Bars and their patrons have a symbiotic relationship. Bar owners need customers, and customers need their bars. These are the regulars, those folks who come in just about every day and plunk themselves down on stools. The bartenders know their names. The other patrons know their names. The bar is their other home, in every sense of the word. It is where they relax, debate, process, or just sit and stare. And, of course, it is where they drink.
The real question is: Why do people choose to go out and do this with other people every single day, instead of doing it at home? It was good enough for George "I Drink Alone" Thorogood, so why ain't it good enough for them? It is certainly cheaper to drink at home. You can play "Tuesday's Gone" by Lynyrd Skynyrd 17 times in a row and no one will pull the plug on the jukebox. And best of all, you don't have to wear pants at home.
The obvious answer is loneliness. At a bar, you can be with other people. There is a certain intimacy, even the false intimacy that happens between strangers after a few drinks. It is the third in the "Hierarchy of Need" pyramid psychologist Abraham Maslow laid out in his theory of human motivation, after our needs for physiological fulfillment (oxygen, food), and safety (shelter) are met. It is our need for belonging, or what Maslow called our social needs.
A bar is a magical place that covers the three fundamental layers of this pyramid: sustenance, shelter, and companionship. It's not always easy to find the third thing, but it is easy to walk into a bar and manufacture your own family. If you have a hard time making friends, at least the bartenders will be there every day, same time, same place. They will have a smile for you. It's no wonder that hundreds of people all over this city make bars their homes away from home.
One thing I have realized in all my forays into bars, lounges, watering holes, speakeasies, taverns, gin mills, hooch huts, and gravy boats is that Cheers wasn't just a sitcom. Every bar has its Norm. Actually, most bars have several Norms. I was so sure of this fact that I decided to head to three bars in separate parts of the city in search of the Norm in each place. I found people who fit the "Everybody knows your name" mold; that was easy enough. But I also figured out that "And they're always glad you came" isn't always the, er, norm. Some regulars keep to themselves. Some regulars get kicked out once a week. But some regulars define an entire bar, and, like a good drink special, keep other people coming back.
Ringo's home away from home is the 21 Club in the Tenderloin. He said he got the name because he wears rings on all of his fingers. His real name is Carl William Ericson. He is 93 years old.
I first came across Ringo when I was hanging out at what Esquire has called one of the 100 best bars in America, which is pretty amazing considering the 21 Club is situated at Taylor and Turk on what is possibly the most fucked-up of all the corners in the 'Loin. The block is full of tranny prostitutes, destitute users, aggressive dealers, and — rather humorously — wayward European tourists who have taken a wrong turn at Union Square and have that international look of sheer panic.
Widescreen windows flank the 21 Club; you can sit at them and watch chaotic events unfold outside. Inside the club, though, there is a certain peace. The bar patrons have etched out an enclave for themselves, a protective moat of Budweiser, whiskey, and fealty. It's a small place, with an L-shaped bar decorated with Halloween masks, beer signs, and tchotchkes. Like any good dive, it doesn't appear to have changed much since the 1950s. Most of the customers are over 60. A Russian guy in his 70s spouted a whole lot of nonsense to whoever wandered in. "You eat whiskey?" he asked me. All around the bar were men in various stages of life and drunkenness. A working-class guy in his 50s greeted me with a smile and asked what the heck I was doing there.
I said I was looking for the regulars, and he told me it was my lucky day, because everyone there was a regular. This was no surprise. Most people don't head to the Tenderloin for an after-work drink with friends. I wanted to talk to a guy from Hawaii, but he waved at me dismissively.
"He doesn't say much," the working-class guy said. "If you want some good stories, you gotta go talk to that one." He gestured over by the window to a very odd-looking fellow indeed. "How are you doing today, Ringo?" he asked.
"I'm old enough to know better but don't," Ringo replied, not moving or turning his head.
I first saw him from behind. He stood only about 5 feet. He had long white hair and was wearing a flannel shirt and pointy cowboy boots. His feet were firmly placed at ten and two o'clock, splayed out from somewhat bowed legs. His arms rested on the counter that overlooked the street corner. I could see that his fingernails were long and yellow. He rested his right hand on a bottle of MGD. I pulled up a stool beside him.
"Hello," he said, in a somewhat tired but friendly way. When Ringo turned toward me, I realized that he was completely blind. One eye was enclosed in the milky layers of a cataract. The other was covered by an eye patch. He reminded me of some creature from Middle Earth, a wise soothsayer who has lost his vision yet still can see all. His face was mottled with whiskers. His hands were adorned with clunky turquoise and gold rings.