By Tom Nugent (The Baltimore Sun, 3/10/1978)
Friday night, Marie’s Tavern, and Shotgun Hank is getting into the Pabst.
“Listen here,” says Shotgun, swiveling around on his bar stool, grinning wide as an Oklahoma freeway beneath his blue, Peterbilt trucker’s cap, “I got me a wife in every state I got women up and down the Eastern Seaboard. These broads call me up on that CB-19, say, ‘Let’s go get us a coffee.’ Well, they don’t want no coffee, you can bet on that….”
Marie’s Tavern, Friday night. Long, narrow bar with a dozen swivel stools before it; the bowling league score sheets taped to the wall; the velvet painting which shows some dogs playing poker, the jukebox crooning “You Are My Special Angel,” and the big, hand-painted sign above the bar:
CREDIT MAKES ENEMIES
LET’S BE FRIENDS
And Shotgun Hank. “Trucking,” he sighs, this red-bearded, broad-shouldered man with 22 years and two million miles of the long haul behind him, “It’s bacon and eggs, man, it’s nothing but bacon and eggs… You hate it when you got it… but when you ain’t got it, you hate it more.”
And then he spins on the stool: “Hey, baby,” to the barmaid, “when you get out of jail?” And she’s popping another top, PFFAFFF, and Shotgun’s talking about the trucker who left his rig on the railroad tracks, and he’s talking about how Baltimore’s Boston Street is the biggest killer of truck drivers on the Eastern Seaboard, a real kidney-slammer, and he’s telling about how they used to pay him $200 a shot to run suitcases full of uppers into New York.
Marie’s Tavern. There are a thousand places like it in Baltimore, and there are a thousand guys like Hank. They are the regulars, the steady customers, the ones who keep the small, neighborhood bars in operation, the ones who spend two or three nights a week guzzling the cold brew, complaining about work, making jokes at the barmaids, and playing pool, throwing darts, dancing, dreaming, fighting, crying, bellowing two-fisted, gone weepy-eyed as the long night drifts and Dolly Parton sings, endlessly sings, on a thousand jukeboxes: Here you come again…
And when it comes to neighborhood bars, the big action is on Eastern avenue.
Take a look at the map. Take a look at the 2.7. mile stretch of Eastern which runs between Broadway, in Fells Point, and Dundalk Avenue, out near the city limit. Patterson Park, Highlandtown, Greektown — these are ethnic neighborhoods, mainly Greeks, Poles, Bohemians, Italians, Germans. Here it’s block after block of polished brick and gray formstone rowhouses and lots of corner grocery stores and ethnic restaurants and chopped-down Chevys and windows with painted screens on them.
And bars. The map won’t tell you this but there are 23 of them — small, dark, crowded, smoke-filled — on that 2.7 mile stretch of Eastern.
That’s a lot of bars. So many, in fact, that it took two nights, one afternoon and a cast-iron stomach to visit each one of them.
Chaos. They’re all crazy: the noise, the smoke, the nonstop, 95-mile-an-hour yammering, and the shouts, grunts, belches, the back-slaps, the beer sloshing on shoes, the hammer of the jukebox and clack-clack at the pool table.
HEY, HEY, BABY DOLL,
WHAT YOU DOIN’?
GETTIN’ LOADED, MAN,
WHAT YOU THINK?
And the dumb jokes: the Polish pencil (erasers at both ends) above the bar, and the night the two gays waltzed into the Hilander, both of them going to the ladies’ room, and the crazy stories nobody believes anyway.
Larry McAdams, for example, at Ducky’s Tavern, way out on the Avenue, telling about the time he ate 17 pounds of french fries—and still lost his bet because he couldn’t eat 25. And a man named Bill, at the 2 Friends in Greektown, explaining how he fell through his own kitchen window awhile back (he was hurrying home to the 10 women he claims to sleep with), and he nearly bled to death, except he was too drunk to notice.
And the Wild Ones who haunt the Hilander Lounge: Donald Quack-Quack, and Moonlight, and Ruthee-Baby, and Hoghead, and the Mole, and Tony Wop. “We got the biggest indoor zoo in Highlandtown,” says the owner, Melio Rosadi, and he’s only got one customer with any class, the one they call Sharkey, the “contemplative thinker” who sits all night gazing at his shoelaces, dreaming.
Stories. Goldie Glavas, at the Glavas Bar in Highlandtown—she’s been running this place since 1960 (before that she ran a construction crane). She remembers the night a customer stood up, pulled out his handkerchief, walked down the bar, and started cleaning another customer’s ears. “They were complete strangers,” says Glavas, “I didn’t know what to think.”
Stories. Mike Winchester, who runs the Silver Dollar Go-Go Club, remembers how one of his customers jumped onstage awhile ago, cut loose with a high-speed Funky Chicken, flew right through the plate-glass window and out on the street.
And Don the Slobberer, who’s driving them crazy at Smitty’s Place, with his cheap women. “He keeps bringing these trashy women in,” the barmaid bitterly complains, “hanging all over them. slobbering on them… You hear about last night’s beauty? She went in the men’s room five times….”
“Yeah,” agrees a patron who’s seen this from Don many times before, “You know what his trouble is, man? He gets one of these [a can of Pabst] in him, and right away he wants two. He gets two in him, and he wants three. Then he wants eight! And then he gets after the women—it makes me sick—he’s all over them, like an octopus.”
But it’s all in fun. It’s a nice neighborhood—that’s what they tell you, in bar after bar. “Listen,” says Cal Puppe, retired from Baltimore Gas & Electric, as he guzzles a draft at Regan’s Tavern, “these bars along here, they’re okay, you know? No violence, no fights. Hell, I could take you places so bad, so tough when 9 o’clock comes, they take out all the glass, it’s paper cups from then on. But this Highlandtown—good people around here.”
All In fun. But there’s a darker side to the Eastern avenue bars. And its name is not violence. It’s loneliness.
Jack says he’s not going to let it kill him.
He’s sitting In the 2 Friends Bar, 14 minutes past noon, Saturday. He’s drinking Pabst. His problem: He and Penny split up three days ago. Jack’s hurting. He knows he’s hurting, and he’s worried. The last time this happened (he lived with a woman five years, then one day she took off with no explanation), Jack nearly went under.
“I lost 70 pounds in six weeks,” he remembers, “I couldn’t eat a thing. The doctor looked at me, he said, ‘Forget her or die!’ Well, it’s not going to happen again… it’s all in the mind… I’m gonna whip it, don’t worry about me!”
But it’s on his mind. He can’t shake it; he can’t forget the other night, at another bar: “Guy in there, he told me his wife had just left him. Said he was going to blow her away with a shotgun. I said, ‘Hey, man, don’t be crazy. That’s crazy talk!’ Stuff like that—shooting people, like that —what good does it do?”
Jack’s hurting. And so is the old woman at Pogo’s, back down in Highlandtown, as she sings along with the jukebox—a high-pitched shriek, a desperate sound: “Bobby Darin was the greatest, honey. The greatest. It was bad the way he went. Bad heart. He had a bad heart. But listen, I’m gonna make it—I think.”
And a moment later, turning to a younger woman beside her, who’s wearing a formal evening gown “You should cover your shoulders, honey— it’s no laughing matter!”
And a solitary drinker at the Friendly Tavern lays it right on the line. “Loneliness. That’s the toughest one of all. That’s the one nobody can handle.
Finally, of course, they all begin to run together: Tom’s Bar, with the pro wrestling blaring on the tube; the Mertz Bar, where they’re throwing darts and screaming at each other; the Mustang Inn, where the five Franks who come in regularly have different nicknames (Frank the Hat, Frank the Cook, Shopping Bag Frank, Polack Frank and Frankie-Baby), so the bartenders can tell them apart; the Silver Dollar, where a crazed customer recently grabbed a go-go dancer’s bikini top and ran out the door with it; Connolloy’s, the place for sports nuts, and Mike’s Tavern, where the first $10,000 “instant rub-off” lottery ticket in the history of Maryland was sold, and the Kitty Haven and Jan’s Place and Joe’s and the Red Room (a go-go place for the kids, where the only black person to be found on the entire trip made his appearance), and the Club Stabile’s, featuring Dave Nicely and the 301 Country, who whang out the country and western to big, enthusiastic crowds.
The neighborhood bars. If Eastern avenue is any indication, they’re noisy, smoky, funny at times, lonely at times, boring at times, full of friendly people unwinding after work, full of lonely people dreaming off into space over a 45-cent draft of Schlitz.
But I don’t want to see anymore of them for awhile.