I have recently taken to hanging out in bars again.
Well, one bar, near my house in Scarborough. It has taken me a bit by surprise, as bars have never been my preferred venue for socializing. My people are stout Midwestern Protestants who believed that if you were not judging – i. e., disapproving of – your neighbors, you were not even trying to be Christian. In their theology, alcohol was bad and people who drank it voluntarily were alcoholics.
When I got to Sunday school, I noticed there was an awful lot of drinking going on, like by Jesus in the last supper. “Shut up,” they explained.
Ironically, my father worked for the liquor control commission. Sometimes he took me with him when he inspected taverns. They smelled like sawdust, stale beer and failure, the latter coming from afternoon drinkers hunched over glasses at the end of the bar. My father checked tax stamps on liquor bottles. I spun on bar stools until I got dizzy.
Years later, doing standup, I spent six or seven nights a week in bars. In those days, when bars still had mead on tap, the only way to break into comedy was to hang out in comedy clubs, with no shot at getting onstage. You sat in the bar to show how badly you wanted it, along with your competitors, who were hanging out to show how badly they wanted it. It was the show business equivalent of a “hand on the truck” contest.
That gets old in a hurry, especially if you are a nondrinker and socially inept. When I got into the writing game, I thought I was through with bars. So I was surprised to realize that I had become a regular again, at a pizza place and bar on U.S. Route 1.
It started innocently enough, with a sign for that advertised “Karaoke Fri. 9-1.” The places where I had been pretending I could sing had closed or gotten too crowded. This sign was practically at the end of my block. Clearly, I was supposed to go there. Paul’s moment on the road to Damascus was more ambiguous.
This fact was borne out that first Friday. The Internet-based karaoke system left more time for singing. The owner, Angelo, was a congenial host and engaging performer, a little too professional for a typical bar owner. I later learned he had spent some time entertaining in Greek night clubs in Massachusetts before moving to Scarborough.
One night a week quickly turned into several. It is a good place to work when home is not – i.e., most of the time. (Our house is too quiet when Carol and Elizabeth are out; When they are in, there is no place to stand where I’m not in somebody’s way). I like the pizza and the salads. It has an Internet connection. Angelo and his lovely wife, Bess, graciously let me sit in a corner with my computer. They have treated me particularly well since Angelo found a couple of my stand-up sets from the ’80s on the internet.
I figure they’re showing pity.
My dirty little secret is that sometimes I go there voluntarily, even when I don’t have any work to do. Angelo and Bess and their bartenders have created a sense of community, an overused term that fits in this case. He is actively involved in town. He played soccer in college and professionally, and for many years has loaned his expertise in various capacities to youth soccer programs. My daughter worked for him for a while in a program through the Scarborough schools to give special-needs kids experience in the workplace. Many of his younger customers know him and know each other through activities he has been involved in.
The clientele challenges my tendency to pigeonhole people. One of the first regulars I met – pretty much unmissable, because he looks a caricature of a circus strong man – surprised me by being funny and quick, with a personality to match his size. There is the former honest-to-God fighter pilot who flies for an airline now. (I discovered there are two kinds of people in the world, the kind who thrive on making split-second life-and-death decisions at several hundred miles an hour, and people like me.) There is a young Maine hipster girl who knows more about British comedy than I do, which is saying something. One of the bartenders dances for the Red Claws, reads tarot and can hold her own in a discussion of the nature of existence. See? Interesting people.
My favorite story, though, is about Angelo and Bess. There is a lot to it, including how they raised three beautiful, charming, hard-working children. The best part, for me, anyway, is their immigrant story. They were born two villages apart on one of the Greek islands. Both their families emigrated as kids; Bess’ went to Australia, Angelo’s went to South Africa. They finally got to the States and settled in Massachusetts. That is where they finally met.
To me it seems like such an American story.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.