The heart of the small central Connecticut town beats inside the bottom floor of a four-story brick apartment building. It’s a self-proclaimed café, but locals jog across the street to the Portuguese bakery for coffees and bagels and treats decadent and flaky. Here, they drink.
It’s dark from the outside and blends into the town’s downtown drag, the post office to the left, the Mexican eatery to the right, the family diner across the train tracks around the corner. Couples meeting friends enter from the front. Drunks stumble in through the courtyard off of the parking lot out back.
Three floors of renovated apartment units stretch into the sky above. Next door sits a one-story exercise studio that’s flanked by another taller multi-purpose building on the other side, creating a valley of emptiness for the wind to whip through on cold winter nights. On occasion, it’s a soft whistle eloquently interrupting the silence of the night. But mostly, it sounds like hell’s vortex, rocking the blinds inside gently against glass windows as residents fail to rest.
The parking lot in the rear serves the apartment residents and the public. If your timing is right, there is ample space. But if you come at rush hour — about 6 p.m., when women of all ages stop by the studio in stretchy pants and sweatshirts to dance off calories and older men settle their tabs at the end of afternoon drinking binges — you must consider two options: park illegally in the fire lane or compete with the next wave of drinkers for a tight spot next to a light pole that is surrounded by broken glass from previous drinkers.
I used to compete. But I suffered one pierced tire and two weeks of watching local police ride by the illegally parked cars, shrug, and keep going without even an inclination of citation.
Now on most nights, I shrug, kill my engine in the fire lane, swipe my key card at the apartment’s backdoor entrance, and bound up the steps, two at a time, to the second floor.
* * *
“Come on, belly up to the bar, what can I get ya?” Stephanie asks.
She’s middle-aged with black hair, and today she’s wearing a blue Giants Justin Tuck jersey and tired eyes. But her New York Giants are playing and patrons beg for cold beers, so she smiles fast and serves the suds up a little faster. She orders her helpers to keep moving, keep the clean glasses coming, no breaks, not ‘til halftime.
The establishment looks like most sports bars, good TVs, limited lighting, clusters of people engaged to the same screen waiting on the next play. It smells like liquor and fry pans. The bar is wood with a finished top and is double-sided, forming a long loop the shape of a paper clip. Stephanie stands in the middle, pacing back and forth, serving both sides nearly simultaneously. Neon purple and red piping runs along ceiling beams, providing just enough glow to read a menu. Red lights spell out “est. 1950” and illuminate clear bottles of Grey Goose and Kettle One that rest on shelves two feet below.
Ample floor space allows for table seating in the perimeter of the room and a pool table in the front corner by the big bay window with the Budweiser sign. By habit or happenstance, the younger people migrate to the back of the room, taking high-top tables with their friends. They laugh and joke and yell joyfully as the pitchers of Coors Lite make the rounds. Twenty-five people sit around the double-sided bar, and with the exception of a random wife or two, all are men with gray beards and thick, calloused knuckles. They stare silently and sternly and order Crown on the rocks and Sam Adams winters. When there’s an egregious call on the TV, they yell violently, angry words assaulting the air, heavy fists hammering the counter top.
A few locals occupy stools or stand at the back end of the bar by the kitchen. There, they can yell at Stephanie for another round or holler for the owner, Ron, who spends most of his time today in a back room with a private family party and surfaces when the register gets light on ones. They can peek into the kitchen and hassle the boys making wings and burgers, and they can plead for an order of fries with the teenage girl who is too young to run the bar so she floats around with trays of food on her arms instead. I think they call her Edge. It must be an inside joke or a long-told family tale.
The bar operates seven days a week. It doesn’t shut down on nights when the temperatures are bitter and the roads are icy from a recent snowstorm. Some may say those are the nights the bar is needed the most. It hums along, plays music, entertains guests with events and takes in the cash. Those nights are plentiful and normal and everyday life. They pay the bills. They are necessary.
They are necessary because they allow Sundays in the fall and winter to happen.
The days the Giants play. The days the bar stops humming and roars to life.
* * *
I put down a deposit on my one-bedroom place 20 minutes after seeing it for the first time. Not because it was a spectacular unit with sparkling amenities or an offer only fools would refuse, but because the first four places ranged from serviceable-but-defective to grotesquely-inadequate-and-odorous.
One place near Federal Hill in Bristol was spacious and clean, but the infrastructure brought you back to colonial times. The doorways were short, and because the property had shifted and settled awkwardly in the previous decades, the hardwood floors were slanted. You could drop a tennis ball in the back of the living room, and gravity would roll it out the front door. The landlord asked for $800 a month to sleep in an apartment seemingly built on Jenga blocks. This didn’t include utilities, which I had been told could range up to $300 per month when the winters turned to white and the temperature dropped to the teens.
There was a garage in the back to protect your vehicle from the elements, but the lady showing the place asked for additional money for that. The dollars began to topple over my budget and when the lady spoke of the “cute character” of the place, I had already lost interest. For a guy who didn’t hang so much as a poster on his walls in college, I was fairly certain I could get by without my place being “cute.”
I saw another place that had a lot of floor space but lighting and sanitary issues. It was tucked behind a wall of trees just off of I-84, and the trees blocked almost all sun from entering the apartment. At the height of day, you still needed all of the lights on inside. The place was musky and dreary and fit for watching horror movies but not maintaining sanity. The burly landlord kept apologizing because there were marks on the walls and big black spots on the living room carpet; he hadn’t yet cleaned the place from the last tenant. He didn’t apologize for the hallways, which were plenty dark for a good mugger to hide and reeked of rust and whatever ethnic potions the neighbors brewed in their kitchens.
But that wasn’t the worst. The worst sat across the street from a cemetery, and if a professional real estate agent who, you know, takes people around to residences for a living and everything, hadn’t actually had this apartment on her to-see list, I would have thought we were scoping out places to appear on the next episode of House Hunters: Smells Like Feces. We kicked open the front door to a flight of stairs that lead up to the unit, and weeks of leaves and dirt swirled around in the humid air. Never a good sign, but we kept going.
I turned the knob of the apartment door and gave it a jarring thump with the butt of my palm, like trying to dislodge a soda from a disobedient vending machine, and it sprang open. I almost fainted. It’s hard to describe the malodorous toxins. They immediately engulfed the back of my throat and exited my nostrils like chlorine water in a pool. Turns out, the festered flesh of a long-deceased bird laid in the bathroom tub.
The place I ended up renting was the last one I saw. We entered through the glass door in the back and walked into a clean hallway that smelled like blooming spring flowers and was well kept and modern. After the dungeons we had seen earlier, I was ready to reach for my checkbook before we even stepped into the elevator. The hallways had the feel of a comfortable hotel, not opulent but pleasant. It didn’t take the property manager much to sell the apartment on me. She just opened the door.
The new hardwood floors, tile bathroom and kitchen with wood cabinets and new appliances sold themselves. It’s wasn’t a big place, but it was comfortable and encouraging. It was a place you could bring your significant other to and prepare a multi-course meal, and it was a place you could invite company over to and not be embarrassed. More than that, though, it was a place you could come back to after a day in the office and a night on the town and feel like you were home. You wouldn’t curse under your breath each night your tires kissed the lip of the parking lot.
The property manager told me I should call her back quickly because the three different units she showed us would certainly go quick. The rent was a little more expensive, but heat and hot water were included. It was also a few turns through quiet, woody residential neighborhoods from work. I put the deposit down before we left.
When I officially moved in, the property manager left me a $20 gift certificate to the bar in my mailbox. I didn’t think anything of it, just like I hadn’t really thought about the bar lurking below my living room floor when I signed the lease.
In some ways, it turns out, the $20 was a preemptive strike of generosity, a plea by the bar owner to earn my good graces before I realized that constant disturbances far outweigh the upside of being able to walk downstairs for liquor.
* * *
The Giants are playing the Packers, the winner goes to the NFC Championship Game. I sit on a short stool at the far right of the bar by the kitchen, making casual conversation with a local. He’s a thick but athletic-looking man, dressed in black, from his slicked-back hair to a black Nike tracksuit and black Nike shoes. You’d think he’s an enforcer if he didn’t smile so often. I asked him how he’s feeling about the game.
“Oh, Green Bay in trouble today,” he spits. “Trouble today, ooooh, trouble today, baby, trouble today.” He took a big gulp from his Stella glass, draining its contents. Something told me he was long past his first.
The Packers win the toss and defer, allowing New York to take the ball to start the game. Ahmad Bradshaw takes the hand-off at New York’s 21-yard line and bangs it into the middle for one yard. The Man In Black bellows.
“Come on Shaw! Come on Shaw!”
New York’s coach, Tom Coughlin, dials it up again for Bradshaw on second-and-nine. Bradshaw bangs it back into the middle. Another yard.
“Jesus! The hell Coughlin! We got Eli! Throw the damn ball!”
Stephanie slides another glass of beer across the bar to the Man In Black, and now it’s third-and-eight. Eli Manning drops back in the shotgun, looks right, and connects with Mario Manningham for 19 yards and a first down.
“There we go! Go to Victor. Find Victor, and I chug. Victor and I chug!”
Momentum mounts for the Giants, and at their 41-yard line, Manning motions at the line, points out the Mike linebacker, and settles under center. The bar buzzes, sensing a moment. Manning takes the snap and fires down the right side, the ball dropping softly into the hands of wide receiver Victor Cruz, another first down, but more importantly, drinking time for the Man In Black.
“Ooooh, that boy NIIICEEEE!”
He empties his glass to wild applause and takes a bow, the perfect showman. I quiver, mentally fatigued at the mere pace and energy of the Man In Black. Two more first downs, and the Giants enter the red zone. Out of the shotgun, Manning hands it off to Bradshaw, who picks up five yards before meeting A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews and slumping to the ground under their hits. The bar starts to hum, feeling a touchdown, feeling an early punch to the Packers, feeling a chance. Second and five, Bradshaw takes the ball again but is crunched at the line of scrimmage by Hawk.
“Gotta throw, gotta throw. Throw it, gotta throw it.”
Manning looks left out of the shotgun and does throw it, intended for tight end Jake Ballard, but it’s incomplete. New York converts a field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
“OK, OK, OK! Didn’t get seven, but we got three. Got three. We on the board first with three. That means shots! Shots! Who wants ‘em? Come get ‘em!”
I exhale deeply, and my head tumbles into my palm. I wonder how the Man In Black can keep this up for the entire game. I wonder how that’s humanly possible.
Fifty-three minutes and 33 seconds of game time remains.
* * *
For the first handful of months that I lived above the bar, I never went inside. It was a mystery to me, and I preferred it that way. I would come home from work on weeknights, and people would be stumbling around the parking lot at 5:30 p.m. Gruff men would fight after dinner. Sometimes it was about a woman.
The bar and its occupants took on this nefarious existence. The days of the week were marked by what was happening at the bar. There were random nights, just loud music and commotion. Some nights were karaoke, the nights people verbally assaulted microphones with intoxicated renditions of Alanis Morissette, Carry Underwood and 50 Cent. I could never figure that play list out.
There were trivia nights. Thursdays were usually chill nights, time for a little country or catchy tunes played at moderate decibels. It seemed as if the bar owner knew the torture he put us through, so Thursdays he would take it easy and allow us to get at least a little bit of sleep for the final working day of the week.
Fridays and Saturdays were what you would expect — younger crowd, club music. I didn’t mind the weekends, because I understood. It was the weekend. I was out and about, too. It was the weeknights that built my rage and fueled my contempt. The bar would thump into the early morning hours, as I lay in bed watching the clock tick to wakeup time. I was exasperated, exhausted, frustrated. What kind of person consumes unknown quantities of alcohol and sings Alanis Morissette at 1:15 a.m. on a random Tuesday? Don’t these people have jobs? Don’t they have families?
I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. It wasn’t a scene I wanted to be a part of. I came to accept that certain nights I wouldn’t sleep much. I would often put my headphones on to drown out the noise. I’d listen to music and blitz through the stacks of magazines that often piled up on my counter until 1 a.m. Other times, I’d pour some bourbon and laugh. Bourbon was the occasional vice that fended off self-inflicted pain.
* * *
The Giants ended up beating the Packers, of course. They went to San Francisco and beat the 49ers to get to the Super Bowl, and then they met the Patriots in Indianapolis and beat them, too.
I watched the final two games of the season in my apartment, deciding not to go downstairs and congregate with the people. I wanted to listen more than I wanted to see.
I knew what the bar sounded like at its worst, and those days I judged it with a pulsating fury. But I wanted to know what it sounded like at its best, at its purest.
For reasons unclear, I always received the cable feed at least five seconds before the TVs in the bar did. This was pure joy. I watched almost half of the Super Bowl on mute, as I’d see a big play and then cut the sound, listening to the reaction below my floor. Without fail, the hardwood would shake and my walls would thump and I would laugh.
The irony was never lost on me that it was these same sounds, same vibrations, that caused irritation and restlessness so many other times. And no, these moments never did make up for the bad ones that would follow each week thereafter.
But football developed a fondness within me, and for the first time, as the NFL season came to a close, I felt a little nostalgic. I would miss Giants Sundays at the bar and the shrieks and hollers that came from delayed cable feeds.
I could relate to those. Those made sense.
* * *
A late summer Tuesday has bled into early Wednesday morning, and I can’t sleep. My apartment floor softly rumbles from the commotion downstairs. I give it a listen and hear a deep voice sloppily booming through a microphone, but I can’t make out the words or the song.
Overheating and restless, I pull back my covers and glance at the clock: 1:05 a.m. I roll back over and lay still, inhaling and exhaling deeply as if to will myself to sleep. As the music rages on downstairs, I think about wake-up time. Less than five hours to go.
It’s been like this every Tuesday night for as long as I can remember living here. I can’t recall more than five hours of solid sleep on Tuesdays.
I bury my head underneath my pillow and think calm, think quiet. The music stops by 1:15 a.m., but I’m irritated. I think about work.
My last memory of my bedside clock before I fall asleep reads 2:14 a.m.
* * *
The summer was long, and I can’t say that much has changed. The bar is still a nuisance, it’s still disturbing, it still causes agony, I still bear it more than ignore it. But I have come to see it as a necessary part of an experience.
I signed a lease for a second year during the summer, because my rent didn’t increase and it’s in a convenient location and the stresses of moving seemed too great.
But there will be a time, a time likely not too far away, where this will all end. I’ll move, and I won’t regret that. I’ll probably smile widely as I turn right out of the parking lot for the final time, thinking about the peaceful nights ahead. Maybe I’ll even walk downstairs for a drink in celebration.
I won’t, however, lament the bar’s existence like I did for a long while, because I will understand it. It gives a pulse to a place that would otherwise be like every other little town tucked into trees and hills and country. It provides an imperfect home for imperfect people. It gives this community an anchor.
As the Giants returned this past week to begin another NFL season, the bar filled once again. I could hear people roll in as the clock struck 8 p.m. and counted down to kickoff. Music played and then stopped at 8:30, turning to the broadcast. I watched it on my TV, a handful of seconds ahead.
At 8:40, the Giants and Cowboys took the field for kickoff, with New York getting the ball first. I muted my TV to listen.
The drinkers downstairs knew what to do. Fists slowly beat down on the bar in rhythm, the pace building until the ball was booted, and the Giants’ title defense was officially underway.
As the kickoff soared through Metlife Stadium, the familiar rumble of my floor told me football season was back and the drinkers were home. I pounded my counter top with them.
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