I guess it helps that it's 10 p.m. on a Monday -- no time for an upstanding citizen to be drinking this much liquor -- but this crowd's a little bit of everyone.
There are guys in cargo shorts and guys in death-metal T-shirts, young women out with their friends and middle-aged women out with their middle-aged men. Ball caps and flat caps, bikers and dudes who look like women at first glance.
The guy standing next to me gets a whiskey and ginger ale. The bartender upends a bottle of cheap and nasty whiskey into an eight-ounce clear plastic cup. You know how these Dixie cups have ribbed sides maybe 4/5 of the way up? The whiskey goes up to that line. He garnishes the thing with a little soda like cream in coffee.
On my left is a man who looks like he hasn't left that stool since the mid-90s. Maybe that's his breath I smell. It's like a bad burp and it hangs in the cramped confines of the Lounge.
I ordered whiskey and water the first time around, which was a stupid thing to start with. I'll need something a little more merciful to unclench my jaw. I was thinking whiskey and Coke, but ginger ale sounds interesting. "Same as him," I say when the bartender points at me. I hand him my cup. You get one cup for panic hour, and if you lose it, you're done.
"We take care of you; you take care of us." That's what the other bartender said when I got here. He said it over and over again. He was juiced, a boxer about to step into the ring. I wonder what it's like to be a bartender during panic hour. On one hand, it's half the work -- no money involved. On the other hand, everyone's trying to stomach as much booze as possible in sixty minutes. And the tip jar isn't as full as I'd hoped. You want to believe that people reward generosity with generosity.
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I get my drink and leave a dollar on the bar. I talk a big-hearted game, but that's a pretty stingy tip, given that I forgot to leave anything the first time. Do as I say...
The men's bathroom is out of order. There's red tape across the door and more across the preceding hallway. So there's a bit of a line for the one stall in the women's bathroom. The guy in front of me lets me go ahead. He explains that he's doing unpleasant business, that he's lactose intolerant but ate some pizza earlier. I thank him. A woman walks out of the stall and puts her hand on his chest. She says something amiable and walks away. He clearly doesn't know her.
Someone puts "Thunder Road" on the jukebox, and I am drenched in happiness. This is what makes dive bars great. No presumptions, no judgments. People walk around with their heads up, smiling and making new friends.
By the time I finish my whiskey and ginger ale and head back to the bar, they've started serving drinks in glasses and charging for them. I had 10:55 p.m., but who's complaining? Panic hour still the best deal in town, whether it lasts for 55 minutes or 60.