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Getting the Hole Truth

[whitespace] Ye Olde Watering Hole
Robert Scheer

Where the Sun Don't Shine: Ye Olde Watering Hole is home to old-timers, techies and students who like to swill a drink to welcome the morning.

Time stands still and even runs backward at Ye Olde Watering Hole

By Ryan Coonerty

IT IS 6AM TUESDAY morning in Santa Cruz. A wet fog covers the city. Commuters fill their plastic mugs full of coffee, preparing for their morning battle over Highway 17 while most of us hide under the covers, trying to avoid the inevitable. Yet out on the edge of town, at Ye Olde Watering Hole, co-owner Debbie Mandella, a kind woman who moves seamlessly in conversation between the latest happenings at her NOW meetings and distinctly off-color bar humor, stands ready to pour a Jack Daniels on the rocks. The sun is not yet up, and the Watering Hole's day has begun the same way it has for nearly 50 years.

Built in 1949 next to a truck-stop diner, Ye Olde Watering Hole, named Paul's until Mandella and her husband bought it a couple of years ago, was an outpost for workers at the sand quarry and lumber companies up the coast, as well as truckers passing through town. From its beginnings, the bar was built, run and defined by locals. These days, the Watering Hole's patrons continue the classic tradition of a working-class neighborhood bar in which, as a longtime patron proudly explained, "only the color of the pool table has changed."

The first early-morning wave of patrons is a mixed crowd. Those who have just finished all-night shifts end their workday sitting next to guys just beginning theirs. Lance--"Judge Kelly wouldn't want to see my last name in the paper"--is one of the latter. He strolls in at 6:15 as he has virtually every morning for 15 years to order his "breakfast" (a screwdriver) and then his "medicine" (a second screwdriver). The other customers are techies in their late 20s from computer companies in the neighborhood, ending their day with a couple of drinks and games of pool. The jukebox blares Tom Petty.

At about 10:30, the next pack of regulars takes the baton from the nerds. This group of characters calls itself the "Breakfast Club" and will collectively occupy the two dozen stools at the Watering Hole for the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon.

The Breakfast Clubbers all have colorful nicknames--"Big John," "Pop," "Tales," "Gordy," "Mud Cat"--with histories to match.

Almost all are retired men, most are vets and many have been in Santa Cruz since FDR was president of the U.S. They are former business owners, a labor negotiator, day laborers, a couple of school principals, an actor and maybe one or two who operated somewhere on the other side of the law. They share "similar outlooks," meaning a certain nostalgia for Santa Cruz's small-town days. They banter back and forth, taking good-natured, distinctly un-PC gibes at each other. Many of them vacation together and celebrate birthdays and holidays at the bar.

The Breakfast Club conversation moves easily from the present to the past. Memories of Saturday night dances at the Moose Lodge in the 1940s are as clear as the local political strife of the 1970s. At this time of day, everyone knows everybody else, and no one has to ask for their particular drink. With a nod to the bartender, the usual is served--which, as a rule, is nothing fancy, just domestic beer or whiskey.

As one old-timer explained between shots of bourbon, the Watering Hole is a "place to drink, not to have a drink."

Natural Progression

FOR JEFF, a fourth-generation Santa Cruzan and long-time Breakfast Club member, drinking with the old-timers is a way to stay connected to history. The Watering Hole is a vital link to his "family tree" of old Santa Cruz. These are the drinking buddies of his father and uncles, so joining them is as natural a life progression as gaining a union membership or a driver's license.

Although the Breakfast Club consists almost completely of men, their leader is, without question, the sassy bartender Rita, who starts her shift six days a week at 10am. Rita, whose nickname is "George" for no reason that anyone can remember, is a former construction worker and truck driver.

Rita has a friendly smile yoked with the self-possession that can only be acquired through years of working among men. The boys of the Breakfast Club are hers and happily absorb the jokes and nicknames she hurls at them between drinks.

By late afternoon, most of the Clubbers give way to Santa Cruz's blue-collar workers. Dirty construction boots rest on the bottom of the barstools as workers from the fields, factories, building sites and lumberyards lean on the bar. Rounds of drinks are bought with a loud ring of the bell behind the bar.

The country and rock music from the jukebox cranks up, and talk tends to brush quickly against sports, work and current affairs. Most will take their leave before it gets too late and walk out the door alone.

About 9pm, the final shift takes over Ye Olde Watering Hole. An eclectic collection of locals, most are single and live in the neighborhood. The occasional UCSC student mixes with the old-timers, and the video poker machines and pool tables are put to use, usually concluding with the locals handily beating the students in game after game of eight-ball.

As the evening hours pass, many bartenders who toil at other bars come to end their day with a drink at the Watering Hole.

Like the earlier shifts, all the patrons cite the location (the Watering Hole is the western-most bar in town) and the neighborly feel as their reason for staying loyal to the "Hole."

At 2am, the blue neon light facing Mission Street is finally turned off.

For the first time in 20 hours, no stories are told, and the sorrows and joys of the day and the past can no longer be drowned.

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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