As best I can remember, my fascination with bars began at the Confectionery in Aspen, Colorado, in 1978. Emboldened by several stiff Shirley Temples and the excitement of an extended bedtime, I climbed atop the bar and proceeded to delight my fellow skiers with a soulful rendition of the classic "Little Bunny Foo Foo." People put down their drinks to applaud my antics, my parents beamed with pride, and I knew I had reached my destination.
Bars are places where acts that are elsewhere perceived as socially deviant--drinking, smoking, gambling, attempting to have sex with strangers--instead are perceived as deliciously naughty because of the presence of other people. One would never crack open a beer at Target, play pull-tabs in church, or try to get the hookup at the dentist's office, but all three activities can be safely pursued at countless establishments possessing little more than a cash register and a couple of chairs.
Being a near-lifelong barfly and something of a self-schooled expert on deviance, I was able to convince myself (and my peers) that I alone was up to the challenge of skulking almost full time in the seedy umbra of neon lights. That I could--and, for money, would--expose the sordid truth about the interactions that go on between desperate strangers to the clink of bar glasses. And so it became my mission to attend bars all across what is romantically called the Greater Metropolitan Area for fifteen consecutive days; to venture, at least once a day, to watering holes both familiar and unfamiliar; to talk to strangers, (or at least sit with my friends and make fun of strangers); to take a dunk in the Cities' drunk tanks and throw my own pound of flesh out to some of Minnesota's choicest meat markets.
I committed myself deeply to my research by attempting to live the true life of the bar hopper: abandoning my healthy, soy-based diet in favor of bean burritos and Snickers bars, upping my cigarette intake to two packs per day, and ditching work in favor of sleeping and fighting with my friends. It wasn't easy. It wasn't pretty. But this is my story: a tale of discarded pull-tabs and empty pitchers, of aerobics instructors with ticking biological clocks and the men who buy them shooters, of setups and letdowns, pinball and pickup lines, and how the dance hits of yesterday help spark the meaningful relationships of tomorrow. It is the uncensored account of a twentysomething urban wallflower who dared to spend two weeks and a day in the Twin Cities bar underworld, with only her sanity and single status to lose.
Tuesday, July 20. 11:06 p.m.
Three-two beer is as distinctively Minnesotan as hot dish and metered on-ramps, making a visit to a 3.2 bar for diluted swill a mandatory stop. Bars that sell only 3.2-percent-alcohol beer pay less for their liquor licenses--and the people who drink it? Well, I can only assume they're folks too lazy to walk four more blocks to a place that sells the "strong" stuff.
Seduced by the allure and high-end ambiance of its name, I choose Joe's Chicken Shack in south Minneapolis (109 E. 26th St.; 612-872-0629). Although my friend Nikki and I are dressed plainly in T-shirts and jeans for our arrival, we don't escape the attention of the young Latino men stationed outside the bar. From what I can tell, my knowledge of Spanish being rather limited, these men are a sort of lewd barbershop quartet who seek to pleasure the ears of female patrons with whistling and other vocal stylings. As far as I can tell, they perform for free.
The inside of Joe's closely resembles any bar on the interstate selling live bait circa 1979: pressed wood paneling, tap beer served in jelly jars, Marty Robbins on the jukebox. There are about seven or eight people at the bar. Although several of the unshaven, flannel-clad men stand somewhat closer to us than perhaps they should when ordering another not-full-strength Pabst, no one bothers us at all.
At first I'm relieved: I am able to have a pleasant conversation with Nikki without any sleazy guys looking for friendship-by-the-hour. After a while, though, I start to become pissed. Do they think they're better than us?
Driving home I reassure myself that I don't need the approval of the regulars at Joe's Chicken Shack. I'm an attractive woman, I tell myself. By the end of this story, I'll have so many new prospects that my pager will be beeping nonstop.
Wednesday, July 21. 9:00 p.m.
It's day two and already my so-called friends are leaving me unescorted in liquor land. I finally manage to entice my 21-year-old slacker brother Casey and his buddy Pat into joining me at Gabby's (1900 NE Marshall St., Mpls.; 612-788-8239) for "South ParkWednesday" (free tacos--all you can eat!). This is where everyone comes to a bar for the sole purpose of watching TV. The scene here is as segregated and standoffish as at the Walgreens Depends aisle--which I guess proves that theory about TV destroying social skills.
There is a strong regular crowd here, including a guy who angers others by repeatedly winning the grand prize in the nightly drawing (the "Kenny" piñata). "That guy's totally won before," someone complains. "If that guy was cool at all, he'd fill that piñata with the free taco meat."