well near their tenth hour of swilling Busch beer, attempted to sway to the lilting strains of Led Zeppelin. We hid at a table, far away from the bar where the smelly guys lined up. Each time a woman stepped into the ladies room (there were only about two women other than my wife, and one of those was iffy) a Celtics fan would go into the mens room. My wife described the lovely unicorn tapestry inside the ladies room and seemed fairly convinced there was peephole. When the woman left the ladies room (my wife included) one happy guy attempted to make her dance with him to a snappy Aerosmith tune. He was often incapable of dancing in rhythm, the woman was often unwilling. My friend, always the diplomat, played “Sweet Gypsy Rose” on the jukebox, causing one Celtics fan to bellow “Who the hell put on this crap?” Another pointed in our direction. They were hungry and when they looked in our direction, they saw fried dough and Cheezits. My friend informed us that his next song of choice was “I Wish I Was 18 Again” by George Burns. We began plotting our escape, which included jumping over and down a rather large staircase.

None of this is meant to imply we NEVER found any comfortable bars in our drunken odyssey. Hotel bars could always fit the bill, but were pricey since they charged per booze, thus making a Manhattan sometimes out of the question. Under the Tapas restaurant in Porter Square was a rather nice place called Woodly’s, which featured nice sofas despite the awful jukebox. Students might’ve wandered in there, but they were very discreet about it. Unfortunately, my wife and I equate the place with an unsavory regular there, a lazy, drunken jerk we just couldn’t tolerate. Once, we visited the Cantab Lounge, which we were told was a posing place for retro hipsters. We thought this might mean “lunchbox girls” or, worse, Combustible Edison fans. But we went on Open Mike Bluegrass Night. We’re not really into live music, but let it be known that Open Mike Bluegrass Night is a universal antidote to college students.

The best, most comfortable, nicest bar we ever settled into was called Don’s Place, near the Park Plaza, next door to Partners, a bar where you can sing -along to Billy Joel. Don’s Place was unpretentious and friendly, populated by a nice group of inner-city working stiffs, and accentuated by a well-stocked jukebox and pitchers of beer. Sometimes, they’d show videotapes of Sammy Davis Jr or Bob Hope specials. One nice memory features the entire bar on New Years Eve, singing “These Boots Are Made For Walking” while bringing in 1994. Don’s Place had huge storefront windows that you could sit in, a foot from ground level, and watch the hookers in the hotel district do their job. Sometimes they’d wink at you. It was a bit out of the way from Somerville, but we made our best effort to get there as often as possible. But then it closed down, and our dream of a regular watering hole were dashed. Forever. We understand it has been reopened under a new name, with a “driving motif”, and it blasts alternative rock from its interior. But the past is the past.

Once Don’s Place shut down, and the Bradford followed, we made some half-hearted attempts to find a new place. We went to The Field in Central Square — you could sit in the cold room or stand in the warm room. We don’t stand and drink, that’s the first indication you’re attending a frat party. The Druid in Inman Square was handsome, but humorless. It was dark, everyone was stern, and they had one of those pre-fab Irish combos that play very serious music. Like a real life Irish pub, just without the joie de vive, or however you say it in Irish. We just ended up around the corner at the Abbey Lounge, the first time since Eddie No Balls. The tableclothes were Christmas-oriented, since that was the closest holiday (about two weeks before). As the old men watched reruns of CHEERS, we knew that we nearing the end of our journey.

And we were. A short time after that, my wife realized that she was pregnant. Before that discovery, we had mad a pit stop at Peking Tom’s one evening, during one of our increasingly rare appearances in Boston. It wasn’t too crowded, a little more like the olden days. But as we left, scads of debs in velvet dresses ambled in, bustiers and whatnot, and we knew we had hit the end of the line.

That was all right, we reasoned, since the baby wouldn’t allow us to carouse like we once did. Inside, it ate away at us, because we knew that we had not succeeded at our mission. I don’t think we would ever say it out loud, but after a 7 year odyssey, it seemed wrong that we should have to quit without even a clue as to the answer. But, then, the truth came as a revelation in the form of my wife’s grandparents home bar. She inherited this, and suddenly, the answer there for us! We had finally found the beat of Boston! We controlled the music! We controlled the clientele! We could go as late as we wanted and the public transit system couldn’t stop us! Suddenly, it seemed there was a light at the end of the birth tunnel for us, and we would stake our claim to our right as Bostonians to have a regular and friendly watering hole, a place where everyone knew our name! I mean, it was only our living room, but you should try and understand the sense of accomplishment we were feeling, okay?

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