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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Morning medication: Bartender Mia Aldrich serves up the hair of the dog.

The Crawl

Testing the waters of a local alcohol-sated college tradition

By Heidi Blankenship

AFTER ATTENDING Sonoma State University for one and a half years, and with the semester at an end, I decide it's time to descend with a six-pack of friends through the legendary Cotati Crawl, a headlong tour of five bars in a two-block area of this small college town.

The Yacht Club proves a sufficient anchor for the unfolding night of drinking. Peggy, the bartender, advertises the theme with her tank top emblazoned with "Water . . . What Water?" Her topaz and zirconium mariner's-wheel earrings set off the outfit superbly.

Picking up the mike at 10:30 p.m., she sounds like an experienced announcer as she introduces weeklong drink specials, a midnight buffet, and a weekend barbecue to thank the students for their business. Feeling the crowd move in on my stool, I turn to watch the mingling of youth. Cool-colored plaid shirts turn to gawk at perky tight pink tops. The population at the bar has doubled in half an hour. Rather than suffocate under mock-designer cologne, we climb out the window and move toward the heart of the drinking scene.

A short walk through the park brings us to the Inn of the Beginning, a defining point of Cotati's history, and the de facto SSU student union. For 25 years, it has survived the challenges awarded to any governing institution and continues to attract generations of music enthusiasts. Everyone from Big Brother and the Holding Company to Fishbone has held forth on the tiny stage. On this night, an AIDS-awareness concert is under way, featuring a small combo playing groovin' jazz. Here plaids are traded for artistic influence and traditional diversity. A more down-to-earth and age-indiscriminate crowd mingles here. Dancing comes sporadically; instead of hoofing it, many people are comfortable just sitting slack-jawed at the small round tables lining the walls.

The disco ball is dizzying, but the glow of red-and-white Christmas lights keeps the room mellow.

Step back 20 feet and 20 years--next door, Spancky's is the last refuge for middle-aged drinkers in a college-dominated town. But as we arrive, the usually raucous bar is almost empty the first time we sit down for a drink. A leather-clad couple enjoys a beer at the table next to us, barely tolerating the noise of popular teen hits issuing from the jukebox.

Returning later, we find a crowd and a DJ pumpin' up the jams with Bel Biv Devo's PPPPoison.

On down the road to the neon mecca on Cotati's most frequented corner--the Eight Ball. The drinks here are strong and cheap. I expect an experienced bar crowd and find factions from the Yacht Club have relocated here. There is nowhere to sit, so we trade the comfort of a seat for warmth and collect around the outside patio. The large cement backyard needs heat lamps, although the enormous barbecue will probably be sufficient for the summer. The accommodations--porch, snack machine, pool tables, and pinball machine--are impressive. Keeping the patrons from wandering out the front door to search for provisions seems a more obvious requirement for a bar.

RELUCTANTLY we leave the cheap drinks behind and veer toward the Tradewinds. This friendly bar features live local bands throughout the week, usually with no cover charge. On this night, the room holds but a few drinkers. Theorizing that the more tables there are, the fewer people come in to sit at them, I wonder why more folks don't like to sit back and watch the band, which rocks on enthusiastically, oblivious to the blank stares of drunken dreamers. Customer satisfaction at 1 a.m. comes when the smiling bartender retrieves an eighth of a bag of potato chips to satisfy my salt craving.

By last call, I feel drowned out--the Crawl has kept a steady pace. At 1:45 a.m., my friends and I end up back at the Yacht Club, seeking out the midnight buffet, but can't get through the surging crowd.

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Rough and reddy: The legendary owner, Red Lehan.

Frustrated, we head for home, stopping at Red's Recovery Room out on Highway 116--a legendary dive bar recently immortalized in song by crooner Tom Waits. Inside the tiny ramshackle landmark, a woman in a purple salsa skirt dances unencumbered 'round the pool table, while belting out a slurred rendition of Bruce Springteen songs. The woman behind this bar is harder and meaner than the men at either of the two rough-and-ready bars we visited earlier.

In the window is a sheet of paper emblazoned with four Red Cross symbols reading "Road Rage Cured Here."

Appropriately, we prop ourselves up and order three large keg-cups of cold water to soothe our liquored livers.

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From the June 8-14, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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