Saturday, May 21, 2016

We walk into a bar in Maryland

Hank Dietle's Tavern
Hank Dietle's sign
"People say Hank Dietle's is a step back in time," Kevin said, "It's not, this is time." That claim was made in a variety of ways by patrons of this long time Maryland establishment on the evening we visited. The building itself is 100 this year -- the inverse of the establishment's liquor license, which is numbered "001" (allegedly because it was the first license issued after prohibition).

The building wasn't built to be a tavern, but rather a general store with two gas pumps in front. According to local legend the store was an anomaly. Supposedly, this location has been the home of a tavern or pub since colonial days.

Old is the rule at Hank Dietle's. Even the wooden bar is secondhand, purchased in the 1940s after a fire destroyed the original. The owner of the place found one at a bar in Baltimore and sawed it to fit the space.  It's older than the building.

There are some new things inside Hank Dietle's. There are now several television screens in the tavern while there used to be just one. (Two of the screens were playing the same Nationals game while we were there.) I assume the one pool table has been there for quite a while, and there's a rather cool Noir Detective pinball game, as well as a video casino game on the bar.

You might say the menu is limited. They serve wine and beer. There are a variety of bottle beers, canned beers, and beers on tap. As for wine, the night we were there, the choices were merlot or chardonnay, both from a box. There are also waters and sodas, and all the options were visible in the fridge behind the bar. Outside, the Corn Beef King food truck offered food to go (eating it the bar was perfectly acceptable), but the food options inside were on a rack (a variety of Utz chips).

A jazz duo, an acoustic guitar and a standup bass, played a great variety of tunes from "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" to the "The Flintstones" theme. Though a high tech juke box is in the place, most nights there is live music, with Rockabilly on Saturday nights (and the juke box isn't played while live music is available).

We visited on a beautiful warm night, so the porch outside was crowded with people still enjoying the sun when we arrived after 7:00 pm. We made conversation with folks inside, asking the questions we ask every week, "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?"

After Mindy ordered her merlot and I ordered my pale ale, I struck up a conversation with a Kevin, who was sitting alone at the bar. In answer to my question as to what makes for a good bar, he said, "Cold beer." He also answered with just two words about what made for a good church, "The homily." But when I asked, he was happy to elaborate on his answer. "The homily should make the Biblical message applicable to the 21st century. Last Sunday, I heard a great one. If I gave you $168.00 and asked for one back, would you give it to me?"

I said, "Sure."

"Well, God has given you 168 hours in the week. Is it so much to ask to give Him one hour at Mass?"

Turns out, Kevin gives more than one hour a week to church. He said he goes pretty much every day. "Have you ever been in Best Buy with twenty television sets blaring all around you? I think all of life is like that these days, always something coming at you. But when I go to church, I feel like I can turn off those TVs one at a time and have some peace," he told me.

After that, I talked to a fellow named James, the first of two people for the night who agreed to answer our first question, but not our second. He was older than we are, a native of the area, who hadn't come to Dietle's until a couple of years ago. "You don't come here for the ambience," he said, "But it is unique and has its own style. You can't help but love something that's been around forever. It has a charm you can't find anywhere else."

James said he wouldn't answer the question about what made for a good church, but he told me what he thinks about Christians following a god who had been killed. I mentioned that Christians believe Jesus didn't stay dead. He let me know he thought the idea of the resurrection was absurd. He went on to explain his theories of humanity being brought to earth by space aliens, and his understanding of the seven chakras of the human body.

Meanwhile, Mindy was talking to people at the other end of the bar. Savannah and Wes were both happy to say what they thought made a good bar.

Savannah said, "When you walk in and you feel like it's where you're supposed to be."

Wes added that the environment and people made the difference. He said "funniness and fun" mattered.

Savannah said, "I'm not going to lie. This is my first time here and this guy is what makes me feel like I'm supposed to be here." When I asked what made for a good church, she said, "I'm going to let Wes answer all my questions from now on."

Wes was happy to take the opportunity. Even though he was just waiting at the bar for change for a game of pool, he was happy to chat while he waited. A good church, he said, had "loving caring people who make you feel loving and caring while you're there." He also felt it should be non-judgmental.

After he got his change and a pitcher of beer, two women came up to sit at the end of the bar. Mindy asked them her questions, too.

Pam was closer, so she answered first. Like Frank, she said she appreciated the ambience of this place, "but that's not the whole thing, you feel like you can be yourself." She said the things she valued in a church were racial diversity ("that's very important to me") and good music. She also recommended churches in states we haven't been to yet, which we appreciated.

Mindy also talked to a young woman named Amanda, who happened to be Pam's daughter. She said she didn't really go to bars, but had been working at Hank Dietle's for almost two years. The owner had gone through her checkout line at Safeway a number of times, then asked if she wanted to work some shifts at Hank Dietle's. She did say, though, that she felt that the important factors for a bar were that it should be inexpensive, it should be a good place to meet someone, and there should be screens to watch games.

When Mindy asked her what made a good church, Amanda said she appreciated a pastor who could put Scripture in context to make it understandable. She had been raised in a Unitarian Church, but now was looking for something more "Christian," with engaging sermons that are "more like engaging lectures rather than talking at you. It should have a welcoming community."

Kieran, who was tending bar, told us he'd only been working there a couple of days. But he was friendly and welcoming -- and there's something about an Irish accent that earns extra points in our bartending book. When asked about what makes for a good bar he said, "Customers and bartenders. The end". (He expanded on this a bit, pointing out that a person could have the same beer at home as at a bar, but the company and the people serving make the experience completely different in a bar.)

As for what made for a good church he said, "Lack of judgment for a start. Churches tend to not practice what they preach...They should have an open door and a welcoming attitude."  He feels that some of the core philosophies of what religions believe has been lost -- for example, he said, "come ye, come ye all" and "judge not, lest ye be judged."

I felt we needed to talk to the musicians before we left, if only to thank them for playing the theme to the Perry Mason Show. Since they hadn't started their next set, we were able to ask them our questions. Steve, the guitarist, thought a bit about what he appreciates about a good bar. He said, "you don't go to just one kind." He said that this was the kind of place he liked to come for a beer with friends, but if he was taking his wife, she'd probably prefer a fancier place. He spoke affectionately about Hank Dietle's history and tradition, and said a good bar offers a warm welcome but "you don't want to pay $20.00 for a cocktail."

Thierry, the standup bass player, said that a good bar should have a good choice of drinks, good music and a pretty bar maid. He pointed out that while Hank Dietle's was a very interesting place, it wasn't typical for the area (we'd already heard that this was the only bar that was just a bar; everyplace else in the county is primarily a restaurant). Thierry declined to answer our church question, but Steve said that a good church should have a sense of community the people in it should agree with each other theologically, politically and sociologically.

As we were leaving, I had another chance to talk to Pam. She said our conversation made her think about something. She said that she would be more willing to go to a church if she knew it would be as welcoming and nonjudgmental as a bar, where she didn't have to worry about being criticized for her clothes or her behavior. We certainly were made to feel welcome at Hank's Dietle's.

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