I think we should all have a place where we can go to feel safe and wanted and loved. A place where we can go to escape the mundanity or, insanity, that generally and, regularly, plagues our everyday lives. For writers, that place is usually a bar; a favorite, local haunt that nourishes the soul in the most intangible ways. It is a place where we go to ease the heaviness of the day. It’s a place where, and forgive the Cheers reference, if we’re lucky and spend enough time, everyone knows our name and they’re always glad we came. And, if it’s a good bar, it’ll level the playing field. A good bar should be a place where everyone is the same no matter their occupation or lack thereof or income level or lack thereof. A good local bar should smooth the rough edges, provide solace and alcohol, when necessary, music or an ear, when necessary, and make us feel wanted in this often hard-scrabble, fight-or-die world. Ernest Hemingway had Les Deux Magot in Paris and Sloppy Joe’s in Key West (among myriad others around the world), Hunter S. Thompson frequented the Woody Creek Tavern, and Oscar Wilde drank at the Hotel Cafe Royal. My local bar is Joe’s and they are my family. Because friends are the family we choose for ourselves, I choose Joe’s.
Back in February, when it was rigidly and brutally cold, and the entire east coast of the United States was dreaming of and praying for warmer days and sunshine and an end to the seemingly endless winter, I met the most intriguing and interesting man I’m fairly sure I have ever met in this lifetime, a Joe. And it was at my local haunt, Joe’s, my favorite bar in the whole world, which says a lot because the number of pub thresholds I’ve crossed rivals any aging Irishman. It was a snow day and even though I’m on sabbatical, I felt inclined to take the day, like the rest of the people, and simply do fuck all. So my best friend and I took a lovely stroll through our beautiful historic town, on a picturesque snowy day, up the hill and ended up (well, it was planned) at Joe’s. And as we walked into the bar, I swear the Cheers theme was playing (more about that later). Our friends were there; they had summoned us. And so we drank delicious craft beer (Maple Mistress – shout out to Saucony Creek brewing) the crazy regular, another Joe, who seems to live at the bar every day was playing the jukebox (do they still call it that?) He generally plays TV theme songs, which is why I think, or know, that I heard the Cheers theme when I entered the bar. This February day he was playing Christmas music, not what any of us wanted to hear while we were channeling summer, discussing how we’d soon be spending Thursdays at Tunes at Twilight and the various festivals that summer in Bethlehem brings and of course, the best of them all, Musikfest. “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” was like nails on a chalkboard and crazy tv-theme-show-playing Joe was on our shit list.
Joe’s is what most people would call a dive bar and I write this in the most lovingly of ways. It’s an old bar; we just celebrated 50 years this past March. It’s dimly lit with odd yellowish-orange lighting. The bar itself is wood and runs the length of the building, holding about 20-25 seats. It’s modern in that it has great craft beers and two large flat screen televisions perched high at each end for sports viewing (NY Giants and Yankees). What I think I love most about Joe’s is that it is decorated with all kinds of insanely awesome kitsch including books and puzzles and every kind of Giants or Yankees memorabilia a customer can find; Joe’s is a New Yorkers dream. It has live music on the weekends and delicious bar food prepared skillfully and lovingly by Bruce (seriously, the French Onion Burger is the closest thing to nirvana, so I’ve been told because I don’t eat meat). The bartenders are convivial and smart and not hard to look and, gratefully, they have become close friends. Joe’s radiates all the ambiance and love and warmth that always ignites sheer joy in me when I walk through its doors.
This Thursday – a cold, snowy February afternoon – I was seated at the far end of the bar, near the kitchen, on a stool with my best friend, Sarah, on my right, my oddly tattooed, pierced, and genius friend, Ben, to the right of her, and my lovely teacher, happy-to-have-a-snow-day friend Nicole standing behind us. The seat to my left was vacant. And then, just like that, the seat to my left was occupied. The gentleman beside me, Joe, had deep mahogany hair and eyes to match. His skin was olive and he smelled good. He smoked, Marlboro Lights, and drank bourbon, Makers Mark. When he finally introduced himself to me 20 minutes later, I had already decided that we were going to be friends. Within the course of a few hours we had covered work, writing, unions, business contracts, marriage, divorce, why I don’t believe in marriage (divorce, many between both of my parents), snow, the unrelenting cold, where we might retire someday (near the water – him in Italy, me in New England), bartending, owning a bar, owning a bookstore, you name it – life, love, all of it, all of the things you discuss when you’re at a bar in the afternoon on a snowy day and have had many drinks and cigarettes and nowhere else to be but there.
At a young thirty-something-years-old he is quite old school. He likes Frank Sinatra and Townes Van Zandt; he thinks I’m “aces” and “easy on the eyes;” and he says “good stuff” about everything from bourbon to meeting me randomly in a bar. (Well, not quite so randomly. He has since admitted that he sat next to me on purpose.) That night we exchanged information, but not promises. We said we’d see each again at Joe’s. And we have.
I frequent Joe’s at least once a week. If I’m not there they send out the rescue team. Life at Joe’s, and the people that frequent that bar, from the ordinary to the most odd, is what makes it my favorite place to be most of the time. I can’t imagine life without Joe’s, and now, without all of the Joe’s. Almost four months later, Joe, not the quirky, tv-theme-show-loving Joe, but the other one, and I are still friends. We meet regularly at Joe’s, and other places, to check in with each other. We text every day, again, just to check in. We tell each other about the stupid shit that we’re forced to deal with during the day and we rejoice when life seems to be behaving the way it should more regularly.
It seems to me that this is how the world works. We meet people randomly and all of a sudden, unbeknownst to us, they become our people. I like that Joe, and Joe’s, are now my people. (The tv-theme-show loving Joe is a work in progress.) I’m never quite sure how it is that we meet the people that we do or even how it works in the whole scheme of the universal, or if it’s merely happenstance or kismet or just random showing up in some place at some time. I’m not quite sure I believe in the whole “everything-happens-for-a-reason” bullshit that most people embrace when they need to make themselves feel better about some fucked up shit that happened to them. I’d like to think that we randomly meet folks who enlighten us and show us who we are in the world at a given time. So we (Joe and I) have decided to ride out our Joe’s friendship and see where it takes us. In the past few years I seem to have found some quite lovely Joe’s friendships, all of which have made my life enormously and happily a better place to reside. Joe’s makes it difficult for me to want to be anywhere but here, which is the place in my head where I normally want to be. That said, Joe’s is home.