“You have to read people,” Melody said, “You figure out if they want things straight or if they’re just looking for a good story.” Melody has a lot of opportunities to tell stories as a bartender at the Saloon #10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. The Western legend Wild Bill Hickok was famously assassinated while playing poker at Saloon #10. So is this the saloon where Wild Bill was killed? Well, what do you want: the truth or a fun tall tale?
Melody said that daytime at the No. 10 Saloon is tourist time. During high tourist season, the summer, there are numerous shows throughout the day in the bar featuring a “Wild Bill,” including shootouts. Even the day we were there, a Tuesday in October, there was one afternoon show in No. 10.
No. 10 is like many of the other bars in town; there are also card tables and slot machines (including a Sex in the City slot machine, just like Wild Bill Hickok used to play.)
Melody told us some of the stories she likes to tell tourists. “Wild Bill used to sit in that chair by the fireplace. I’m not making any promises, but some people have taken pictures of that spot and had unexplainable ghostly images appear in their photos.” One day, an elderly woman entered the bar and pointed at Melody and screamed, “Liar! Liar! The stories you told me not true!”
Of course they weren’t true. It doesn’t take much effort to walk around town and read the historical markers that state that Hickok was killed in 1876 and the original No. 10 Saloon was burned down in a fire in 1879. And it was across the street. But as the reporter explains in the great John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
We looked inside the saloon in the afternoon while the Wild Bill show was going, but we came back later in the evening. We sat at the bar next to a man who told us he was a local, even though he was wearing a Giants cap (the National League playoffs were on the TV, and he was quite obviously rooting for the Cubs against the Dodgers). Mindy ordered an Apple Ale and I asked for Rum and Coke and an order of onion rings.
We introduced ourselves, and he told us his name was Jake. He used to live in California, in Orangevale near Sacramento, but while still young he and his mom moved back to her hometown of Deadwood. When we asked what he looked for in a bar, he said he likes this place, “This is my hometown bar.” He said people know him here, and that when he comes in, they know he’ll be ordering a Morgan’s and Coke. He told us he works at a bar down the street, but that it’s not where he hangs out. He likes the bands that No. 10 brings in about four nights a week, though not the night we were there. He said that we’d come on movie night. (The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was going to be the evening’s feature. Children are allowed in the bar in the daytime, but it is exclusively for those over 21 after 8:30 pm.)
We asked, as we usually do, what would make for a good church and Jake said he had no opinion; it wasn’t his thing. But he did say that when they’d returned to the area, his mother began to attend the Catholic Church again. The main reason for her return to church, he said, was so when she died, she could be buried in the local Catholic graveyard with her relatives.
We were also able to ask Melody, our bartender, what she thought made for a good bar. She said that friendliness is good. Good drink prices per pour. She said staff is important to set the mood, and that the bartender should be a “feisty person who can do some back and forth with the customers; a little sassy.”
Another bartender, Lia, joined the conversation and agreed about the importance of sassiness. Lia and Melody talked a bit about how that attitude was helpful in dealing with people who had a bit too much to drink. Both bartenders discussed having to deal with customers who made advances. There is a delicate balance between turning down those advances without being mean or losing business.
All three, Jake, Melody, and Lia, prefer their bars to be a little darker, a little closer to a dive bar. (Jake said that the bar he worked at was a little too well lit.) They said that a dive bar allowed people to be themselves. At a stuffy, well-lit place, people might well be judging you.
Lia said a good bartender knows when customers want attention and when they want to be left alone. She said years of bartending should earn a person a degree in therapy, and Melody agreed.
I asked what made for a good church. Melody said, “Nonjudgemental is a big one for me.” People shouldn’t go into a place and feel out of place for being a sinner. She said it helps “to at least have a buddy to go with.” She said that she doesn’t make it to church because she and her boyfriend sleep too late on Sundays.
Lia does go to church, and in fact teaches Sunday School. She goes to a small church that she describes as nonjudgmental. “It took me a long time to find a church that was okay with tattoos.” She also appreciates that her church has a good time of socializing before the service begins, and then everyone goes in at once. The service is only an hour, which she appreciates, and she said that worship services are supplemented by “life groups” that meet during the week. “I’ve got people to go to church with me because I work at a bar, that might not have gone otherwise.”
On our way out we stopped to chat with Nathan, who was keeping an eye on the door. He only recently began doing security -- usually he bartends as well. (During the summer, between the kitchen, the card tables, the bar, the restaurant, and more, about 130 people are on staff at No. 10. During the off season, it’s closer to 80.)
We asked Nathan what he thought made for a good bar. “Good bartenders. Do you need three things? No? Just good bartenders; nice, but don’t take any crap. Oh, and clean restrooms.” We haven’t had anyone mention clean restrooms before, but we’ve been to places that have reminded us how important that feature is.
We asked Nathan what would make for a good church, and he said, “I don’t know, I’m not really religious. I guess an enthusiastic and entertaining pastor. It’s all about the people.” When I pointed out the similarity between that answer and his response about bartenders and bars he said, “The experience is all about the people you meet.”
I asked Nathan whether there were an times that were especially difficult for security at the bar. He said that there were a number of weekends where the town allowed people to carry open containers in town (one of those weekends, Deadweird, a Halloween celebration, is coming up). Those times tend to bring out the worst in some people. He was okay with that though, “Deadwood knows how to have a good time.”
He had more good things to say about No. 10. He noted that most of the employees had worked there for over 5 years, so they must be doing something right. The bar also raised a lot of money for charity, over $100,000 the previous year. One of those charity projects was for a local police officer’s daughter who has cancer. The bar raised $22,000 in one day to help pay for her treatment.
To quote from the writer Thomas Sowell, “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” As is probably true for most tourist destinations, the staff at No. 10 Saloon does a little of both. We enjoyed both the tall tales and the truth they had to share.