The Number One Bar

BarMuggy. Sweaty hot. Rain threatens, but never comes. The sun set hours ago, but the air is still sticky. New Jersey in the summer; god I’d missed it.
    The airport car service drops me at my mother’s house a little after 9 p.m. I’m not quite ready for dinner; I tell her I’ll go out and grab a slice of pizza when I get hungry. New Jersey pizza, paper thin, with pools of olive oil and stretchy mozzarella sliding off the bed of marinara. It’s going to taste so good. Mom and I sit in the living room, drink a beer (Molson, I wish she’d buy Rolling Rock), and talk until about 10:30. Then she goes up to bed, and I walk off to get my pizza, only about five blocks away.
    The pizza parlor is still open—it’s a Saturday night after all. But the glass display cases are empty. Sold out, and no more in the oven. I stand in the parking lot for a minute. I am really really hungry now, for New Jersey food, and have no idea how I am going to get it.
    I turn back the way I had come; half a block back, a more formal Italian restaurant is still open. I stick my head in, ask to see a menu—but the kitchen is closed. Three Jersey boys—late 30s, maybe (it is pretty dark), mostly bald, mostly overweight—stand outside the restaurant smoking.
    “Whatsa mattah?”
    “Oh, the kitchen is closed. And I’m dying for pizza.”
    “I’ll take you out for pizza,” offers the biggest, baldest guy, clearly the leader of the group.
    “Right. Seriously though, I do need to get some food. Do you know of anything open around here?”
    “The Number One Bar.”
    “Huh?” I thought I knew all the businesses in this commercial strip.
    “Down there, next to Quick Chek. Or you could get a sub a Quick Chek.”
    “Puhleeze. So the Number One has food?”
    “Yeah, burgers, cheesesteaks, whatevah.”
    Cheesesteaks come second to pizza on my east coast food craving list. I am almost sold.
    “But how bad is it going to be. I mean, is everyone going to be wasted and I’ll feel creepy?”
    “Nah, you’ll be fine.”
    Somehow, I trust this guy. He is oh so familiar to me, I grew up with him, talked to him between sets in countless seaside bars (I’m starting to sound like a Springsteen song). Yeah, he did the come-on bit at the beginning of the conversation, but that was just to be polite; if he hadn’t, by Jersey standards he would have been insulting me, calling me an old lady.
    So I cross the street and walk the block to the Number One Bar. I can’t believe I’ve never spotted it before; it clearly has been here for at least 40 years.
    First thing I notice—no smoke. (I find out later New Jersey just banned smoking in bars.) One room, basically, though I can see a grill in back. An oval bar, stools around it. One pool table with barely enough room for a pool cue to have a clear shot. One dart table. A juke box. And about thirty people, enough to fill the place without making it impossibly crowded. I find a seat at the bar, trying not to feel awkward; this is a place where everyone knows each other’s name; everyone that is, except me. I am being studiously ignored, in a way that makes me self-conscious. Ignored, that is, except by a scruffy guy a few stools past mine; he gives me a smile and a slow wink. Somehow, that relaxes me and I don’t feel quite so much in the spotlight.
    I order my cheesesteak (to go, I’m not that comfortable) and check out the surroundings. Knots of guys, 30s and 40s, mostly, groups of threes and fours, rarely more or less. Only two women besides me; one, late 40s perhaps, sits at the far end of the bar finishing up a burger. (No one else is eating) The other is probably the youngest person in the place, 20-something, very pregnant, playing darts with two guys and losing badly. Another guy walks in, wearing a Rescue Squad shirt (New Jersey is big on volunteer ambulance crews). One of the groups quickly sweeps him into their blue-collared midst.
    I try to figure out the scene.  This is definitely not a pickup bar; the guys aren’t on the prowl, they are there to get out of the house and hang out with their friends. The women are anomalies; I surmise that the older the woman eating at the bar is a mom of grown kids, she no longer bothers making dinner most nights. The younger woman, I imagine, recently married one of the Number One Bar regulars and has gotten used to hanging out with his friends. But her bar days are going to end as soon as she has the baby—before she gets much better at darts. And the guys? Most of the men have probably known each other forever. They went to high school together, now they play softball together in the spring. Some are single, most are probably married. And the married ones helped put their kids to bed (at least I hoped they did) before they came here tonight, leaving their wives at home. Do the wives resent it, I wonder? Probably not, they are most likely too tired to care.
   But then I start thinking, shouldn’t there be a Number One Bar for women? A place where a mom could go out after a rough day, leaving dad home with the sleeping children, and unwind surrounded by her friends? Where she might not see the same people every time she goes, but there is always be someone to talk to, someone who has known her forever?
    And then the bartender hands me a bag with my cheesesteak. I pay him, climb off the stool, smile at the scruffy guy with the slow wink, and go back out into the sticky New Jersey night.

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