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.
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.
Fresh drinks appear before us -- LF sticking with the Absolut tonics, myself opting for the venerated Bitterman's Long Island tea -- and we commence relaxing into our own little world. The LIT at Bitterman's is justly respected by frat boys, ex-cons and alcoholic musicians alike for its free-poured boozy goodness. I suck half of that first one down in about 30 seconds, and the warmth rises slowly to my temples. Maybe things will be okay, I think. And my Lady Friend is lookin' fine tonight, too. My spirits elevate for the first time.
There's one remaining customer I haven't mentioned yet. He's standing right beside us, directly behind Darts Couple. He's in a preposterously lousy spot but seems content with it. At first I think he's with Darts Couple, but gradually realize he's not. He's pretty obviously gay, yet he seems mesmerized by Lady Friend's admittedly comely cleavage. Every so often I catch his gaze rooting around between those mounds. Which is fine with me: I'm doing the same thing, after all. What does bug me is that he's worked his way into our Megatouch game like a boll weevil into a bushel of cotton, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.
We don't know him from Adam, and yet he's a barnacle firmly attached to our hull, suggesting games, touching answers and ogling her boobs like we were his guests and it was his money in the machine. Discomfort levels start rising again. LF and I are left with no choice but to finish out our credits and get down as many drinks as quickly as possible.
We're on the fourth or fifth round when the bartendress delivers a vodka tonic to Lady Friend, only to spill the entire thing -- vodka, tonic, lime wedge and ice -- into her lap, soaking her already clingy summer dress. It's an accident, these things happen; but I can sense approaching meltdown. Still, LF waves it off as best she can and towels off her dress.
The end of this odd evening is fast approaching when I hear the proverbial snap of a camel's back.
I'm about to start on one last tea when I hear one of the empty-skulled women who wouldn't clear a spot for us earlier begin loudly mocking my Lady Friend. I hear it clear as day.
"What a bitch. I guess she thinks she's so hot. Fuck her. Bitch," etc., etc.
I look at LF, praying she doesn't hear what I hear. Ordinarily she's as nice as they get, but when she's loaded -- and it's safe to say the tank is full tonight -- she can be Courtney Love. Minus the charm and restraint.
I look over at her and, sure enough, her mouth is agape and she's staring daggers at her tormentor. I'll spare you her obscenity-riddled response, except to say it would have made Sam Kinison blush. I've known Lady Friend a long, long time, and I've been in similar situations with her before. As lovable, kind and witty as she is generally, there is a ravenous, blood-hungry monster within, and alcohol coupled with bitchy women has unleashed this beast before.
I switch to superhero mode and am all like, hey, grab your purse, chill out, it's cool, let's just get the hell out of here. To my surprise and joy, she agrees. We say adis to our gay, boobie-loving friend, LF gathers up her stuff, and we head out.
But before we hit the exit, Ms. Bitch at the Bar says something I don't catch, though the tone alone tells me it's both ugly and uncalled for. Now, no one is saying LF is beyond reproach, but she hasn't done one thing to deserve this bullshit. Realizing that it isn't appropriate for me to break some woman's jaw, I grab LF by the shoulders and lead her to the door.
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LF's only response is a muttered "Whatever, bitch" as we walk outside. I'm genuinely proud of her restraint. No need for police, EMTs or the tabloid press tonight, thank you very much.
As we approach our waiting vehicle, though, a single bellowed word from deep inside the bar reaches our ears.
At some point in your life, you just get over it. And we are there. Somehow, the two of us are no longer shallow, drunken, dumb assholes -- in fact, shallow, drunken, dumb assholes have become a source of comedy for us. I feel strangely exhilarated.