To Sleep with the Fishes
Sandwiched between an office building parking garage and a new apartment complex, the tiny Aquarium Lounge squats almost out of view. But on this recent day, the faithful still find their way to the eclectic hideaway.
The door opens, briefly flooding the Aquarium with light. A bartender pauses from serving up $2 beers to greet arrivals by their first name as they stride to their usual seats. A game of backroom pool sets the cadence from the click of ivory balls, while other patrons pass the time watching the closed-captioned Bowfinger on TV.
While town houses and other torrid development launched exterior invasions in this northwest Montrose neighborhood, the interior of the old dive hasn't really changed much in nearly three decades. "And that's the real beauty of this place," says Marcia Thomason, bartender for the last six years.
Stability can be a curse, however. This recent gathering of the drinking crew is one of the last. It is a wake of sorts for the old Aquarium, which was scheduled to close this week after surviving 28 years at this location. The cause of the drinkery's death, the bar operators insist, was nothing more sinister than a new city bicycle lane that dried up the Aquarium's final parking spaces.
Parking was plentiful when the original lounge sprang to life on Washington Avenue in 1967. Ruth Busch, the spunky 81-year-old owner affectionately known by regular customers as Ms. Ruth, was an airbrush artist who saw the bar business as an opportunity to have fun and perhaps make some money.
She hauled an old glass fish tank into the leased premises and thereby solved two problems: furnishings and a fine name for her new establishment. By 1972 Ms. Ruth, reflecting questionable social conscience, sought new territory away from the increasingly Hispanic neighborhood along the avenue. "I moved because I couldn't deal with all those Mexicans. All they spoke was Spanish, and I didn't speak any Spanish."
She and her aquarium relocated at the current site, a former bar in the 3000 block of West Dallas. She kept her day job, and the lounge doubled as her home. "I slept on the floor here. I had nothing but a few bar stools and an old jukebox."
And Ms. Ruth eventually acquired much more. Marcelo, a frequent patron, was an Elvis impersonator whose ex-wife offered him a second chance at her affections -- if only he would dump his infatuation with Elvis. Her stipulation: Get rid of the Elvis gear. So he bestowed his Presley posters and other relics upon the lounge. Soon other people were bringing in similar souvenirs of the King, until the aquarium tank suddenly played second-fiddle to the burgeoning mini-Graceland inside the bar.
Ironically, Elvis hardly gets top billing on the Aquarium's other big draw: the jukebox that was loaded with hits and classics. Thomason admits that they tried to put in some modern tunes a few times, but it just didn't fit. The music belts out of the faithful old box with smooth transitions from Sinatra to Patsy Cline to Santana, as if they were all in the same genre. It blends in with the nostalgic ambience of the dimly lit bar.
Liann Goodwin laughs about her first Aquarium experience, when "a really bad date" took her there nine years ago. "I pretended I was sick and had the guy take me home. As soon as he dropped me off, I got in my car and came right back here, and it was because of the jukebox. It had such great music. Now I'll have to go and buy all of those CDs to make myself happy."
Anytime a new face appeared, a new tradition was liable to begin: Sunday potluck dinners and movie night and Ms. Ruth's holiday barbecues with her famous oyster loaf. Instead of ringing in another year at New Year's Eve parties, these patrons would sing happy birthday to Ms. Ruth. Her extended family continued to grow.
Good times overshadowed the low points on West Dallas. Ms. Ruth suffered a stroke. Just last year her left leg was amputated after complications from a blood clot. The maintenance man of seven years, Rob Chees, became her personal assistant and business partner.
In 28 years, old houses in the neighborhood gave way to expensive town-house and apartment complexes. Inside the Aquarium the mix changed as well: The early "rockabilly" customers, as old-timers called the crowd, relinquished their hold to law students and the younger affluent.
"We never would have survived without our regulars," Thomason explains. They were careful to maintain a good mix in the crowd. Without advertising, patronage depended on word of mouth.
"People were always very selective about who they brought in," says Thomason. "They made sure not to bring in someone who would mess up the karma of the place."
As careful as they were to control the energy inside, outside forces would eventually shape the fate of the lively little bar.
Regulars knew they always had a place at the bar -- it was a place for their cars that created crises among the Aquarium crowd. The lounge had an arrangement for a while for use of the overflow spaces at the nearby Allen House apartments, but residents complained that it left them without adequate parking. About five years ago Ms. Ruth passed on a chance to buy a small lot next door because she "worried that it was too late in life to begin financing new property," Thomason says.
When the adjacent Westgate Court town homes went up, more available space vanished. But they still had the parking along West Dallas -- until last month.
Manager Chees pulled up to his usual curbside space in front of the bar. He returned to it bewildered. On his car was a $50 ticket for illegal parking -- in a bike lane. Chees says the city drew the lines for the route and put up the signs with no notice to the lounge.
Ms. Ruth says the decline in business hasn't been severe yet, "but in the long run, it's going to take expenses out of my purse to run the place," she says. "I hope they know that. I haven't seen one bicycle on that thing yet."
Mignette Dorsey, the city's bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, says the plans for bike paths have been in the works since the early '90s, and have been publicized. "I've gotten a few calls from people who said they weren't notified, but I have not heard of any businesses closing down because of them," Dorsey says.
Ms. Ruth will relocate far from the bicycle routes. She and Chees are headed north to Livingston, where she has a home, to open another bar. Marcelo's Elvis memorabilia, Ms. Ruth's three bar cats and the fish tank are in for transfers.
Goodwin will go wherever Thomason works again and Thomason on to somewhere she can settle in her regulars before she goes off to study in Cairo. And Chees says the land has been sold to Larry Sachnowitz, for development of an office park.
"I understand all of the growth and building new stuff is all in some effort to try and make Houston prettier," Goodwin says. "And the Aquarium Lounge may not be pretty, but it's part of what makes Houston Houston. I've gone and come back, and this place has always been here."
Thomason gets up to head back behind the bar counter, turning briefly to the aging owner.
"You see, Ms. Ruth, I always told you this place was an institution," Thomason says. "I told you."
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