If there's one thing Americans can agree on in these divisive political times, it's this: Work sucks. It's a 9-to-5 daily grind, with its eagle-eyed bosses, snooze-inducing tasks, and yappy co-workers who can't possibly know how much you really don't care about their daughter's birthday party.
Luckily, there are support programs for people stuck in just this situation. They're called bars. Whether you lost your best account, lost your promotion to the schmuck down the hall, or lost your job completely, there are dives all across this great land to help ease the pain. That sounded fine to me last Wednesday (and strikingly appropriate, though we won't go into that), so I slipped out of my business shoes and into some flip-flops for happy hour at Streeters Bar (2675 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale). I was about to see how folks beat back the trying times and the woes of work.
Ambiance: When I walked into Streeters, time immediately slowed to a crawl and the pressures of the fast-paced real world evaporated in the low lighting and lingering scent of cigarette smoke. This neighborhood dive was dark, minimally decorated, and sparsely populated by people who had obviously been drinking there for quite some time. Like maybe a generation or two.
I passed four small, rectangular tables, a pool table, and ten TVs (most playing sports shows) to take a seat at the bar. The long, blocky bar, encompassing most of the room, had chipped paint in places where glasses had been set down one too many times. Yeah, what can I say? There's something welcoming about a bar with chipped paint. I'd skip the bumpin' nightclub scene any day of the week to kick back in a comfortable bar for a beer with a blue-collar guy named Joe — though not Joe the Plumber, of course. That guy is kind of a phony who should be sent back to Central Casting for somebody who smells like a Tijuana restroom.
Old toys, stuffed animals, and faded pictures sit on a shelf between two TVs directly across from where I'd plopped myself down. Neon beer signs flicker over the cigarette machine and dartboards at the back of the room. Behind the bar, little red light bulbs cast an ominous, devilish hue over the glasses and liquor bottles. Glancing around the room, I noticed an older woman sitting there in a midriff-baring shirt as her tattooed male companion scratched lottery tickets to the cadence of a high-strung bartender pounding the buttons of an old-fashioned register, with a ring-up bell and a spring drawer. I toasted to their fortune. A few grizzled men in ball caps sat at the far side of the bar, near the silent jukebox, methodically downing drinks.
Bartender 1: "It must be a full moon today," Robin, a brunet bartender, said with exaggerated exasperation. (According to my Men in Uniform 2008 calendar, the full moon was actually the night before.) "People have just been harassing me all day. A guy was in here earlier who kept saying shit like, 'C'mon, baby, give me a kiss.' "
"Sounds like some serious sexual harassment," I said.
"Nah, it's cool," she said. "I knew him."
Bartenders have it good, of course. They get to work at the place where the rest of America's work force is unwinding. Robin first struck me as the type who didn't care too much about her job, spending a significant amount of time being annoyed at the world. But she must have cared enough, because when I ordered a Jim Beam and Coke, she snatched up my I.D. and inspected it for several long, awkward minutes. My companion smirked but chilled when I pointed out that no one asks for his I.D.
"Sorry," Robin said, before I started flashing business cards and insisting that no one would burden a mere child with the responsibility of being a nightlife columnist. She handed my license back to me. "I had to get up way early this morning to go to a responsible vendors meeting — it sucked — but I'm just doing what I'm supposed to."
"No problem," I said, just happy to be given the green flag to imbibe a stiff drink.
"I get I.D.'d all the time too," she said. "I'm 26, but people ask me for my I.D. when I try and buy drinks and cigarettes. Just the other day, I got I.D.'d for condoms. I had to go out to my car and get my driver's license."
I stifled an urge to pound the table and declare bullshit.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Why would anyone I.D. anyone for condoms?"
"I don't know. I guess people who want kids to have unprotected sex," she said nonchalantly and brought me and my companion our drinks. They looked sufficiently clear — more liquor, less soda.
Bartender 2: With Robin finishing her shift for the day, a tall, bespectacled man named Trace was about to take over behind the bar.
"He's the best bartender here," Carl, a regular in a faded ball cap, told me. "He's helped make this place really great."
"He's better than Robin?" I asked. Robin, no longer on duty but still in the vicinity, raised an eyebrow.
Carl seriously considered his answer.
"Yeah," he shrugged, glancing at Robin apologetically.
Trace, who'd been pretending not to listen, smiled without looking up from the register. "Oh, whatever," said Robin, picking up the drink she'd just ordered. "I have bigger boobs."
"Indeed you do," I said. Maybe tits get the tips, but they don't keep a job. I ordered another drink and started a tab with Trace, who was fast, amicable, and very cool (despite the flat chest).
Patrons: A 50-ish man in a red shirt took a seat beside me after my companion left to run an errand. He seemed quite intoxicated, but he had at least enough sense to give me a fake name when I informed him that my eventual mission was to write about Streeters.
After he'd insisted on my calling him "Zeke" — "That's my Chippendales name," he said — Zeke eventually caved and told me his real name was Ted.
"This is a great bar," he said. "They open early in the morning — I was here at 8 a.m."Ah, yes, that's a workday.
"You've been here that long?" That's not relaxing after work — that's taking on drinking as a full-time job. I was in awe.
"Well, today was my day off," he said quickly, apparently afraid I would think him a deadbeat (like, no, he doesn't do this every day). "But no, I left, went to a few different bars, and now I'm back here."
"Well, if you've hit it twice in one day, you must like it," I said, deciding not to have another drink. Somewhere along the line, you have to distinguish between "nightlife columnist" and "problem drinker." My companion walked back into the bar, glimpsed me trying to pull sparkling dialogue from a drunk, and wordlessly took a seat.
Ted pointed out a jovial, white-haired man across the bar. That was Bobby Streeter, the bar's owner.
"That guy is gonna challenge me to pool," he said. "Last time we played, I beat him."
"He doesn't like to lose?"
"Well, he doesn't usually lose," he said.
Ted offered a little thimbleful of history: "This place used to be a biker bar, but when Bobby took it over, he turned it into a nice neighborhood bar — a clean place, no fistfights or anything like that. And they don't play too much of that head-bangin' devil music at 100 decibels, like some bars do."
Trace clarified the bar's live music policy. "I know some college kids who are in a band," he said. "I have them come in and play every so often. They play heavier stuff."
"Devil music," repeated Ted. "And can you put in your story that this is a great place for women in their late 30s, early 40s to meet a nice guy?"
"She's writing a column, not a personal ad," my friend snapped.
"Look, you're not going to lay me," Ted blurted out. "You think I'm old."
A statement that, while correct on both counts, seemed to leave a minefield in its wake. I started to stammer a response, but then Bobby the proprietor came by and challenged Ted to a match at pool.
"You better beat him," I told Bobby. Ted shot me an icy glare.
As I walked over to witness the pool match, the Bee Gees came on, and both men started dancing with their pool cues. Bobby beat Ted twice. I congratulated Bobby and shook his hand, though I wondered if Ted might have fared better without 13 hours' worth of liquor coursing through his body.
Then Bobby bought an impossible-to-refuse round of drinks. Liquor-soaked now, though still a Magellan 'round-the-world voyage short of Ted's Beam-soaked territory, I decided it was about time to stumble out the door. Maybe the other patrons have all night to imbibe, but I have to be at work in the morning.