I am lucky to have a husband with the imagination to invent romantic, quirky new dates after more than six years of marriage. Last Friday, after an exceptionally long week, we went to Mancini's for a drink.
The full name of the place is Mancini's Char House and you can find it from anywhere in St. Paul, Minnesota by following, like the North Star, the enormous neon sign that looms over the front door. Go through that door and it's like traveling back in time -- in about a dozen different ways.
Mancini's opened for business in 1948 but it's more like the mid-70′s inside. Very Love Boat. The chairs are deep, curved naugahyde affairs and there are lights flickering from the mirrored walls. A band made up of sixtysomething musicians in satin shirts plays enthusiastic, off-key renditions of "Rock Around The Clock" and "September," by Earth Wind & Fire, while people pack the tiny dance floor.
I'd never been to Mancini's before last night, but I knew enough to dress the part. I wore a leopard-skin blouse and tight jeans and I looked like a cougar, plain and simple. In any other bar in town I'd have had the appearance of a sad, predatory middle-aged woman screaming for attention from young men. But at Mancini's I was a baby, more likely to be the drunkard's prey, easily the youngest person in the crowd by 15 years.
We ordered Scotch -- which came in lowball glasses, filled to the brim and cost just $6 -- and settled in. My drink tasted strange and familiar, very Blue Horse circa 1984, when I was a 16-year-old runaway sitting in a bar much like this pretending to be tough. Back then I drank Cutty Sark with a twist because Scotch was an old man's order and I knew no one would card me. Now, 30 years later, I never drink hard liquor. The first couple sips were fine but after that I started to feel sick, so I put the drink aside for John to finish and switched to ice water. This, I recalled faintly, might be familiar, too.
There were two-tops along the faux-brass railings and above them, up a few red-carpeted steps, booths lining the back walls. At each table sat a grizzled man, slowly nursing a drink. The women clustered in pairs or threes, with their short, silver hair and sparkling jet jewelry and smart pantsuits from Chico's. "It's a pick-up bar for older people!" John said, loudly whispering over the blaring saxophone. "Look, that guy is buying a round for the women in the corner." And he pointed discreetly to a portly, bald man in a sportshirt and sweater vest, then to a booth with two prim librarian-looking ladies with cherries in their mostly-full drinks.
I ached for the man who looked so foppish and alone at his tiny table. I could picture him in a walk-up apartment with a tiny old-fashioned icebox and seven sweater vests, one for every day of the week. No way he had a chance with the ice queens upstairs.
The music changed. The band tried playing a Dire Straits song, which was a horrible, nearly unforgivable mistake. A tiny ancient couple got up to dance, the woman so unsteady on her feet that her husband had to walk with both arms around her just to help her to the polished wood floor. Once there, he held on to her as if he were keeping her from drowning. She swayed in her white, orthopedic sneakers while he kissed the top of her head. They'd been coming to Mancini's for decades, I decided. They probably had their wedding rehearsal dinner here 50 or 60 years ago. They had no idea how bad the guitarist was disrespecting Mark Knopfler. They didn't care and watching them, neither did I.
Then I turned my attention back to the lonely bald man. I steeled myself to be hurt and disappointed on his behalf. But no! The younger, slightly more glamorous of the two women (she was wearing earrings) was at his table, leaning over smiling and nodding. I tried not to stare as they talked for a few moments. Then the man picked up his drink, gracefully hoisted his body from the chair and followed the woman up to the booth where her friend sat looking grim.
The cocktail waitress (and mind you she was a waitress, not a server) came by to fill my water and John picked up my drink. We held hands under the table and watched as if we were at the movies. The awkward threesome ordered some sort of appetizer that came in a large white bowl; I couldn't quite see what. The man ate apologetically, as fat men too often do. He ducked his head to take a bite. The woman nibbled daintily at whatever she held. Her friend, looking sour, demurred.
Suddenly, there were tambourines on stage and the musicians launched into a Spanish number that they sang with great gusto in their Midwestern honky-tonk style. ("Straight from Osseo, Minnesota," the band leader said in his introduction. Indeed.) The couple in the corner, who had been inching toward each other for a good ten minutes, got up and headed to the dance floor. He extended his hand in a courtly way and she took it, the face of her wristwatch flashing along with the hanging disco ball. She was quite a bit taller but they didn't let this deter them. They danced in a galloping manner for the rest of the song. And then, like magic, the music melted into a ballad. He of the sweater vest reached out and pulled the librarian close.
It lasted perhaps four minutes, but that was four minutes of sheer, all-out bliss. Their bodies were pressed together, his hand on the bare part of her arm, and they looked, each of them, profoundly grateful. Like people who have been painfully thirsty finally offered water. They closed their eyes and moved in small circles until the song was done.
We left purposely before I could see the story play out and drove home slowly along quiet streets. An infinite number of things could have happened at Mancini's. Mr. Sweater Vest could have become drunk and creepy; the librarian might have moved on to another taller more expensive-looking of the single men. Maybe they ditched her disapproving friend and went out and had mad, anonymous sex in his car.
But I like to think that what happened was they parted at that point in the evening when they really didn't want to and he got her phone number and today, he's planning to call. They'll go out alone, to a coffeeshop or an Italian restaurant and talk about their long lives and get to know each other.
That's what I'm going with because it gives me hope.