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I Grew Up in a Bar

The coils of the Slinky tangled—snarled metal tumbling down steep, dark stairs into the bar. Nothing like the commercial with the laughing children, feigning amazement. There was no methodical step-by-step staircase magic. But then again, nothing ever lived up to its promise.

This is how boredom looks in the apartment above a bar. Throwing a toy down the steps when it doesn’t work, wrapping silly putty around your fingertips like miniature pink claws, rereading comic books from Woolworth, unspooling crochet yarn, begging our grandmother to watch the same VHS tapes though we watched them all the weekend before.

At night, we weren’t allowed downstairs, but we heard enough through the floorboards. Madonna, Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper. And if I pressed my ear against the wall that enclosed the stairwell, I could catch even more. The pause between jukebox songs, the scratch of pool sticks across felt, the thump of balls sinking into their netted homes. Shuffleboard. Video poker. Voices laughing or arguing, indiscernible.

But sometimes we heard more. Water churning through pipes when the toilet flushed. The back door to the alley opening and closing. The smash of a bottle.

Accidents happened. Sometimes bottles broke.

Sometimes more than one bottle. Barstools not just scuffing on dingy checkered linoleum, but flipping over, heavy thuds against walls. The noises of rage. Men yelling, cursing. An electric lullaby vibrated the apartment upstairs where eventually we’d fall asleep full of potato chips and Slim Jims.

I grew up in a bar.

That’s how I always start this story. You have to admit it’s a good first line. And it isn’t far from the truth. My family owned a bar in Baltimore and my grandparents lived upstairs. I spent every weekend at the bar until sixth grade.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized other people grew up with much different experiences. It is still one of my favorite stories to tell.

You see, there are certain life skills one develops when they grow up in a bar. In those loud, smoke-filled rooms, I mastered every skill that mattered: video poker, shuffleboard, bar stool spinning. My claw machine talent, for example, is on point. I have unexpected moments of precision in darts, and an affinity, a yearning, for smoky dive bars filled with misfits and strangers.

When the bar was no longer in our family, and every apartment I lived was temporary, only then did I realize that the only place — the only type of place — that felt like home was a bar.

Put me in a smoky, old dive bar, especially one with a jukebox, and I get downright teary eyed. We all have those places, right? Those places we once called home that no longer exist.

I spent much of time in graduate school, where I received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, writing bar stories. Sometimes restaurant stories (after years of waiting tables), but mostly I imagined my characters in bars. I wanted to understand the regulars as they guzzled beer and watched the small TV on the wall. There were relationships in my bar stories, but also lots of solitude. Lots of jukebox music and broken hearts.

Even after literary journals told me they didn’t want bar stories, I kept on writing them. A bar feels like home to me, and shouldn’t we all get to write about home?

Part of the disdain for stories that take place in bars is that they have become a cliche. There’s either a bunch of old men warming up bar stools, spending more time with the bartender than they spend with their family, or there are reckless college students drinking until they lose their stomach.

I wanted to tell a different story about bars, one with families, one where the bar is home. I remembered the times I ran through the alley behind the bar, past mean dogs and sleeping homeless men, and I wanted to tell that story. Though I haven’t gotten there yet, one day I know I’ll do it justice. Nothing is better than a good bar story.

I have never gone back. The building is still there, but the bar is gone and there is nothing in its place. There are no pictures, no Google records, no evidence that the bar ever existed. I often wonder, what kind of home is that if no one but remembers it but you?

(This story first appeared in P.S. I Love You on Medium)


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