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Breakfast of Champions

An ode to the old-man bar--rare but not forgotten

By Allie Gottlieb

IT'S AN UNFORTUNATE failure of collective parenting that old-woman bars don't seem to exist. Hence, the best, most authentic kind of bar is still the old-man bar. This bar exists in every city--or at least it should--and it just drips with certain tacky and beautiful elements that help make over- and underwhelming urban and suburban areas more bearable via sappy drunken stories, free rounds, odd interpretations of personal space and nautical clocks.

Sadly, the old features--like the velvet curtains that used to hang inside Bear's--that lend bars a crucial gaudiness too often give way to giant TVs tuned to ESPN and terrible songs by Cher.

Luckily, some local drinking institutions still do their part to jointly define what it is to be an old-man bar. Most importantly, they open early. An hour before I hit the snooze button for the third time, retired folks with no clue about R. Kelly and his alleged kiddie-porn videos are working on their first red-eye special.

Alex's 49er Inn
2214 Business Circle, San Jose 408.279.9737

Arthur Olivas grabs my hand, and his eyes tear up. "You know, young lady, progress has raped this valley," says the 71-year-old. He's lamenting the loss of apple orchards, which used to frequent the area. "This is way before your time, little girl. It's never going to be the same."

Art, as he likes to be called, tells me about how he went to San Jose's Jefferson Grammar School with local political hero and Transportation Department chief Norm Mineta. "I do believe that Norman Mineta is the type of person that never was corrupted," he practically sobs, in a moment of Budweiser-induced poetic sentimentality.

A moment later, he changes the subject. "Do you drive?" he asks.

"Yes," I answer.

"You drive me crazy," Art coos.

HOW TO TELL IT'S AN OLD-MAN BAR: The bartender is overly friendly. She makes up games, like the one where customers ball up their tips and try to shoot them into a glass bowl as she circles it around her head. Someone bought me a whiskey & Coke; someone else gave me a stick of gum; and yet a third patron gave me a Swisher Sweet cigar for the road. The bar opens at 6am.

The Bears Cocktail Lounge
220 W. Alma Ave, San Jose 408.292.0270

Ken's only 54. But he's old enough to remember when the Bears crowd was all roofers. Ken's a roofer. He refers to himself as a dirty old man and to Bears owner Tony as "Hey, asshole."

Mr. Asshole enjoys the colorful language. "If there's no ladies present," he tells me, "then we'll really talk funny."

HOW TO TELL IT'S AN OLD-MAN BAR: The Lotto machine is the most popular thing in the bar. Nothing matches on the wall, from the bear head to the James Dean poster to the war-plane posters to the picture of the naked woman who looks like Ken's first wife. A bald man with a white handlebar mustache occupies one bar stool. A guy named Chuck walks in and wins $7,000 on a scratcher game. The bar opens at 6am.

The Caravan
98 Almaden Ave, San Jose 408.995.6220

Someone new just bought the Caravan, says Joey Francisco, 62. But the dim bar that's tucked under the kitschy Plaza Hotel sign and a tropical tree in downtown San Jose probably won't change too much, with bartender Francisco holding down the day-to-day show. Francisco's been in the bar biz since 1969. He observes the trends. "With some of the newer clubs, you get a younger crowd--the upwardly mobile, if that's still politically correct," Francisco says. "Now it's white zinfandel and a lot of frou-frou drinks. ... And the bartenders have gotten a lot younger."

HOW TO TELL IT'S (SORT OF) AN OLD-MAN BAR: The bartender is (kind of) surly. Patsy Cline, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra still have spots on the jukebox. (But, like most bars these days, the jukebox plays CDs, not 45s, and it's packed with "alternative" college-rock, too.) There's a nautical clock on the wall. A retired merchant seaman/Caravan regular gave the clock to Francisco one Christmas. The bar opens at 6am.

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From the July 18-24, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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