Pengilly's Saloon, Boise
We peeked through the door at the Cactus Bar, but we saw only one man sitting at the bar, and he looked like he might have been there all day long. We decided we didn’t need to open the door.
We were with a high school friend of mine in Boise, a friend that I hadn’t seen since a class reunion years ago. Christina used to frequent the Cactus when she worked nearby at Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro. After the lunch shift, the “Goldy’s Girls” (all waitresses) would walk down the alley from the restaurant to get a drink together at The Cactus, a quintessential dive bar. The omnipresent motley collection of day drinkers would look with appreciation as the tired waitresses entered, because, as Christina said, “If you had all your teeth, you were one of the most gorgeous women in the house.”
But since it didn’t seem like a hot night at the place, even by Cactus standards, we decided to go two doors down to Pengilly’s Saloon.
A number of people had recommended Pengilly’s to us, often with the suggestion that we go on a Thursday night when the Frim Fram Four perform. The 4 are a renowned ensemble in the area specializing in classic arrangements from the Jazz Age. When we arrived a little before eight o’clock on a Tuesday night, we saw a solo act getting ready for his nine o’clock set.
Unlike the Cactus, Pengilly’s was hopping, and the bar was full. Christina’s husband, Tom, saw several people he knew. At a table near the door we learned that many were there for a local environmental group’s event. (A plus about this situation: the woman at the table had a roll of tickets redeemable for a well drink at the bar. By simply giving our e-mail address, we were each able to get a free drink from the bar -- a rum and Coke for me, while Mindy had a Square Mile Hopped Apple Cider which technically was not a bar drink. The bartender was kind and took her ticket anyway.
Christina and I attended Piner High in Santa Rosa, California, nearing four decades ago, a number we shall try not to think of again. We were in drama together and co-starred in the show Stage Door. Our characters were supposed to kiss, but we were so awkward that the director said, “Maybe you could just hug.” I left theater behind, but Christina carried on, performing in a number of professional venues. Her husband, Tom, is also an actor. He taught many years of high school drama (one of the bartenders at Pengilly’s was a former student), and for many years he was a necessary player at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Christina and Tom began dating while touring schools with a Shakespeare presentation.
Since there wasn’t room at the bar, we sat down at a booth in Pengilly’s and asked Christina and Tom our two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go or not, what would make for a good church?” (Spoiler: I already knew they didn’t go to church.)
Christina said, “It really is who you’re with at the bar.” She went on to tell fond bar memories revolving around people. Pengilly’s, she told us, has a place in their hearts because, among other things, it is where many from the Idaho Shakespeare Festival company would meet after shows. Then after the season (which runs from the end of May through September) ended, friends from the company would continue to get together at Pengilly’s. In spite of the tiny dance floor, many of them would find a way to dance. Not surprisingly, a number of people from the company could dance very well. (Christina and Tom said they enjoyed watching the pros.)
Christina talked about other bars that held fond memories. Tom Grainey’s Sporting Pub, a Boise staple, is another favorite spot for local bands. While dating, Tom and Christina requested a ballad. They were told that the band had already played a ballad in that set, but they’d play another for them in the next set, if they stuck around. They did stick around, and in the next set, the band played John Coltrane’s “Naima,” dedicating it to them. For the next couple of years, whenever Tom and Christina went to the bar, that band would strike up “Naima” for them. (Needless to say, this became one of “their songs.”)
Tom said a good bar is “just this loud” (Tom does have some hearing issues). “I like to chat more than dance.” But Tom appreciates music and a bar with “a good jukebox, if you can find one.” A bar nearby has a Viralux jukebox with a huge selection of songs that they’d “put $5 in -- it’s just that good.”
Christina echoed her love for a good jukebox, “I like it when they play Johnny Cash there, even though I don’t like Johnny Cash anywhere else.”
In answer to what would make for a good church, Christina said one word, “Joy.”
Christina grew up attending a small Baptist church with her parents that she felt lacked joy. She quit going to church when she didn’t have to anymore. At another time she told me about encountering a lively African American church on a theater tour. She said she wondered whether church might still be a part of her life if she’d grown up in that kind of church.
When asked for what made for a good church, Tom hesitated about answering the question. He said after many years of struggling with the issue, he’d finally decided to go from labeling himself as an agnostic to calling himself an atheist. But I said that we’d talked to plenty of atheists on this trip who still had ideas about what churches should be. And Tom did, in time, have an answer. “I love Christmas music, I love holiday music. That spectacle of it keeps my nostrils above water for the rest of the year.”
Later he thought of something else that he appreciates in a church, when a pastor is a good storyteller. He said his first wife was more religious than he, and he used to sometimes go to church with her. And the pastor of that church was very good. He got things out of those messages, and Christina confirmed that he still talks about that pastor and his messages.
As we talked, the soloist began to play. The second song in his set was the theme song from Cheers. Sometimes you want to go where everyone knows your name. Sometimes it’s more than enough to be where only a couple of people know your name, especially if they’ve known it for a long time.