Friday, September 23, 2011

In It for the Long Crawl

It may surprise you—considering how large and popular a part of boozing culture they are—to learn that very few bar crawls have found their way into the On the Rocks archive. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about the random act of barhopping. Everyone has those episodes where you start the night at a rooftop bar in Shadyside and end it asleep on a set of steps in the South Side…

[*looking around for the link* What the…? Wait… I never wrote about that night. Damn I’m lazy…]

…No, a true bar crawl is fairly organized, with a predetermined itinerary of bars and a time limit set for imbibing at each stop. I’ve taken part in a handful over the years, but they normally aren’t reported. Not for lack of material, mind you; I think lack of memory is a more likely culprit. Because a bar crawl, when done properly, is almost more of a punishment than a privilege. A gregarious terrorist could likely use one to torture top-secret information out of a hostage. There’s just no way to abide by the rules of “drink as fast as you can in 15 – 20 minute intervals for six straight hours” and not lose all control over any and everything you hold dear. I went on a bar crawl with Mrs. TC’s family in July of last year; and, while I can tell you where I slept that night, I honestly don’t remember how or when I got there. And I have a sneaking suspicion that her parents’ dog now knows the PIN to my ATM card.

So when they invited me back for this year’s crawl, was there really any question as to whether or not I was going?

The Route 837 Bar Crawl is the brainchild of TC and his brother-in-law, J Sun. Route 837 is an at-times-industrial, at-times-rural stretch of road that meanders along the Monongahela, through Western PA’s river towns and backwoods. Mrs. TC and her siblings grew up just a few turns away from this road, and one day six years ago her brother and then-boyfriend decided that they should explore some of the many dive bars that dot this innocuous line on the map. In fact, why not make it a bar crawl? They determined which watering holes to visit and recruited some family members; before they knew it, a tradition was born. This year’s crawl was nearly 50 people strong, and featured “Sons of Anarchy” themed t-shirts (considering that some of these places are frequented by actual bikers, though, I’m not sure many “outsiders” got the joke).

To start the night, I met up with the “gang” at Pit Stop. But, because I was late and had to temporarily leave the bar to drop my car off at Mrs. TC’s parents’ house, I only got to enjoy two Miller Lite draughts before J Sun was whistling us to attention and motioning towards the door.

J Sun and his wife are the parents of three adorable little boys. As you might imagine, then, an event like this is a beautiful oasis on their calendar; a rare opportunity to take a break from the kids and be their old selves again for a few fleeting hours. But as J Sun’s sister (Jacqui), his cousin (“LL Cool K”), and I climbed into the couple’s Dodge Caliber to head to the next bar, the infrequency of their bar nights was beautifully illustrated. I took the front passenger seat, Jacqui grabbed the seat behind me, and LL Cool K sat behind J Sun. Mrs. J Sun? Well, she sat in the backseat between the other two ladies…perched in her infant son’s car seat. In their haste to start the night’s activities, she and J Sun had neglected to unlatch it. A grown woman, in a child’s car seat. And we’d only been to one bar. Here we go.

Next on the tour was Scotty's Bar & Lounge. It had been the favorite watering hole of Mrs. TC, Jacqui, and J Sun’s late grandfather; for years, when his shift at the steel mill down the road ended, he would park on one specific stool at the bar, flanked by his oldest friends. In tribute, J Sun added Scotty's to the list of stops last year. Drinking shots of whiskey and rounds of Stoney’s (their grandfather’s favorite drinks) in a toast to “Pap” have now become an annual tradition.

If you wanted to find a picture-in-the-dictionary example of a dive bar, Scotty's is it. When we showed up last year, they were about to close up for the night—at 9:30 on a Saturday. This year was quite the contrast. It was positively jumping with activity, with no less than seven customers on hand. And one dog. Our bar crawl flooded the establishment in a sea of black t-shirts, increasing the lone bartender’s revenue sixfold. She seemed less-than-thrilled, though. In fact, she was…how you say, a tad bitchy? After ordering six shots, J Sun attempted to explain that his grandfather had been a regular; the bartender quickly cut him off with an “I know who you are.” Her dad, as it turns out, is a friend of J Sun’s parents. But she was not the least bit interested in extending the families’ friendliness to the next generation. In fact, she didn’t so much as attempt a smile the entire time we were there. Apparently, we ruined her Saturday night with all of our money, and expecting service and such. How selfish of us.

We were only at Scotty’s for about 30 minutes, but I managed to down a Miller Lite, a shot of whiskey, and a half a Stoney’s (which is a half a Stoney’s more than any human should ever consume) before we were off to our next bar, Beer Belly's Bar & Grill. This was one of the larger establishments on the tour, and one of our longer stops. Since it’s also the midway point, it carried the feel of China Beach, with our people spread out among various forms of R&R. Most of our platoon stationed itself at various barstool-posts around the large bar, while a small group played games of pool and others mingled with locals. I found myself sitting between Dupa and “Smashley”, having my innocence shattered (only these two could have a conversation about anal sex packed with so much gusto and detail that it makes me blush). J Sun eventually wandered over by our seats. We joked about his and Dupa’s bromance, which eventually made me ask, “Where is your wife?” After a brief search for Mrs. J Sun, he replied with a head nod, “Over there, playing the naked photo hunt game.”

Me: “Look how focused she is!”
J Sun:That’s my lady.

Since arriving at Beer Belly's, I’d been putting away Red Bull & vodkas; I had been up until 4:30 the night before, and now felt myself dragging. The beauty of drinking at dive bars, though? Each RBV cost about $4. They say that, in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. Well, on 837, the man with a $50 bill is a god. A very drunk god.

After another couple of rounds—and an unsuccessful attempt by TC and I to get the cute bartender to join our caravan in relocating—we made the move to Tim’s Corner Bar. TC and I tossed back Duquesne Pilseners while talking to Rocky’s dad, who had spotted some drunk young tough guys who had tried to start a fight with him at Scotty’s earlier that night. Uncle Donnie is hardly a fighter; he’s more Jack Tripper than Jack Bauer. So the fact that two drunk, skinny hicks in their mid-20s tried to bring static to his front door was simply hilarious. And when they saw us standing next to him at Tim’s, laughing in their direction…they left the bar.

We all squeezed another couple of rounds in before J Sun whistled one last time. We were pointed towards our finish line, the Elrama Tavern. The final two hours would be spent here, and we got down to the business of making those two hours count. Our troops were quickly ordering themselves food, doing rounds of shots, posing for celebratory group photos, and jabbering drunken nonsense in every corner of the establishment.

Several of the married guys who live in TC’s neighborhood were out for the crawl, and were now gathered around a table with J Sun’s attractive, 21 year old female cousin. While she politely laughed and humored them, they worked hard to keep their chins free of drool and relive their college days—back when they actually had a chance.

As a thank you to our fearless leader, I ordered J Sun a “bear fight” [for the uninitiated, a bear fight is an Irish Car Bomb followed in rapid succession by a Jager Bomb], and upon learning of this he gave a bear-cub-fierce growl and clawed up the empty air in front of him. Then he grabbed the shots and tossed each back decisively, and without hesitation.

I’ve never been prouder of the guy.

His wife, meanwhile, was having fun messing with a drunken TC. She pointed out to him that a high school flame of Mrs. TC's was there at the bar. As Mrs. J Sun sat at the bar less than a foot away from the both of us, laughing heartily at TC’s look of annoyance over being teased, TC looked at me.

TC: “Hey, you know [Mrs. J Sun]?”
TC: “FUCK [Mrs. J Sun]!”

With the crawl at its end, participants started dropping like flies. Even Dupa and Smashley called it a night earlier than most and drove back to TC’s house to crash. Eventually TC and I climbed into Cool K’s mother’s SUV; the passenger seating being full, though, I jumped—by all accounts, voluntarily—into the storage space in the back. I curled up my 6’6” frame and lay there, growing more and more disoriented by the truck’s rear wheels bouncing over bumps (not to mention all of the alcohol in my system). Shortly after the bouncing stopped, Cool K’s mom opened the hatch. After another beer or two in TC’s driveway with him and the boys from his neighborhood, I finally passed out on a couch in his TV room, muttering to his dog (something about ATM cards, I think…).

When he finally shuffled down the steps the next morning, TC found me alone in the kitchen, charging my phone (Dupa and Smashley had disappeared earlier in the morning like ninjas). When I reminded him that my car was at his in-laws’ house, TC paused. “Well, then we have a problem, because I’m pretty sure my car’s there, too.” He called J Sun, who was at that location, to see if anyone could come and pick us up; as he talked, he walked outside to see what kind of cleanup was necessary. About three minutes later he came back inside, letting out a slight chuckle as he did. “We’re fine. My car’s in the driveway.”

Bar crawls, man.

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