Drunk and Orderly

A pair of veteran boozers manage to grow up without sobering up

I'm on the phone with a Lady Friend I haven't seen in quite a while. She's had a rough day, and we agree that some hearty, Irish-style drinking beckons. After some back and forth about the sort of atmosphere we're looking for, we agree on T.K. Bitterman's (2010 West Alabama), a cramped, Chicago-themed local bar stocked with the full arsenal of liquor and character.

I notice omens of potential trouble from the beginning. Lady Friend has managed to down a few vodka tonics before hooking up with me, so it's a giddy, half-drunk and provocatively dressed woman I greet on Bitterman's front deck. We exchange hugs, rapidly catch up with each other's recent lives and head inside.

The kindest word for Bitterman's is "cozy." A more accurate adjective might be "stifling." This is an old-school neighborhood bar, seating 30 to 40 customers snugly inside. The dartboard and the pizza oven behind the bar are separated by a mere 30 feet or so. On a busy weekend night, Bitterman's can seem as stuffed as a Florida ballot box.

All grown up: The author and friends at T.K. Bitterman's.
Greg Houston
All grown up: The author and friends at T.K. Bitterman's.

This being a weeknight, though, I'm not surprised to find the place fairly vacant. As our eyes adjust to the dim light inside, I count five, maybe six, customers, all clustered about the far end of the bar. Ordinarily I wouldn't give half a damn where these people gathered, but it so happens that they're surrounding, drum-circle-like, the Megatouch game, neglected and unplayed on the bar. LF and I are pretty devoted to these games, particularly the trivia, and since no one seems to be using this one, she asks if a couple of the kind folks at the end of the bar might, you know, scoot their asses, say, 16 inches for us? She doesn't put it that way, of course; at this point, she remains the polite, if a trifle blitzed, Southern sweetheart.

"Is anyone playing this game? Could we please sit here? I haven't played one of these in sooo long -- I'd really appreciate it," she murmurs with honey smoothness.

Now, keep in mind that, though Bitterman's is a tiny place with limited seating and a painfully inefficient floorplan, there are only the seven of us in the place. Fifteen barstools sit to the left of these people, all of them barren of butts. There seems no rational reason that they wouldn't or couldn't lift their lousy Amber Lights and shift a stool or two over. I mean, WWJD?

Perhaps you've gotten ahead of me at this point. Let me back up a bit.

Bitterman's has no jukebox; the bartenders select the CDs to play. Sometimes the mix is quite good, sometimes annoyingly ill chosen, but for the most part the music hardly gets your attention. No, you don't go to Bitterman's for the tunes. And you sure as hell don't go there for the powerful air-conditioning or the stellar service -- though the service can sometimes be excellent. No, you go there because -- well, it's a solid drinker's bar. They mix 'em nice and strong and, save for the sports on the TVs and the alluring scent of the occasional well-oiled woman, there's not much to distract a man from his drinking. Most folks -- and certainly all the regulars -- sit at the bar because, dammit, that's where the real drinkers sit. Bukowski didn't sit in a fucking booth, my friends.

So, as a drinker and a veteran of low- to medium-rent gin mills, I understand that these people don't wish to sit anyplace but the bar. And honestly, if there'd been no convenient space at the bar for them to move to, I wouldn't have even asked. But, come on: Tonight the place is like a theater showing Basic Instinct 2: nearly devoid of humans.

But rather than simply grant us the seats in front of the Megatouch, they suggest we move the whole freakin' game around the corner to the little section of bar that separates the back of the bar from the darts area. Which, incidentally, is where the rest of the customers are standing. This "darts area" is something like the Black Hole of Calcutta, but bleaker. I know a few drinkers who've been to Bitterman's a time or two and not noticed there even was a darts area.

So we look at these people like the rude idiots they are, turn and leave in a dramatic huff. Right?

No, not us. We're good people most of the time. We maintain, at the very least, vestigial public manners. So we stretch obviously insincere smiles across our faces and obligingly move the entire goddamned game around the corner where every throw of a dart results in one or both of us taking a knuckle to the back of the head. Yes, our proximity to the nice couple throwing darts -- scratch that, our intimacy with them -- is uncomfortable, to say the least. A well-timed beer belch could knock a dart from flight.

Fortunately, Darts Couple turns out to be friendly, unassuming...and toxically drunk. We ignore them, they ignore us, the discomfort level stabilizes, and I pump a 20 into the Megatouch.

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