Burro Bar and London Bridge, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 8/25/2012

The homiest bar. The very interior feels like mild intoxication, as though the walls themselves were softened with cork and Sam Adams. In the first level, the bar itself and the enormous flat screen TV where everyone watched the McCain-Obama presidential debates and The Darjeeling Limited. In the second level, some booths, a few tacky outdated video games and a dartboard. The lowest level, a stage for unfunny comedians and blues musicians, a pool table, lots of booths like the one where a couple of Saturday noon regulars graded freshman papers when they were adjuncting English Composition classes at the University of North Florida.

Sundays were good days at the London Bridge, a few friends and no one else, Amy the Irish-looking bartender who played Bjork songs over and over on the jukebox. Her favorite Bjork album was Gling-Glo. They listened to the whole thing one Sunday, Bjork growling and whooping and scat singing. Yuengling, Guinness, couple of Blue Moons, Bjork singing Rogers and Hammerstein songs in Icelandic.

The first time he went to the London Bridge, he met up with a group from the university. They were all going to London for 10 days to drink at the Marlborough Arms in Bloomsbury and watch a play in a different part of London almost every night. Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Donmar Warehouse. Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party at the New Ambassador’s Theatre. The Presnyakov Brothers’ Terrorism at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Tim Firth’s The Safari Party at the Hampstead Theatre. Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer at the Lyttelton Theatre. And dim sum in Chinatown, Gandhi in Bloomsbury, John Lennon and the Bronte Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery, antiwar protests in Piccadilly Circus. But first they all met at the London Bridge Eatery and Pub at Ocean and Adams Streets, downtown Jacksonville, and ate Scotch eggs and bangers and mash and fish and chips. Someone said it was English food better than the English food in England, and the whole time they were in London, they ate Indian, Thai, Greek, Italian, everything but English food.

Five years after it opened, a chalkboard easel appeared on the sidewalk to let drivers-by know, “We Now Have Air Conditioning! Come in for a cool one!”

When the London Bridge opened in 2002, with its fake somewhat Tudoresque (not really) timbering on the front façade of the 1926 building and its doors painted red like London phone booths and double-decker buses, people said things like, “There’s a real bar downtown.” When Ginger and Martin sold the bar four years later, people said things like, “It won’t be the same.” But at least Ginger and Martin had given Marianne and Ian, the Bridge’s original main bartenders, plenty of support in opening up their own bar, Shantytown, up at 6th and Main Streets in Springfield. The new owners, the Nigaras, said, “The London Bridge will remain the London Bridge.”

Sitting at the bar beneath the plaster arch that separates the top level from the middle level, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, reading Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America: Poems of these States, 1965-1971.

Intense chess matches in a lower level booth, Joe Flowers fidgeting madly and talking a mile a minute about 100 clever things against Steven Sikes, the local ecoterrorist, just back from ramming whaling boats on the Sea Shepard somewhere between Australia and Antarctica.

Then, September 2010, a sneak-attack blindside headline: “London Bridge Pub to Close Tonight.” Yes, “The London Bridge,” the 46-word story said, “is closing.” Mysteriously, “One of the owners, who asked not to be named, said the pub’s last night will be tonight.” Just like that. She said she had no details and no reasons to offer. “‘It’s a business decision.’”

Never again would anyone in the Bridge take a piss while dazing toward that framed poster of Irish writers with the thumbnail photographs of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. Golden moments.

Jerrod Askey has been old enough to buy a beer legally for six months. He walks down Adams Street to the bright red corner doors and sees the pub is empty. Not just of people. Of tables, chairs, bar, beer, all the dollar bills pinned to the wall with various drunken notes scribbled on them. “That place can’t be closed down, man. That place has been here forever.” The funny thing is that the London Bridge didn’t make it one whole decade, but it really did seem like it had been here forever.

Maybe Marianne and Ian can reopen the place and restore its original glory. Or a whole new thing, better than it ever was before. The Burro Bar, they might call it.