May 18, 2023

Article at Medium

View original

Remembering my Bar Family

You have 2 free member-only stories left this month. Sign up for Medium and get an extra one.

Orrin Onken
Black Bear
Photo by Victor Clime on Unsplash

I was a latecomer to the Dog Brothers and was never accepted as more than an associate member, but in my head, I will always be one of them.

The Dog Brothers were my bar family. We met every weekday at about four o’clock, the start of happy hour, at a designated table in the back of a tavern in Portland called Winners.

We Dog Brothers all had normal names for use at home and at work, but we also had Dog names. There was Wheels, so-named because of his lack of speed on the softball field when the Dog Brothers battled the Rock-n-Roll All Stars, another bar family that did its drinking half a mile down the road. There was Pilgrim, who claimed to be descended from a passenger on the Mayflower. There was Smut, Gray, Doggy Daddy, Higgy, Cave Man, Woody, and others whose names I have forgotten. I was called Consigliere, a nod to my day job as a lawyer. When I had earned a seat with the Dog Brothers, they no longer played softball. They talked softball, but the way they described the games makes me remember Dog softball as if I’d been there.

At Winners, we drank beer. I drank Henry Weinhard’s Dark until the owners stopped carrying it on tap, after which the barkeeps made up a substitute for me consisting of a regular Henry Weinhard’s with a splash of stout to turn it dark. They would draw one for me the moment they saw me come through the door so that it would be ready by the time I reached the bar.

Every day we gathered to share our joys and woes, solve the world’s problems, and rehash Blazer games. Sometimes we would migrate to the pool tables or throw darts. A couple of us might challenge the lone pinball machine, but mostly we talked. Between six and seven, at the end of happy hour, we would disperse back to our houses, empty apartments, or other taverns. On Fridays, with no work the following day, we would dine on burgers and fries at Winners and stay until the last call sent us home.

On sunny Saturdays, we played golf at one of the inexpensive public courses. We’d play early, finish up for drinks and breakfast at the clubhouse, and then go to Winners to rehash the game. I was there for the golf, but like softball, the Dog Brothers eventually gave that up too. We talked about golf instead.

We had road trips. We would meet at Winners on Sunday afternoons, vote on a destination, and then drive to a different tavern and drink there. After a couple of pitchers, we’d return home and count the ways in which the place we’d gone wasn’t as good as Winners.

On holidays, those of us with still-intact biological families would sneak away to break bread and celebrate the season with our real family. The Winners family, the family we had chosen rather than the one we had been born into.

The Dog table was our Algonquin Round Table. We had two poets. A filmmaker. Musicians galore, a jewelry designer, and a graphic artist. I was the lawyer. Wheels was a machinist by trade and a soap maker by temperament. We’d discovered a new way to live, and when things went badly for one of us, the others were there to help through the hard times. We had each other’s backs.

Wheels married the barkeep, Ginny. She had two children from a previous marriage, and he cared for the three of them.

Things got bad for me, and desperate, I signed up for thirty days in an alcoholism treatment center. After three weeks of isolation, group therapy, and multiple viewings of Days and Wine and Roses, I was allowed visitors. Wheels, Smut, and Higgy, came to see me. I told my counselor that I was willing to give up alcohol, but I would never give up my friends.

The people at the treatment center said I shouldn’t go back to the places I drank, but I was too lonely to stay away. The first time I went back, my favorite barkeep drew me a Sprite. It was on the house. I drank Sprite with the Dog Brothers for a while, but it wasn’t the same. When I was drinking, Winners sparkled. The conversation was witty, the women were sexy, and I always felt that something wonderful was about to happen. It wasn’t that way with Sprite.

The Dog Brothers started to plan events without me. I confronted Smut about it. “Now that you’re not drinking,” he said, “it feels like you are judging us.”

I was.

I moved on from the Dog Brothers, and someone new took my place at the table. I kept in touch with Wheels, who was always willing to fill me in on what the Dogs were up to. They changed taverns twice, each time moving a step lower on the dive-bar hierarchy. Some died. Some moved out of Portland or just disappeared.

One day, Ginny called me. Wheels had suffered a heart attack and died. The Navy was paying for his internment at Willamette National Cemetery. The funeral took place on a stormy winter's day. Those in attendance were Ginny, her two children, now adults, a bugler from the Navy, and me. Her oldest son said a few words about Wheels, Ginny cried, and the bugler from the Navy played taps in the rain. None of the other Dogs showed up.

At one point in Dog Brothers’ history, Hans, the filmmaker, using a primitive handheld video recorder, made a VHS tape featuring the Dogs. He interviewed us at Winners and showed us going about our business. Cave Man played and dubbed in the background music. He was preserving a magic moment in history for posterity, and every one of the Dog Brothers bought copies.

A few years after I’d moved on from Winners, I found that VHS cassette and watched it. In it, I was underweight. My skin, teeth, and eyes' whites were yellow. My hands shook during my interview. Seeing it with sober eyes and time away, I saw a portrait of a group of men marching arm-in-arm down the path to late-stage alcoholism. I watched as much as I could, and then I destroyed it.