• Tom Cleary

God Save the Corner Bar



During the pandemic I have written about the costs to society. Mostly, I have focused on the unseen side effects of societal shutdowns. Most specifically I have discussed the cost to faith communities. There are other communities that have been damaged during the shutdowns and will continue to be threatened if there are additional shutdowns.

The community I wish to discuss today is that of the corner bar. I know, it may seem odd for a person of faith, and especially one sober for 36 years, to defend the culture and community of the corner bar, but I hope to show that it needs defending and that its loss would be very damaging indeed. I have a unique perspective on this as I worked at such a family-owned corner bar for seven years in the late 80s and early 90s. Yes, there are obvious downsides to any bar community, or any community of any kind for that matter. Yet, through all of that, I can unequivocally state that such a community is at its best a welcoming and safe and utterly necessary place that contributes to human wellbeing.

What the corner bar offers at its best is shelter from the storm. It is a place where people can gather, where you are known and where you are welcome. It is a place of enduring relationships. Where I worked I have met and known some of the most wonderful people in my life. Many of them remain friends to this day. Even the one’s I have not kept in contact with over the years have a special place in my heart and always will.

It is in such a place that you will find populated with people with not just names but nick names. It would be like the bar intro scene in Goodfellas. You would meet the Screamer, Tiger, the Toenail, the Ice Man, Uncle Jack, and be called upon by folks like Molson Joe and Shimmie. Even the perpetually cranky old guy at the bar had a nickname: Happy. You could look forward to visits from the Tuesday basketball team and there were always the old guys playing pitch in the corner. If you are a regular or an employee, you are a part of something larger than yourself and you always have a place to hang your hat. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a young woman who was a regular who told me one day that ours was the only bar she would go into alone, without planning to meet anyone. She was comfortable doing this because at least she knew all of us behind the bar.

Then there was the regular who was a vacation count downer; he could tell you to the minute when his next vacation was scheduled. One day, after returning from a trip, he plopped down his pictures from the trip he just finished and had me look at them. It struck me that I saw this guy more frequently and knew more about his day-to-day life than some members of his extended family or good friends. It never left me how important it was to honor those relationships and to sustain them.

From that time on I looked upon the bartender-patron relationship much like that of a doctor patient or lawyer-client. The better analogy is that of a priest-penitent (little known fact; bartenders have the authority to marry patrons, but only for that night). Seriously, the point is that you were entrusted with things about people that mattered to them; you saw things that were important in their lives.

Even outsiders understood the power of this community; like the night Stan and Jim rolled in from Memphis on a road trip and were so taken by the community and how it reminded them of their own corner bar that they bought the house two rounds of pitchers of beer (that was how we discovered that we possessed 33 pitchers). You literally cannot make this stuff up.

Yes, I certainly saw my share of grotesque behavior. There were occasionally fights; one between a group of lawyers arguing about who made more money (sadly true!). I also saw people commit every excremental act the human body can commit; on one notable occasion a woman who committed them all within a five-minute time span (note that these stories are memorable because they are rare). Yet, I also saw people meet their life partners in that place, I saw people celebrate great moments in their lives and gather to heal one another at life’s difficult moments. Where else but in such a community would a regular loan his bartender (me) the belt off his pants, because I had forgotten mine in my rush to get ready for a first date with a young woman (hand to God, a true story). I was even honored to be asked to say a few words at a gathering of the friends of a regular who sadly died way too young.

I saw history through and with this community. I saw the Berlin Wall fall in this place. I saw the first Gulf War erupt there. I was behind the bar and witnessed the surreal display of a bar full of patrons mesmerized by OJ’s slow moving white Bronco rolling down a California highway. I witnessed a million other events, global and local all in the company of friends. The point of all this is that what happens in these places is real. This is where people really live and where they work, play, hurt and heal. It is a shared experience that cannot be replicated, and it most certainly cannot be discarded.

Jesus understood this. He always meets us where we are and accepts us as we are. This is where we find so many of our brothers and sisters, for good and for ill. If this is where people are and if this is a good, life affirming human community then in the name of God defend it. Not everyone has experienced such a community, but they should at some time in their lives. One of the reasons that Cheers was so beloved was that so many have experienced such a community and the rest aspired to do so. We discard it at our great peril.

Sadly, we are witnessing just such a discarding of this culture. One reason why there always seems to be a corner bar is that the initial investment is so low. If one closes, the buildings and infrastructure are still there, someone can scrounge up enough money and tap a keg and give it a go. Many will burn out when they realize that they have purchased a 90 hour/week job that can be all consuming, yet there is usually a brave soul who steps forward (it truly is a sacrifice these people make to sustain these communities). However, not even a low initial investment can overcome a market environment that is continually subject to outright shutdown. The uncertainty is simply too much to make such an investment rational. We are at an inflection point. If we are not careful, we will shred what remains a significant source of community stability.

We are seeing the despair, especially among the young, for whom these communities are especially important. This quote is from a 27-year-old: “At first the lockdown was a joke. We’d laugh at it... (Now) I start to wake up bitter, sad, and hopeless.” There is even an app that is designed to provide the sounds of a crowded bar, simply to attempt to recreate the experience. The rise in suicides and mental health issues is, I think directly related to the crushing of this culture. It will only get worse if we let it continue. People, especially the young, are desperate to connect with other human beings, not online but IN REAL LIFE. We treat ourselves as less than human if we think we can survive without this.

Lest anyone think this is just nostalgia for my lost youth, I would beg to differ. First of all I recognize my bar days are long behind me, except for lunches, eating the greatest pub grub on the planet. In any event, I doubt I could make it up even late enough until there is three hours to go until there is an hour to go (if you ever worked in a bar you will get that). But, even though those nights are behind me they were formative. This was true for me personally, as an employee and as a patron. I experienced deeply meaningful moments via my corner bar, and still do. I met my now wife of 27 years through this bar, we went there the night we were engaged, I went there after the birth of both my children, I went there on September 11th. Whether I was happy, sad, angry or scared, I knew that I did not have to be any of those things alone. This was a place of welcome and comfort that afforded me real community. I am richer by far for that community and I am forever grateful to all who made it possible, and my prayer is that the next generation has the opportunity to experience this as well. I can think of few more Godly places than these. I am genuinely convinced that Jesus smiles down upon all the corner bars in this world. You know, where two or three are gathered in His name...

Praise Be to God

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