Join the Club

The sleek young cigar smoker wearing the Brooks Brothers suit and $300 cap-toe loafers wants to shuffle-bowl. He hasn't done this since he was ten -- hasn't seen a resolutely low-tech shuffle-bowling game anywhere since he was ten -- and this is a primo opportunity to reclaim a shred of his boyhood. So with a grin lighting his face, he reaches into a pocket of his knife-crease trousers and comes out with a handful of quarters. Sets down the Dewar's-rocks. Tugs back his cuffs. And like magic, there she is. His opponent in the bowling wars. She's twenty-three. Maybe. Helmet of dirty-blond hair. Huge eyes ringed in black, like a raccoon's. Big green-and-purple tarantula tat winding over one shoulder. And enough silver dangling from eyes, ears, nose and throat to hold a schooner at anchor.

Pucks fly. Ten spares and three 7-10 splits into the contest, she's drinking Dewar's, too, and puffing on a Macanudo of her very own. He's looking at her nose ring with uncommon interest. Don't see many of those at the office.

Welcome to Don's Club Tavern, better known as Don's Mixed Drinks, because that's what the ancient orange neon out front promises. Welcome to Don's, the bare-bones midnight hangout where broker and goth queen collide, where dinner is a bag of Snak King pork rinds and a cold Bud draft, where yin confronts yang, where right brain jostles left, where the clashing styles and teeming ambiguities of the urban drama are forever playing out amid a cloud of smoke and the muffled wail of Janis Joplin. Don's is diversity in action, democracy on the cusp -- but for a few house rules. To wit: "If you don't have an ID, that's your problem. We don't care where it is, who has it, when it was lost, or if you have friends who will vouch for you. If you don't have an ID, you can't get in. Period."

Any questions? The founder of this beloved institution, the enabler of its rituals and the author of its rules, is Don Aymami, the half-Basque, half-Irish, Denver-born sole proprietor of the establishment for -- let's see here -- the last 52 years. In June 1947, Aymami bought Flanagan's Club Tavern, put his first name on it and persevered. Food, drink and straight talk. He shut the kitchen several decades back, so men in felt hats and women wearing seamed nylons no longer crowd in for Don's Friday-night lobsters. But St. Patrick's Day has remained the same for forty years: steaming mounds of free corned beef and cabbage, maybe a couple of tunes warbled under the old "Erin Go Bragh" plaque, a few tears shed.

These days, at least one bartender at Don's sports a nose ring, and she talks about what she just saw up on Colfax: "Some Christians were wheeling a huge cross down the street," she reports. "But I couldn't help thinking, 'Hey, this is supposed to be the passion of Christ?' He didn't have a wheel on his cross. Get that thing off there. Lift." Thus the life of the city, enacted in tiny scenes. In smoky Don's one recent night, beneath a faded illustration of dogs playing cards, a man slumped in his wheelchair eloquently explained to a disc jockey the precise differences, in taste and texture, between Johnny Walker Red and Johnny Walker Black. A jet-sleek blonde smoothed her black silk skirt and nuzzled her date's ear. She breathed two words: "Maybe later."

But you no longer see Don in the evenings. The chemotherapy treatments have worn him down. He's 81 years old and weighs only 120 now. The face, once robust, has hollowed, and the hands protruding from his gray cardigan look huge. Still, in the sunlit mornings, when the tavern first opens, he'll come in for a beer and reminisce about the old days -- about a golf trip to Ireland ("Rained so damn hard and the grass grew so fast I lost a ball on the green, can you believe it?"), about a cruise from New Orleans to Mexico, about the people who've come and gone during more than a half-century in the saloon business. He will show you scraps of memorabilia from his wallet and assure you that his wife of 25 years, Barbara, pledges to carry on.

"I've got no regrets," Don Aymami says. "None at all. If I make it to next June, we'll be 53 years here. On this spot. Anyway, I'm the last of five children. I guess God don't want me."

Pray it stays that way for a while. What's a club without its founding member?

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo