The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 9, 1999


Picking up on the lingo exchanged over a beer at the local taproom

Bar Talk: for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
What people say in bars never ceases to amaze me. I think I'm hard to shock, having spent an unusual amount of time in taprooms even before I hit the legal drinking age. At 18, I started cocktail waitressing at The Barn in Finch Hill, Pa. The Barn -- a name that said it all.

I then proceeded to bartend my way through college at the Scarlet D, a sometimes rough-and-tumble tavern in Mifflinburg, the heart of central Pennsylvania's cow country. The D stood for disorderly drunkard. I learned that after a few drinks with the lights dimmed and the jukebox coined up, people would tell the bartender just about anything. Beyond the woe-is-me tales of lost love and long hours for little pay, beyond the requisite "If it's for me, I'm not here," called out like a Greek chorus when the telephone rang, what stood out most were the pickup lines.

I was picked up literally one Sunday, between the lunch and dinner shifts when the waitstaff and kitchen crew went home. A motorcycle gang headed to a Harley convention in Chicago descended upon the bar. A large, leathered man with a spiked cap and a tattoo of a naked lady walked behind the bar, hoisted me off my feet, threw me over his shoulder, and said, "You'd shore look purdy sittin' on the back of a Harley." He proceeded to deposit me into a booth, sidle up and box me in.

This is the kind of moment your mother doesn't prepare you for, a moment when you have to smile and act as if being hauled off caveman-style is an everyday occurrence. I told him that I thought Chicago would be nice this time of year, but that I was just a working stiff trying to put myself through college, so I really needed to get back behind the bar. He let me go, and, an hour later when the group headed out, he left me a pair of spiked leather biker gloves as a tip.

Another memorable pickup attempt came last summer, when I stopped by the Lift Inn, a rural bar in Lenoxville, Pa., upstate near my hometown. It was last call when the door swung open and in walked my date for the junior prom, whom I hadn't seen since. He looked exactly as he had in 1979, as if he'd just stepped off that "Stairway to Heaven" staircase we stood on to get our pictures taken, a saran-wrapped stepladder that veered off into a painted backdrop of clouds and stars. There he was, an ex-wife and several children later, wanting to know if we could pick up where we left off.

This, the same man who left me sitting at the table while he danced the night away with the head cheerleader. I had to decline.

It's not that I haven't been wooed a time or two by a good story. I even admire the moxie it takes to march up to a complete stranger, armed with little more than a well-rehearsed line. But not every woman who sits on a bar stool is looking for someone with a clever opener and a long-neck import. Sometimes we're just there to kick back and catch up with a few of our friends.

Recently, I had a girls' night out at Mazz's, a neighborhood bar in Frackville, in Schuylkill County. Before long, a few of the regulars joined our conversation and kept the rounds coming when our drinks got low. Most of the night I talked with a retired assistant football coach, an affable widower who told me heartfelt stories about his children and grandchildren.

Then, around closing time, he squeezed my hand hard and asked me back to his trailer "to check out his gun collection," saying that we could continue our conversation and "drink Schlitz until sunrise."

I was ambushed, had my guard down, just didn't see it coming. Maybe I should know better. Maybe it's crazy to think that you can swap stories over cheap beer without a proposition imploding the conversation as if it were a vacant building ready to collapse. I'll keep this in mind the next time I'm in a bar, the next time I'm drawn toward talk. I'll be listening.


© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.