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Woman Walks Into a Bar...

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 Park Wednesday" (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."

When South Park is over, a DJ spins--surprise!--dance hits of the Seventies and Eighties. While songs such as Starship's "We Built This City" motivate several people to dance (alone, oddly enough--perhaps retro dance music has a degenerative effect on social skills similar to that of TV), they motivate no one to come over and talk to us.

The one individual who does make contact is the shooter girl, an attractive young lady with a tray full of alcohol-fortified Jell-O. She patiently instructs the uninitiated Pat and Casey in Jell-O-shot protocol. "You squeeze the cup from the bottom," she says suggestively. "Come on, I wanna see you squeeze it."

After enduring another hour and a half of being painfully ignored by everyone except the tip-hungry Jell-O temptress, I tire of watching my slightly inebriated brother clench his fists and mutter, "Play 'My Sharona'. That's the best fucking song. It makes you wanna fuck."

 

Thursday, July 22. 11:13 a.m.

Urban legend has it that certain bars will give free drinks in exchange for AA medallions: Turn your sobriety in for a gin gimlet, and it's on the house. No Hazelden dropout will ever own up to having actually done this, but, as with autoerotic asphyxiation, everyone claims to know someone who has. In Minneapolis the bar in the legend is Stand Up Frank's (West Broadway and North Second Street, Mpls.), a premier establishment catering to the individual whose only goal in life is to keep a continuous supply of ethyl alcohol in his blood and who is willing to rough up his own mother should she attempt to intervene.

This evening, it is my destination. I drive to the AA office in St. Louis Park to purchase a medallion that I'll use to confirm or deny this popular allegation. I choose a one-year medallion, a small, gold-colored coin inscribed with a "1" and the Serenity Prayer, and buy some AA literature in a lame effort to hide my shame over actually doing this.

At 10:15 p.m. no one wants to go to Stand Up Frank's. "Oh, God, Stand Up Frank's," people moan, the way people moan things like "Oh, God, Tijuana." My friend Joel, a blond, bespectacled college-radio star, finally agrees, out of fear for my safety, and my ex-boyfriend Jason, a man retired from the hardcore party scene at the tender age of 24, accompanies us because he thinks they have Galaga there.

He is wrong. There's nothing fun about Stand Up Frank's, except perhaps the bumper-pool table, which looks like it came from an estate sale at a halfway house and is crammed in the center of the room. Nor is there anything fun about the people at Stand Up Frank's--not that one would expect the people who hang out in what appears to be the waiting room for Hell (if Hell had pull-tabs) to be a jolly bunch.

Jason is the bravest among us, so it is he who bellies up to the bar, demands a gin and tonic, and holds the medallion out to the bartender. The bartender smiles. "We've never done that," he says, "and we never will."

We take our drinks (eight-ounce glasses containing three-fourths gin and one-fourth tonic) and retreat to a corner near the bathroom like freshmen at a senior party, hoping no one notices we don't quite fit in here. It's hard not to notice. Even though I have put on my old college "drinking clothes" (stained white T-shirt and filthy, oversized cut-offs) in an effort to blend in, the men here stare at me like I just walked into the penitentiary buck-naked with a fistful of pardons.

This is, however, preferable to the threatening looks I receive from the female clientele, which suggest these ladies would be making work for my plastic surgeon if their glasses were a little closer to empty. This frosty welcome sparks a curious realization: Though my intention in coming here was to check out the freaks, the true freaks in here appear to be my companions and me. We stand under a wall decorated by someone's obituary and photos of regulars bearing witty captions such as "I am gay" and "I dig tits," and Jason regales Joel with tales of my sordid past.

 

"One time, Britt and I hung out at this flophouse, and one of our friends threw a prostitute out the window. And another time, Britt passed out in her car with her dress up over her head. And she didn't wear any underwear in those days."

I don't object. Somehow, the humiliation seems appropriate here.

 

Friday, July 23. 8:10 a.m.

A look into bar culture wouldn't be complete without opening a bar on a weekday. This Friday morning the Poodle Club (3001 E. Lake St., Mpls.; 612-722-1377) parking lot is full of vans with ladders. "They're painters," Jason, a house painter himself, explains. "They can't work, because of the rain, so they get drunk instead." Jason's theory proves correct, as several men in white canvas pants begin to celebrate the wonders of meteorology with Miller Lites and scrambled eggs.

The Poodle Club is also catering to elderly men and Minneapolis police officers this morning. As I rest my head on the table, I overhear one waitress offer another waitress a beer at the end of her shift. "Ummmm, no, I guess not," she decides, "I'm just gonna go home."

 

Saturday, July 24. Noon.

In the midst of the summer heat wave, my best friend Valerie, a 24-year-old law student, and I decide that we if we are to survive the weather, we had best score some boyfriends with pools or boats or central air conditioning. Naturally, we head to Lake Minnetonka for lunch at Lord Fletcher's (3746 Sunset Dr., Spring Park; 612-471-8513) patio bar, informally dubbed "Silicone Valley" by locals in reference to the preponderance of surgically enhanced women. I am still ready to be hit on--and only mildly discouraged at this point. (Although I have paged myself a couple of times before leaving the house to make sure the number is working.)

"This reminds me of Palm Springs," Valerie says. Most of our fellow patrons appear to have stepped directly out of the J. Crew catalog and are preoccupied with flaunting their expensive watercraft and glamorous offspring. I enjoy my fruity beverage, watch the parade of the suburban elite and reminisce with Valerie about childhood summers: "Man, boating with your family is supposed to be fun, but it sucks. You just sit there in a wet swimsuit getting your hair whipped in your face all day and then your dad won't take you to DQ 'cause you didn't scrub the milfoil off the boat well enough. It's a total scam."

With the exception of the waitstaff, who apparently have a policy of verbally abusing those who make the mistake of showing up for a drink sans Rolex (I am told by our server that I may not have a caesar salad without cheese and she allows no discussion on the subject), there is no unpleasantness. Several men who most likely meet our summer scamming requirements look in our direction, but they all appear to have brought their wives--and we decide that even if we did connect, our use of the pool would probably be somewhat limited, given the circumstances.

 

Saturday, July 24. 7:30 p.m.

After a nap and a shower, Valerie and I are chauffeured to the Rockin' East Side's exotic male dance revue by a true G-string groupie, a woman I call Mom. We are the only women there who are not part of a bachelorette party, which kind of makes us feel like perverts. Apparently women, unlike men, need some formal excuse to pay strangers to undress. An emcee gets the crowd pumped up by shouting things such as "All you ladies like a man to 'go down south,' don't you?" Valerie and I loudly agree with this before remembering my mother is sharing our table. I'd rather not find out how she feels about the question.

Although the dance numbers are downright silly (the men strip to an Adam Sandler song and the Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy") and the dancers are somewhat less than desirable (nicknamed "Fabio," "Hockey Hair," and "Frosted Mini-Midget" by Mom and Valerie), this experience is about more than a strip show. Tonight, the Rockin' East Side (899 Payne Ave., St. Paul; 651-771-4215) is about sisterhood. One older woman clad in a floral skirt and blouse (who disturbingly resembles my fifth-grade teacher) eagerly stuffs dollar bills between her soon-to-be-married daughter's breasts and thighs for the dancers to retrieve as other women--strangers--scream encouragingly.

When Hockey Hair comes to our table to grind on Mom, I repress the idea that my father may disinherit me, abandon myself to wanton female madness, and cheer Mr. Gretzky on. When he turns to me, however, I look at the floor, embarrassed, stifling the desire to tell him I'm merely a reporter.

 

"That dude stuffs," I tell Mom and Valerie later. "It felt like a Muppet was trying to get with me."

 

Sunday, July 25. 11:58 p.m.

With all of the wild and scary stories I've heard about Dibbo's (517 Second St., Hudson, Wisconsin; 715-386-2782) in Hudson, Wisconsin--guns, public sex, brawls between cowboys and motorcycle tramps involving kung fu and pool cues--I am shocked that upon driving up, I find it difficult to tell whether the place is open or closed. Where are the bikers spilling out into the streets with broken beer bottles? It is open, though, and my adventurous co-workers Jen and Seth are greeted warmly by the bartender and the other two patrons.

The bartender gives us our choice of tap beers (Bud, Bud Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon) and chats with us about his days as a security guard at a Minneapolis strip joint. He leans forward against the bar, flexing biceps so massive that the pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve looks like a book of stamps. We tell him that we work at the bar around the corner from said strip joint, and he begins to ask about some of our co-workers who have since left.

Seth elaborates, "I had to tell a woman the other day that Travis, the bartender, got fired. She looked me right in the eye and said, 'That's a Travis-ty.'"

"That joke is so bad it's only funny when told while drinking in a bar," I tell him.

Another guy wanders in after a while and offers us some of his frozen pizza, which the bartender has produced for him, seemingly out of nowhere. He doesn't like the Meat Loaf song on the radio, either. When the bartender practically forces Seth to take a shot of vanilla schnapps, we know we have bonded with Dibbo's. The usually genteel Seth, swayed by the shot and two gin and tonics so strong they could have passed for mosquito repellent on the rocks, loudly uses the F-word a few times. And I guess that's as close to the legendary Dibbo's mayhem as I'm going to get.

 

Monday, July 26. 11:41 p.m.

My 22-year-old co-worker Aaron, bass player for a metal band and the best busboy in the Warehouse District, has agreed to let me help him get completely shitfaced after a particularly rough night flipping tablecloths. So we head down to the Minneapolis Eagle (515 Washington Ave. S.; 612-338-4214) after work. The Minneapolis Eagle, on this Monday night, is deserted. The emptiness is almost embarrassing. I feel the urge either to go out on the street to lure people in, or to make lifelong friends with the rest of the patrons.

I finally break my vow of anonymity and tell Dave The Straight Bartender that I am writing a story on bars. He then begins to sing what will become the theme song of my bar saga. It's called "You Came Here on the Wrong Night." Dave says that on Friday and Saturday nights, the Eagle enforces a dress code: You have to wear leather, rubber, or a uniform to get in. He says that the room gets completely packed and that Aaron and I should come down, dressed to thrill. He tells us about the Eagle, and about the difference between Minneapolis and L.A., and why Abercrombie & Fitch isn't cool anymore. And I watch the Michelob Goldens practically empty themselves in front of us, trying not to stare at the only two people at the bar: a rather large young woman and a man who looks like my tax accountant wearing a bondage vest with no shirt.

 

Tuesday, July 27. 10:12 p.m.

I'm not proud to say it, but I grew up in Coon Rapids--someone has to do it--and visiting Be-Bop (1009 109th Ave. NE, Blaine; 612-754-2424), the entertainment clearinghouse of the northern suburbs, makes me identify with that scene in Forrest Gump where Robin Wright throws rocks at her childhood home. The people here, most of whom are wearing softball uniforms, are dancing so badly that I wonder if the bartender is serving up more than just alcohol.

My theory about retro dance music causing social retardation (it apparently causes tardive dyskinesia as well) is reaffirmed when none of the single men in the bar even attempts to talk to my rather fortunately endowed friend Debbie, a young transplanted Texan who is dressed like a hooker behind on her rent.

Reliving the pain of my suburban childhood and fearing Debbie may have to extract some softball chick's cleats from her backside, I suggest we make a hasty retreat from Anoka County's answer to Studio 54.

 

 

Wednesday, July 28. 10:45 p.m.

After picking up City Pages music editor Peter Scholtes and his younger stepbrother Ben, my friend Joel and I reluctantly head for the King of Diamonds (66th St. and Concord Ave., Inver Grove Heights; 651-455-3886), a "gentleman's nightclub." Joel has agreed to come with us on three conditions: no lap dances, I buy his drinks, and his last name appears nowhere in this article. (Peter and Ben have no similar conditions. "Hey, man, I'm a journalist, too. You're just doing your job," Peter says. Ben is even less reluctant: "Make sure you put my name in, that I was at a strip club, so I can show my boys!" You're welcome, Ben.)

After recovering from the initial shock of having to pay five dollars to get in and five dollars for a Diet Coke to stare at something I see plenty of in the locker room, I realize how different this place is from the Rockin' East Side, where my mom and I discovered the classical beauty of augmented jockstraps. This is not about male bonding or friendship or brotherhood at all (with the possible exception of the moment during Peter's lap dance, when Joel, Ben and I do the raise-the-roof dance and chant, "Go, Peter, get busy!"). Men come here alone. Those who come in groups talk only to the dancers. No one yells or claps or cheers or sings along with the music.

As the night progresses, we become numb to the sight of nude women rolling around onstage. I start to feel resentful and empty. Peter concurs: "That lap dance was the most soulless experience of my entire life. She was looking right into my eyes and there was absolutely zero connection."

In fact, I see some spark in the dancers only twice. The first time is when Peter's lap dancer finishes and exclaims, "I love my job! I love to see the looks on guys' faces when I do my thing!" The second is when a young lady making her way across the floor notices my brand of cigarettes. "I smoke Newports, too! We're both 'alive with pleasure,'" she squeals, hugging me.

 

Friday, July 30. 8:03 p.m.

I heard a rumor that Tubby's (2500 NE Fourth St., Mpls.; 612-789-7301) is the Twin Cities' number one Latino hot spot. Tonight there is no one here except the owners, who are watching CNN on the big-screen TV, and their two children, who are playing beneath the pool table. At least I get my bean burrito.

 

Friday, July 30, 9:45 p.m.

When I began mentioning to people that I was going to go to 15 bars in 15 days, several acquaintances told me that I had to go to "the baddest biker bar in Burnsville," though they were unable to provide me with a name or address. I drove around for two days listening to commercials on the metal station until I discovered the joint they were talking about was Toohey's (3809 W. Hwy. 13, Burnsville; 612-894-7022).

It turns out to be worth it. This place is standing-room-only and it's not even ten o'clock. Every slutty office temp and worker's-comp scam artist has turned out. Two aging bikers are out on the tiny dance floor, lewdly gyrating to a Bachman-Turner Overdrive song. Does it go without saying that they are, indeed, taking care of business?

While Joel makes his way to the bar, several men look my way, drooling like I'm a Sara Lee cheesecake at a Weight Watchers meeting. Finally feeling attractive and ready for some unwanted attention, I come up with a good opening line: What scares you more--Y2K or the bum rush? I don't get to use it, though, because when Joel returns with our drinks, the leers disappear. But at least I'm starting to feel more like there are social rules in effect and that I don't, as I'd feared, have some sort of marking on my forehead that in bar tongue reads "I have four ADD children and genital herpes."

While Joel and I spend all our money on the world's lamest pinball machine in the corner, the Toohey's crowd gets drunker and hornier, buttons get unbuttoned, lipstick gets reapplied, phone numbers get scribbled on bar napkins, and wedding rings get slipped into pants pockets. Beginning to fear for our virtue, we gracefully make our exit.

 

Saturday, July 31. 11:32 p.m.

Valerie and I persuade our friend Sarah to join us at Fat Tuesday in the Mall of America (fourth floor, Mall of America, Bloomington; 612-851-9032). I'm immediately aware that while their looks draw approving nods from the community-college quarterbacks populating this high-octane daiquiri hut, my straight-outta-Uptown style is not winning any points. Two women in the ladies' room drunkenly attempt to apply a temporary tattoo, struggling to count out the 60 seconds they need to hold it down. "27, 28, my age, 30..." one of them says, as they giggle hysterically. This is mall-bar bathroom humor at its finest.

 

We are captivated by a table a few feet away where a very well-dressed young woman appears to be flirting intensely with a middle-aged couple wearing Zubaz. "She's a hooker," Valerie speculates. "She's going to do them both." Whether or not Valerie is correct, we all agree that 19 daiquiris seems like a lot for three people. Once again, I'm getting plenty of looks from single men, but no one approaches me (hey--isn't that retro dance music I'm hearing?).

 

Sunday, August 1. 10:37 p.m.

When Valerie, my roommate Keith, and our friend Doug arrive at a Columbia Heights bar/bowling alley hoping for hip-hop/R&B night we find out, yet again, that we've come on the wrong night.

Undaunted, we follow Valerie's suggestion that we check out Club Metro (733 Pierce Butler Route; 651-489-0002). The atmosphere at Club Metro is very relaxed, people are doing their own thing, talking to their friends, playing darts and pool, chatting with the bartender. Perhaps the only uncomfortable thing about Club Metro is that it is a gay club and none of us is gay. "I feel like I'm wearing a sign that says 'I'm straight and I don't belong here,'" Valerie says. After she begins to humiliate Doug in a game of darts and Keith and I become involved in a heated debate about something one would probably only debate heatedly in a bar, this initial discomfort disappears.

Everyone seems to feel at home here and is freer in affection than at any of the other bars I've visited so far. Valerie doesn't want to leave. "This is like the ultimate neighborhood bar, " she declares. "It's the best place we've been so far."

Camped out in our L-shaped booth, we're only pulled into the pleasant bustle of the room when a young woman commandeers the bar microphone: "Attention, everyone! Stephanie has just beat Tony at pool!" Congratulations, Stephanie.

 

Monday, August 2. 9:40 p.m.

When four of my friends meet me at a downtown club that we had made plans to visit a week in advance, we find that (do I even need to say it?) we have come on the wrong night. The club is closed on Mondays. While I frantically search for a backup plan (what I lack in good timing, I more than compensate for in persistence--just ask any of my ex-boyfriends), Valerie takes charge.

"No more dive bars," she says. "We're doing Palomino tonight."

The bar at Palomino (825 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-339-3800) makes us feel like what we are discussing is Hollywood-player-level important, even though what we are discussing is how many restaurant jobs we've all been fired from. The clientele is mostly young, mostly male, and definitely attractive. There is some disappointment, though: I was hoping to see a couple of high-priced escorts, state senators with their mistresses, or local celebs attempting to score cocaine off a bartender.

It is here that I am finally able to relax for the first time in two weeks, letting the server dote on me and admiring the potted plants without wondering whether someone has used them as a urinal.

I have finished less than half of my San Pellegrino when I feel more like a young woman deciding what color Lexus to buy and who's going to feng shui her condo than a young woman hoping Y2K wipes out her student loan and credit-card debts.

 

Tuesday, August 3, 9:06 p.m.

Feeling in need of a radical change of pace, I decide to wrap things up at the Camel Club (862 White Bear Ave., St. Paul; 651-731-9899), a sober bar in east St. Paul. The Camel Club appears to be a bar like any other bar in nearly every respect, right down to the "You must be 21 with valid ID to enter" sign on the front door. Yet instead of advertisements for Budweiser and Tequiza, the posters decorating the walls of the Camel Club bear 12-step slogans.

Although every bar seems to have a regular crowd, the folks here seem to be the most regular of regulars. Two girls sitting at the bar even call the bartender "Mom." Initially, I perceive this to be a sort of nickname, assuming she acts as a surrogate parent for the nightly crew. I am proved wrong when she begins to tell a story about toilet training one of the other women.

 

Despite the name, the Camel Club feels a lot more like a bar than a nightclub, evidenced in part by the jeans and T-shirts worn by all but one patron. This particular young woman sports a hot-pink, stretchy velour dress and keeps whining, "Why is everybody making fun of my dress?"

"Where should I start?" I mutter to Valerie, who is looking as tired of barhopping as I feel.

The initial relief that comes as Valerie raises her paper cup of pink lemonade in a mock toast to the end of 15 bars in 15 days is slowly replaced by panic. What am I going to do with the shortlist of hotels I'd compiled that rent by the half-hour, or the six-pack of beeper batteries I never had cause to drain. As I say goodbye to my pub-crawler persona, I start to wonder what's next. Fifteen jails in fifteen days? A dozen massage parlors in a week? Ten emergency rooms in 24 hours? Am I really ready to let go?

As 11 o'clock rolls around and the crowd starts to thin, I find solace from words scrawled in lipstick beneath glow-in-the-dark condom dispensers in bars everywhere: It may be closing time for this journalist, but every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.


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