Sick as a dog on a Thursday evening? Try the Irish whiskey cure. Maybe it's not just what the doctor ordered, but it sure doctors the pain when you don't feel good. That's what I've heard from the experts, anyway. I headed to Biddy Early's Irish Bar (3419 N. Andrews Ave., Oakland Park) which, if the name could be trusted, sounded like a great place for an early evening of therapeutic drinking before going home to Benadryl and bed.
Ambiance: At first glance, the place is a predictable pub — dim, smoky lighting, dark furniture, and a steady crowd of 9-to-5ers calming their frayed nerves with strong Irish brew.
But the bar — that's impressive. It's so long that I practically had to squint to make out the folks at the other end. The building is longer than it is wide, and the dark-wood counter stretches from the front door back to the pool table and dartboards. Even after just throwing a lazy gaze around the pub, its old-world Irish décor came out fightin'. Prints of old-style artwork decorate the walls, the backs of chairs boast mysterious copper engravings, and part of the ceiling has been painted with a big, circular, Celtic-looking decoration. I don't know if the skeletal Mona Lisa portrait hanging behind the bar had a damned thing to do with Ireland, but it was right creepy.
Before finding a spot to park myself for the evening, I took a peek into the green-walled dining room. Like the barroom, its dark wooden tables looked like antiques; its booths were tucked snugly into the walls, situated in comfortable little alcoves. Compared to the bar, the dining room, partially in shadows, was sparsely populated. I ducked back into the barroom and grabbed a booth.
Drinking Early: A lady in a red ball cap and a mustached, grizzly gentleman were talking and laughing raucously together — clearly a case of being drunk early at Biddy Early's. Maybe they could give me a quick lesson on how to make a Thursday night so much drunken fun.
The spidery-eyelashed, bleached-blond woman — who bore such a strong resemblance to an intimidating former boss that I nearly wet myself — laughed and gave a mean, insinuating Sarah Palin-style wink.
"I was a TV reporter for 13 years," Carolyn said, swatting my shoulder (affectionately, I think). "I know what you're looking for. You want the scoopy-doop-doop." Mental note to myself: Look that one up in my Merriam-Webster.
"You remind me of me at your age; you're just like a little mini-me," Carolyn continued. "I did all kinds of stories; I talked to guys in prisons and spent time digging prostitutes out of the snow."
"Er... I just talk and drink," I said. "So... what brings you guys out tonight?"
"I'm trying to bed this guy," Carolyn said. The guy, whose name was Chuck, looked confused.
"I've been coming here for five years," Chuck said. "It's owned by an Irish guy and managed by a British guy, which makes it a perfect atmosphere."
"Yeah, it's great," interrupted Carolyn. "We got married in the bathroom here."
"What?" Chuck blinked in bewilderment.
"I'm kidding," Carolyn said, dissolving into a devious witch cackle. "I'd need a ring on my finger" — she pointed to one of her modest-sized rings — "at least three times the size of this one!"
Chuck shrugged, took off his watch, and folded it as if he were going to place it on Carolyn's finger. She withdrew her hands with a look of mock offense, then exploded right back into ear-splitting laughter.
Carolyn suddenly switched gears, like a sports car hitting a speed trap. "I brought my friend out here with me," she said, looking around the bar. "Her husband died of pancreatic cancer a year ago, and she's still depressed."
I scanned the area, spotting no bereaved widows. Nothing better as a remedy for grief, I thought, than being dragged to a bar, liquored up, and ditched. Carolyn must have recognized this too, because she hopped up and stalked off to search for her friend.
"How ya doin, buddy?" she said as she walked past my male companion, who'd been watching everything over the rim of his bourbon and Coke. She balled her fist and delivered a feisty punch to his left arm.
"She has a lot of energy," I said to Chuck, ignoring the abuse she'd just delivered to my buddy.
"I just met her tonight," he said.
Voting Early: Chuck introduced me to Gary, a slight, older gentleman with light-blue eyes and a gruff demeanor.
"Have you early-voted yet?" I asked, eager to make sure that SoFla's drinkers weren't passing up the polls for the pubs.
"Can't," Gary said shortly. "I'm British. Not an American citizen. Been here since I was a kid; put in for my citizenship a few years ago but withdrew it when Bush got elected."
"Fair enough," I said.
"McCain is too old to be president, and Palin is... well, she's in her own world," he said, gazing off behind the bar like he was envisioning the country's future in the liquor bottles. "But Obama's got his own issues.
"The truth is, no one understands much about the government — no one understands midnight laws."
Ah, a lecture on an obscure academic point. Just what you look for from British gents of a certain age.
"For example," Gary said, "did you know you can be sent to war at 50 years old? Mostly noncombat roles, but still."
"That would suck," I said, imagining my dad being carted off to cook omelets for troops in Iraq. Man, he'd be pissed.
"The problem is," Gary said, "that kids don't know this stuff because they don't learn it in school, and guess who controls the school curriculum?"
"The government?" I offered.
"Yeah," he said. "This whole country is messed up."
So who the hell doesn't know that?
Our grizzled old Cassandra, satisfied he'd foretold enough doom within the walls of Biddy Early's, paid his tab and sauntered out. As I tried to parlay Gary's little lesson about hopelessly blundering Americans into a solution for all our problems, Carolyn was suddenly there again, all sharp edges and jarring noise, obliterating my thoughts with her machine-gun voice.
"Stay where you're at and I'll come where you're to," she yelled, as if she'd just had a major epiphany, her responsibility toward her absent aggrieved friend somehow dismissed from her mind. "That's what your story should be called. It's a perfect old Irish saying."
Biddy Early: I fled to the other end of the room and grabbed a spot at the bar, where the brunet bartender offered me a taste of apple cider.
"A lot of the décor here is authentic Irish stuff," Jennifer told me. "The upholstery of the chairs is straight from Ireland. There's also a Biddy Early's Pub in Ireland, which is cool."
"Who's Biddy Early?" I asked.
"I don't know all the stories, but Biddy Early was supposedly an eccentric woman — a witch, maybe — who carried a bottle."
Some internet research later revealed that Biddy Early was an Irish healer and seer whose powers of clairvoyance seemed to have come from a mysterious bottle. There were, of course, dozens of mysterious bottles lined up like soldiers behind Jennifer.
Leaving Early: "Do you think astronauts can drink in space?" Steven, a slim guy with a ruddy beard, asked suddenly, taking a swig of his Carlsberg.
"Well, sure, if they bring alcohol with them," responded his buddy David, a big guy whose glasses and broad grin made him resemble the sort of teasing uncle who'd pull a quarter out of your ear.
"No, I mean, could you actually drink it in space?" He looked at me.
"I don't know, maybe through a tube or something," I suggested.
"What are you drinking?" David asked suddenly. "Is that water?"
"Sprite," I said defensively. "I'm sick."
An hour in Biddy Early had somehow convinced me that multiple shots of the old Tullamore Dew weren't going to help me in my illness.
"Oh, you need a hot toddy," said David, summoning Jennifer.
David ordered me something that he assured would cure my cold, and Jennifer disappeared for a few minutes. Finally, she brought me back a steaming glass that smelled strongly of liquor. "Basically, it's Courvoisier, lemon, and hot water," she said. Courvoisier? Some Irish bar!
"This will cure my cold?" I asked.
"Yeah, and anything else you get for the next five years," Steven said.
Well, I couldn't afford not to drink it. I felt the day wearing on my body and a growing urge to head home.
But my Benadryl would have to wait. A group of drunken rugby players came into the bar and disrupted my quiet evening and warm beverage. One of them, a wiry, dark-eyed fellow, got into my face, tried to flatter me, and then demanded to know if I could tell anything about him just by looking at him.
"Your shirt is unbuttoned, and you're carrying around a boot-shaped mug of beer," I said, edging away from him. "Also, you are uncomfortably close to me. I'd say you're drunk. What can you tell about me?"
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"Damn," he said, stymied.
"That's it?" I snapped. The steaming mug of alcohol was making me feel a little better. "That's why you're not a writer."
I got up to leave, and rugby man tried to block my exit. Luckily for him, I didn't have to deploy any Tae Bo on his ass — a push and a mad dash to the door worked fine. On the way out, I passed Steven and David, who shrugged and gave me a pair of Cheshire-cat smiles.
Biddy Early's is a great place to nurse a cold and talk politics with slightly mad Brits and crazy, marry-you-in-the-bathroom blonds. But when the grabby crowd stumbles in, it's time to bid a fond farewell. Early.