Barrymore’s Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska is unique. It is located in the backstage area of what used to be the Stuart Theatre. You enter the bar through an alley. The bar entrance was the performer’s stage door when the theatre opened in 1929.
Barrymore’s was always dark and musky and smelling of sawdust and rope. The Stuart theatre is still a performance space with seats and a stage and on the other side of the fire curtain remains Barrymore’s — still backstage — and still thriving with life and ambition and still giving off a strange ambience of being someplace you don’t belong but were always meant to be in the end.
Barrymore’s is where the radio people I used to work with would hang out before, during and after work because the station was on the eighth floor of the same building. If I joined them during the day I always had a pop while those around me would slowly make their way into the slosh. One day my friends and I were hanging out downtown after school and we decided to go into Barrymore’s.
Barrymore’s was an upper class bar. It wasn’t like the bar troughs clotted along downtown where University of Nebraska-Lincoln students would head for the cheapest buzz they could find. The five of us sat down together at a tiny round table. The waitress came over and smiled and asked what we were drinking as she placed a cocktail napkin before each of us. She said drinking in such a way we knew she mean alcohol and not pop or water.
We all looked at each other and Chad — the manly man among us who, at 15 had a full beard and a deep voice and looked craggy and at least 50 years old — ordered for us. “We’re all having dark girls,” Chad said smoothly and with great confidence. “Back in a jig,” the waitress said.
We all looked at each other as soft jazz music voluptuously played all around us. We were all 15 and we were about to be served alcohol in the grandest bar of all.
Then, one of us finally had the guts to ask the question: “What’s a dark girl?” Chad smiled and leaned back in his chair. “You have to fit in if you want to drink. If they card you, you’re dead. Talk the walk, man.” “But what’s a dark girl?”
“A dark girl,” Chad said in a low, soft voice as he leaned into us, “is even better than a pale one.” “We’re getting alcohol, right? We aren’t really getting a girl-girl, right?” Chad continued on in his low, sexy, voice as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “St. Pauli Girl is a beer. A foreign beer. A pale beer. If you order a ‘dark girl’ you’re ordering the darker version of the beer no one really knows about so the fact you know about it means you drink. It means you know. You fit in.”
“We’re getting beer!” someone chirped while clapping.
“Don’t shout. Don’t clap. You’re going to get us carded,” Chad said as he hushed us with his eyes. “Fit in. Fit in by keeping cool and quiet. When your dark girl comes, nurse her a little bit. Don’t chug.”
The waitress arrived and set down before us five St. Pauli Girl Special Dark bottles of beer and five small glasses and a big bowl of pretzels and peanuts. “We didn’t order pretzels.” one of us us said in a voice that was a little too loud. The waitress gave us a look. “Thanks for the snacks.”
Chad kicked the person under the table and peeled off a $20 bill and handed it to her. “Keep the change.” She grinned at her 150% tip and left us alone as she headed back to the BarBack. “Guys, the pretzels and peanuts are free,” Chad said. “And stop drinking it out of the bottle! We aren’t in your basement. Tilt the glass a little first. Then pour a little bit into the glass and sip.”
“Ew. It’s bitter.”
“Drink it anyway.” Chad said.
“I don’t like the heavy foam.”
“Drop a peanut in it and the salt on the nut will bring it down,” Chad ordered. “No more talking. Drink it all. Eat a pretzel between swallows if you can’t handle the taste.”
For the next 10 minutes we all ate and drank in repetitive silence. Chad surveyed the bar. “Good. We’re fitting in. Now watch and learn.”
In a single movement, Chad caught our waitress’ eye, raised his eyebrows and drew a small horizontal circle in the air around us. She nodded and Chad smiled back at her. “We have another round coming. I’ll pay for it. You’ll pay me back later.”
After a long wait, our waitress came up to us with an empty tray. Chad closed his eyes and fell back, deflated, in his chair.
One of us said in a squeaky voice that was, again, a little too loud, “Where are our dark girls?” She looked each of us in the eye. Except for Chad. He was sitting there with his eyes still shut. “Look, you guys. There’s a man at the bar who said you’re all 15 years old. I’m in big trouble because I served you and you gotta get out of here.”
As she crisply turned on her heel I looked through the smoky haze of the bar to see Gay, one of the top salesmen at the radio station, sipping a cocktail through a stirring straw and shaking his finger at me. Gay was a monster of a man. He was mighty and tall and huge and he could sell you sunshine on sunny day using just a handshake.
Gay’s giant mop of snowy hair was slicked back like a snowcapped mountain. His brilliant, bushy-white mustache glowered at me in the dark. His leathery face did not crack a smile. I was immediately sick to my stomach as I felt a salty mix of beer and pretzels fighting their way up through the peanuts and out through my mouth.
Gay had always been kind to me. He offered me sage advice. He was my friend. Gay was short for “Gaylord” and he loved to be called “Gay” and if you called him “Gaylord” he would correct you and tell you to call him “Gay.” Gay was a really old guy even back then and “gay” did not mean then what it means now.
AYDS, back then, was a diet supplement of chewy caramel and not AIDS, the deadly killer disease. Back then, the legal drinking age was 18.
“L-l-l-let’s run for it!” one of us stammered. “There’s an emergency exit right behind us.” someone said.
“Push it open and let’s go!” another one of us urged.
“No.” Chad finally said as he slowly opened his eyes and inflated his lungs to sigh, “We’re going out the way we came in.”
The rest of us audibly gasped. That exit was on the opposite end of the bar and we’d have to weave in and out of all the tables and customers to get out.
“It’s too far. We’ll get arrested between here and there.”
Chad ignored our pressing impulse to fight or flee. “We’re going to be cool. We’re going to fit in. Follow me.”
Chad peeled off another $20 bill and tucked it under his cocktail napkin.
“And don’t run,” Chad hissed. The rest of us lined up single-file and followed Chad out of the bar like prisoners in a slow-motion Chain Gang. The second we hit daylight outside the bar we looked at each other through squinting, dazed, eyes trying to figure out what to do next. Then Chad turned away from us and flew into a run.
The rest of us took his lead and split off in a sprint for our lives in opposite directions. I didn’t stop running until my head stopped buzzing from the beer. It took awhile. None of us ever spoke with each other about getting caught.
It was a painful loss of face and if our waitress had called the police instead of telling us to scram we all would have ended up in juvenile detention for a day or two and that would have brought great public shame and private regret to our families.
I saw Gay many times after that incident. He never brought up what happened and neither did I.
He knew we did the wrong thing and then, as now, I’m relieved he chose to shake a finger instead of shout because the meaning of that silent message hurt even more. I had disappointed my friend.
Gay taught me fitting in is sometimes finding out what you must never become when you’re underage backstage at Barrymore’s bar.