It’s half past 8:00 on a Sunday night in December – not that you’d know it, because the bar at 1509 South Street has three clocks, all of them busted.
There are also three sizes of shot glasses and a yellowed sign that reads “No Credit Cards, No Bud Light, No Red Bull.” A man named Lucky with a John Waters moustache serves up Styrofoam plates of food – ribs and collard greens with bacon – cooked by one of the bar’s regulars who lives upstairs. Three black gentlemen in matching white turtlenecks play “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on saxophone, drums and a Hammond B-3 organ. It sounds like something Ray Charles or Billy Eckstine might have sung more than 50 years ago.
“The thing about this place,” says Tim McCloskey, a guy in his 30s with a faded black eye, “is that everybody’s welcome: men and women, young and old, black and white, gay and straight. The only thing they don’t tolerate is assholes.”
He shifts on a barstool that’s puked most of its foam guts through rips in the Naugahyde. The barmaid with the bangs sets him up with a Special: PBR with a Jim Beam chaser. It’s $3.
“Which is how the rest of the world should be, you know?”
Lucky yells over that there’s one steak left. Come and get it.
Tonight, after reading this magazine, maybe you’ll go out for a drink. You and everyone else, in every wet town in the country. Some will start a tab of $12 Grey Goose appletinis. Some’ll perch under TVs at hotel bars near the airport. Some’ll flock to Vegas, to places like Hogs & Heifers, clones of “authentic” bars born in other cities.
Meanwhile, amidst the wood paneling and Pabst signs at Bob and Barbara’s, it’ll be business as usual: whether it’s Tuesday (ping pong night), Thursday (drag revue), Wednesday (Blind Drunk Blue Movie Bingo, whose prizes include porn and a can of SPAM), or a weekend (when the house band plays). And they’ll be serving cheap booze to lawyers, cashiers, trannies, ex-cons, ex-priests, frat boys, German tourists, school teachers, virgins and Nate Wiley’s “widow” (more on her later). None of these people would meet out in the real world; yet tonight, they’re buying each other Specials, talking politics, or waxing lyrical about music and love and America. In here, they all agree on one thing: Call it a dive if you want, but there’s no place like it anywhere else.
Lucky takes another pink food ticket – $6 for the rib platter, two sides, pay at the bar – and grabs fat squares of cornbread with tongs.
“People like what we got. You’re not going to come in and ask for a Chardonnay,” he says. “We could put down new carpets, but what for? We are what we are. Other places try to fake it, but what we got here is real.” He plops a catcher’s mitt’s worth of mac ‘n cheese onto a sagging plate. “We’re the biggest little bar in America.”
Bob and Barbara’s has been around forever. As in, they plunked the red Naugahyde bar down at no. 1509 and built South Street around it. That’s not true, of course – the Naugahyde itself only dates back to 1965 – but where this place is concerned, lore is truth. And the truth is, it’s been here long as anyone can remember, and it hasn’t changed.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it has. Fifty years ago, the area was lousy with juke joints and jazz clubs that drew a largely black crowd; most of those are shuttered now. A roving craps game used to land at Process Junior’s barbershop (est. 1959) next door; the game’s long gone, and the shop closed. In recent years, after Bob Port and Barbara Carter – who gave the place its name in 1978 – sold it to current owner Jack Prince in 1995, there was a yarn shop next door that became a head shop called Pipe Dreamz until (according to Beth the barmaid) one of the neighbors kept calling 911.
Chuck Messick, a 44-year-old furniture dealer from Delaware, gets to the bar by 10 and orders something cloudy in a highball. “It’s a Martini,” he says. “And goddamn good for them for not having a Martini glass to serve it in.”
“Chuck knows how to drink,” says his skinny coworker, who offers where he’s from –Bronx, N.Y. – but stops there.
“I didn’t come here to give out no name,” he says.
People have stories about bars that matter. Ask someone about their favorite place, and it’s right there: the bar, the story, the little detail that defines it for them. Like how you had to tightrope-walk a plank to the john at CBGB’s so you wouldn’t have to wade through raw sewage. Or how at The Rigger in Gloucester, Mass. – the kind of place where leather-faced fishermen slap their paycheck onto the bar and drink until it’s gone – a guy once fell asleep at the urinal, standing up.
A couple canoodling at the bar untangles to applaud a Fats Waller tune. She tears open a Wetnap, reaches for her date’s hand and starts slowly wiping rib sauce off his fingers.
Everyone at Bob and Barbara’s has a story, and most of them are about the tenor sax player whose outfit, the Crowd Pleasers, has played here three nights a week for nearly 25 years. If you knew nothing about Nate Wiley, who died at 83 in November 2006, here’s what you’d learn:
He hated the word jazz; he played “liquor-drinking music.” He practiced every day, and performed in a tuxedo. If you showed up in baggy jeans, you couldn’t play, and if you dressed fine and you played off-key, he’d let you finish before telling you. After an accident in the late '90s, he had to get “store-bought teeth” and learn to blow the horn all over again with the damn things in his mouth. He was the consummate entertainer, reading the crowd like a book and giving them just what they wanted. The day they took him to the hospital, he kept saying he had to get to the bar – he didn’t want to be late.
Henrietta Shanes has been coming to this bar for 30 years, and got here around seven tonight. Depending on who you talk to, she was Nate Wiley’s friend, his caretaker, or his wife. According to Henrietta, she was “the nice girl who didn’t fly into bed with him right away.”
She remembers the day Nate last performed at the bar. “I knew he was sick, because he didn’t practice,” she says. “That man was tired. He’d been playing for 50 years.”
The Crowd Pleasers are still the house band, still playing music from another era next to the bar’s bathrooms. They still call each other to coordinate outfits: some nights it’s matching double-breasted suits; tonight, it’s white turtlenecks, dark blazers, black caps.
But turnover has been high lately. Only the 74-year-old organ player, Howard “Candy Man” Candy, is left from the Nate Wiley era (and he replaced earlier organist Frank McKay). Bob Hampton, 75, took over for late drummer Cliff LaMar. And Wilbur DuPont, 74, stepped in to fill Nate’s shoes on sax, which he picked up in 1949 when his dad bought him a “raggedy horn” before shipping him off to the army. “Getting jazz gigs isn’t easy now like it was back in the '50s and '60s,” says DuPont. “But this is a cozy place, and the people are groovy.”
Is it different with Nate Wiley gone? “He’s not gone,” says Lucky. “We still hear him playing.”
"The thing about this place, there’s no attitude. You can just show up and be yourself,” says Jason Brueck, a 32-year-old health effects attorney who arrives around 11:30 with two twentysomething girls and a few drinks under his belt.
“We’re going to New York next week,” he adds, fishing out his BlackBerry. “You know any bars there like this one? Someplace really real?”
You can’t really see into or out of Bob and Barbara’s. The one window is small; the glass protected by a sturdy, fine-weave metal grate. It’s how dives should be: dark, sheltered spots where it’s always cocktail hour, even when it’s half past noon on a Tuesday. You don’t want to see out, because whatever’s out there is usually the reason you’re in here. Bob and Barbara’s is the kind of place that Jim Atkinson, in his drinking guide, The View from Nowhere, calls a “bar-bar”: “the only place left on earth where you can go and be nowhere.”
It’s just about midnight, and the Crowd Pleasers are winding down. Nate Wiley used to handle closing-time banter; now the honor falls to Bob Hampton. He name-checks the trio, thanks the crowd for braving the rain, and sits back. Then he leans into the mic again.
“And give yourselves a round of applause for being alive.”