Thursday, April 05, 2007

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough go to their Neighborhood Bar

Thank God for Pete Skinner. Finally, finally, finally I had a great meal, great conversation and a happy, full tummy. I was so put off by food after my weekend experiences that I've really barely been eating for days. Honestly, I had half a baked potato and some lettuce on Monday and that was just fine for me. Plus, there's the whole annoying, continually broke problem that's been nagging at me.
I arrived a little early, ahead of Laura. Matt poured me a frosted glass full of Schell's dark and I settled in. My buddy Steve was sitting next to me. This guy is a gem. He's been a Navy man, married four times and hails from South Carolina. He teaches Lit at the Minneapolis Community and Technical college to veterans of war. Now, most people hear that and picture Vietnam area vets, but his classes are mostly full of these kids coming back from the gulf. Kids that maybe didn't do so well in school, but now need the tools to be able to find a good job now that they're out of the service. After the hell they've been through; I can't imagine. He's a hell of a guy and can toss 'em back like nobody's business. Huge, large man, he makes me feel comfortably girlie and dwarfed when sitting next to him. Sometimes I get him to tell me about the last Mrs. He'd been living in a house, 'bout a block away from where I live now, and he'd decided to put a pond into the back yard. He took the bathtub out of the bathroom and proceeded to bury it in the backyard. ("Seemed like a good idea at the time!") The wife didn't appreciate the creative gardening and kicked him out on the spot. Being the kind of guy that's lived plenty of his life out of a duffel bag, he packed up his stuff and walked to his buddy's house, across the alley and said, "Man, I'm outside. Can I stay witcha?" He stayed for something like four years.
Matt & I ordered some of their boneless wings and settled in to the bar, chatting Steve up a bit. The boneless wings are just big hunks of seasoned batter wrapped around a little chunk of chicken and deep fried to golden, salty perfection. On the side you can either have the Ranch or the honey mustard, both housemade fresh by Pete every day. They were so goood. The perfect compliment to the icy cold beer I was nursing.
As the boothes started to fill up I settled myself into one, assuring that Laura would have a place to eat, and pulled out a new library book. I'd gotten the Tender Bar and thought of the appropriateness of the title. It's a memoir about a guy who basically grew up around his neighborhood bar. It was basically unreadable. His whole unremarkable prologue is dedicated to some misguided attempt to philosophize the neighborhood bar. That's just something unwritable, lighting in a jar.
I remember the experiences that I had growing up, my dad, a glint in his blue eye as we were trapped at some unbearably stuffy family event. He'd subtly jerk his head toward the door, "Wanna go for a ride?" We'd drive all over Northern Minnesota, duck down back roads to find a comfortably dingy bar with the game on. We'd settle onto a couple of stools, beer for him, Mt. Dew for me and he'd strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to him. They'd talk like they'd known each other for years. And maybe, in a sense they did. A joint like this is a dime a dozen, at least around here and the blessed county roads of Wisconsin. You know these guys. They work hard for what they get and they laugh loud, play rough and drink a lot. These are good people. And that's what most of the folks at Skinner's are like. It's a type of family and more of a community meeting grounds than some people in the surrounding communities would like to admit.
There was a whole dust up in the Pioneer Press not too long ago about Pete Skinner receiving money from the city for building the new patio on the back of his building. Fingers pointed and cries went out saying, "It's all because he's friends with Pat Harris!" (city councilman.) No it is not. Really. Matt's older brother Andy, Pat Harris, Pete Skinner, Joe Bob Harris, these guys all grew up together. And I'm not talkin' befriended each other at a tender age, I mean grew up together. They were friends by birth by approximation. Raised by Joanne Harris, Carol Summers, these were community mothers who dealt with the roaming hoards of children running rampant in the Highland Park community in the 70's. Of course Pat and his right hand man John Marshall (of whom I'm a big fan) come in and have a few beers in the place, everyone does. It's their grown up clubhouse. Besides, other bar owners in the area got much more money than Pete ever saw. In fact, the first time he asked for funding the city turned him down because he didn't ask for enough. But that's all over and done with.
The concern now is that with the smoking ban. While it is infinitely more pleasant to be in the bar; I don't reek when I go home and Matt's definitely working in a better environment. It's not a better, more successful business. The people who claim this hasn't hurt these business aren't paying close enough attention. My cousin's husband, Mitch owns the aptly named Mitch's in West Duluth. The smoking ban has been slowly killing this family business for years. (His dad owned the place before him.) It's alarming to think that these last bastions of the blue collared may slowly dry up. These communities, the sense of community would be irrevocably damaged. But, with smoking illegal, what's next? Booze is basically a legal poison to many people. I know that too well, losing my dad to demon liquor a few years ago.
But that's not what I was thinking about last night, and it certainly wasn't even remotely related to that pretentious bull crap in that book.
I heard a commotion at the door, "Loberg!"
"Heya Matt, how are you?" My cutie blond friend was there wrapped in brown, puffy down jacket, pulling her gloves off.
"I'm doing good. I'm doing good. What can I get you?"
I waved happily as she collected her drink and joined me. We were getting one of their amazing pizzas, pepperoni. Crispy thin crust, perfectly seasoned sauce with oregano and basil, topped with ridiculous amounts of cheese. It does a range girl's heart good.


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