There is something about a smoky bar.
Found in old row buildings crammed tightly together, they share common walls with laundry mats and drug stores. In the old days, they rented rooms to the rail workers and day laborers by the month, day, or hour. Men’s hotels.
In the sticks, they live out on the crossroads in the middle of gravel parking lots miles from nowhere. Servicing loggers and drag line operators. Waiting for something to happen.
They are the places where a pool table is sacred, the darts have steel tips (you keep score by marking a slate bard with chalk) and there’s a shuffleboard that runs the length of the back wall. It is where you would find old men nursing whiskey at 10 in the morning on a Sunday—left over from the ‘lock in’ the night before. They were the regulars
In the small towns where I grew up, these establishments are still part of the fabric. They house local history and refuse to be gentrified.
In Columbia my two favorites are Dietz’s and the Fairview. I frequent them when I go home. My sisters have regular status. We pay for every other.
The Hotel Locust was another. Favored by my late uncle Paul and the boys, late evenings during the holidays led to Christmas carols at my grandmother’s house at 2 a.m. But it has changed hands recently and appears to have lost some of its gritty charm.
Outside of Moshannon there was the roadhouse at the crossroads. I never knew it to have a name. They only served bottles and cans—poured into plastic cups after 8 p.m. Great cheeseburgers for lunch. It’s strip joint now.
The Star Garden is a memory.
At the edge of Karthus there’s a cinder block shack that sits 50 feet from the train tracks. As I kid, my dad and uncle would stop there to pick up a six-pack for the canoe ride from Miller’s Landing to the iron bridge. I’ve always wanted to give it a try.
Bellefonte has the Dodie and the Omar, but the Big Trout is gone.
My step-father and his brother have a family bar in my home town. It’s an old two-story row house hotel with a small sign outside—Smith’s. When I was a kid the rail was populated by old men with names like Beanbelly, Buzz, and Double-dip. The long bar has since been cut in half to make room for seating to accommodate the steak shop the blossomed out of the back kitchen 20 years ago. They still rent rooms upstairs.
My regular bar is Zeno’s—located directly above the center of the earth—and even after my 9 years in Seattle (where I never did find the right bar), it was as though I had never left. Dave still tends five nights a week. And on Friday nights I lose two out of three on the pool table to this guy from Staten Island. Every once in a while, I'm there when the lights come on.