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The Sister Was White

A good bar posseses an ethic that keep regulars returning and draws devotees

By Gordon Young

WHEN I WAS 15, I possessed what had to be the worst fake ID in U.S. history. On the advice of my girlfriend, I used makeup to conceal the final digit of the 1966 birth year on my Michigan license. The legal drinking age was 18, but somehow I thought that upping my age to 21 would make me more credible. I took a piece of Scotch tape and lifted a "zero" out of the phone book, stuck it inexpertly where the final "6" had been, and used a razor blade to cut away the excess tape. I didn't have a light touch, and I cut an imperfect square into the license around the new number. Those grooves, coupled with the elevation caused by the makeup and tape, created a 3-D effect that drew the eye directly to the altered date. It looked like I'd spray-painted a tiny zero on a piece of Plexiglas and stuck it to my license with Bond-O. But in my hometown of Flint--a hard-drinking factory town with more bars than jobs--my new license worked like a charm.

Things are tougher today for young drinkers in California. An older drinking age means college kids are now scheming the way high-schoolers used to. Worse, bars actually seem to check ID's in the Bay Area and frequently turn potential customers away. Flint was not the kind of place that would deny someone the right to drink simply because they were underage, and I had many rivals for the "Worst Fake ID" championship. One girl I knew, who was black, managed to secure the ID of another friend's 18-year-old sister. There was only one problem: the sister was white. When my friend nervously presented her fake ID at a bar for the first time, the bouncer did a double take, then calmly said, "Nice tan. Go on in."

There was no shortage of bars to sample: Mona's Cocktail Lounge, the Torch, Augie's Garden Glow, Vechells, the Fifty Grand Cocktail Lounge, the Ambassador, Rube's, Ivor's Place, the Embers, the King's Armor, and a cleverly named strip club called the Treasure Chest, which competed for customers with a classy little joint called Titty City, to list just a few.

But there was really only one place my friends and I frequented in high school. In a rough town with lousy weather and bars called The Wooden Keg and The Rusty Nail, we hung out at the Copa. As the ridiculous name indicates, The Copa was not your average Flint bar. In a city suffering through an economic meltdown of epic proportions memorialized in Michael Moore's mockumentary Roger & Me, the Copa was a business miracle simply because it was located downtown on North Saginaw Street and it was actually open. Bill Kain opened the Copa in 1980, and diversification was the secret to his success. While Flint lived and died with the auto industry, Kain catered to just about everyone. The Copa was primarily a gay bar, but the crowd was entirely mixed on most nights. In fact, the only people coming to Flint instead of leaving it in the '80s were gays and lesbians visiting the Copa. In a largely segregated town, the Copa was racially mixed, playing funk and New Wave in a market that made Foreigner, Styx and Billy Joel rich. It was the only bar in town where dancing to the Tom Tom Club or New Order wouldn't warrant an ass-kicking. (Asses still got kicked at the Copa, just like any bar in Flint, but not for dancing. It had its share of shoot-outs and brawls.) There were house music nights, male strip shows--attended primarily by straight women--and rap acts.

Kain was an outspoken critic of the hare-brained schemes to revitalize Flint with auto-themed amusement parks and high-end shopping projects, but the fact that he had a thriving business didn't give him much pull at City Hall. When Kain died in 1991, he was dismissed with a tiny, three-paragraph obit in The Flint Journal.

So what made the Copa so enticing to 15-year-olds armed with fake ID's and Flock of Seagulls hairdos in Flint, Michigan? Why do places like the Hut in Santa Clara or Fuel in San Jose or the 500 Club in San Francisco elicit such devotion? Why does anyone become a "regular" at any bar? The reasons go way beyond the simple lure of alcohol.

Madelon Powers, a history professor at the University of New Orleans, is what you might call a saloon scholar. In her 1998 book Faces Along the Bar, she explores life in the old-time saloons of pre-Prohibition industrial America, but many of her observations still apply to today's bar scene.

"At a time when various groups from Bible-thumping evangelists to profit-hungry industrialists were busily hatching paternalistic schemes for reshaping working-class leisure habits, the saloon offered its predominantly male clientele a place to work out their own solutions to their needs," Powers writes. "Drink, food, shelter, and companionship have ever been the tavern's stock-in-trade. Since many saloongoers lived in substandard tenements with few home comforts, the saloon in comparison seemed a most appealing prospect."

Basically, saloons in 1870 offered patrons something they weren't getting elsewhere, and bars today do the same thing. In Flint, if you didn't want to drink with unemployed autoworkers twice your age who played "Dust in the Wind" on the jukebox, you went to the Copa. Most of my favorite bars don't provide the "luxurious" surroundings available to pre-Prohibition drinkers, but they offer the chance to escape certain things nonetheless. At Sadie's Flying Elephant in San Francisco, it's rare to hear a conversation about modems or options or downloads. Cell phones don't seem to ring. That's a rare luxury in Silicon Valley--a factory "town" just like Flint, but without the heart or the swagger. A loud cell phone conversation wouldn't get you tossed at Sadie's, but it wouldn't be welcome, either.

Powers points out that bars have always had certain codes of behavior. "Just as churches had their congregations, so most saloons had loyal constituencies of perhaps 50 to 60 'regulars' who kept them in business," she writes. "Like their counterparts in medicine, politics, and athletics, they observed certain regulae of their own--the venerable traditions of drink culture--which boosted their esprit de corps and encouraged honor and order in their dealings with one another."

At the same time, I would never align myself with a bar where everyone was just like me--several of my ex-girlfriends probably have nightmares about entering such a place--let alone one where everybody knows my name. The fictional bar on Cheers seems like the kind of homogenized, locals-only place I hate. The lure of the Copa, like any good bar, was that it had so many people who weren't like me, but I could somehow relate to them just by being there. The fact that you sought the bar out and made it inside said you had some redeeming qualities.

But let's remember that people go to bars to drink, and I keep a mental Rolodex of bars and what I drank there. I remember the amazing pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon I had with my buddies in a little place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one summer when our truck broke down. I cringe when I recall sitting in the Latin American Club in San Francisco drinking a White Russian and a margarita at the same time. I can still taste the single malt I had at the now-departed Ajax Lounge in San Jose one night, even though I can't remember the brand. But nobody who's on the right path goes to a bar just to drink. They never have.


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From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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