My friend texted me the news. "Sit down and brace yourself," his message said. "I’ve got something very difficult to tell you."
A pause followed, probably only seconds, long enough at that point to have me ready to start hammering out demands for clarity. Or, perhaps, to even actually dial his number and call him!
"There’s a new bar where the Own Lee Place used to be."
My legs quivered. The world seemed to warp and bend around me. I fell to my knees and looked to the stars and howled. "Why, God? Why? Is nothing in this world sacred? Is nothing beyond death’s cold embrace?"
Okay, I didn’t really freak out that bad, but it really did suck. The Own Lee was more than a bar. It was a landmark, an murky oasis for ne’er-do-wells from all around the Clarks Summit area. People in town knew it universally as the Only Hole or, more often, just the Hole.
Turns out the bastards (by "bastards" I mean "new owners") had torn out the Own Lee’s smoldering, nicotine-stained heart and replaced it with something clean and fashionable. It was like hearing that a childhood friend had gotten a brain transplant. Yea, the body might be the same, but he’s not the person you once knew anymore. His soul is gone.
The Own Lee sat in the shadow of a clock tower at the corner of Depot and Spring Street, not far from the train tracks. Generation upon generation of cigarette smoke was soaked into the walls, giving the place an ancient aroma. You knew who had been there on any given night just by the smell that followed them. It lingered in clothes and hair for days. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in that place, but I swear I still sometimes catch whiffs of the Hole coming out through my pores. The new owners had to gut the whole interior of the bar just to get rid of the stench.
You want to know what kind of place the mighty, mighty Own Lee was? Every summer night when the carnival was in town, carneys would fill the bar. Dozens of them. There were many bars closer to the carnival grounds, yet the carneys always wound up there. That’s what kind of place the Own Lee was: carneys flowed there instinctively like salmon returning to the place from which they’d spawned.
And perhaps they did spawn there. Who knows, really, what manner of man or beast was born from the Hole's smokey redds.
People routinely got into fist fights over the Eagles and Giants in that bar. Cowboys jerseys nearly got multiple men killed.
The pool table, for some completely inexplicable reason, had blue felt with a rainbow strip around the edges. We affectionately called it the “gay pride pool table.”
The jukebox had W.C. McCall’s “Convoy” and, on many a night, the song could be heard filling the air.
There was no stage for the live bands. The musicians just stood and played on the floor, democratic as hell, eye to eye with the crowd.
Yea, maybe it was just another small town dive bar, but no matter how hard I try to keep this piece humorous and absurd, a bit of real melancholy keeps sneaking into my belly.
Some damn good people had some damn good times there. The Own Lee produced a lot of laughs. It produced a lot of friends.
Plenty of the nights I spent there were ones that I wished I could take back the morning after. I left many hours of embarrassing dancing in that place. It was, without a doubt, a house of bad decisions. Looking back now, though, knowing that it’s gone, I wish I could have one last hurrah at the Hole.
It would be one of those bitterly cold Northeast Pennsylvania winter nights. I’d open the door and see the Foot, that giant of a man, standing there. I’d take my wallet to show my ID and he’d just laugh.
In the backroom Wade Rose is singing “Friend of the Devil” while pool balls crack together in perfect tune to the music. Kevin’s there behind the bar, stoic as always, unreadable. Happy, sad, or mad, his face just saying, “meh.”
I’d order a Jack and Coke and take it to the end of the bar, back by the pinball machines and dart board, and I’d sit down and look out past the neon sighs in the window at the clock tower standing in the snow like Time itself looming over us all. People'd flow in through the door, old friends and strangers, everyone smiling, everyone having a good time.
I’d just sit there for a long time letting my buzz settle in. There isn’t any hurry. There’s a whole night ahead, and nights like that last as close to forever as any mortal man’s ever going to get. And that's how it would end, poised forever on the razor's edge of infinity, the warm promise of a night full of madness and bad dancing.
Of course, that one more night is just a fool’s dream. We can never go back. Things that die stay dead.
The Own Lee’s hours were numbered from the moment the foundation was set. All our lives are. The clock starts ticking the second we’re born. The only thing that really separates any of us is how many rolls of the dice we get before both sides come up blank.
Every moment we get is a blessing. That sounds like some Hallmark Special bullshit, but it’s true, and we all know it.
Of those many finite moments of my finite life, more than a few were spent laughing in the Only Hole. And you know what? It was time goddamn well spent.
So, here’s to everyone I ever shared a drink with at the Own Lee. Here’s to everyone I ever head-butted there (sorry about that, by the way). I liked most of you and loved a few. Some of you I truly despised, but this isn’t the time or place for all that. Only an asshole argues at a funeral.