Everyone had a favorite bar growing up, a place you could go to anytime and you'd be sure some of your friends would be there (that does make us sound like alcoholics). For me, that place was Pete's Bar and Grill. Pete's wasn't just a hole-in-the-wall -- it was where the hole-in-the-wall went when it wanted to get drunk. In other words, it was the greatest bar in the world.
Pete's bar was always dark, forever encased in a light that was more dusk than dawn. It could only threaten to get darker. There was a piano in the far left corner of the bar with a three-colored spotlight above it that was never on. That didn't matter since no one ever actually played the piano. Except for around Christmas one year -- we walked in and some stranger was playing the piano, the halo of light around him changed from green to yellow to blue. In all the years that we had gone there, that was the only time the piano was played. It was a Christmas miracle.
There were two attributes that made Pete's famous. If you mentioned either of them to someone from the area their response would inevitably be, "Oh, you mean Pete's?"
The first thing that set Pete's apart from other bars was that the walls in one corner of the bar were covered with aluminum foil. To this day Pete's is the only bar, restaurant, kitchen, store, or home that I know of that has ever used aluminum foil as wallpaper. I assumed it was cheap and if it got damaged you could just run over to Foodtown and buy another roll. Resourceful, too, in case the kitchen ran out of aluminum foil they could just go out and peel enough off the wall to wrap up that take out order.
The second thing was a man named Blinky.
No one knew who Blinky actually was. Local legend had it that he was an old friend of the owner who had fallen on bad times. Pete let him drink there for free and provided a room for him to live at night. We never really found out the truth about him, but any night that we went to Pete's , Blinky was there. He sat at the end of the bar, yellow rain slicker and yellow hat. He blinked uncontrollably while he drank his shots and short beer and could be heard mumbling to himself alone at the end of the bar. He was friendly and we'd buy him drinks but he was an enigma to us, a riddle, whose eyes blinked in three-quarter time.
Blinky may have been the oldest person in the bar, but the pendulum swung far the other way. The drinking age when I was younger was 18. In Pete's, however, there was no drinking age. It was not uncommon to see kids wearing high school varsity jackets with their graduation year on the sleeve -- even if that year was in the future. It didn't matter -- if you had money, you could get a drink.
Pete's was far from being fancy. There were two beers on tap: Schaefer and Pabst Blue Ribbon (before it got high-browed and became PBR). It would not be uncommon when a beer was poured from the tap that a few black specs would be seen floating just below the surface. Clean taps were not a priority. That was the price you paid to drink at Pete's , but it was well worth it. Sixteen-ounce beers were 40 cents and shots were a dollar and change.
And Pete's had its own type of magic. My friend Woody once put $5 on the bar top to pay for his drinks, only to return from the bathroom to find $5.10.
The bartenders were all characters, but my favorite was a tall, lanky man named Robert John. I don't know if John was his middle or last name, we just called him Robert John. He was over six feet tall with crew-cut black hair and Coke-bottle-thick glasses that made his eyes appear surprised whenever he looked at you. One night as we ordered a round of shots we told Robert John to pour one for himself, on us.
"No thanks, guys, I'm working."
We insisted, but again he politely turned us down. Finally, from our persistence, he took down a 12-ounce water glass from the shelf, filled it to the top with Sambuca, and then drained it down his throat in one spectacular gulp.
"Thanks, guys," he said to us as we sat in stunned silence by this remarkable feat. He then just turned and went back to work.
Pete's was more of a weekend bar so during the week it was pretty empty, except for Wednesday night. That was a big night for Pete's . It was the night the Sunshine Biscuit factory over on Journee Mill Road paid their employees and they all went to Pete's to cash their checks. Pete would be there behind the bar with his cash box; he exchanged cash for paychecks knowing full well that he would reap the reward as they eagerly bought beers and shots to celebrate the night.
There was a very pretty woman from the Sunshine crew that always caught my eye. She was older than me, probably in her thirties (God, where is that time machine?). She stood out from the rest not just because she was beautiful, but because she had a beehive hairdo. This was the late 70s and even though I knew nothing of fashion, I knew this style went out in the 60s. I never spoke to her, but I can still picture her pretty face beneath that thumb-shaped tower perched precariously upon her head.
Maybe that was the charm and appeal of Pete's . Teenagers getting their first illicit thrill of underage drinking -- 20-something friends gathered to make plans for the long night ahead -- factory workers, like ghosts from the past,celebrate the spoils of a week well worked --an old friend that needed comfort and shelter at the end of a hard fought life. All these people could come together and enjoy a beer and good company, sheltered from the harsh, cruel world.
Or maybe it was just that the beer was cheap and we got free shots.