Last October, while commiserating with friends about the pandemic and lamenting what may still be the end of the world, I mentioned that I would soon be losing my job and my apartment. One of my friends, local brewpub owner Bill Perry, a man not unfamiliar with non sequiturs, then asked if I like cats. I told him I do, citing my late cat Buster (1988-2004) and other relevant floofs.
“The pandemic made the bar useless as a bar,” Bill told me when we caught up this month. He and wife, Cathy Huben, own cats Sam and Patty, as well as The Public Option, which has been a Langdon Park fixture for six years. “You were a trusted friend. Someone I knew we could trust. And we were hoping to keep the business alive by doing research and development.” By this, he means drinking beer at breweries. “We just needed someone we could trust to take care of the place and the cats.”
This is how I, a 36-year-old man, ended up living in a bar for six months.
“That was exactly it,” Bill says, laughing. “You asked me what I was going to charge for rent, and I said, ‘Nothing.’ And you asked me how much the utilities were. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got that covered.’”
Preferring a bar to my parents’ house and waiting on unemployment, I moved in before Halloween. With my friend Dean’s magnanimous assistance, I schlepped my things to The Public Option from the one-bedroom basement apartment where I had lived since moving to the District in 2015 to become a magazine editor at a local university.
A week after I moved into the bar, Bill and Cathy started their R&D trips. Camping in state parks along the way, the couple visited breweries in North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama. They studied citrus beers and session IPAs, a lower-alcohol iteration of the typically more potent style. The now-reopened Public Option recently debuted a session-inspired IPA of its own.
“I did go into the brewpub business because I like brewing beer and I like drinking beer,” says Bill, a D.C. native who started homebrewing in 1992 and retired in 2015 after 31 years as a photo archivist at National Geographic. He’s also a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and descended from a South Carolina senator.
“But it’s a serious business and you’ve got to keep up with what’s going on. … We definitely would not have been able to do any of that if you had not made yourself so kindly available.” What considerate phrasing. “You were the birth of our research and development program. We never had time to get out of town before that.”
I got to know Bill and Cathy by making myself a regular at their bar, where the couple treats even the most inveterate barfly like a visiting diplomat. They do plenty to make an outpost neighborhood a destination—The Public Option hosts concert series, movie screenings, comedy shows, open-mic nights, and holiday fêtes.
When COVID-19 forced bars and restaurants into abeyance, or worse, Bill and Cathy gave away their surplus beer instead of selling it, leaving ice-packed growlers to be retrieved from their front porch. They also lent The Public Option’s upstairs to a local alt-country band, Run Come See, on Tuesdays so the guys could practice and record during the pandemic.
It’s so easy to be a regular that a lot of us eventually started working there. I pitched in on New Year’s Eve preparations a few years ago and, before the pandemic, had agreed to help with tickets and crowds during shows. Other notable customers who got promoted to employees are wife and husband Molly and Nick Hoeg. They’re now the head brewer and cellar master, respectively.
Bill says I’m the first longterm bar-lodger, not counting the four years he, Cathy, and their then-teenage son Clayton lived there. They bought the building constructed in the 1920s, as well as the house behind it, in 2010.
Before moving into the house in 2014, after years of renovation, the family lived in what is now the main bar. In the ’70s and ’80s, it used to be Mr. Y’s Golden Room, one of the jazz clubs that once thrived along that stretch of Rhode Island Avenue NE. “Your bedroom was my son’s room,” Bill says. “We slept upstairs and the bar was our kitchen and living room.”
The taproom served as my living room, too, and it’s retained a homey allure. Decorated by Cathy, The Public Option has the feel of drinking in your most irresponsible uncle’s garage and it must be just about the finest place to first read Trout Fishing in America, as I did.
A wooden sign featuring Satan selling six packs of Natural Light dominates the wall behind the bar, accentuated by red light and heretical feng shui. Hanging between a makeshift chifferobe of board games and the place I set my bookcase is a headless portrait of the martyred St. Expeditus. Aptly, he’s the patron saint of urgency and thwarted procrastination.
There are also calavera pillows in yellow rolly chairs, a drab oil painting of a mid-century banker, and a high, plank ceiling ideal for listening to Sam Cooke at every volume. Bill left the beer taps inert so I could use the keg fridge as my fridge, though some beer was still stored there.
My bedroom was the large, orange room off the main bar, a space that also houses the chapel of the “Matron Saint of Taxidermy.” It’s a lady jackalope staged with Christmas lights in a diorama reliquary, mounted high on the right-hand wall behind an auxiliary bar. She watched over Patty, Sam, and I while we slept on my queen-size bed, and the Virgin Mary helped from above a futon piled high with clothes because I’d repurposed it as my closet.
I cooked on a skinny gas stove in an industrial kitchen, which came with a restaurant-grade ice machine that talked in the night. I showered in the low-slung basement, where a handyman immured, just for me, a shower that looks like four-sixths of a vinyl phone booth. It’s stuffed in a corner under floorboards still charred from a long-ago fire, the exact date and provenance of which remain mysterious.
My pandemic bubble adored my novel living arrangements. We had a proper place to stir Manhattans after midnight and feel almost normal when no one else did.
“Although the bar was set up like your living room,” Dean recalls, “I chose to sit on a barstool, at the bar, because it was the only place I knew I could still do that.”
A Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington representative says I’m unique, but not in the way my mom does. I asked the trade organization if it’s heard of bars or restaurants using their shuttered storefronts for anything as weird as letting me live there. They hadn’t.
The closest thing I found to a fellow bar-lodger was at the Neptune Room in Brightwood. Owner Paul Vivari says he let a friend use it as an ersatz motel for three nights around December. The friend slept in a sleeping bag on the floor.
“Because he had traveled, I was like, ‘I don’t want you to stay with me,’” Vivari explains. “This was before the vaccines and all that stuff, so I was like, ‘You need to get a place of your own,’ and I said, ‘’I have such a place.’”
In the pre-vaccine era, bars and restaurants overwhelmingly tried to keep being bars and restaurants. They moved service outdoors, committed to takeout, and sold adult beverages to-go. A few opened record shops or thrift stores, such as Maketto on H Street NE and Showtime Lounge in Bloomingdale. Others became makeshift markets selling household essentials made scarce by lapses in civic decency.
Like RAMW, Tony Tomelden, a 30-year fixture in the D.C. food and bar scene, says he also hasn’t heard of a place letting a random guy live there. “Some people were trying to set up a remote daycare center [in The Pug] for all the folks who were working from home,” says the owner of the dive, which hosted a Peregrine Espresso pop-up earlier in the pandemic. He’s also a partner at Brookland’s Finest and became a managing partner at The Public Option in this spring.
“They couldn’t get it going because, even though we both, the school systems and the bars and restaurants, do the deep cleaning and all that, they’re just two different systems and we never could really marry it. You and Bill clearly win the off-duty usage.”
Over the months I lived in The Public Option, most of them cold, inconvenience sometimes smothered the novelty. It is, after all, a bar and not a condo. Elderly wiring, seemingly exacerbated by a city project to refurbish a sidewalk, sent the lights in the restrooms on the fritz. To see at our more important moments, guests and I made use of our smartphones or my LED camping lanterns.
Showering demanded occasional hunching in a stagnant darkness particular to ancient basements. One late night, I convinced my lower brain that the bar’s infrastructure had grown sentient because it seemed to creak only when I felt vulnerable.
A hundred years of weather has beat the old building into being drafty, and the minimal insulation conspires with Rhode Island Avenue NE’s countless divots to make every car, truck and siren feel like diesel-thunder in your cochleas.
And one night, I got up to assure a drunk guy knocking on the front door that despite the lights in the window, the bar was not open. I just lived there. With some cats.
I left in early May, days after Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the end of COVID-19-related restrictions on bar capacities. The Public Option reopened June 25. You can drink where I slept, Thursdays through Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight.
The Public Option, 1601 Rhode Island Ave. NE; (202) 636-3795; thepublicoptiondc.com