I first visited the High Life when I was 17. I went with my buddy Randy, and we were both all sweaty and nervous ... but our fake IDs were top notch so we tried to put on an air of confidence. We also hadn't shaved in two weeks, so we looked like a normal man who hadn't shaved for a few hours ... we were set. So with as much bravado as two frightened teens could muster without winning a Tony award, we walked in, sat at the bar, and ordered a pitcher of whatever was on tap. No one batted an eye. We drank that beer with relish, like it was the nectar of the gods.
Later I found out that Vinnie, the owner and the guy who served us, was dating a girl in our high school class ... Lori ... behind her parents back so he wasn't looking to stir up any attention. He was also only about seven or eight years out of school himself, so, being a smaller community, he knew who we were. He just didn't care ... our money was just as green as the next drinker's.Over the next few months, the team of "Randy and Me" hit the High Life three times a week. Vinnie started talking to us more and more like regular guys ... it was so awesome. There was a "bar wench" who even flirted with us from time to time, and we learned the names of six or seven other alcoholic "homesteaders" ... guys who would rather be at the bar 'stead of home.
The High Life was all charm ... scarred mahogany bar, vinyl-covered stools with plenty of tears and exposed padding, a huge mirror fronted by lots of liquor bottles with shiny pours, two ancient TVs mounted in the corners of the ceiling like a dingy hospital room, one nappy pool table that leans to the left, a Pac Man machine that came to know my caress by heart, and the scariest men's room in North America. It was here I learned to love whiskey and ouzo. This "classroom of men" showed me that peanuts and pretzels should come out of the can stale. The High Life taught me that gin was my good friend, but vodka was my most hated enemy.
The bar also had the most amazing baskets of french fries and onion rings ... even its grilled cheese sandwiches made up for the watery sludge they passed off as draft beer.
But what the High Life ... and Vinnie ... taught me most was about camaraderie. Vinnie treated us like adults, but he never let us buy cigarettes. And he forced us ... me and Randy ... to take condoms out of a bowl every night before we left "just to be safe." Our nerdiness kept us safe, but the gesture turned gawky late teen boys into walking-tall young men. Vinnie showed us a couple sweet drinks ... like a Tom Collins ... to order if we ever wanted to look mature but not swill on any really strong or expensive stuff. He talked about local politics which was a topic I never had any interest in until he would go off on city council for this or the county commissioner for that ... my parents were probably dumbfounded when I dropped "my take" on a new city ordinance into a Sunday dinner conversation. And once Vinnie called a cab for the "dynamic duo" and never once asked to be reimbursed.
When I went off to college, I partied with the best of them, but nothing could compare to the High Life. Every break and summer, I'd spend as much time there as I could ... Randy too. And when I moved into the city, I still got back to see Vinnie probably two or three times a month to be further schooled on sports, women, and life ... more recently since I'm a little closer.
And now the High Life is gonna become another place to park cars. There's a new industrial complex going up down the block and Vinnie sold out for good money. I hate progress sometimes, but good for him and Lori ... and their two kids.
But now I gotta find a new place ... one with at least a portion of the soul of the High Life. I think that people and bars develop a "comfort curve," a build-up of ease and familiarity that just makes the bar seem like the natural place to go to relax and unwind. And it doesn't happen overnight so, while I'm enjoying the last month of this place's existence, I better start looking for a new saloon where I can hang my beer goggles.
Here are a few criterion I think will help in my search:
1) No Chain Establishments ... "chains" are good for pulling a car out of a ditch or to spice up a crummy sex life, but chain joints are too cookie cutter ... and usually noisy, crowded, and just too damn cheerful.
2) Too Much is Too Much ... I like lived-in places. Nicks and scratches add character ... and a bunch of shiny chrome or sports memorabilia or signed celebrity photos everywhere is just distracting from the booze and conversation.
3) No Servers Under 35 ... it's just annoying. I like a bit of mileage and jadedness ... it makes for a great relationship. And extra points if the servers stop by the bar on their off nights just to say "hi."
4) Theme Nights Are Cool, If It's "Liquorcentric" ... Margarita Mondays ... See You Yagger Wednesdays ... classics. And the discounts never hurt a guy on a budget.
5) NO KARAOKE ... I love it, but there are times and places for it and it's NOT when I've had a horrible day.
6) Bartenders With Range and Humility ... I don't want Tom Cruise from Cocktail, but I appreciate someone who a) doesn't look at me funny if I want to try something a little wacky and b) makes a good Tom Collins, Long Island, gin martini, and is willing to look something up if he or she isn't sure.
POINT OF RANT: Are their services ... like wizened old yenta matchmakers ... who help bring together thirsty people with compatible establishments with up-to-date liquor licenses? Well, there ought to be!!