by Tim Gilmore, 12/21/2016
Liz Gibson gets along well with the regulars in dive bars. So does Jeff Whipple, without the extroversion. Still, his flannel shirt is no less his native Chicago, and her cosplay performance characters The Three-Legged Fox and Marquis Sha De were born in her native “Pennsyl-tucky.”
“I listen to hate radio,” she says sweetly, leaning over decades of knife nicks in the bar, “and if anybody wants to tell me that because I’m an artist or an academic that I haven’t worked my ass off to get where I am, they can fuck themselves.”
Her words look angry. Her speaking of them is loving and kind. Jeff peers at her over the tops of his glasses and grins knowingly, stubbly and grizzled.
The three of us are talking to Chelsea, the young brunette tending bar whose skirt ends just below her ass and who tells me a pint glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon is “a dollar fitty.”
Only a skilled dive bar sleuth could find The A Tavern in the center of Murray Hill’s skeevy bars. The sidewalk windows are boarded and window-unit air conditioners lean out over the two neon beer signs, one burnt out, the other advertising Michelob Light.
Because Jeff, besides being a playwright and artist whose dramas and installations have been shown from Chicago to South Florida, and because Liz, whose visual and “deformance art” has been celebrated in multiple media across the Southeast, are also connoisseurs of the kinds of bars that feature in Tom Waits songs and Nelson Algren novels, I’ve made them special nametags, deputizing them as “Jax Psycho Geo Bar Scouts.”
I scribble a nametag for Chelsea too, who says she’s tired of being called Courtney—“I guess they get confused because both names start with ‘C.’—but after serving drinks to an old contractor who tells her stories of standing up to a guy and telling him to fuck off, her nametag inexplicably falls off. She’s Courtney again.
Supposedly The A Tavern was named to be the first bar you’d find in the phone book. Too bad nobody remembers what phone books were. In the 1970s, the bar was called Bogart’s Joint. “The Ghost of Patsy Cline” has come in for nearly 40 years. She sits on the other side of an interior window, across from the bar, her back to the pool table, and plays Patsy Cline on the jukebox, but even more Elvis.
The plastered green walls and refrigerator and “No Sleeping” sign and NASCAR mural wear a decades-grown nicotine patina, so the whole bar is a clouded and faded beechwood yellow in its dim light.
Beneath the old mural of a Miller High Life-sponsored racecar, a plastic Christmas tree clipped with dollar tips stands among beer taps and a newly hung skunk pelt.
Chelsea-not-Courtney shows me etchings of Fred Flintstone and Pebbles and Droopy the Dog and Tinkerbell and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Dennis the Menace and Dick Tracy carved into the wood of inside lintels and doorjambs.
A shattered-windowed A Tavern phone booth stands empty across the lonely pool table from the plaster Elvis. Four decades ago, a sign stapled into the plaster wall behind the bar warned, “You will be asked to leave if you ask customers for: Money! Beer! Cigarettes! Drugs!!! or harass customers!” The sign wears the film of 40 years of cigarette smoke.
Josephine Culpepper Gilmore was dead by then. After her son, my half-brother born before me, died of febrile encephalopathy, she relied increasingly on barbiturates and disappeared on benders drinking gin straight for days and nights in Murray Hill and Riverside bars. Finally the aneurism exploded and she bled across her brain and died.
Those gin dens are as far gone from gentrifying smoke-free Riverside these days as are the 1970s, and Riverside bars like Silver Cow Watering Hole forced by rent hikes into working-class Murray Hill are pushing the dirtiest most desperate dives further north and west. The A Tavern hangs on by a thread.
Chelsea-not-Courtney tells us not to tell anyone that with a pitcher of PBR, you get a free pint of Michelob. We promise not to tell. We talk about public art, teaching, and writing books. We’re chameleons. We blend in at Black Lives Matter protests and redneck bars.
Liz plays Conway Twitty on the jukebox. The song’s “fittin’.” Nobody here suspects us of being foreign agents. Twitty twigged us though and was hip to our bluff. Except that we play no games in the games we’re playing. The puzzles we create we live by.
In deep honesty, we “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” in those famous Emily Dickinson lines. Or in Conway Twitty’s 1981 hit country single, “She tried to hide it by the faded denim clothes she wore, / But I knew she’d never been inside a bar before, / And I felt like a peasant who just met a queen, / And she knew I saw right through her tight fittin’ jeans.”
Both Twitty characters fall back to their home worlds, though “she played out her fantasy” and “came alive” as a “cowgirl” trapped “inside those tight fittin’ jeans” that one right moment when she met that “cowboy [who] once had a millionaire’s dream.”
And Dickinson’s speaker believes, as we bear evidence: “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
Chelsea-not-Courtney pours another pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon while some poor sap down the bar takes a pint of Yuengling and tells a tale of standing up to the boss who fired him.
Liz praises a missing-toothed stripper in Atlanta who sings, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!”
I ask Chelsea-not-Courtney what she thinks. She lights another cigarette, opens the back door, and steps outside, speechless, into the humid Christmastime night.