Saturday, August 20, 2016

We walk into a bar in Vermont

Charlie-O’s World Famous Bar and Fine Dining*, Montpelier, VT
The sign above Charlie-O’s boasts “Good Drinks and Bad Company, since the War between the States.” Last weekend, Charlie-O’s hosted a celebration of their 40th anniversary. You don’t have to be a math whiz or a history buff to notice a discrepancy there.  

We asked Beckie, the bartender and an assistant manager, to help us wrestle with that concept. She said that the building has held a bar since the Civil War, but it has only been under the name of “Charlie-O’s” for the last two score years. (Sorry about that. The Civil War got me thinking all Lincolnesque.)

The bar is located on Main Street in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier, with a few other bars, a movie theater, stores, churches, and city hall. Outside and in, the bar is decorated with the covers of old pulp novels and clever/corny sayings and song lyrics. There are two pool tables, a pinball machine, and a jukebox. The ceiling is low and the lighting is dim. The women’s room has a lock, but the men’s room does not. The space is long and narrow, and someone commented that when it’s raining, being inside was like being in a tent.”

There was a discussion going on at the bar about what made for a good bar name. I’ve heard of names like “The Office” (so you can call home and say, “I’m at The Office”), and on this trip (in Atlanta) we came across “Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium.” Favorites mentioned in the conversation included nearby bars called “Ladies Invited” and “The Perfect Wife.”

We felt we should order something Vermont-made, so we ordered two different kinds of Citizen’s Cider (Dirty Mayor and Unified Press). We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, so while there were some folks there, the bar was fairly empty. So when a couple at the bar was gathering up belongings to head out into the rain, I asked if they could spare a moment to chat.

We asked Anna and Rhyse our two standard bar questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?”

As for a bar, Anna said, “It depends on the mood you’re in. Sometimes you’re in the mood for dancing. Sometimes you want conversation. Sometimes you want good drinks and good food. Sometimes you want good music not for dancing.” She added,  Drink specials heavily play into it.”

Rhyse said, “Music.” (Anna told us Rhyse is a man of few words.)

I asked why they choose Charlie-O’s on that day. Anna said, “Charlie-O’s is a fun place to get out of the rain.”

Rhyse said, “Atmosphere.”

As for a church, Anna said, “I don’t go to church, but if I did I might go to the [Unitarian] church down the street. The Unitarian Church is the most liberal and accepting of all backgrounds. Being accepting is the main thing.”

Rhyse didn’t comment.

After Anna and Rhyse left, we moved closer to the center of the bar, near Alanna. She said, “I don’t know if you’ll want to talk to me, I’m on staff here.”

We assured her we loved to talk to bar staff. Alanna has been working at Charlie O’s for about a year. We asked her what made for a good bar.

“Well, it’s like it says on the sign out front, ‘Good drinks, bad company’.”  I asked her to elaborate. “I prefer my bars to be honest, not sugarcoated but worn. I like dirty, dark, dive bars.” She quoted Frida Kahlo, “You deserve the best, the very best, because you are one of the few people in this lousy world who are honest to themselves, and that is the only thing that really counts.”

Although she said she doesn't go to church, she said, “I’ve seen some of the best musical performances in churches, at church venues for festivals and such.” She said she appreciates a building that offers as much noise and resonance as possible.

Beckie the bartender had been most gracious, answering our questions about the bar’s history and about the city’s parking enforcement, and she answered our two standard questions as well. As for what makes a good bar: “I think it starts with the bartender, of course, then the welcoming atmosphere where you can come in and be yourself. The bartender is there to make a safe, good place.” A good bar should be “unpretentious” where “anybody can come in and feel accepted.”

As for church, Beckie mentioned that she was forced to go when she was young and doesn’t go now. “I think I was spoiled by the churches in Europe. They have such beautiful aesthetics and the churches here are so plain. American churches feel sterile It might go back to the Puritans. In the church you want to feel awe of the church building and who you’re worshiping.”  

As we were leaving, I noticed a couple of other people to talk to. I approached Mike, who said, “So, I heard you’re going to a bar and church in every state.”  Mindy said we were and offered him one of our cards, and I asked him what he thought makes for a good bar.

entrance to Charlie-O's World Famous in Montpelier, Vermont
Mike said, “Comfortability. And a good pool table. Actually, I should have put that first. That’s what keeps me coming here. The third part is a good bar staff. I work at a restaurant right down the street, and when I get off work it’s my five o’clock.” He described Charlie-O’s as being “like a living room” of sorts. (Mike works at La Puerta Negra, a Mexican restaurant. We went there next because Mike mentioned it was Taco Tuesday. Thank you, Mike!)

As for what makes for a good church, Mike said, “That’s a tough one.” He was raised in the Catholic Church but said, “I haven’t practiced for a long time.” He remembers being asked at church to go to a protest against civil unions and that didn’t sit right with him. He said that a church should have “no bigotry.” He also said it should be a place that’s all-encompassing and that welcomes everybody.

There was one last person, a young woman at one end of the bar. I asked her if I could ask a couple of questions. She said she would usually love to help, but she’d had a long day at work and just wasn’t up to it. Earlier, Beckie the bartender had mentioned that a place like Charlie-O’s can provide a “little bar vacation.” I hope this woman was able to enjoy hers.

(I noticed on their Facebook page that Charlie-O’s will be having Louisiana Flood Benefit Ragtime Masquerade on September 10. We’re wishing them well in that worthy cause.)

*The "fine dining" includes some chips for sale behind the bar and a hanging basket full of microwaveable food. It's possible they once offered finer food than that, but the menu hanging by the front door seems to indicate otherwise.

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