Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Shakespeare once wrote, “The only constant is change.”

It might have been Max Planck, actually. Honestly, I’m not sure.

Anyway…

Today, I had a doctor’s appointment down in Sarasota. If you’ve been keeping score at home, you’ll recall that I grew up in Sarasota, but I’ve lived in Saint Petersburg my entire post-collegiate life.

In my particular part of Sarasota, the main east-west thoroughfare has always been Bee Ridge Road. An odd appellation, to be sure: there aren’t appreciably more bees than anywhere else, nor is it much of a ridge, but that’s its name. When I was growing up, it was a two-lane bump-fest: no matter how often they fixed the potholes, Bee Ridge Rd was the road to the dump–er, uh, “sanitary landfill”–and the garbage trucks trashed the road.

Of all the bumps on that road, there was this one perfect bump that was awesome–the great white buffalo of bumps. My friends and I sat in the back of the school bus, because we were badass that way. What we learned was that if we timed it right and pushed off, we could fly out of our seats. One time, I nailed it perfectly, and my head actually brushed the ceiling. This was one of the few benefits of our long bus ride home each day.  The other was that we usually had a ball, with Kristen K (upon whom I had a huge crush), the Reverend, Mike, Kelly C (who had a huge crush on me (R.I.P., Kelly)), Scott, and me, plus some other people I can’t remember offhand.

Anyway, Bee Ridge Road is now a six-lane feeder to I-75. The road is in great condition, mostly, because they finally filled up the old dump, and built a new one down near Nokomis. When I was growing up, there were shopping plazas with various supermarkets and pharmacies anchoring them, certain restaurants in certain places, and a few lower class department stores (*cough* Woolco; *hork* K-Mart).

One place that was there, just east of McIntosh Rd was Nick’s Bar.

This isn't the sign for MY Nick's Bar, but it's about as classy.

This isn’t the sign for MY Nick’s Bar, but it’s about as classy.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Nick’s Bar is actually the first bar I ever visited. I think I was in eighth grade. My friend Danny’s sister picked us up from school, and was giving us a lift home. We stopped at Nick’s in the middle of the afternoon. It was pretty well deserted, so nobody hassled us. Danny’s sister had a couple of beers; Danny and I drank Cokes, and the three of us shot pool for an hour or so. My first impression was, “Damn. This grimy place is just two pool tables, a handful of booths, a dart board or two, beer signs with more neon than Las Vegas, and a horseshoe-shaped  bar,” but it was Nick’s em-effin’ Bar, a place I’d seen for years, and always wondered about.

When I graduated from college, there was about a two month gap between receiving my diploma and actually getting a full-time job. During this stretch, I was pretty lonely: I missed my radio gig in Tallahassee, and it seemed all my friends had moved away, or were in “graduate school,” God forbid. I may not have had a job, but by damn I had credit cards. Back then, when you checked out at the University Bookstore, there were a couple pre-approved, no-job-required, unsecured credit card applications in your bag. (Ironically, perhaps, you could have Personal Finance or Micro Economics texts in the same bag as these applications) So, what I lacked in income, I made up for with my $1000 Visa credit line. Some nights, I’d go out to a movie, or get off my part-time shift at my new radio station, and I’d feel like catching a buzz.

Nick’s was set up wonderfully. The shelves behind the bar were one-by-eight planks, just plain, unfinished wood. Magic Markered beneath each bottle was a price. Say you wanted Jim Beam. The price Sharpied on the shelf edge might say “$1.85.” That meant that a shotglass full of Jim Beam would cost you a buck eighty-five. I’m not sure what they charged for mixers, since I never used them. What I would do is go into Nick’s, set down my pack of Marlboro Reds, and order a pint of draft Budweiser, and four shots of Jim Beam. When those four shots were gone, I’d order another two or three. I pounded these down quickly, and chugged my beer. I’d cash out, then hop in my T-Bird and drive back to my parents’ house.

As Mr Mackey would say, “Drinking and driving is bad, mmkay?” However, I wasn’t buzzed even in the slightest. I’d have seven shots and a pint of beer in me, all consumed within 20 minutes or so, but none of it had hit my bloodstream yet. By the time I parked at my parents’ house, BLAMMO! It all seemed to hit me at once. Nice planning.

So eight years pass, and the Devilbitch and I break-up ugly. I had gotten rid of all my stuff before moving into her house. All I had was a cat, an ancient chair, my computer, and a shit-ton of bills. Thus, I was once again living with my parents for a few months. I was working 7pm to Midnight on WSJT. If I didn’t have any production to do after my shift, I could blaze back to Sarasota by one or shortly thereafter. I needed alcohol, but  who would be selling bottles that late?

Why Nick’s Bar! They had drive-through package service till 0200. I’d drive through, and I’d buy my nightly fifth of Jim Beam–their package selection was limited (“single-barrel Bourbon” at Nick’s meant it came out of a single, 50 gallon drum). I never again went back inside Nick’s Bar, but I drove through a few nights a week (some nights, I planned ahead, and purchased vodka before my shift in St Pete).

When I was staying in Sarasota during my KABLOOEY period, I’d drive down Bee Ridge Road. The grocery stores are all different. One former department store is now a Gold’s Gym. The old Eckerd Drugs is a rib joint. My former bank is a Batteries Plus store.  Everything has changed identities, probably a half-dozen times each.

Except for one business: Nick’s em-effin Bar. The sign is new, but I’d bet dollars to donuts the place is exactly the same. There is a constant threat of menace from the pool tables and dart boards; the jukebox is too loud, and the Bud drafts are so cold, that a thin scrim of ice forms across the top. I bet those shelves are the same, though maybe with slightly higher prices.

Like many successful businesses, Nick’s did it right: people will always need to get drunk, so keep it simple, keep it cheap, and your customers will reward you with their loyalty.

One night during my drinking years in St Petersburg, I stopped by my old beer-and-wine-only bar, Gamble’s, and ran into Sherry the former Gamble’s waitress. We had crushes on each other, just never at the same time. Anyway, Bubba–my previous truck–was in the shop, so Sherry asked if I wanted to ride with her to The Banana Boat for a few cocktails. Sure thing, doll! We sat there, chugging our way through screwdrivers (her) and Sapphire & sodas (me), and I asked about some of my former Gamble’s friends. “Drunk and Insane Erich?” Dead. Passed out with a lit cigarette, then burned up in the fire. “Bud Light Dave?” Dead. Liver cancer. “Tommy the bartender?” Dead. Caught in a riptide in Cozumel and drowned.

As I passed Nick’s on my way back to St Pete, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of their denizens have died since the nights I sat there chugging–hell, I wonder if Nick is still with us, or if there ever was a Nick. I wondered, too, if anyone remembered the big guy who came in, knocked back a shitload of Jim Beam and a big Bud draft in the time it took him to do the crossword, then left. I wonder if I’m remembered there.

Not a damn chance. But for a month or two, I was a regular, when I sorely needed to be a regular somewhere.

And  for 35 years or more, that damn bar has been exactly the same.

Sometimes, change is overrated, especially when it comes to ice cold beer and cheap-ass shots. Long live Nick’s! ($2 call brand shots are on me)

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2 Responses to “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes”

  1. Great story…shit, time gets away, doesn’t it?

    You say 35 years or more…that’s about the timeframe I’m associating with my memories of a little club/bar place not far from where I grew up. It was called The Apple, and it was improbably situated on a street in the suburbs surrounded by squat light industrial buildings. It never looked like a hell of a lot was going on there, but it was clearly doing some business. It stayed The Apple for a long time, then a few years back someone tried to slap some ridiculous “Club ______” name on it. I’m sure that went nowhere, as the location was all wrong. You could tell just by sizing it up it was a place to hammer down some drinks, not a “club.” I drove by a few days ago and the sign was painted over. Probably just waiting for somebody sensible to turn it back into The Apple and make a few bucks off it.

    • I remember thinking I’d be 34 in the year 2000, and that seemed just phenomenally old. Whoops.

      That’s funny about The Apple. I bet every town has a bar like that. Nightclubs come and go, but by God, bars prevail. When I was writing this, I kept thinking of John Mellencamp’s song, “Cherry Bomb.” I always liked that one, even moreso now that I’m looking back on my life and a bar.

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