The first bartending job I had was at a bucket of blood in Bernal Heights called Charlie’s. Its current incarnation, Stray Bar, is a far cry from its rough-and-ready predecessor, but then again the same could be said for Bernal Heights in general.
Owned by a portly alcoholic named Charlie Bateman, Charlie’s was a haven for those not welcome at the other two bars on Bernal’s main drag, Skip’s and Wild Side West. But I found myself right at home with that less than reputable clientele, and put in a lot of hours on a stool alongside them well before I ever worked there. There are many stories I could tell you about that bar, not the least of which is how I found myself behind it.
It was 2001. I was 21 years old, and had just returned from an ill-fated trip to Philadelphia only to find myself right where I’d been before, homeless and outta work. With renewed zeal I was beatin’ the street, papering the town with resumes, looking for work anywhere I thought I could find it with no results. My friend Julia was currently working at Charlie’s, so at least I had a place to drink for free. I would pour my heart out, and she’d pour me another, right into a shot glass. Then one night, without any warning, she suddenly dropped everything, turned to me and said “Hey, Jenner! You want a job? Well here. You can have this one!” And with that, she threw her bar towel at me, and walked right the fuck out. Stunned, I shouted after her “Wait! How much does stuff cost?!”
I stood there aghast for what felt like hours, waiting for her to walk back in and say “Ha! Gotcha!”, but she never did. Eventually the demands of the people who were now my customers snapped me out of it, so I got my ass behind the bar.
The most complicated thing anyone ever drank at Charlie’s was a Long Island Iced Tea, so I wasn’t too worried. I had decided years ago that I was gonna be a bartender one day, and I’d already been a regular customer in a few establishments well before I was legally allowed to. I paid attention, saw how my friends in the industry did their job, and now that it was my turn, I was confident I’d do just fine. So I got to work, allowing one of the more trustworthy regulars to fill me in on prices. I fell right into it, not even breaking stride when I had to remind the rather fearsome clientele that even though I was not their regular bartender, tipping was still customary. Having set them straight, I worked till closing time, made plenty tips, and called Julia’s boyfriend Chuck to come show me how to shut down the bar.
The following afternoon, back at the bar, Chuck introduced me to Charlie himself and we informed him that I would be covering Julia’s shifts in the future. With a hearty, drunken, handshake, he welcomed me to the team. It was settled: The night shifts at Charlie’s belonged to me.
For the next year or so I worked there, honing my bartending skills, cutting my teeth on one of the more nefarious bars in town. With a large axe handle kept behind the bar as my only means of regulation, I preferred not to be completely alone there late at night, but sometimes it was unavoidable. On one such quiet evening, my long solitude was at last interrupted by a Native American man of immense stature. He was HUGE. I was so struck by his resemblance to Big Chief from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that I was quite surprised when he actually spoke.
“Gimme a Bud.” he says.
“No Problem” I reply, relived to finally have a customer. But something about him made me uneasy…
“How ya doin’ tonite?” I asked.
“Drunk. Already been kicked outta Skip’s.”
“Fuck yeah, I just got out.”
“Outta Prison. Just tonight.”
At this point I’m genuinely starting to get nervous, but I tried to keep the conversation going.
“What were ya in for?“
Well then, I thought, good thing I asked. I managed to get out of that situation by discreetly squeezing half a bottle of Visine into his next beer, which was on the house, of course. Not that he would have had time to pay, since a few drops of Visine in your drink will evacuate your bowels faster than the National Guard. So, with Big Chief trapped on the toilet, I was able to run outside, slap the padlock on the front door, and call the cops. They got there pretty quick, and carted Big Chief back to the big house without too much trouble, and I decided to go ahead and close early that night.
. . .
Charlie’s was a dive in the truest sense of the word. Outside, the facade was a mismatch of glass bricks and Carmel stone. Inside, the mustard yellow walls were sticky, and stained the dull brown color of tobacco, except for the ceiling, which was wallpapered with 1970’s classic rock record jackets. The place has serious personality. For entertainment there was a pool table in the back, a couple of old payout pinball machines up front, a surprisingly well stocked Jukebox, and on the wall behind it a very large painting, with a very strange story.
It’s the only piece of Charlie’s to have survived the renovation, and it’s still up on the wall at Stray Bar today. But sadly, the small sign that was once affixed to the piece detailing its history is no longer there. Fortunately, you’ve got me to fill you in! Painted in 1943 by a man named Harold E. Vick, the scene depicted in “After Cassino” was taken from an original sketch, which he found, singed and burned, in that very field as he was crossing it with his platoon. Nearby were the remains of the artist and his unsuspecting subject who blew them both to bits when her plow hit a land mine.
. . .
The regulars were more than just customers, more than friends, they were the heart and soul of a down at heel dive bar that would prove to be no match for the changing demographic of a neighborhood we used to know. Charlie’s closed for good in 2002, and I hold the dubious honor of having worked the final shift. It was uneventful, there was no party, no last hurrah, and barely even any customers. Only rang about 25 bucks, which I pocketed at the end of the night, then I turned off the sign, and locked up for the last time.
It was eight long years before I finally went back. There was a good crowd at Stray Bar that night, nice people, even some old friends! But to see the place so different, so shiny and classed up, it was like seeing an ex that has moved so far on with their life, that they don’t even know you anymore. And yeah, it broke my heart a little. But, to my surprise, I had a good time. The bartender was a tough chick, who took no guff, but always took the time to pour a proper pint, and the customers were a friendly and fabulous bunch who made me feel more than welcome. The crowd was a good mix of straights, dykes, drag queens and dogs, with whom I felt right at home, and when a drunken street fight broke out at the end of the night, I found myself reassured that the down and dirty spirit of Charlie’s was still alive and well.
I have to admit it: Stray Bar has a good thing going on up there.