I was shocked to find cowboys singing karaoke. Not wannabes. Real hardcore cowboys. We were in a small saloon on the edge of Tucson, Arizona occupied by leathered ranch hands and desert rat women. All hard. All looking like they were going to kick our ass when we walked in. The bartender recognized and welcomed us to the bar before they tossed us out of there. So I was even more surprised to hear the KTV start the liquid synthesizer and bass of “Drive” by The Cars.
I looked around, shocked to hear that tune starting up in this bar, wondering who in the hell was going to pull this off. It took a second. Then I saw an old, bent-over man in a dust-worn hat, clutching the black cordless microphone. He shuffled his crippled legs between jostling patrons and over the beer sloshed floor.
That’s just sad, I thought. Then our mouths dropped opened.
♫♪Who’s gonna tell you when it’s too late?♪♫ He crooned in a clear, perfect, brassy baritone. ♫♪Who’s gonna tell you things aren’t so great?♪♫
He made us cry. Everyone in the bar was silent. We looked at this man, the evidence of many years, so much wear, and stories suggested by his worn skin and crooked frame.
His eyes closed, he crooned. ♫♪You can’t go on, thinking nothing’s wrong. Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?♪♫
When I was a child, my grandmother called out the local brick-sided Tavern on the northeast corner of our downtown square. She impressed upon me that the room behind the neon signs and tinted windows was a hot box of sinners, tantamount to hell itself.
Which is why I was so surprised, some years later, that Grandma led me through the doors of the Teller House Bar in Central City, Colorado. She wanted to see “The Face on the Barroom Floor”. While that didn’t impress me, what did was to see the inside of a bar. And it was not the din of iniquity I imagined.
In the remote Pacific Northwest I once came off the trail starving and hit the first bar and grill in the first mill town we drove through. There can be a lot of antagonism between rural Oregon and urban tree huggers, so my hippie hiking partner was like a cat on a hot tin roof. I walked into the darkly lit bar to find lumberjack from corner to smoky corner. Every conversation stopped. Every head turned to look at me. I had on sandals, shorts, T-shirt and sunglasses with hair to my shoulders. From complete silence came the sarcastic drawl, “Oh look. It’s Jon Bon Jovi.”
Only a split second passed before I broke into a wide open-mouthed laugh. Then everyone in the bar did the same.
The bartender called out, “Come sit down, Hon.”
The mountain of a man to my right slapped me on the back and asked, “What’re you drinking? It’s on me.”
By the time my hiking partner dared to stick his head around the corner, we were all laughing, telling stories, and having a great time.
Today I’ve spent time in bars from Nairobi, Kenya to Juno, Alaska. Now I have the opposite opinion. It’s not like I look over to see the messiah lighting up at the next stool over. But any dispassionate read of the Christian Bible finds Jesus drinking with whores and rough characters. Check it. Call it what you will, this leaves no question in my mind what kind of wine Jesus turned water into. They don’t call ’em waterin’ holes for nothin’. Well,… Okay, it wasn’t for that. But still. Ask me what church I attend, and I’ll tell you “the local bar.”
There’s a small red-painted bar on a small mountain-town corner. It has a huge yellow sign at the entrance that says, “We support the timber industry.” My environmentalist friends and I used to drink there regularly. Bear in mind that a restaurant a few blocks away would literally not serve us. But here we drank side-by-side with men who lost their jobs when the wilderness we worked in was federally designated. One evening, Tom stood on my left, complaining loudly about “that damned George.” George was the man who led the effort for wilderness designation. We listened as he finished his rant, slamming his fist on the bar. Then we leaned back and pointed at the man who stood with an ear-to-ear grin on our right. “You mean this damned George?”
“Yeah, that damned George,” Tom said. He smiled down the bar at the man he’d been complaining about. “Let me buy you a drink.”
Quakers say there is ‘that of Christ’ in every human. I saw it then and in other countless moments belly to the bar. I find it easiest to see in those real moments with real people.