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A week at Midtown 

Can a dive bar be reborn?

click to enlarge THE CROWD RETURNS: During Midtown Billiards' opening week.
  • THE CROWD RETURNS: During Midtown Billiards' opening week.

Midtown Billiards occupies the ground floor of a red-brick two-story at 1316 Main St., just south of Interstate 630, where downtown Little Rock splits. On the morning of Sept. 16, 2016, the building caught fire.

It started in the kitchen — located up front, behind the window that faces the sidewalk — and the flames burst through the glass. Smoke curled up the front exterior and billowed down the street. Even with the broken window there was not enough ventilation to stop the rest of the bar from filling with hot smoke. It was not the fire, per se, but this smoke and heat inside— hot enough to melt the ceiling fans — that caused most of the damage. Outside, the blaze — a flickering orange in the window of a storefront on one of Little Rock's main drags — caught eyes. Someone at the gas station across from Midtown called an employee of the bar, who called David Shipps, the general manager, and he was the one who told the owner, Maggie Hinson.

"Well, I'll tell you," Hinson said when I asked her about the burning bar, "I was busy having a heart attack." This is not a metaphor for being distraught; Hinson was recovering from an actual heart attack and was not able to go to Midtown to watch the Little Rock Fire Department do its work. "I'd just come from the hospital," she said, "and I was still really very ill." Plus, she did not have her car. A friend to whom she'd lent her Ford Mustang had called earlier that day. "She told me she hit a deer," Hinson said. Trouble come in threes.

As word spread about the fire, most people assumed the culprit was grease. A dive bar, perhaps the city's most famous, Midtown is well known for its oleaginous burgers. Esquire magazine — in anointing it among the best bars in America in 2007 — wrote, "People arrive here drunk and leave wicked. But it helps that they have those hamburgers cooked behind the bar, coated so thickly with spices and so indulgent at 3:00 a.m. that you'll see eyes rolling back in ecstasy with each bite." Maybe this association of the griddle with the bar's reputation is what propelled the narrative. Whatever the reason, it took on a tragic tone: This hallowed dive could not sustain its run-down nature and had been bound to self-destruct. Icarus flew too close to that oily sun.

But, the grease story was a myth. "There was no grease — I can't express that enough — there was no grease involved at all," Shipps said. It was actually a fridge's motor that seized up. From security camera footage, Shipps was able to watch the fire's progression, beginning just as sparks. "A few minutes later a flame was right on top of the fridge, dancing back and forth," he said. It caught onto the wall, then the drop ceiling. "And once it caught the drop ceiling phom it just spread," he remembered. When, the next morning, Shipps began clearing the char with a shovel, he found the fridge in a "molten heap."

Now, almost 10 months later, Hinson — who most people call Maggie and who has bright red hair that flows around her face — was standing in the front foyer, beside the kitchen, of an almost finished and refurbished Midtown. Her heart was working and out front was a red Mustang parked on the front curb. Everything was back in shape, or at least getting there, she said. It was Wednesday, July 5, and Midtown was reopening the next day.

***

Part of the reason it took Midtown so long to reopen was the reason Midtown was great: It was worn in. The saloon, for years, had opened each day at 3 p.m. and closed at 5 a.m., rarely shutting the doors even for holidays. During the afternoons it was known as a drowsy and calm place, haunted by the comfort of old regulars. Then, after happy hour, the bar would clear out. "It could be a ghost town" during that time, Hinson told me, when other bars were packed. Midtown is one of the few places in Little Rock to have a Class B private club license, allowing it to stay open until 5 a.m. It gets most of its customers from 1 a.m. to close, after other bars — each with different shades of late-night scene — shut their doors and push along their variegated patrons. These folks combine with a steady steam of workers whose shifts end around the same time and beat the crap out of the property until early morning.

There was an almost constant fog of cigarette smoke. Someone described this dank, dark bar as like the comfort of an old shoe. Midtown was not, as you can imagine, exactly up to building codes.

After the fire everything had to be repaired, and some things would need to change: New, more spacious bathrooms would be installed; the drop ceiling would be taken out; a freshly stained wood bar was needed; the walls would get new paint; and the new cement floor would be squeaky-clean, neither black nor sticking to your boot as you stepped.

This all took time. And to pay for it meant dealing with insurance claims. Shipps remembers cataloging an estimated 360 items, trying to find their exact price and date of purchase. Builders would sometimes have to suddenly stop — one time for a whole month — to wait on the paperwork.

For all that had to change, Shipps and Hinson have chiefly tried to preserve the bar as it was. It is still one room that stretches straight back, the walkway made skinny in the front by the bar on the right and by wood filing cabinets stocked with supplies on the left, before opening to pool tables and finally a dance floor with a stage. For continuity, Shipps put up a cut out rectangle of the old swamp-green wall from before the fire, covered in scribbling and beer labels. There was now a clear dividing line between the pre-fire hunk of wall and the newly painted Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtle-green interior.

"I think this is almost too fancy for us; it's almost too nice," Shipps worried, surveying the walls around him. "But, it won't last," Shipps quickly added, with confidence. "It won't last at all." He was sure of the customers and, he added, "It seems like all these old buildings have ghosts to them anyways." Hinson told me they were betting on when it'd get back to the state of necessary distress. She bet Sunday.

***

I was giving it a full week, from Thursday to Thursday. My idea was to go each night to the bar, in a purely scientific documentation of Midtown's descent into its former glory. "There's a difference between a dive bar and just a shithole bar," Conan Robinson, a longtime bartender at Midtown who now runs Four Quarter Bar in North Little Rock, had told me. I thought he was right, but how do you make a dive? The word had shifted over the years. Dive, as a word for a drinking-den, came up in the late 1800s as a name for lewd establishments in basements and cellars into which one would "dive" to join the seedy underworld, hopefully unseen. The physical element (to dive) is gone for most places we call dives now — Midtown is street level beside an artisanal pizza place and a respectful business. Yet, the key was still in the name, a good dive bar needs an element of "below." You should feel as if you have cut through the cracks of everyday life. Most don't get this through being dirty, but through history. A proper dive is not really nasty as much as eroded.

History had certainly done its work on the old Midtown, but the fire now wiped out fossils of good times. The new Midtown ran the risk of looking like a ripped Urban Outfitter jean: trying hard to come off frayed but actually faking it. At the same time, as Robinson said, it couldn't just let things go to complete shit to reclaim its bruised past. There had to be a certain something behind the damage. The challenge for Midtown in its first week would be to degenerate, but in a hard-to-pin-down authenticity.

***

On Thursday, July 6, around 5 p.m., Midtown reopened not with a rush, but with a slow fill as people got off work. The public would come tomorrow, but tonight was restricted to the regulars. Most of them had been coming for years, were in their 40s and 50s, and of the happy-hour coterie. They would come in, find a friend, hug, order that friend a drink, and then begin chatting. I saw a cigarette hit the bar, maybe even leave a mark, as it hung on someone's finger deep in a conversation. That's how they happen: The infrastructure remembers even when the patrons don't. I found a few other dents: One of the Blue Moon lights over a pool table already had a large crack in it and there were some frantically drawn illustrations along the walls. A scribbled Dylan misquote stood out: "Those not busy being born are busy dying." The smoke did not hang in the room tonight, but dissipated and the lights were somewhat bright.

I found Robinson — who was easy to spot because he has a giant graying beard halfway down his chest — and asked him how it felt to be back. "A bit like a parallel universe," he admitted. Things were all the same but totally different, like a dream. The slightness of the changes were almost stranger. For example, his muscle memory of pouring a shot now did not fit the altered landscape. He'd bang his arm or elbow. He was hopeful though. "It's getting there," he said.

If anything could break this place in, it was an infamous Thursday night happy-hour game called bottle-toss. Here's the gist: You throw a bottle across the bar into a trashcan, and whoever is the last person to get the bottle into the can has to buy a round for the whole bar. The game can have up to 60 people. I did the math and the risk was close to half my rent. That's why many stand on the wings and watch as bottles fly into the can or smash onto the ground.

I found its originator, Stephen Steed and asked if it was on for tonight. He pointed up to the new fans whisking away the smoke. "They're too low," he said. "Some people have a high arch." He was holding off until the following Thursday. But, he handed me a packet of all the old statistics on bottle-toss in a folder. Steed has kept an exhaustive "Leaderboard" for each year of the game: names of the players, a cheeky sentence bio, their "season" record, a special smiley face if they got the bottle in on the first throw. From these statistics he makes Harper's- style indexes. Here are a few lines from the 2014 season:

BOTTLE-TOSS INDEX

Number of years of bottle-tossing at Midtown in some form or fashion: 14

Age of the oldest bottle-tosser: 84

Number of the Little Rock Nine to toss bottles: 1

Number of tossers this season: 1,119

I'd have to wait, but it'd be a good way to end my week here, even a test: Could the game transfer to the new Midtown?

***

Around 9:30 p.m., a group circled around Hinson and began chanting her name with their hands in the air. "Maggie! Maggie! Maggie!" No one is more responsible for Midtown's reputation than Hinson. She long has not just been an owner, but a kind of matron.

When she first got ownership of the bar, this meant caring for old men — a good bit of them holdovers from the previous owner. Midtown had originally opened in 1940 as Jimmy's Midtown Billiards. Back then, the name made more sense: There was an eponymous Jimmy, it was his bar and it was located on Seventh Street, which was midtown at the time. Not until the 1970s did it move to South Main Street. Under Jimmy's reign, the bar would open at 6 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. It was a pool hall and a gambling spot. Older men would mix in the mornings with prostitutes who came from a safe house down the street to get coffee.

click to enlarge MIDTOWN'S MATRON: Owner Maggie Hinson.
  • MIDTOWN'S MATRON: Owner Maggie Hinson.

Near the end of the 1980s it was sold to Maggie and Jim Hinson. (She thinks; it was hard to pin down a date on the transaction, she said.)

Hinson had learned how to bartender when she was 18. On her way out to California, from her home in Stuttgart, she stopped in Oklahoma City and worked at a bar for two years called the Horseshoe Lounge. "It was shaped like a horseshoe," she said, and she worked the entire bar and all the tables. Then, she finally caught that ride to California and, in her words, "hung out."

"Where?" I asked

"San Francisco," she said.

I asked if she liked it and her reply was: "If you remember if you liked it there — during my time — you were not there." It was the 1960s.

In San Francisco she got married. She and this husband traveled the world, but eventually things fizzled. In Hot Springs she met another man, Jim Hinson. "Oh, what year was that? Good God," she wondered. "Maybe, 37, 38 years ago?" They lived a good life together: She ran an accounting firm in North Little Rock and he was the deputy director of finance for the Department for Human Services. They had hobbies, too. "He was a gambler and he liked to gamble and that's what he did. And we got along great," she remembers. When Jim retired he bought Jimmy's. "When we bought this, my husband wouldn't let me come in here because he said it was too rough," she said. "But, then he changed his mind after he found out there was some domino players back there and he could play. Somebody needed to work."

Maggie Hinson ended up running the place. "I've worked the door, I've been a bartender, I've been a cook, I've been a plumber. Whatever it takes," she said. "I breathed life into the place." She would come and make a meal for everybody — whole hams, cornbread — no set menu. "It was kind of a nursery for old men. They'd come in and I'd feed and water them," she said of the first years. "They were my kids, all those old guys. I just loved them to death." She stopped for a moment. "And they're all gone now," she finished. Her husband, too; he died three years ago.

There were new regulars now — chanting around her as the bar reopened — and an employee walked past me and whispered in my ear, "See: Everybody loves Maggie." The place closed up at 10 p.m., still pretty clean.

***

Friday was the official kickoff and the live band did not start until well past midnight. Before then, it was mostly pool players in Midtown. A man with a loose fitting shirt, smoking a Cigarillo, played a guy in board shorts and a tank top; next to them, a mustachioed older guy wearing a tucked-in black polo, dangled a cigarette from his mouth as he beat back competitor after competitor. Circling around was a fella that looked like Tom Cotton on a bender, eyes hazed. As the evening stretched into the early morning, the walls started filling up, too. Customers had been given specialized Sharpies for Midtown's opening imprinted "Fire Bad! Whiskey Good!" They put them to use. Some patrons wore red shirts with a drawing of Midtown on fire and the phrase "Smoking Establishment." I saw someone ash on the floor, pause to wonder if it was wrong, and then do it again. A woman walked past with a walker.

By 2 a.m., the band was playing and the place was almost full. It was a motley crew. Preppy kids mixed with goth-types who were close to some hipsters who bumped shoulders with some older men. I saw a white man with dreadlocks and, to his right, a black man with dreadlocks. Peeking out the window, I saw a guy leaned up against a tree, near the curb, being helped by friends. A few pool sharks were still around, too; they'd stayed through the rush. One guy would put his tall boy Miller Lite can into a corner pocket and then strike with power, offering an "excuse me" to people in his way. "There are some bars that cater to certain kinds of people," Shipps said of Midtown. "We don't do that — at 2 a.m., everyone's the same kind."

I headed for the bathroom. A woman near the door told me to "not freak out" because the men's room "is not completely trash like it used to be." She'd just come out of it. Hinson had said she was not worried about the walls becoming filled with words, letters and drawings again: "We have a lot of self-made artists and poets." But, to have the bathroom already covered surprised me. One person's mark stood out. Loopy penises — looking like comical French-style twirly mustaches that had been scrunched in the middle, drawn in a single stroke — were everywhere. It was clear that a single artist had drawn all of them. It was unique. Someone had probably come to Midtown and spent their entire first night holed up in this bathroom drawing dicks in a determined respect. I thought that was nice.

***

If Thursday was about the longtime regulars, this weekend was about what Midtown had become.

Saturday night offered a similarly eclectic crew, but with a larger anchor of service industry workers. Bars open until 5 a.m. in Little Rock all cater to those who get off shifts late in the night (or morning), but Midtown, more than others, has become known for these clients. The word "home" came up more often than any other when I asked a random person about Midtown, but the second most common phrase was "service industry." One person told me that during his shift at another restaurant the idea of getting off work mixes with going to Midtown. "I can't wait to go to Midtown," they say to mean, "I can't wait for the end of this shift."

Not that this was always the plan. When the Hinsons first bought the bar, they actually tried to fancy it up a bit, turning Jimmy's into a martini and cigar bar. Maggie would come in with scrapers to try to get beer labels off the wall and just find more and more each day. After she inherited a 5 a.m. license, Midtown changed focus. "We're going to be a 5 a.m. bar, it's going to be a dive bar, we're going to cater to people in the industry," Shipps said of that transition.

This shift really took hold in the late 1990s and early 2000s, around when Robinson started working there. "Back then, Midtown was just sort of, I almost want to say, word-of-mouth; you didn't really know about it," he told me. "It was like this hidden oasis of like, 'Hey I work here, I work there, and I got off work at 1 in the morning,' or 1:30 in the morning and they'd all head over to Midtown. Have some drinks, eat a burger, play some pool." Back then, "we had one of those Walmart electric griddles, you know, that you would plug into the wall," Robinson said. "You could only cook about six burgers at a time and it would take sometimes up to 45 minutes to cook, because they are just sitting there slow-cooking in their own grease."

click to enlarge RETURNING TO A DIVE: After a few days, Midtown's walls were already covered in graffiti.
  • RETURNING TO A DIVE: After a few days, Midtown's walls were already covered in graffiti.

Then Little Rock's downtown started changing. "There weren't as many bars back 15 years ago," Nola Nysten, a longtime employee and bartender at Midtown, explained. "The River Market had two or three. So, when the bar industry started picking up here in Little Rock is when we got hit with late-night." As the service industry grew downtown, so did Midtown's late-night scene.

The major demarcation, the real turning point, was doing away with the 8 a.m. shift. For about the first decade under Hinson, Midtown had only closed for a few hours, between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. But, the old men of morning gambling and coffee were not the main customer-base anymore. They adjusted, and started coming in the evening. "They'd be back there playing dominoes and the band just a-blaring," Hinson said.

On that first Saturday, most people I met were service-industry. And it showed. There was a healthy amount of respect and appreciation for the bartenders. There were out and out drunken folks, too, sure. But they were watched after.

When I was looking at the clock behind the bar, realizing it was 15 minutes ahead, and not 3:25, or so, but actually 3:10, a burly larger guy slid up to me.

"I fucked up," he said, kind of giggling.

"What did you do?" I asked

"I don't know!" he yelped, and burst into a laugh, grabbing my arm and bent forward so low his head almost touched the bar. Then he rose and tried to order another drink. The bartender, kindly, told him he was probably OK for the night. I watched him walk away perfectly fine with the decision, dancing a bit. Remember: A dive is not complete shit. That probably stopped the guy from puking.

***

Sunday was proving comparatively calm, I was thinking, while a man in a black cowboy hat did karaoke. Behind him, the stage was now covered with graffiti. In an interlude, he asked the crowd, "Can I get a hell yeah?" and I expected the tepid response of most karaoke events.

"HELL YEAH!" the whole bar screamed. "Can I get a yee haw?" "YEE HAW!" they bellowed. Such a full-throated response to karaoke I have never heard. The next person stepped up and a fellow bar mate told me this guy — now swaying and sort of singing in a mumble — had been one of the first to the mic almost four hours earlier.

Bubbling under the surface, even on Sunday, is the Midtown party.

***

After the late nights on the weekend — almost until the crack of dawn — I took the early week to learn about evenings at Midtown. I drank beers in the afternoon. I chatted. I met people getting off work or about to go in and I learned how to sit on a barstool and think about nothing. I tried to channel one of the newer employees, Brendon Holmes.

He is 23 and recently came back to Arkansas from California, where he served in the Marines. He is a bar back, which means he cooks the famous burgers and helps refill the stocks if they run out. At night, this can be an exhausting job as the drunken clamor for food and bartenders take order after order; persons gaming for attention as if they are the only one in the bar. But, Holmes is serene about the whole thing.

When I asked him about Midtown, he spoke of the joy of its solitude on evenings. "I usually go a lot of places by myself," he said. "Part of the reason I come up here is I'm always cool to bring my sketch pad and just chill by myself and draw." He wants to be a tattoo artist — he showed me an intricate series of sea creatures on his right arm painted from the elbow to the wrist, part of a larger piece. He also likes piercings: He has a nose ring and a stud on his cheek. It's not like Holmes does not enjoy fun. I've seen him working late-night shifts and stop on the way back to dance after he delivered food. Late nights require a still morning.

***

On Wednesday, I overheard and wrote down:

"Almost looks the same," a man says to a woman as a half-way introduction.

"Pretty much," she says back, and then orders a beer.

***

Around 7:11 p.m. on Thursday, we were still waiting for bottle-toss to start up when the fire alarm went off. No fire-breaking glass, no burnt-down building, no molten fridge; just a new system sensitive to smoke. Bottle-toss is supposed to start at 7 p.m., but it actually gets going whenever Hinson finishes playing dominoes in the back, so in the meantime, people prepared the field as the alarm went off. A white chalk line was drawn near the end of the bar, about 30 feet away from a trashcan that was placed against the wall. Right above the trashcan, someone drew a small arrow with the word "BOTTLE" in all caps. A fire truck rolled up outside and then drove away.

The game was not always so intricately planned.

click to enlarge PHOTO BOOTH: Longtime employee Nola Nysten poses by graffiti.
  • PHOTO BOOTH: Longtime employee Nola Nysten poses by graffiti.

It started in 2000, when a group of Thursday regulars were trying to figure out who would pay the tab. Hinson had vetoed buying a dartboard and tried a few others games of chance to no success. "I had paper targets made and we had a drop ceiling, so I put those on the ceiling and they would shoot those long toothpicks out of a straw to see if they could hit the bullseyes. Well, that lost its glory real quick," she said. Then, someone put a bottle on top of his head and challenged one of the others to knock it off with a tossed bottle. In a heroic feat, the tosser hit the bottle off the challenger's head and it landed in a trashcan. And — as it is written in the official history I was given — " 'There's game in there somewhere,' Steed said. 'We need a different target.'"

They started by throwing from the bar to a can by the front door, but this had the danger of whacking a customer walking in, so they flipped the directions. The shot was taken at a slight right bend from the bar to a corner. Meaning, if you throw right-ish it'll hit that wall and sometimes bank in. The old Midtown had a gold star in that spot where right-handers would often hit for the bank shot. It also had tarps up, which a crazy throw would sometimes land on, causing the bottle to roll down the wall and into the can.

As Midtown grew over the past 20 or so years, so has bottle-toss. Just to give an idea of the size: since 2015, on top of the bottle-tossing, a group plays its own game of betting who will lose. It's the Midtown Pony Express, and they have 25 members.

***

Hinson stepped out from the dominoes and up to the mic around 7:30. "ARE WE READY FOR BOTTLE-TOSS?" she screamed. The toss lane was cleared and people got onto the stage or stood on benches to look down on the "field." Empty bottles lined the end of the bar, ready to be thrown.

During the game, Hinson emcees beside the throwing player, often chastising him or her for their attempts to get a free beer. Tonight, she was also the first to throw. She brought the bottle down to near her knees, rocking with it as if to flip it into the air underhanded, then, with sudden force, she cocked it behind her ear and tomahawked it. The bottle was sent in a looping dive toward the cement floor and crashed. "AHH!" a cheer rose up. The first bottle-toss. Two men with brooms began the process of pushing the debris to the side. Hinson grabbed the microphone and invited people to line up.

Misses were aplenty as the game began. Hinson used various phrases to describe these catastrophic throws, but there were a few common ones: "crashed and burned" for the bad ones and "Oh baby! So close!" for the OK ones. The most regularly used just a buzzer-like "EHH!" Brad Kimbrell, a former two-time champion of bottle-toss, was the first to sink his bottle, and a loud roar rose up.

Then, at 7:31 p.m., the fire alarm went off again. "Hold on; there is no fire," Hinson said. Another fire truck came — some firefighters came in, talked to Hinson and then left. The game started back up. Someone's shot ricocheted every which way and Hinson told them to not mess up her bar. "All right? Everything is new and improved."

By the time I made it up to the line, I cannot lie, I was nervous. There were 64 people playing bottle-toss this evening and the tab would be high. I took the neck of the bottle and sent it spinning in the air until it — bang — hit the fan and crashed on the floor. Steed was right when he said some players had high arcs and that it would be a problem.

In between turns, I went back to the few people I knew for advice and learned that there had always been obstacles: I could not blame the fan, only myself. An old gas line was up there before. Other throwers included a man with walker and a person with a cast on his arm; I hoped I could at least beat them.

Near the end of the first round, one of the sweepers of the broken glass, Duncan, stepped to the line and people shouted, "ONE SHOT DUNC!" He proceeded to live up to his name. Many regulars were getting it one-shot, including "Mr. Bottle Toss himself," as Hinson called Steed. It was intimidating.

click to enlarge 'WE'RE JUST PLAIN': Midtown owner Maggie Hinson says of the bar's appeal.
  • 'WE'RE JUST PLAIN': Midtown owner Maggie Hinson says of the bar's appeal.

A little after 9 p.m., when there were only 23 of 64 tossers left and I was among them, came the real nerves. I could understand the people who ducked out early — they were shamed and booed when called to the line only to be found absent, but they had ensured not having to pay the tab. I'd missed probably four times at this point and none of them were close. Then, I missed again — maybe the worst of the night — and it was down to 14. I learned later I was so bad that one of the Midtown Pony Express folks placed their gamble on me. Looking back, I can't blame him.

At 9:14 p.m. I flipped an erratic one that banked and pinballed off too many surfaces to be anything but pure ugly before sliding into the can. Per custom, I went over and hugged Hinson. She nicely yelled at me: "Go get your free beer!"

The game went on, but not much longer; it ended around 9:34 p.m. Hinson and one other tosser had gone one-on-one a few times and neither had made it in. After a quick discussion, they agreed to split the tab. She then called for silence and let the place settle. Hinson said, "We've been closed for a long time and I feel like I got my family back with me." Another cheer.

A good amount of people shuffled out at that point, but even more stayed. They did what people have always done in the rooms we call dive bars: smoke, drank, chatted, ate. It reminded me of earlier in the week, when I was trying to squeeze out of Hinson some reason her bar was so special and she was trying to help, but, eventually, she grew a little tired of it and stopped.

"We're just plain," she said.

***

I did not have to — even planned not to — but Friday I went back to Midtown.


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