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"Well I was sittin' in this beer joint down in Houston, Texas."
— Johnny Paycheck, "Colorado Kool-Aid"
That song came out in 1977. Have you heard it? It's about a guy sitting in a beer joint down in Houston, Texas.
It starts out normal enough, but then spirals into bizarro world. It ends with a man holding his own bloody ear in his hand after it's been cut off by a Mexican, who only broke out his switchblade because the earless man had just spit in the Mexican's own ear.
That's the sort of thing that happens in Johnny Paycheck songs ("Take This Job and Shove It," "The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised"). But even that story is only half as engaging as another local beer joint, Rose Garden (2621 Link).
This north Heights neighborhood bar is 20 years old; its 21st anniversary is coming up this May. The jovial owner, Rose, is proud of this accomplishment. But the building has been a bar in some form or another since the Second World War.
"It's been open 70 years, at least," says Rose. "It's always been a bar; never been shut down once. I got it in 1991. It used to be a Polish bar; that's who lived in the area. People'd bring their kids in here with them. That's the kind of place it was."
The place, no bigger than some studio apartments, sits on a tiny morsel of land near the string of Airline Drive seafood restaurants and produce warehouses near North Loop 610. The Rose Garden menu is limited to beer, wine, soda, chips and beef jerky, and it may be the last bar in Houston that cannot (or will not) swipe a credit card.
Rose lives across the street and works approximately 400 hours a week. That may be an exaggeration — she does take Saturday nights off — but she's here open till close the rest of the time, six days a week. She tends the small rose garden on the patio by hand during her shift, with nary a worry that anything will come up missing or broken in her absence.
Back inside, the jukebox is in no way connected to the Internet — it's barely even connected to the present. Most of the songs are either old country or the collected works of Elvis Presley. The wood-paneled walls, which make Rose Garden look a little like someone's den, are likewise filled with Elvis memorabilia. A lone pool table eats up the middle of the room and is almost always inhabited by someone who actually knows how to play.
More than anything else, it's the undeniable feeling of community that pushes Rose Garden to the top of the list of Houston's best neighborhood bars.
Granted, your first visit can be a tad intimidating. A sign on the wall near the restroom reads, "Not Responsible For Accidents." Initially, it almost seems like a warning, but that's just part of it.
"I know it can feel like that, but it's because everyone knows everyone here," laughs Rose. "If you come in and sit down, you'll be right at home."
It took all of eight seconds of conversation with the Saturday-evening bartender, George, before the handful of regulars within earshot was involved. One insisted on using a pseudonym: "I'm...John...Smith," he laughed.
Another woman, sitting next to a gentleman, insisted, "We're 22 years old." Still another claimed his dad used to deliver this very paper, "back when it was good."
But that's how it went because that's how it goes. There was no ill will or venom in anyone's words, only proper barroom chatter.
Just people sittin' in a beer joint down in Houston, Texas.
An interesting aside: Prior to visiting Rose Garden, we had no idea that a song called "Colorado Kool-Aid" even existed. It was the second song that cycled on the jukebox after we'd arrived, though, and seemed like kismet. We've since downloaded two Johnny Paycheck albums from iTunes and begun perusing the Internet for information about him. As far as we can tell, he was an integral figure in the Outlaw Movement of country music and appeared to be an all-time personality. Log on to www.johnnypaycheckmusic.com to start learning.