Home for the Holidays

It's been a while since the days when I lived in a hovel by T's Lounge out by Palm Beach International Airport. During those glory days, there were some months when my weekdays began with a bike ride past the strip bar's suggestive marquee and another six miles to my 9-to-5 while I saved up for a new engine for my vintage Toyota. I had a boyfriend who borrowed his dad's spare clunker when we wanted motorized transpo. Finally, one night I sat down and did some math. Turns out, our Bass Ale habit down at O'Shea's Pub was swallowing up the equivalent of more than two fat car payments a month.

That realization curtailed our socializing some. But times at the Clematis Street landmark were always good times. All sorts of artists, rockers, and counter-culturalists convened there. In fact, it was there I eventually met the man who'd become my husband, one of the Pratt & Whitney rocket scientists who frequented the place. At our wedding, O'Shea's owners were among the guests. We were a sort of extended family, and the bar was a second home — that is, until I declared my independence, got divorced, and moved far enough away from downtown West Palm Beach that I couldn't get crocked and walk home anymore.

So it was, I guess, natural that around the holidays I got the urge to go "home." When I ventured to my old haunt on a Wednesday night, a familiar face was behind the bar.

"What's up, Alan?"

"Same shit, different faces," he shrugged and wiped the bar with a towel as I sat down.

I was particularly happy when I discovered I'd come on ladies' night with its two-for-one specials.

"Anything I want?" I asked like it mattered.

He nodded. I ordered a Bass.

A quick visual survey told me he was right; I didn't recognize anyone else. So what's a girl to do?

"Is that so no one thinks you're gay?" I asked the two dudes nearby who were clearly friends but had a vacant bar stool between them. Sure, there were more polite ways of asking if a seat was available, but this one was a better conversation starter.

"No, that's only at the movies," the guy in the Cheers shirt assured me before sliding down and introducing himself as Sebastian, a former Army guy who was now living in Riviera Beach with his parents.

Clearly, it wasn't a sales pitch.

His buddy Brian was also once a soldier.

"101st Airborne. Fort Campbell, Kentucky," he said proudly and then got a confessional look on his face, telling me the unit hadn't been used in warfare since World War II.

That didn't sound right. Wasn't the 101st in Vietnam?

"Actually, I wasn't paying attention when they went over that," he admitted.

Meanwhile I was beginning to take note of the band, a trio who had been setting the mood with stuff like John Mayer, U2, and Pink Floyd covers and some songs I'd never heard before.

"That's another new one," the shaggy faced guitar player said between songs. "We're called the Spoonbenders."

"Because you're junkies?" I called across the room, perplexed by the name, which reminded me of some spoons I once found stashed in a roommate's closet (and finally clued me in to why he always lolled around with watery eyes and itchy skin.)

I wasn't heckling, exactly. It was more like friendly banter with a band I didn't know in a mostly empty bar. (Most everyone was either in the pool/dart room or outside at the long picnic tables where they could smoke.)

Swathed in Christmas lights, the place was even homier than usual. A live tree encircled with garlands and red and green lights gave it that extra touch. A three leaf clover twinkled with green lights in the window. The decorative knick-knacks were quaint, pastoral reminders of the Old Sod. And there were no stripper poles. God bless the Irish.

"It's a true Irish bar," declared a lithe brunet when I asked her what she liked about the place.

"Just like the pubs in Ireland," her perky blond friend agreed, more emphatically than redundantly.

"Pub in a box!" the brunet summarized.

"It's even grungy like a real Irish pub," the blond added, explaining the two of them had ventured to the Emerald Isle together.

I was just beginning to judge them as prissy bitches when they told me they both taught elementary school. That explained it: nothing makes a person yearn for cleanliness like germ-laden rug rats. Turns out Laura and Kelly weren't prissy at all.

"We live here," Laura, the brunet, said before calling out to our bartender. "Aren't we here all the time, Kevin?"

Aw, the next generation of pub flies: It warmed my heart. But probably not Kevin's since his name was actually Alan.

"Oh, they played a trick on me and told me the wrong names when I first started coming here. I've never been able to keep them straight since," Laura explained, with a pained look of embarrassment that she tried to laugh off.

Irish pranksters? Far more dubious tales have been told. But I wasn't sure if I entirely believed her excuse.

That's not why I moved on. Though I wasn't officially the hostess of this ladies' night party, I sort of felt like the matriarch. I decided to check in on the couple over in a cozy spot. The young woman was a wholesome beauty from Indianapolis. She was in West Palm with a children's theater production of A Christmas Carol. The most difficult part of her role as Tiny Tim was the post-performance questions when the wee ones wondered aloud about whether she was a boy or a girl.

"I just tell them, 'I'm Tiny Tim,'" she said, her sweet baby-doll face smiling innocently.

"Do you think that will cause gender confusion for kids later in life?"

"I like to think that they're too focused on the entertainment to worry about that," Becky rationalized and then made a quick addendum. "At least, I hope."

When the band took a break, I excused myself. It wasn't just my appreciation for boys with nimble fingers and a keen sense of rhythm. I sorta liked the singer's ability to volley verbally, and I was still intrigued by the band name.

The singer, Matt, explained: "It came from pure frustration. It takes tremendous powers of concentration to bend a spoon and we put all our power and energy into getting someone to listen — to notice: Hey, there's a band up here. "

I understood completely. I've been a fan of local music and traveled enough to other local music scenes to know that South Florida audiences are notoriously unappreciative and inattentive. I let Matt know I could relate; his pain was mine. Yeah, I might have laid it on a little too thick, a fact amplified by my behavior when the band reclaimed their instruments — it was only a matter of minutes before I joined oblivious masses too consumed by their own agendas to listen and sauntered off to start a conversation with two chicks in the pool room. Mea culpa.

When I found out that Kristen (a former O'Shea's employee) and Rachel were regulars (and rocking kickin' buzzes from the 2-4-1s), I decided to get their best stories. Rachel offered one that included her own heckling of a band.

"The singer was totally molesting the microphone, so I held up a sign that said, 'Let me be your microphone.'"

Her chutzpah resulted in the singer serenading her. I appreciated her brazen approach.

"So what do you think of the band tonight?" I asked, trying to stir things up.

"Wednesday is open mic night," Kristen replied.

"Tonight is Wednesday," I said, confused by her response since the Spoonbenders had been playing all night.

"I think only one band showed up," she shrugged, causing me to laugh out loud.

I decided not to pass the story on to Matt and the guys, since it was clearly the BOGO beverages, rather than their skills, that elicited the comment.

Before the night was over, Kristen shared her best story about the place: the time two O'Shea's bartenders chased down a purse-snatcher and returned the bag to its owner. I'd heard the tale before. Kristen, too, admitted she'd heard it secondhand. I guess that sorta made her kin. Part of being a clan, after all, is the common histories they share, the stories that get passed on: it's how legends are made.