“It’s so good to see you again. You’ve really been missed, do you live here now?”
We stood in a room with walls painted blue and a steady influx of humans, beer, and humans with beer. I was back in the town I’d lived in for five years and been away for two. The spot had imbedded itself in me, and I in it. It was just a random party, but I was treating it as a homecoming.
“Well, I don’t live here, in Bellingham, I’m in Seattle. But I’m back in the Northwest and I’m really excited!”
They walked away and didn’t talk to me again for the rest of the night.
I ran into Cedric, a regular at a spot I’d worked at in the Rainier Valley. It wasn’t a great bar, in fact one could say it was a complete trainwreck, but it had its patrons and it had people who worked there to serve said patrons. I was one of those people. It was money enough to float rent for the dilapidated hovel in Rainier Beach I was living in at the time.
Cedric was, however, a great regular. A black man of undetermined middle age, he was usually quiet unless boasting, or talking about long gone spots in the Central District. His greatness as a regular was derived from two things: the sly way he could poke fun at the uptight white people who at the time were just starting to move into Hillman City, and his policy to never leave me alone.
“You always need at least one customer. If folks see an empty bar, it’s gonna stay an empty bar.”
We greeted eachother and he asked where I was working. I told him about the new spot, just up the road, that I’d landed a gig at and told him to come in and I’d buy him a drink.
“Ha. I’m NOT going to ______.”
Well okay, then.
Working at a bar is like living in a college town. Both have their own social economies, inside jokes, traditions spoken and unspoken, and primarily exist for the people who are there.
Swansea, Wales, is not really a college town. But it’s small enough that the college leaves a pretty big thumbprint on the neighborhoods surrounding it, to the extent that it feels like a different city during summer.
The bar I worked at in Swansea was the first bar I worked at. I’d made sandwiches, served coffee, even slung Moons Over My Hammys at the world’s third largest Denny’s. But this was the first place I was a bartender, even if that largely entailed pouring Welsh ales and pre- measured shots of Bell’s whiskey. This pub was divided into two sides. The “family” side and the “games” side.
Really, this meant the “student” and “regulars” side. The family side was brightly lit and carpeted (which is ALWAYS A BAD IDEA. STOP PUTTING CARPETS IN BARS) and the games side had a concrete floor, pool, darts, big TVs and a automated boxing machine/punching bag right by the entrance. What could possibly go wrong?
The regulars hated the students and the students looked down on the regulars. In the UK the drinking age is 18 and checking IDs is not a thing. The regulars hated the students beccause they were often loud, entitled kids from middle England yelling anti-Welsh epithets and talking openly about the “shithole” town and bar they were in. The students looked down on the regulars because many of them were surly workers who openly leered at women around their daughters’ ages, sank into the same drinks rituals until they put the same four songs on the jukebox, night after night, week after week.
It’s good there were two rooms.
For a while after moving back to the Northwest I would visit Bellingham just to “visit Bellingham.” I’d secure a place to crash and make very few other plans. It’s the kind of place where you can run into someone on the street and suddenly have a party to go to, or belly up to the bar you count as your local and have a good night.
After a while, though, that stopped being a workable plan. You can go home again, but you can only have your return party once, and after that you’re either part of the social fabric or not.
Now, I don’t mind not being part of the social fabric. It’s like going to an old local where the staff has changed but the booths still slat weird. I like walking around alone, and seeing the few friends I’ve made a point to keep in touch with.
You know the town that changed your life? The spot that was you and “the crew’s” spot for that magic year and a half when you were still young but no longer stupid? The first place you lived away from home? The pub where you waited out a winter of depression? The little villa where you did your international studies? The bar that was your summer patio for wounds-nursing after your first divorce? The town you lived in a year too long and it nearly killed you? How about the shitty dive that first attracted you to your new Seattle neighborhood– even though you “don’t go out much anymore, you’re just glad to know it’s there?”
These places were never as in love with– or as damaged by– you as you were by them. They carry on, some get better, some get worse. When you revisit, you will feel a blast of nostalgic energy, or maybe you’ll just feel really old. But that’s on you.
“Oh man. This place brings back so many memories.”
Oh yeah? (I don’t recognize this guy, but hey.)
“Yeah, this was my spot. I used to come here every day.”
“For about three months in 2008.”
Great, let’s get you a fuckin’ t-shirt.
I recently quit one of the bars I worked at, and subsequently started at a new one. I’m still learning the ways. The cocktails, menu, closing duties– those are easy. Negotiating the distance– and closeness– with customers is tougher. I’m still new, and every shift at least one person who’s been “drinking at this bar for ten years” asks me “where Matt is.”
“Oh, so you’re Matt now, huh?”
I feel like I did after my first Framework, a half-secret Swansea arts party thrown in a labor hall. The artists there were mainly locals, many of whom had been working to build community in that town for years. The looks they gave me said “we’re glad you’re here. . . but we aren’t getting too attached.”
Every now and then a regular shows up, excited that someone is in town, someone I clearly should know, they used to work, or drink, or both, here. They’ve kept in touch. They’re close friends, and as such, this person is part of the fabric, even though it’s been ten years.
Time blurs at the bar, as it does when you live in a space where people are constantly leaving, and returning, and the changes are outweighed by what stays the same. Folks saying they’re really gone this time, they’re really moving to the big city, they’re really going to stop drinking, they’re really going to travel the world, they aren’t gonna bartend anymore, they’re going back to school.
If you’re truly friends with the folks that leave, you’re glad for them. They left Bellingham. They got other jobs.
But they aren’t here any more.
A couple years ago, I went back to The Rhyddings Pub, where I first was paid to pour whiskey, where I’d spent a solid year I’ll never forget and will doubtlessly write about more. Walking in there was a table of some of the same regulars– Ross, Ceri, Gareth– sitting, laughing over pints of Fosters. I approached the bar and the owner, my old boss, looked at me hard and squinted.
“Do I . . . know. . . you?”
Also published on Medium.