Tomorrow’s closure of 18th Amendment, a Capitol Hill bar with a stronger following than its merits would seem to warrant, will be mourned by many, and perhaps none as strongly as the members of the West Potomac Rugby club.
The club, which includes 25 to 30 active players any given season plus a much larger network of “old boys,” has been carousing at 18th Amendment three nights a week for the past couple of years. The players regularly downed PBRs, performed bawdy rugby ballads, and occasionally sang karaoke to Guns N’ Roses songs alongside other sports factions (Carolina Panthers football fans and Louisiana State University alums, among others).
During a recent evening of beer and reminiscence, the players explain how they ended up at 18th Amendment after being pushed off their turf at Hamilton’s, also on the Hill.
“It was a confluence of factors,” explains player-coach Robb Stout, a graphic designer in a dark suit with a ponytail and narrow mustache that curls dramatically at the ends. (Nickname: Sideshow.) The main issues: the prevalence of kickballers (who represent a source of rage for certain members of the club), an increasingly inconvenient parking situation, and an escalating conflict with University of Wisconsin football fans, who also claimed Hamilton’s as their home bar.
18th Amendment, with its proximity to West Potomac Rugby’s matches, ample space, and high “tolerance for bullshit,” as one player puts it, made it a natural place for the team to park.
The bar is indisputably a dive, though it lacks the charm that its divey brethren seem to have in spades. The decor relays the feeling of a basement that an Art Deco/disco enthusiast tried to fix up but abandoned halfway through. It has a gum-ball machine and a weird centaur painting; an orange light coming from somewhere mysterious bathes the place. But in contrast to the newer, often garishly themed bars that threaten to overtake the Hill, 18th Amendment seems like a place where people who want to drink a lot of beer could actually afford to do so. The brand of gentlemanly hooliganism projected by the West Potomac Rugby players was a perfect fit.
The players also found that the bar was game for allowing some of their unusual antics, including a “Ph.D. Off” between the team’s two Ph.D.-holding physicists, and trials for members who had committed some sort of transgression. The team held hearings in the bar’s lower level (“a dank dungeon,” as firefighter Kyle Kosinski puts it. “It was almost fittingly poetic”) to try players for crimes like forgetting one’s passport on a trip to Montreal, or “snitching” to hotel staff about a stolen mattress.
The verdict in the snitching trial?
“Guilty,” says Ben Wojtasik, who works for the Navy.
“It’s always guilty,” says Stout.
And the punishment?
“Shots,” says Pete Judge, a lobbyist.
Shots were an important part of the club’s experience at 18th Amendment, whose apparently saintly bartenders indulged the players’ interest in inventing new ones, like the Uncle Sam.
“We decided to create a shot that was the most American thing we could think of,” says club president Paul Hoover, a Hill staffer sent into early rugby retirement by injury. The final product: whiskey, Budweiser, A-1, and barbecue sauce.
Another: a shot of Jagermeister dropped into a Red Bull, dubbed the Jager Nuke. The members credit the Jager Nuke for landing one of their teammates in jail after he passed out during his cab ride home.
Hoover praises the staff, including a guy named Sharky whom Hoover called Bourbon (on account of his inner-lip tattoo that said “Bourbon”) and beloved general manager Vicky Henderson, who kept beef between the various sports factions of the bar to a minimum.
Not that there weren’t simmering territorial squabbles. “College football on a Saturday is the bane of my existence,” announces Kosinski.
“I’d take college football over goddamn kickball,” says Judge. Kosinski agrees. “It attracts the lowest common denominator of unathletic and socially awkward. They’re little gnats.”
The club, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary (and raising $50,000 for charity to mark it), isn’t sure where it will land now that 18th Amendment is closing its doors. The Tune Inn is too small—space is a pressing concern for the large team.
“We’ve put out some feelers,” says Stout, citing Trusty’s and Pour House as contenders. “They have to have enough space for us, so we don’t scare off paying customers.”
Photo by Jenny Rogers