In the hours immediately after terrorists flew airplanes into the Pentagon and New York City’s twin towers on September 11, Rich O’s Public House publican Roger Baylor paced anxiously between his pub and Pizza Time, the restaurant/bar next door that he also owns. Pizza Time has television sets; his pub does not.
People wanted to go to a place where they felt like they were with family.
“I was freaking out, basically,” he said. He began to think of the many people with whom he wanted to talk, whom he should call. “Then I realized that I didn’t have to. I thought, ‘They’ll all be in here.’” Sure enough, as shifts ended, regulars began to drift in. “There’s a group of us; well, I’m always here; we all sort of appear at the same time,” Baylor said.
The regulars discovered that Baylor had put a television on the counter up front–the first time a TV had been in the bar in three years. Those who wanted the latest news could get it, then find seats out of television range. “People would retreat back into the bar to talk, to get away from these images for a while,” Baylor said. “The first few days there was only one thing that they talked about.”
Television news stories in the following days sometimes showed bulging barrooms across the United States, and other times, empty ones in tourist destinations. TV news reported patrons flocked to bars because they did not want to be alone while they watched the horrible images on the television screen, but did not differentiate between people watching alone in a crowd and those who sought familiar faces.
“People wanted to go to a place where they felt like they were with family,” said Daryl Woodson, who has been running the appropriately named The Sanctuary in Iowa City, IA, for 27 years. “They didn’t say that, but people who come in normally at 10 were in at 8.”
The Sanctuary has two fireplaces (one working) but usually not a television. Woodson brought one in on September 11, and took it out the next day. “People wanted to watch what was happening while the story was still unfolding,” he said. “One of our regulars asked where I got a TV with such lousy reception. I told him it’s called a cheap antenna.”
Throwbacks to Another Era
Rich O’s and The Sanctuary offer a broader selection of beer than do most bars–the best-selling beer at Rich O’s is Three Floyd’s Alpha King, and if an interesting specialty beer is available in Iowa, The Sanctuary is probably the first place in the state to offer it. These bars may be more noteworthy, however, because they are throwbacks.
The population of the United States has more than doubled since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the number of licensed drinking establishments has shrunk by as much as two-thirds. In Chicago, for instance, there were more than 10,000 tavern licenses at the end of World War II, and now there are fewer than 2,500.
In The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg notes that what he calls “third-place” taverns have been particularly hard hit. Oldenburg writes that not only have such taverns disappeared or changed–so have post offices, drug stores, grain elevators and similar “third places” (after home, first, and workplace, second) that provide informal gathering spots essential to the survival of any community.
The role of the tavern in American community life goes back almost to the time this country was settled. Parts of the American revolution were plotted in taverns. A century later, unions were born in taverns. Celebrations for soldiers heading to (and returning from) two world wars were held in taverns.
There are occasional reminders. Visit Cadieux Café, which has served Detroit’s Belgian enclave since Prohibition, and you’ll find a large display on the wall listing “Our boys at camp and overseas,” with the names of neighborhood boys who became soldiers.
Most such places are gone–torn down in old city neighborhoods, never built in carefully planned suburbs. Many watching the September 11 scenes from the rest of the country probably were surprised to find bars full of customers in much of New York City outside of lower Manhattan, but it is still a prototypical city, still has neighborhoods and still has bars that cater to those neighborhoods.
There are enough around that drinkers may choose a nearby place because the owner is Irish, because the happy hour prices are great, or even because the beer is more interesting than what’s next door. Across the country, beer with flavor has been an essential component in helping some bars build community, instantly giving would-be regulars something in common.
Beer is why many of the regulars started going to O’Brien’s Microbrew Pub in San Diego, but not why they were there the week of September 11. “Lunch times were ridiculous the first couple of days, nuts, just nuts,” said owner Jim O’Brien. Customers who usually visit only after work for the wide beer selection were also there for lunch, drawn by the food and televisions but also because they knew they’d find a friend on a nearby bar stool.
“We pretty much see the same faces on a day-to-day basis,” O’Brien said. “There was only one subject (of conversation). This place is never quiet and these guys aren’t afraid to be totally honest about what they feel.”
Things were quiet at the Country Inn in Krumville, NY, near the Ashokan Reservoir, which serves New York City and which was closed for safety reasons. “The original reaction was numbness; it’s still numbness,” said Larry Erenburg, the owner and guy behind the bar for more than 25 years.