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Joubert's Tavern on gameday is the sort of unassuming quasi-dive where the pool tables are immaculate, the beer is cold, the regulars are rowdy and you can comfortably drink alone in a crowd. That is, unless you have ears.
“Go! Go!” came the screaming during the SEC title game, when Florida's Tim Tebow connected with Riley Cooper. The receiver galloped 59 yards before the Alabama Crimson Tide defenders felled him. “If it was me,” the screaming man announced to the television and to the room, “I'd have scored.”
That of course put everyone in stitches. One regular — whom we won't narc here by name but who claimed to have been visiting the bar for 30 years — leaned in to make a confession.
“This is a good sports bar if you like idiots,” he said. And a little later, to emphasize his point, added, “If you put our brains in birds, they'd fly backwards.” He admitted that he'd been making bets on football that day, mostly losing against the spread.
He scoffed as the other patrons yelled. “If Alabama wins, you'll hear guys in here saying, ‘I knew 'Bama would win,' ” he said. “But they didn't put $500 on it like I did.” And amid this losing streak, he ordered another round of beers for three strangers who sat down near him and did no more to earn those drafts than to start yakking about football.
Joubert's is, undoubtedly, a neighborhood bar, though it may be hard to articulate exactly why. It might be that it puts on no airs whatsoever, has no apparent unifying theme (witness the competing pro-liberalism and anti-welfare bumper stickers behind the bar) and generally doesn't give a damn (witness the cartoon bear orgy traced on its rear wall).
You can blame neighborhood bars' dwindling numbers (or, at least, visibility) on the decline of factory jobs, on long commutes to bland housing developments, on the gradual marginalization of the working class in many aspects of American life. But can we still find these bars? Or even identify them?
It's a potentially perilous taxonomy. Perhaps it helps to work backwards from examples and counterexamples, a la Justice Potter Stewart's definition of porn. We can safely say that West End, for instance, is not a neighborhood bar, nor is Ernie Biggs, nor is the Electric Cowboy, nor really is any hotel bar. Certainly, too, there are those for whom the Whitewater Tavern serves as a neighborhood bar, and ditto Cregeen's, and ditto Midtown, but if you have a menu thicker than a single laminated page or if musicians play on a raised stage, you ought to be proud to call yourself a restaurant, lounge or venue, and leave it at that.
If, however, a patron walks into the Hillcrest Fountain (known to most of its patrons on a strictly last-name basis) and sees the vast, garish mural of the adjacent block along the wall over the shuffleboard table, then he may be assured he's not only in a bar (duh) he's in a bar that celebrates its environs. That brings us to the first law of neighborhood bars: They foster a sense of locale.
The Fountain, in fact, does this as well as anyone, though it's easy to forget on Saturday nights when you're forced to swim upstream of some fratty wedding party that feels the need to yell over the music. On a weeknight at the Fountain, though, the patrons are overwhelmingly male (a trait common to neighborhood bars), scruffy guys are running the pool tables (another such staple) and you can hear yourself think. Pretension is at a minimum: a FOUND DOG poster decorates the front window, cases of beer poke from beneath the shuffleboard table, stockings bearing employees' names festoon the wine racks and a roll of paper towels printed with teddy bears sits on the men's room sink. The bar has a permit to serve liquor but rarely does, in hopes of keeping things civil, at least in part out of respect for sleepy ol' Hillcrest. Beer drinkers can get rowdy, yes, but scotch drinkers are more apt than an oenophile to cause a ruckus. When was the last bar fight you heard of that began with a glass of Bordeaux getting smashed over someone's skull?
The second law of neighborhood bars will seem obvious to anyone who has a favorite: The bartender embodies the bar. Your case study here is Beverley at the Forge, a North Little Rock watering hole nearly in the shadow of an Interstate 40 overpass and beer-spitting distance from train tracks. “This place is like Cheers,” she says. “Everyone knows your name.” And to ensure that fact, she'll introduce herself with a handshake. Thereafter, the comparison wavers. The pool tables each cost one quarter to play, so they tend to stay full. Beer's cheap. The jukebox is stocked with old rock, new country and occasional bafflers (two Hootie and the Blowfish albums?), and spits back all but the most pristine dollar bills. Two smoke removers spin hard overhead, fighting futilely. The trains going by outside sound like they could be trains going by inside.
Beverley will draw your drafts (into frosty chalices, no less) and tell, if you get her going, about how Joey Lauren Adams occasionally drops in, and about how, when Ashley Judd was in town filming “Come Early Morning” she aloofly refused to talk to any of the bar patrons, which still sticks in everyone's craw: “This is just a little bar in a poor neighborhood.” She asks after a guy's car repairs. She says goodbye to an older woman who leaves with the aid of a walker, calling her “Miss.” Been working there 13 years, she says, but doesn't really understand why no one comes out on a rainy night, while an icy night packs the place. “I guess if they're going to get snowed in,” she says, “they'd just as soon get snowed in here.”
Third law: In a true neighborhood joint, the patrons must become it. Back at Joubert's, the round of free drinks now downed, Florida at least keeping it close at the half, a couple of visitors pick up to go. The guys at the bar nod farewell. And damned if the regular who bought the last round doesn't call out just about the friendliest thing you've ever heard: “Y'all come back and see us!”