They call him "Mr. Sam." This term of endearment, both formal and informal, does not appear to amuse him, but it does not appear to bother him, either.
His proper name is Sam Reina; his title, owner of the Northside's historic Cedar Lounge (7237 Airline). In its 50-year existence, the bar has had only two owners. Reina is the second, in charge since 1984.
Loretta McClendon and Mercedes Vasquez visit the bar regularly together, the same as their mothers used to do years ago.
7237 Airline; 713-694-7683
"We definitely appreciate the history," says Vasquez, a 26-year old waitress and nursing student. "Our moms played on the same [pool league] team.
"They called them the Cuervo Queens," she adds, smiling.
"I've been coming about 12 years," says Terry Martinez, 42. "I live in the neighborhood. All my friends come in. We come for the friendly atmosphere. I always feel comfortable here."
Mr. Sam is sitting on a corner barstool wearing a Nike T-shirt, Adidas jogging pants and New Balance tennis shoes. His hair is floppy and moves as it pleases. His eyes look uninterested in whatever it is they're looking at.
Despite the room being filled with older Latinos (which is common at Cedar these days) and one older Asian lady (not common, but not out of the ordinary), Ciara's wonky, sex-heavy "Ride" plays on the jukebox.
The waitress on duty, a charming woman named Andrea Sosa, shoots back and forth from the bar to the two pool tables. A group is participating in a women-only pool league. She is one of them.
Later in the evening, Sosa says some very flattering things about Mr. Sam. She'll talk about how he's a "good man," and explain how, although she has a degree as a Certified Medical Assistant, she continues to work part-time at Cedar because the owner "stood with me when I decided to go back to school."
But for now, Sosa is laser-focused. Her iPod ear buds are nudged into her ears. She's listening to traditional Tejano music because the jukebox has cycled onto some bachata, and she can't stand that shit.
Mr. Sam does not mind the dilly-dallying. He sits, wordless, until he's asked something or for something.
A regular face walks up to the bar. "How you doin', Sam?"
"Good," he says back. "Where you been?"
"His name is Pedro," he mumbles to himself. "...or Pancho or something."
Mr. Sam doesn't mind the slowness, either. He moves slowly himself, which belies the sharpness of his brain. The way he recites memories and dates is like the Dewey Decimal System cabinet of cards at the library; it takes a bit to pull up what he wants, but when he does, he's absolute in the facts.
Details about roads he's driven on in various cities, attitudes of employees he worked with upwards of 40 years ago, hotels he stayed in when he went to HemisFair in San Antonio in the '60s, they all come to him.
He likes to talk about Cedar Lounge's history, about how it was, he says, the first nightclub in Houston with a liquor license. All the beautiful women would show up, driven there in Cadillacs and Lincolns. He laughs at the "pressure cooker club" tag it got early on. ("Pressure cooker clubs" were places where the atmosphere could get steamy, often favored by married couples...just not married to each other.)
The more he talks, the more he smiles.
On their own, observations about Cedar Lounge's grim industrial carpet, its curiously tufted black-leather wall, devout customer base and general neighborhoody feel wouldn't amount to much. But in the context of the bar's rich narrative, they fill in a unique chapter of Houston nightlife lore.
And it belongs to Mr. Sam.
"I was the only guy that came to Cedar Lounge in the '60s and '70s that didn't end up with a woman," he laughs.
"But I ended up with the bar."
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St. Valentine's Day Massacre
True story: Several years ago, we gave our then-girlfriend, now-wife, straight cash for Valentine's Day after previously giving her gift cards. She always seemed to enjoy those, and cash is like a gift card that works at every store, so it seemed like a good idea. It was not. In the discussion that immediately followed, there was some talk that we were implying she was some sort of longtime hooker. If we remember correctly. It was a shitty Valentine's Day.
You know who's never been mad at a guy on Valentine's Day, though? Metallica. And Megadeth. And Tool. And any other heavy metal band, for that matter, which is exactly why you should make your way toward Warehouse Live this weekend for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre with Sid 17, the super-talented rocker kids Metavenge, and a few of their friends. The best part: Since it's not technically on Valentine's Day, you still have a chance to screw that up. Aces.