The Duck Tavern's two large, windowed doors were open, and I could hear the faint buzz of raucous laughter and blue-collar camaraderie. I darted in and found the quaint dive packed with a friendly crowd of paunchy old gents and a couple of ladies. The evening was muggy, the bar was smoky, and the gleaming bottles of ice-cold beer in the fridge behind the bar looked quite inviting indeed.
Then there was the crowd. Flocks of early-bird drinkers were buzzing about sports and politics. The badass bartender was alternately sweet and sassy. And Mike, who wore large glasses, had a slightly bent posture, and was downing two beverages at once (my kind of guy), was the quintessential dive-bar regular. He double-fisted and mixed liquors, offered pearls of wisdom, contemplated why opium tastes like rubber, and leaned in a little too close when he talked. Ducking away from life at the Duck wouldn't be as much fun without some hard-drinking regulars — and seriously, don't you want to know why opium tastes like rubber?
Bartender: Laura, the blond tank-topped bartender, had a take-no-crap attitude. She found one patron's lost credit card, then told another to "stop sucking up." She was quick to push a cold beer my way and mention I'd shown up right in the middle of happy hour. Music to my ears.
Ambiance: The bar, chairs, and tables were all a dark, dirty wood. Dartboards and posters decorated the brick walls, old-style English lanterns lit the room, and baseball played quietly from the handful of TVs. The sight behind the irregularly shaped bar itself was the best thing by far to behold: Sparkling liquor bottles of all colors and shapes lined the wall. The other wall boasted a fridge full of beers; the top of the fridge was lined with rubber ducks, plush ducks, toy ducks, and ducks with little blue shirts and big, cartoonish eyes. I love it when bath toys watch me drink. Usually they only get to watch with their cold, judgmental eyes from the tub as I pass out on the floor of my bathroom.
Patrons: I hopped up to the empty seat beside Mike. "Are you a regular here?" I asked innocuously.
"Regular?" he scoffed. "I'm a regular fixture here. I'm waiting for the brass plaque with my name on it." He slammed his unsteady hand down onto the bar in front of him, presumably where he expected that plaque to one day go.
"Were you talking about opium earlier?" I asked.
"Why, you want some?" he asked. "I went to Vietnam; I know about opium. When the government said, 'You're going to war,' I was like, OK, I'm going to do drugs. We had the best drugs out there. I smoked so much pot, I gave up smoking cigarettes. War, what war? I did so many good drugs, I don't remember a war."
"But why does opium taste like rubber?"
"The bowl is rubber," he said. Oh. Duh.
"Why don't you tell her about the two-seat rule?" said John, a guy to Mike's right. John had steel-gray hair and wore a red tank top over his broad chest. Mike cackled in response.
"What's the two-seat rule?" I asked. John smiled and remained silent.
"Really, I come here for the people," Mike said. "These people are good people — the best people. They're all my friends. And I really need people; I'm a social person."
"What's so good about the people?" I asked. They looked OK, I guessed.
"My father died, and I live alone in his condominium," Mike said. "It gets lonely. I come here to talk to people."
I mumbled apologies about his father.
"If I wasn't talking to people, I'd be talking to myself," he said with a wry smile.
After a sufficient pause: "What's the two-seat rule?" I asked, trying to lighten the mood.
"You always keep a seat between you and Michael," answered the knowing woman to my left. She was slight, with enormous blue eyes and white-gold hair tucked under a ball cap. "That's why I'm sitting here and not where you are."
When Mike got up for a moment, I leaned toward the pretty woman in the hat.
"Why do you come here?" I asked. "You're practically the only lady in the whole place."
"It's close to where I live," she said. "I'm going through a divorce and like to spend as little time at the house as possible. I'm packing up and moving home, but it takes time.
"My husband finally divorced me after 30 years of marriage," she smiled in spite of herself. "Well, you can see why I'd be drinking."
I didn't know her husband, but I wanted to kick his ass.
Just then, Mike popped back onto his barstool.
"I don't like women in hats," he said nonchalantly.
The woman wearing the hat shrugged. "I like wearing hats."
"I just don't like women in hats," he repeated. "Takes away all their femininity."
"I'm sorry, but who are you to tell me what to wear?" she asked. "I don't care what you think; I'm going to wear my hat." You go, girl.
"Yeah, but — " Mike began.
"Don't you 'yeah, but' me," she snapped back. "I've been hearing that exact thing for 30 years."
"Mike...," I warned.
"Now, I need to get out of here before my soon-to-be-ex-husband comes up here. But Tara," she said to me, "this is my motto, and you should make it yours too: 'I want what I deserve, and I deserve what I want.' Don't let any man tell you not to wear a hat if you like wearing hats."
Final beer: I decided quickly that I wanted (and maybe even deserved) one last beer, so I ordered one, sipped it, and went to visit John and his friend Louis, who was slight with a Hawaiian print shirt.
"I've been coming here since 1997," said Louis. "I was a partner/owner of a nearby grill, and I still came here to drink." He remembered a time when he came out of the bathroom to find his wife and daughter dancing on the bar.
"We get a good mix of people in here," John said. He pointed at the wall. "We even have our own Hemingway!"
Sure enough, the poster on the wall was an advertisement for a book called Slip Time, written by one of the regular patrons.
"We get young people in the evenings — that guy is our male bartender," he continued, pointing to a young guy who'd just meandered in. "He's the one who draws in the college girls."
"I thought I was the one who drew the college girls," Louis pouted.
"What's good about this bar," said a round-faced guy to Louis' left, nodding at me, "is that someone on your salary can afford to drink here." Apparently he thinks writers are still paid with money; how silly of him. Little does he know that these days, we're actually paid in peanut shells and broken dreams.
And since broken dreams stretch only so far on a bar tab, it was soon time to close out. Between the hat-lady's lesson, Mike's drunken poetic loneliness, and even the clever stories of good times past, I won't soon forget the Duck. In fact, I'm thinking of making it my (very highly esteemed) weekday happy-hour hangout. If you're looking for a bar with a lot of soul, this Duck's ripe for the plucking.