The sign above the Gopher Bar in Lowertown St. Paul boasts “the best Coney Island’s (sic)” in the world. It’s a classic dive bar, blue collar by stereotypical design, so I suppose you shouldn’t be surprised when you belly up to the bar and are greeted by signs that say “F— You” in a variety of ways, and portraits of the president of the United States in whiteface with the words “traitor” and “socialist” and other Tea Party-cum-Klan verse, and, hanging on the wall over in the corner, the Confederate flag.
Nor should you be surprised that, upon deciding to not give the business your hard-earned money and turning on your heels to leave the joint without a trace, the proprietor yells, “F— you” to your back as you hit the door.
But you are. You are surprised, not offended, because in your experience bars are not like churches or rally tents, where you’re told what to believe and think. Bars are places to get away from the noise of all that; the predetermined, the predictable. Bars are places where people feel safe to talk about life, loneliness, sex, dreams, desires and spirituality. Sometimes they talk about politics or the news of the day or the weather, but only as a last resort.
Bars are places where stories fly so fast out of peoples mouths, before anyone can say “why haven’t I read about this in the newspaper?,” you’re on to the next one, and the next and the next, and then it’s lights out and you get up and do it all over again. Bars are places where people call you on your B.S. and vice versa; places where you can meet a stranger, flirt, argue and have the most mind-bending, despairing, life-changing conversation, and never see ‘em again.
If you open your heart and head to it upon entering, and if you realize that the customers have as much to do with the romance of any given night as the staff, a bar can be a found family, a refuge, an igloo, a hothouse, a book club, a dating club, a slow death, a rebirth; a place to cry in your beer, clear your head, get your bearings and gather steam to get up and fight another day. Bars are places where you get bad jokes, bad advice, great wisdom, solid insight, false information and rays of light.
Bars are people zoos where you can kick back alone and watch the easy glide of human interaction for hours. Places, where, if you’re alone and listening to the music coming out of the overhead speakers, a song can become yours and yours alone. Bars are places where you can chill out, tune in, and gaze at the colored bottles behind the bar until they become stained glass or votive candles or the Milky Way, and everyone and everything melds on a regular basis and creates low-grade black magic that has nothing to do with what’s going on outside its doors.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read excerpts from the new Mark Twain autobiography, written at a time when people at bars had more to say than “F— you” to each other, and knew how to pluralize.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.