"Palmers Bar,” Minneapolis, West Bank (of the Mississippi River), Minnesota, USA
Community is a word, and the actual reality is fleeting. Especially in the alienated U.S. Talk to someone who you don’t know and register the startled looks. Yet everyone seeks it. Facebook is a placebo, as real community has to actually become ‘face to face’ not 'face to book.'
Bars are face to face. Barring medical problems like alcoholism, to paraphrase Karl Marx, be careful to trust those who don’t drink occasionally. Fundamentalist Christians or Muslims or yoga bunnies? Hmmm. What better place to go than a public house, a bar? In the U.S. the ‘bar’ is the long wooden high counter you lean against to get a drink. Alcohol is a depressant for a wired-up population trying to do 100 things a day on caffeine. Of course, too much booze and you are useless and demobilized. And that is the way the powers-that-be like it.
Bars have been organizing places. The Minute Men, including Paul Revere, met in the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. The Bolsheviks met in the Crown Tavern in London. The Wobblies met in the Dil Pickle Club in Chicago. The Stonewall Inn led to the first mass gay fight against cops in New York. Italian sharecroppers met in taverns to organize against landlords and Austrian occupiers in the late 1800s. The First Continental Congress of the U.S. met at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans is the oldest bar in the U.S., and served as an organizing center against the British invasion of Louisiana. You might know of a bar or public house in your town that has had a role in various progressive fights. This is a mostly invisible part of people’s history.
Here in Minneapolis, we have a bar, Palmers, that has been a workingmen’s bar for many, many years – 108 to be exact. It might not have organized much, except maybe a fight against the high-rise destruction of the West Bank in the early '70s. In the 1960s, hippies gathered there to drink, across the street from the drug-saturated sidewalk next to Richter’s Drug and up the street from the vinyl Electric Fetus record shop, which is still in town. It was part of the Minneapolis folk scene, and a poster of the cover of 1963’s “Blues, Rags & Hollers” is still is up on the wall, featuring some of Minneapolis legendary folkies during the time of Bob Dylan – John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover. It might be the only place left from the old ‘West Bank” – a time of hippies, pot, protest and music. The other classic bars – the Viking, the Triangle, the Café Extemp, the Five Corners – have all closed. Spider John Koerner still plays the tiny triangle-shaped stage at one end of Palmers, and his voice is almost as sweet as ever. Koerner and Willie Murphy, another West Banker, did the best folk-rock album from that period, “Running Jumping Standing Still.”
Posters of local musicians and patrons were up in the bar several weeks ago for sale, as art on the wall is now a regular thing. Sometimes artists will sell their work while you are drinking. In the 1980’s radicals used to argue Maoism, Pro-Sovietism and Trotskyism around the old pool table, an area which is now used for setting up bands. I heard the ‘Theory of 3 Worlds’ took a verbal beating, not just at the pool table.
This year Esquire, a magazine of upscale male consumers, voted Palmers one of its top ten U.S. bars. Esquire mentioned their simple ‘double whiskey with a beer back’ as a standout. The regular mixed drinks are almost doubles, so buying beer might not be very cost-effective. Strong stuff, so watch out. A Pokeman bar crawl of odd geeksters came through one night, and the poor souls had a hard time leaving Palmers because they didn’t know what they had walked into. After the award was announced, the bar made fun of the ‘craft cocktail douchbags’ at more trendy establishments on its Facebook page. The bands also cackled at the award, which tells you something about the bar.
Music is still in the lifeblood of Palmers. Today the Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs sit in every Friday to continue the vibe, and on Wednesdays a ragged ‘Hippienanny’ allows people to sing along to their favorite tunes. But late at night the young folks come out and the bar changes from older folks listening to blues rock or R&B to punks and young hipsters, and the music becomes alternative rock and punkier or funkier. Two young and genial bar-tenders keep the place ‘up’ in the late hours, and one will even sing with the bands. Big John, a 6+ foot black bouncer, keeps everything above board, and makes the place comfortable for every kind of entrant – black, Somali, old, young, working-class, poor and even single women, who can sit alone without being harassed by some meat-market type. Out back in the patio a fire burns on cold evenings, people can smoke, sometimes even cigarettes. The juke box is full of musical quality. Next door is a closed Mosque, the victim of a fatal fire last winter in the building one door down from Palmers. Somalis who don’t drink have to put up with the rowdy crowd of talkers in the back, very near to their high-rise ‘Mogadishu” in the West Bank apartments that tower over the bar. Yet some Muslims come in to drink, talk and even dance. Perhaps in secret – I don’t know. I’ll have to ask.
The place is partly owned by a female real estate attorney, Lisa, who drops in regularly. Free produce from the co-ops is given away on Saturday mornings, and Korean women crowd the bar for vegetables and bread. Free food crops up because of the many birthdays. Musicians will yell out people’s names and those people answer. The place tends to retain people – Dave is an older bartender whose been working there for 15 years. The place has many regulars – old hippies with long grey hair, young bicycle punks, young and old musicians, suburbanites who are fleeing the suburbs, black folks who appreciate the laid-back vibe, Somalis running from Allah. Big John had a 60th birthday party, and the whole bar joined in singing “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean after he got his present from the patrons. Uptight suburbanite ‘slummers’ come through from time to time, and either do a quick circuit of the bar and back patio in horror, or stay for one quick drink to prove their mettle. I.E. its not some fake ‘Cheers’ bar with scripted conversation, but a place where people actually can talk to each other. If you don’t like talking to an eclectic group of ‘strangers,’ you shouldn’t show up. And maybe, just maybe, you might not be a stranger anymore. Drink up and see.
(Book on the ‘Dil Pickle Club,’ below. Use blog search box, upper left.)
July 14, 2014
Bastille Day – Liberate the Prisons!