by Tim Gilmore, 12/10/2017
“Doubleshot’a Jack,” Kirk says and raises his glass. “Get it goin’ fast!” He downs it. His shaved head reflects the satanic red of the Christmas lights strung over the bar.
“Yeah,” Kirk says, “I come here a long time. Off and on. Prolly 30 years. This place is about old as I am, and I’m 53.” An eyebrow twitches. The dimple in his chin shines. The bartender pours another double.
St. Nick’s Lounge has poured its regulars whiskey and played them Hank Williams since 1950. Cold rain in December, 2017; the red lights, bright dark, enshroud the Christmas tree, and depictions of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Billy Joel stare lost and lonely from walls of mirrors.
A filmy hard yellow miasma of cigarette smoke, mold and sweat clouds and steams into the walls and eddies over the bar, the tables, the booth, even on as cold a night as tonight.
This curving stucco central shopping center in the old neighborhood of St. Nicholas contains also Mudville Grille and a menagerie of stuffed animal heads—deer and elk and bear—on the walls in Curry Thomas Hardware. St. Nick’s has but a lonely buck, looking winsomely off the panelboard walls through the karaoke haze.
A woman drunkenly croons the Bob Seger song “Night Moves” in the corner, men in sweatshirts lurch and lunge about the pool tables, and a businessman in a shiny blue suit makes out with a longhaired girl in a macrame top with knit flowers on her purple beanie.
“Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy,” the woman at the karaoke machine slurs and slumps. “In back seat mah’ nine-sick-ty Shshshevvy.”
Ginger Greene’s a “karaoke jockey” at St. Nick’s and other bars. “Ever’body loves karaoke, and the drunker, the more they’re a star,” she says. “Plus, hirin’ a band costs money.”
Gary’s wrapping his fingers around three bottles of Michelob at the bar. He’s been “attending”—his word—since 1973. He starts Bloody Marys at 10 on Sunday mornings. His preferred word for St. Nick’s is “church.”
In the ’70s, Richard Bowers says, “St. Nick’s was a gathering spot, every Tuesday night after City Council meetings, for media personnel and the Mayor’s Office and city councilmen.” Bowers started working in city government in the early 1970s and eventually served Mayors Jake Godbold and Tommy Hazouri in the 1980s.
“It was a place,” says Bowers, “swirling in cigarette and cigar smoke, for insiders to tell yarns, unwind, down a few shots, and discuss the issues before the Council. And all of it was off the record. Off record. There was such a thing back then.”
Ads for the St. Nicholas Lounge and Package Store from the 1950s show shadowed men in blurred dapper suits and fedoras, captioned with prim questions like “May we invite you to enjoy our hospitality?” followed by mentions of wines and liquors and martinis famous all over town.
In St. Nick’s early days, hard liquor met polite society. Cadillacs came with drink holders for highballs on the highway. Politicos slept conscience-blasted at night, having downed their first and second Seven-and-Seven, gins and tonic, on early lunch breaks.
Bowers says St. Nick’s was a local Republican Party watering hole from around 1967 to 1975, though local politics across the formerly Dixiecratic South, and indeed the nation, was supposedly nonpartisan then.
The couple in the booth spreads their own politics into the corner with weirdly respectful vulgarities; “Don’t you dare call it my ladyparts”; what’s assumed for touch based upon what social contract. A curlicued sign above the front bar says, “The silent majority stands with Trump.”
“Don’t stank care ’bout no stank,” Kirk says and sinks his howevermanyeth double whiskey.
“You come here,” a small man in a white sports coat emblazoned with red tree ornaments and reindeer profiles says, “because this particular sacred ground done cross your roads for you.” Maybe so.
The descent from downtown splits into Beach and Atlantic Boulevards, and St. Nick’s offers karaoke at the middle. Red splotches faded in the rain might be blood, might be wine, might be light.
“I’m unflappable,” says the macrame girl in the corner booth. “Sang Sarah Vaughn at the piano all my life.” If she “drinks like a fish,” is it part of her training? Southern dialects slur. “What are you anyway?” one of them demands of the other. “KKK or KGB?”
She’s known these “accidental synchronicities” as the truest definition, many a year, many a night.
The rain beats hard and cold, bodily fluids steaming outside the bar, echo-globing the streetlights cold and hard against the brownish-yellow sweating-plaster curvilinear pseudo Art Deco.
“The jig is up,” she says. “It’s too late to exfiltrate. I know who you are.”