Flashback Friday | Private Eye | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Flashback Friday 

Drinking with the ghosts of bars past

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Last Friday night was a flashback sort of evening for me. I don't get out like I used to, when I once knew just about every bar manager or owner in the county, and was on more than casual terms with many bartenders and waitresses. To put it mildly, I got around. It had its upsides: I was provided with lots of free drinks and meals, I saw more music than most, and I made tons of friends—some of whom I still see here and there as we adjust our reading glasses, wonder where our hair has gone (wishing our waists would go away instead), and barely imagine once doing the Hustle or two-step.

I'd started tending bar during college the day after my 21st birthday at Club 39 (long since taken down by the expansion of St. Mark's Hospital). I used to think my first bartending shift was on my birthday, but I recently recalled it couldn't have been, since in a flashback, I remembered the actual night I turned 21, during which— after puking up the too-much-tequila—I found myself trying to sober up in a freezing-cold bath as people came and went to the commode. Yeah, Ma—I was a screw up. Maybe I still am, but on the positive side, it was one of the last times I was ever stupid drunk.

I learned to not enjoy being drunk from an old bartender named Ted Green at the Widow McCoys on Highland Drive, in the space now occupied by A Bar Named Sue. I went to work at Widow's a few weeks after it opened, since the tips there were about triple those at Club 39, and the hourly wage was an unheard of at the time: $5 an hour.

Ted was in his 50s, and would often take off a couple hours early on the slow nights and grab himself a barstool. He'd always order a VO and water, which became my go-to drink, thanks to him, because, as he said, "It's not some girly shit." No more Tom Collins for me, nor rum & Coke or Harvey Wallbangers. It was straight Canadian whiskey and water from then out. It was never very long before Ted ordered his second drink. The funny thing was, he hadn't finished his first drink, and when I'd deliver his second one—always insisting on a new glass with fresh ice—he'd hand over his first drink which was never consumed more than half way. Into the sink, night after night, went half of the drinks that Ted bought.

Ted told me it was his way of not getting stupid drunk. I picked that up from Ted. Ted was being smart about it (most of the time, since he was a funny, funny person, and, well, if you sit around for many hours, and people are buying you drinks, and you drink only half, you still drink a lot). Over the years, I bought thousands of drinks but, in more cases than not, I never finished them. When everyone else was on their fourth drink, I was mathematically on my second. Except for shooters. You can't shoot half a shooter.

I drove Ted Green home more than once, when he'd gotten past the able-to-drive stage. He'd keep me laughing all the way there, sometimes not picking out his own home on 1700 South. A few years later, I moved to Chicago. While there, I learned that Ted and his son were killed in a car accident. They'd been to Las Vegas for a golf tournament for his grandson, who survived the wreck. Ted was a fine golfer.

The above means little to most of you. But, it does to me, and I was reminded of all of it this past Friday when, after nearly three decades, I walked into what was once Widow McCoys for only the second or third time in all those years. Now, as A Bar Named Sue, it looks nothing like it did. The bar is in a different location. The covered canal that ran through the place—serving as the ramp for fashion-show models—is gone. The bathrooms have moved, the back bar is gone, the stage and dance floor now occupy the spot where diners used to eat beef Wellington and artichoke appetizers.

The old telephone booths remain, sans telephones. Seeing them sent my mind spinning, reminiscing to those first eye-opening shifts I worked at Widow McCoys—the first "super" club in these parts, with lines out the door nearly every night, reservations required for even Friday lunch. I saw and heard plenty of ghosts last Friday.

The bartenders and waitresses I worked with are now all over 60—those who are still alive, anyway. Except for the bar backs (like pre-politician Frank Pignanelli), I was the youngest. It's been an awful long string of good music, great company, grandiose characters, bad jokes and half drinks.

The ghosts I thought of most were the naïve, stupid and lost 21-year-old me and my friend and mentor, Judy Foote. In a few more years, Judy, who owned Widow's, would be the first to buy into my idea to create a private-club newsletter. She twisted a few customer arms to buy some ads, and this newspaper you read today was born. Last Friday, in A Bar Named Sue (thanks for the drinks, Tyson!), I purposely stood at the spot where Judy gave me her enthusiastic thumbs-up and hug of encouragement. And I could see Ted and Lynne and Joe and Bill and Chrissie. I didn't know if I wanted to cry or curse or laugh or be grateful. I just wanted to write it down that I'd been there.

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