Whether you believe it or not, not too long ago people were perpetually under the influence of alcohol. Booze, that permutable antiseptic, was added to all drinks to prevent bacterial infection. Luckily, we as a species enjoy the stuff very much—some of us, a little too much.
If alcohol consumption were a religion, bars would be the shrines where pilgrims consult the oracles on the future, the past and everything in between. There is wisdom to be found at bars.
Wisdom, and often a lot of fun. This city needs a resource that can explain the joys and pitfalls of local bars—an investigative team of experts, a “special forces” unit that specializes in bar culture.
Mr. Harada and I are up for the challenge. He’ll be illustrating this effort, and I’ll be taking notes, asking meaningful questions, forgetting the answers and reporting back to you as soon as I find my notes.
We’ll share stories from the lowliest dives to high-roller havens tucked in the creases of Silicon Valley’s tech office sprawl from the perspective of two painfully awkward barfles. Cheers!
A Night at Patty’s Inn
Mr. Harada and I rode past the two-headed tiger that shone its laser eyes across the light-rail station playground. We headed to a local spot that claims the “oldest bar in town” title.
Some will suggest that the Cinebar is actually older, but in a town that places little value on maintaining historical records of bars, it’s hard to tell. I always thought the old Faber’s bike shop that just burned down was the oldest drinking establishment in San Jose, but since it hasn’t held a liquor license since it was Ben’s Corner in 1913, and is now a pile of ashes and charred lumber, I suppose the point is moot.
Patty’s Inn is a simple building, framed with ancient redwood and probably sided with the same stuff. It’s made out of the kind of wood that even termites won’t mess with, out of respect.
Above the door, there’s a large fan, housed in a cast-iron frame that reads “Ventilation Company, Chicago, Ill.” Its blades are caked with a mix of tar, grease, dust and whatever else floats in the air at a place like this.
Inside, Patty’s is pretty comfy. Interior decorators have never been invited to update the space. This bar has aged like the people who frequent it: naturally and with character.
An alligator-skin steamer trunk hangs above the bar; the flavored vodkas hide underneath a thick layer of dust; the urinal is a trough; and the walls carry the patina of decades of cigarette smoke. A large black and gold clock looks like it was lifted from a Robert Palmer video. In general, the place is era-ambiguous.
A man name Larry Limo danced and pantomimed the music playing on the juke. It’s the only type of interpretive dance that I can stomach. Larry Limo was pretty good, and he even caught the attention of two women. His Jheri curl bounced to a James Brown track, and his fingers sparkled from various oversized gold rings as we took our place at the bar.
Eddie the bartender, a sexagenarian of mixed heritage (Filipino and Korean, I believe), poured two generous shots of Jameson. We toasted each other, the bar and the night in general.
Patty’s Inn is the kind of place where you can find a private corner to reflect with a friend, even if you’re sitting in the middle of the bar. The juke switched from James Brown to Muddy Waters. Mr. Harada began drawing the scene. One of the women took a break from watching Larry Limo’s peacock dance and put her arm over Mr. Harada’s shoulder.
“Whatcha’ doin’ honey? Are you drawering or sumptin? You some kinda artist?”
The woman was having a good night; if a mosquito bit her, it would probably black out. She was being the kind of friendly that sober people don’t understand and can’t appreciate. Mr. Harada was fairly sober at this point, so his response was to look the woman in the eye, slowly nod and look back down to his pencil and paper. It took the woman a few seconds, but she finally got the idea.
“Geez. Why so serious? Soooory.”
I scooted down the bar to Francis and Benny. Francis was born in San Jose in 1947, and her friend Benny in 1950. They visit Patty’s to reminisce about a time, as Francis puts itâ “When it was pretty around here.” It’s probably the only bar in town that hasn’t had a facelift since then, so I get it.
Benny, whose nickname is the “Mayor,” recalled a show he saw at the Bodega for $2.50. The lineup included Bo Diddley, Janis Joplin and Tower of Power. Back then, the roller derby and wrestling were San Jose’s sports of choice. The local youth would convene at the Civic Auditorium to watch both.
Back in Francis and Benny’s time, Garden City Casino and Harry’s Hofbrau were located at the end of Post Street right downtown. There was also a Mexican joint called Stokes. Rags, the shoeshine guy with no teeth, was also a constant figure on Post Street during those days.
Benny said something about Khartoum’s in Campbell being filled, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with tropical ferns.
It was 11:44, and I decided to reconnect with Mr. Harada, who was conversing with Larry Limo. I noticed a dusty bottle of red liquor in the way back of the bar. Was that a tax stamp sticker near the bottle cap? I asked the bartender what the mystery crimson liquid was.
I had never tried sloe gin, and now wish I had continued that trend. At least, I wish the introduction was made by a more recent rendition of the stuff. I’m not sure what sloe gin is supposed to taste like, but this stuff tasted mean, angry, confused, like it had been incubated in an old athletic sock. It was a scheming, untrustworthy kinda flavor.
No offense to the sloe berry, which I’m sure is a fine berry and a hoot at parties, but even the memory of the taste gives me a strange tingle in the spine. Speaking of memories, the sloe gin was one of the last ones I have from that night.
Somehow, I managed the trek home, and Mr. Harada arrived safely at his domicile as well. I woke up the next day in the same shape as I did the day before, which means the night before went well.
Stay tuned for more adventures with Barfly and Mr. Harada…