This Saturday night is last call at the Crow Bar. The last last call. After a final round of cocktails and chemicals in the headachey hours of Sunday, the Harley-Davidsons will roll down 20th Street NW and into the distance like one of D.C.’s furious June thunderstorms. In the heat of July, the Crow Bar will become a ruin and pass into the annals of the District’s nightlife.
In a town now taken by cigar-and-martini dens, the Crow Bar has long enjoyed the distinction of being the D.C.’s only bona fide biker joint. But it has finally succumbed to the checkbooks of those men in ties who came to the bar on weekday afternoons for six years to drink, unwind, and fantasize. The Louis Dreyfus Property Group of New York has bought up 25,000 square feet of land at 20th and K Streets, and is preparing to demolish the elderly buildings on the block to put up yet another speculative office building on the site.
It is sad but safe to say that nothing will replace the Crow Bar’s small, surreal glories. It was a place where strippers and hookers hobnobbed with law students, where Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) was likely to park his Harley next to that of P.J., who handles most of the coke trade around Foggy Bottom. The Crow Bar was like a simmering Crock-Pot
of oddball characters, a stewing microcosm
of everything unexpected in this properly
I worked my way through graduate school at George Washington University as a bouncer at the Crow Bar. Since I heard the bar was closing, I have taken to reminiscing. I find that my personal nostalgia for the bar is trumped only by my sense of urgent duty to make people see the eternal meaning of this dark and often dangerous place. To appreciate the price of its loss. But in relating the tale, I fully expect to be rejoined by blank stares and that damning, apathetic monosyllable: “So?”
So…I stand on a carpet of dust, cigarette butts, and ground glass, shade my eyes from the glaring chrome of 20-odd Harley-Davidsons, and think about Dionysus.
I’ve never bought into the whole Dionysus-as-fun-loving-liberator-from-working-day-drudgery thing. You look at effigies and paintings of him: He’s fat, jolly, and crowned in vines, with his Maenads cavorting around him flashing a little thigh. Most folks think he represents the liberating power of civilization, how wine is a symbol of the security and leisure time that the modern world has to offer. You see the same attitude aloft at the Crow Bar during happy hour. After all, what is a nightclub other than a modern Dionysia? Everyone’s loosening ties and having a beer to unwind. Fair enough. But it seems that none of these folks have considered Pentheus, that old baron of Theban fame, who, while trying to prevent the Dionysia in his own city, was literally eaten by the crazed followers of the wine god. Pentheus must have been a bouncer, too.
Popular mythology would suggest that Pentheus was some old fuddy-duddy who couldn’t adapt to changing times. People then thought he got what he deservedlike a bouncer who just can’t relax enough to party with everyone elseand so it was a blessing to Thebes and to all of Greece that he was killed.
As a Crow Bar bouncer, I found that such attitudes span the millennia. What does a bouncer, our own killjoy Pentheus, really do? We have plenty of vulgar images to draw from: Bouncers are big. Bouncers are stupid. Bouncers have ponytails. Bouncers serve perfectly as punching bags when a hero-thug needs to impress a woman by showing that he can beat up bigger guys. And, of course, bouncers are creeps paid by the powers that be to spoil your good time.
The odd thing, I find, is the popular perception that bouncers actually enjoy being disciplinariansthat it’s the reason they took the job in the first place. In fact, the security staff is on hand to make sure that everybody has a good time, to protect the establishment, to make certain that the clientele maintains at least a semblance of human behavior, without which, in the ensuing chaos of fights, bathroom rapes, and alcohol poisoning, the party would inevitably be shut down.
At the Crow Bar, I was always amazed at the chaff people kicked at me for my actions. Once, a woman held forth about my inability to deal with my lack of personal power after I attempted to stop her from doing a line of cocaine 15 feet away from an off-duty cop. Another time, I stood atop a speaker on the dance floor, the better to keep an eye on a group of five Marines who were hungrily eyeing a woman dancing lasciviously to an old Erasure tune. I was trying to look imposing. These guys were trained killers. I was scared to death of them. Like most bouncers, I prevailed more by way of connotation and a lot of noise than any real fighting ability. But the woman didn’t understand semiotics. She thought it her duty to surgically remove the inflated growth on my character. She approached the speaker in her standard posetits out, ass out, and very little in the way of fabric over either. “Excuse me,” she said. I almost didn’t notice, because I was busy eyeing the wolf pack after her. She tried again: “Excuse me.” The second time she caught my attention. “You think you’re pretty cool, standing up there, don’t you?” she ventured to ask. All I could think was: Un-fucking-believable. I am the one thing standing between you and what is potentially the most brutal experience of your life. You, meanwhile, are concerned with my self-perception and ego problems. I should just leave, I thought. Seven dollars an hour is hardly worth getting my ass kicked over. But I stayed, and in the end, the problem diffused itself, as they almost always do.
The patrons of the bar were not all stupid people. The Crow Bar brought in medical students, lawyers, military officers, all slaves to the bloated hand of Dionysus, stinking of sour grapes, filling their stomachs with vomit and their minds with fog.
Victor Hanson, an eminent professor of ancient Greek military history, often speaks of the “killing zone,” the patch of ground between two opposing armies that lack firearms. The armies face one another, banging their spears against their shields, and they hesitate. They know that once their big toes cross into that zone, they can be snuffed out of existence at any moment.
After reading so much about the killing zone, I thought it strange that I would see it materialize for the first time in front of the steel toes
Blaine was a hairdresser and weekend warrior, an adolescent who had managed to dip himself in formaldehyde and somehow prolong his 16th year of life for more than a decade. Blaine was a high priest of the Crow Bar’s Dionysia, laughing maniacally through any conversation. He’d always arrive on a Honda Magna tuned so loudly that you could practically hear him making his way up 20th Street all the way from Constitution. He had lowered the bike to a dangerous clearance and insisted on cornering at 80 mph. He frequently parked the shiny red monster in the Harley lineup, leaving the Japanese label prominently on view to the overly patriotic Harley riders.
Blaine lived like a meteor. I watched him slowly burn himself to a crisp, pushing his cocaine habit gradually from use to abuse. He was never pleased unless he was being seen. He would proudly stand forth and brag of his achievements in battle, clanging the spear of his expansive imagination against the shield of his ego and making about as much of a racket as that damn bike of his. Blaine’s timeless nature became clear one night when I saw him step into the killing zone with every bit as much panic and pronouncement as a hoplite of old.
There was a pair of them that night, college students by my reckoning. They were far too well dressed and eloquent to be working-class kids. Like most of the children who came to drink at the Crow Bar, they were determined to prove they were every bit as tough as the token crowd of actual bikers (nearly all of whom were in their late 30sfar past the point of having to prove anything to anyone), and not just among the yuppies (who make up 90 percent of the bar’s clientele). But proving your mettle requires a show of prowess, and Dionysus is just the fellow to turn to when you can’t quite get up the nerve. So there they stood, sozzled, trying to pick a fight by making snide remarks to the bikers in the barready to lay themselves on the line to prove the indisputably gargantuan nature of their genitalia. They were bigger than I was, so I gulped my humble pie and managed to talk them down, galling as it was to have to do so. The muse was with me for the time being, and before I knew it, I had shown them to the patio on the way to the door. They were seething with rage, but on their way out. I quietly reminded myself to pour a libation in thanks that I got to keep my teeththis time.
Suddenly, I heard the heralds pipe up as Blainewith a number of his tribe close at handnoted their proximity to the exit and decided to declare his lineage.
The gripping thing was the silence: It was the kind of silence that only occurs in a roadhouse, when the needle skips on a record just before all hell breaks loose. Sure enough, we had that silence, and I barely had time to notice the sodium deck lights glinting off the beeswax in Blaine’s hair before he stood forth, inflated his chest, and exclaimed to the young rascals: “Hey…You’ve got boogers.”
Who can say what everyone in the room was thinking in those few seconds of calm? They may have been aghast at the utter stupidity of his remark. Or maybe the crowd was impressed with the dramatic tone of his voice. Perhaps Blaine’s plan was working, and they were all completely bowled over by the passion and bravery of this mighty warrior, armored in his filthy tank top and combat boots. Or could it have been that they were all simply noticing that Blaine was rightthat these guys did indeed have mucus on their faces?
But there wasn’t time for the two fools to consider Blaine’s observation. They were outsiders to be sure, but, dammit, they were men. They would not be shamed before the entire enemy tribeleast of all by this beardless boy, with his loud motorcycle and his sticky hair.
The two drunk dudes stepped forward. Blaine stepped forward. The killing zone appeared in sharp delineation between them as surely as if the earth had opened in a straight and ugly line. There was that gorgeous moment, completely unchanged since the Bronze Age, when they beat their respective chests and shouted insults at each other. Then Blaine crossed into the killing zone first. Resolve finally defeated fear, and that was that. The silence was gone. The joint came unglued. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to assure myself that this had happened a hundred times before, and that I’d be laughing about it in a few hours. And as it turned out, this time, I was right. I laugh about it now.
But now it’s all gone. I can’t hold onto it, of course, as much as I want tono more than my cupped hands could contain the waters of the Aegean. It will all take on, like the golden days of ancient Greece, that bronze sheen of nostalgia, shining its way from real memories to exaggerated stories told to any willing audience, punctuated with comments like: “I used to have long hair,” “I used to ride a motorcycle,” “I used to work at the Crow Bar.”CP