In my first month of living deep in the heart of Wilton Manors, I stopped at Georgie's Alibi for a drink — and found myself to be the only young female for miles. After about an hour, someone approached me, asked if I was lost, and offered to direct me to a nearby lesbian bar. Yeah, I love me a good gay bar, but after that awkward exchange, I became wary about what bars I just haphazardly stumble into.
Because Red's and Package are the most prominent words on the bar's front sign, I figured that Red's Bar and Package Store (2610 N. Dixie Hwy.) was just another Wilton Manors gay bar or maybe a male strip club. But driving by one day, I noticed that the Package was advertising for a Tuesday-night ladies' night. What kind of boys-for-boys bar is trying to draw chicks? This called for an investigation. I jammed my car into the parking lot and prepared to infiltrate this fortress of sexual obscurity and to have a few discounted drinks while I was at it.
Ambiance: The bar has no fewer than three entrances. Door number 2 turned out to be a wise choice: Instead of the smoky, dark den I was expecting, I found an eclectically decorated place that smelled pleasantly of raspberry air freshener. It was without tables, but it had plenty of available seats at the big, blockish, U-shaped bar that occupied most of the room's space.
Fairy lights had been hung over and around the counter space behind the bar, casting it, the glasses hanging from the low ceiling, and all the liquor bottles gathered on the floor in a dim red glow. Curtains straight out of a country kitchen hung from the small windows, and the walls were decorated with sports memorabilia — from cabinets full of autographed baseballs to photos of legends like Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, and Secretariat (the racehorse). Somewhat confusing were the randomly strewn birthday party decorations (I later learned that Mama Murphy, the quiet lady in the corner, had recently celebrated "80 years of making mischief"). Mixed in with the sports stuff were TVs and signs with alcoholism-friendly messages like "It's five o'clock somewhere." Though that's not, in fact, how time zones work, I decided that it was still a good time for boozin'.
Bartender: Lisa, who has dark, curly hair and wore a pressed white shirt, laughed raucously with patrons and seemed to know all of them. When I ordered my standard Bud Light, she kidnapped my I.D., disappeared with it, and just when I thought I might have to go after it, returned.
"You don't look that old at all," she said with a laugh so hearty it made me jump.
"I try," I said, snatching my I.D. back. I was the kind of kid who, at 16 years old, was still receiving crayons and kids' menus at restaurants. It's a sore spot.
"So I've been confounded by this bar for quite some time now," I confessed. "Who is this Red, and what is so great about his package?"
Her eyes flickered for a second; possibly, she was unsure if I'd meant to indicate male genitalia. I had, of course, but she took the high road and didn't address it.
"We're also a packaging store," she said politely, indicating a small area to the left of the bar, down a very short hallway. "We have a license for it, but we don't do it much anymore." Somewhat disappointed that package did not refer to a guy's junk, I learned that neither did packaging mean boxes and duct tape. It was just another word for selling closed bottles of booze, liquor store-style.
"So this isn't a gay bar?" I asked.
"You've just found one of only three straight bars in Wilton Manors," Lisa said, like I'd just discovered the plastic Easter egg with the $100 bill inside.
"This is actually more like a redneck, neighborhood-type bar. We play lots of country music."
A few minutes later, Jimmy, a big guy in a buttoned-down shirt, stopped by the digital jukebox and cranked some ambiguous pop-country into the previously musicless air. It was then that I decided I was in love with Red for creating this bar. And I needed to find him.
King: If there was once an owner named Red, he has long since passed on. King Wilkinson, the soft-spoken gentleman who now rules Red's, gives off a gentle, grandfatherly impression but keeps his alcohol-soaked kingdom in shape. He hosts barbecues (free), Sunday breakfasts, and Wednesday karaoke and maintains ridiculously long hours.
"This is the fourth-oldest bar in the area," he told me. "I took over three years ago and renovated it completely. I made it nonsmoking, for starters." I had noticed the clean air, lack of ashtrays, and absence of an inconsiderate chain smoker puffing second-hand lung cancer into my face.
"Thanks," I said. "I won't have to re-wash my hair tonight."
"I don't believe in smoking," he said. "And I didn't want my barmaids eventually dropping dead."
"What's with all the sports stuff?" I asked, glancing at a three-by-three-foot cabinet full of baseballs.
"I used to be a boxer," he said. "But that was in the '50s. Now, I just like collecting sports memorabilia." He showed me his gold ring, which was shaped like a boxing glove. He paused, seemingly lost in nostalgic thoughts about days of blood, sweat, and KOs. "You know, Sylvester Stallone — the guy who played Rocky — and I are the same height."
I must have looked skeptical.
"We're both 5-foot-9," he continued. "He's just on a lot more steroids and has a bigger physique."
Customers: Just then, a chatty, good-looking woman in a pink shirt sidled up and greeted King. Her name was Beth, and she was a longtime fan of Wednesday karaoke nights. She had recently started working a Friday shift.
"It's really busy here sometimes," she said. "King likes country music, but sometimes we'll play booty music and booty-dance on him."
I took a second to imagine that. "I bet he doesn't mind."
"No, and it's a different crowd at every time of day," she said. "There are people in here at all times — even 7 a.m. — and I stop in quite a bit and visit King. I've known him since I was a kid."
"Seven?" I said. "I love to drink, but seriously? Not in the morning." Beer before my morning oatmeal? That could redefine morning sickness.
"I have a day job and three kids, but I try and come here as often as I can," she said. "Sometimes my kids are like, 'Oh, are you leaving us again?' But they can handle themselves. They're all in their teens." Maybe the kids are just subtly hinting that they'd like to bar-hop with Mommy?
"Speaking of that, I just spent $350 on hurricane supplies," she complained. "I've got a closet full of Yoo-hoo and Gatorade."
"We're hoping there's a hurricane," King explained to me with a small smile. "So we can have a hurricane party. We need to go out and rain-dance."
"I don't want a hurricane!" I said. I can party just fine without natural disasters, thanks.
"Well, if there is one, it's pretty safe here," King assured me. "The beams of this place were transported years ago from a naval base. It's solid." Famous last words, but still, I knew where I was coming if the next hurricane down the line gets too close for comfort.
I approached Jimmy, who had since made several more trips to the jukebox, and Debbie, a woman with sleek, dark hair and a classy emerald-green top. They'd been joking with Lisa, so I pegged them for regulars and introduced myself.
"I came to this bar before King took it over," Jimmy said. "Much better now. The old owner was more interested in drinking than running a bar — it closed down for awhile."
"Yikes," I said. I'm more interested in drinking than almost anything. Sounds like that doesn't end well.
"We thought you might be applying here for a job," Debbie said.
Actually, maybe not a bad idea. Sure, I shouldn't jump in bed with the first Wilton Manors bar that doesn't try and reorient me, but this place is a piece of history. And honestly, with all the shit going on in the world, it's reassuring to know that Red's, with its cheap beer and steady clientele, opens at 7 a.m. sharp.