Think About The Way XXIII (Requiem for a Bar)
The twenty-third of a never-ending series
By Doctor Gonzo
13 November 2009
Minneapolis — A new restaurant has recently opened on the corner of Hennepin and 2nd Street NE in Minneapolis. According to the owners, quoted in numerous reviews in the local media, it is an Asian place with an "East meets Northeast" vibe. It is located in a trendy neighborhood in an historical building that was vacant for several months in 2009, and undoubtedly the Northeast Minneapolis Business Association is happy to see something occupy a very visible corner location on one of the main thoroughfares in tangled web of streets that come together near Central, Hennepin, and University. A few of the reviews mentioned that Ginger Hop opened up "in the old Times Bar" location, but little more was said about the previous tenant, or its 10 years at that location. True, reviews of new restaurants rarely, if ever, dwell upon the carcasses of all those establishments that had tried, and failed, to make it before, but the closing of this bar was a bit more personal. Since I have found no other epitaph to the Times and Jitters, the establishment that had to die in the creative destruction of capitalism for Ginger Hop to now exist, it falls upon myself to inscribe it, along with how it fit into my life for a brief moment.
Let down and hanging around...
Jitters (and the Times Bar upstairs) was a good bar, and it's hard to find a good bar. It's much harder to even define what a good bar is when your pool of bar experiences is quite shallow relative to your average twenty-something, and that describes me pretty well. I drank very little when I was in college: nothing before I was 21, and only rarely thereafter. Much of the alcohol I did drink was imbibed at home, not at a bar: considering that your typical broke college student has little disposable income to spend on luxuries like ambiance and wait staff, most students, myself included, opt for cheap booze from plastic bottles at home, where there is never a cover. As a result, the sum total of my bar experience in college consists of a restaurant on the Greek island of Santorini and a few trips to Stub & Herb's, and not much else.
This left me at quite a disadvantage when I did splurge in college, or when had finally graduated and found a real job, as I was completely befuddled at the panoply of drinks available at most brass rail establishments. When I was at a bar, I usually ended up ordering whatever my companions had ordered before me, since I didn't know any other options. This led to such disasters as ordering a Jack Daniels and Coke, Sex On The Beach, and, god forbid, things involving "Pucker". My scholarly research gave me a repertoire containing exactly two other drinks, although a Fuzzy Navel or a Screwdriver weren't terribly impressive choices either. Nor would I order such old-school drinks as a Manhattan or a Gin and Tonic. Beer was out of the question. The only beer I tasted growing up was cans of Budweiser, and thus I sadly and naively thought all beer would be that bad.
Why was I so averse to alcohol? The explanation for why I didn't want a drink could fill a volume in an of itself, but the short version was that I had only seen firsthand the negative effects of alcohol, not the positive. Moreover, getting the dangers of drugs and alcohol drummed into me by Catholic schools certainly did not help. Since my high school group of friends was extremely tame, I wasn't around alcohol in social situations. When I got to college, I was pretty introverted for my first couple years, and college being what it is, once again the negative effects of alcohol predominated my experiences. All in all, I couldn't see much to be gained by getting involved in the college alcohol experience. To top it all off, the cheap vodka and beer I did drink was unsurprisingly awful.
Since I didn't drink, I didn't spend my time thinking about it or what I was missing. After I graduated from college and found a job, I lived in St. Paul in a very residential neighborhood. There weren't any good bars to go to even if I wanted to do so, and thus the veil of my ignorance had no reason to be pierced. The status quo remained firmly entrenched, until around 2002, when my brother switched jobs from the excitement that is Olive Garden to a new bar. This bar wasn't in my neighborhood; it was in Northeast Minneapolis, just across the river from downtown, a location I was pretty unfamiliar with aside from knowing that it was where my grandfather's church was located. He asked to stop by and check it out while he was working, and sometime during a random week (a Tuesday or Wednesday, I think) I did.
Exiting the freeway at 4th street and driving a few blocks northwest, I parked on the street. Jitters was down some stairs in a place formerly occupied by a coffee shop (hence the name). It certainly looked like a basement coffee house: a darker atmosphere, split by a wall into two main rooms, with the bar in one and a stage-like area with tables in front in the other. Seating was booths, both straight and curved, with several tables scattered away from the walls where they would fit. There were two couches sitting near the bar, looking like a living room invitation to sit down and chill out. The bar itself was a curved, graceful L, with room for maybe seven or eight people around most of its length; ten if everybody got nice and cozy. Little, if any natural light, unfinished ceiling, exposed beams and plumbing. Martini signs on the wall (it being a martini bar), rows of underlit liquor bottles at the ready, and few people early on a midweek night. I wasn't immediately sold on it, as the product wasn't something I was interested in. But it was nice enough, and it was one of the first, if not the first, place I had a Guinness, and as I was to learn in the future, this was a "Good Thing".
Over the next couple of years, I'd drop by very occasionally, usually during the week. It definitely wasn't a hopping place at 7:00 on a mid-week night, and during those visits I did little more than have a single beer and chat with my brother for a bit; he wasn't terribly busy that early in the night either. On the weekends, though, it was naturally busier, although not to the point of sheer craziness. Those nights typically had just the right-sized crowd, in fact: not so crowded that it was wall-to-wall humanity, but enough people to give it a lively atmosphere. Not only was the size good, so where the components: it was a fairly low-key, young professional crowd for the most part, which I happened to be. Not a bunch of drinking-to-get-wasted college students, or a bunch of people shopping the meat market for a hookup, just a mix of people who were in search of a fun place to chill with a few friends and enjoy the entertainment, along with some older regulars and some newcomers willing to give the place a try. The musical entertainment during the weekend was also quite good: Erin Schwab or the John Starkey band were the two that were playing when I was usually there, although there were a lot more that I can't remember.
Late in 2003, I moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis, and as a result of the convenience of living in Uptown, started going there a bit more. Driving up 35W, over the bridge that had less than five years of life remaining, and exiting to drive up 4th Street NE became more common. The bar itself was also in its ascendancy: in 2003 it was voted as the best place to meet straight single women by the alt-weekly City Pages. Fortunately, that didn't quite result in hordes of hormonally-driven, lecherous, single men descending upon the bar, at least as far as I could tell. I still wasn't visiting as regularly as a weekly basis, but enough to know most of the staff. It was a pretty good place to be when I felt the need to go out. And there, I could finally start undoing all of the bad knowledge I had acquired in the past, and learn that beer could taste good and be drunk for its own sake. Not only did I drink Guinness, but also found my other favorite Blue Moon. I also starting sampling the martinis there, and while an espresso martini would never lead to anything good, a dirty vodka martini was superb, especially when it wasn't make out of Phillips vodka. Slowly, I began to understand that alcohol wasn't the single-faced evil that I had irrationally believed for so long.
Then, in 2005, my life changed significantly. My then-wife left me, which expectedly threw my life into a good bit of disarray. I suddenly found myself entirely alone for the first time in years. At the same time, and partially as a result, I felt a level of sociability that had been missing in my life before. Thus, with much free time, and no attachments, I went out and about much more. Minneapolis has no shortage of bars, and I went to a few on a regular basis that were decent, like the Independent in Uptown (conveniently located just blocks from where I lived), or Brit's Pub downtown, but Jitters was one that I went to most frequently because it was the best. I didn't go there to drink away my sorrows, or to find somebody new, but just to be around interesting people. As pithy as it sounds, Jitters became my "Cheers" in a way: the regular watering hole I became a small part of, when a feeling of belonging mattered just a bit more because of the circumstances.
I'd go there a few times a month usually, sometimes more. I couldn't get enough covers of "Use Me", or Blue Moon and Guinness, and that suited me just fine. I saw a lot of people, some once, some many times. I got to know the people who worked there and tended bar, Jim, Pat, Smalls, Savanah, the rest. I watched the dancers who were Saturday night regulars and heard the latest gossip. I chatted with random people. I got off the sidelines of just reporting and made my own gonzo stories, some funny, some embarrassing, some unremarkable. Through it all, around it all, stood the bar, the stage upon which this all played out, Martini sign on the wall, case full of cigarettes next to the register. Arriving at 8 or 9, watching them set up the stage, grabbing a seat at the bar because it wasn't too busy yet. Sometimes, I'd close it out, and watch the servers count their tips and grab a smoke, once the bar was officially closed and the smoking ban was no longer in practical effect. Or I'd go to Nye's, which could stay open an hour later and was a favorite of the staff after they got off of work. Usually, though, I'd go home, having had a good time, and not needing any more than that.
You know, you know where you are with...
I've noticed that life is a sometimes-staccato succession of periods when disparate elements come together, hold a shapeless form for a bit like a birds tenuously flocking together, pulled by the most gossamer threads of gravity, and then dissipate. For a while, everything comes together and it just feels right, until time creeps forward and imperceptible changes throw the delicate balance off. There's a very important (to me, anyway) passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, about Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, that captures this sentiment perfectly, riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. For me, during that time in my life, Jitters and the Times were at the center of it all. That it wouldn't last was inevitable, but when it did it just felt right.
I can still see the people smoking on the sidewalk outside, the steps downstairs, the walls, the bar, the seats, the candles at the tables. I can hear the music, the clanging of the bottles, the crackle of the ice being refilled. Hundreds of people, thousands of drinks, millions of bits of color, smell, taste, and sound coming together to make a whole much greater, to me at least, than the sum of its parts. A wave that enveloped me, filled me, and quite literally changed me as a person, when I needed changing. And then...
Things started to look different even before I briefly left Minnesota in 2007, with talk of revamping the Jitters space to be something completely different and unfamiliar. Although that plan didn't come to pass, I had a premonition that things were changing in a way that would destroy the synergy that existed, as it inevitably would. When I came back home, I moved to St. Paul, much farther away physically from Jitters and where I lived before, and probably more importantly, outside of the psychic orbit it had been in before that time. As my life changed and I started doing new things, meeting new people, and finding somebody new, I didn't go back there very often. When it suddenly closed earlier this year, I hadn't been there in several months at least.
Despite the lack of recent visits, however, the imprint it made upon me was not insignificant, and it was sad to see it die with a whimper in more ways than one. Obviously, for those who had been employed at the Times and Jitters, the loss of a means of living was huge. The community at large lost an unassuming, decent place to get a drink and relax. And for a few people, who were looking for a bit of stability and magic in much the way I once did, the loss of something they would never experience is a poetic kind of tragedy.
The reviews I have seen of Ginger Hop have been decidedly mixed, but those reviews were only for the food. On a personal level, it will never be able to measure up to what preceded it.
Category: Think About The Way , Last Updated: Saturday, 14 November 2009 17:03 , Written by Nathan Hunstad
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