Time Will Tell

This is a somewhat revised and expanded version of one of my humor columns that appeared on the second page of the Standard-Times' magazine section.

Though I've never been known to drink anything stronger than milk punch (I don't know about your family, but my family makes it with nine parts of 120-proof vodka to one part milk), I think of myself as something of an authority on taverns, bars, cocktail lounges—one might say, drinking places in general.

My knowledge, I hasten to add, has been forced upon me. As a newspaperman, I had to interview all sorts of people—men, women, and playwrights, to name just three examples that come to mind—and it's surprising how often these people insist on having a drink in their hands during the interview. To calm their nerves, I suppose.

And they always seem to insist that I have a drink, too. I would like to refuse, but I never dare—after all, if I made them twist my arm, how would I take notes? The sort of place at which the subject wants to have the drink(s) with the interviewer can be very important to the story, in terms of "atmosphere," as we writers call that I don't know what (Fr. Je ne sais quoi) that can turn a run-of-the-mill article into a masterpiece, or vice versa.

(For those of you not familiar with the trade, I might illustrate: "Atmosphere" is that which transforms a bare-as-bones sentence like, "Mr. Jones said he has been happily married for nineteen years" into a gem like this: "Mr. Jones, scratching his well-polished bald head with one hand while he pinched the statuesque cocktail waitress with the other, took a sip of his gibson and flicked the ashes from his greenish Havana cigar onto the rug, then replied, with a drawl that reflected his boyhood in Arkansas and adolescence in Southern Indiana, 'I have,' with distinct emphasis on the 'have,' after which he suppressed a belch, barely audible against the rock and roll beat to which the nearly nude go-go girl gyrated wildly above us, 'been happily married for'—here he consulted a tiny calendar buried among the credit cards in his wallet—'nineteen years,' and one sensed somehow that he felt nineteen years was, in fact, far too long to have been married to the same woman." You see?)

But the point of all this is—ah, let me see, where was I?—oh, yes, it's very important to determine what class of establishment your subject seems to prefer, as an indication of his upbringing, intellect, and education, and also because it gives you an idea of how many drinks he is likely to buy you in the course of an interview.

Now, anyone can, more or less, judge the class of a drinking place in a crude sort of way—by the amount of sawdust, or the number of people, on the floor, for example.

But drawing finer lines between classes is difficult. I've finally developed a technique that works exceptionally well, fitting any drinking place into one of six classes. It occurred to me that this system might be of interest to the ordinary drinker, as well as to the journalist. Everyone has faced the problem of arriving home later than expected, to be greeted by the cheerful statement, "I suppose you've been drinking in some low-class bar again."

It is a great comfort to be able to pull oneself up, with dignity, into a sitting position, and say, "As a matter of fact, it was a Class 3."

Oddly enough, one can tell the class of a drinking place by looking at its clocks—which is more than you can say for the correct time, in most of them, as you will see. To start at the bottom:

Class 6—This sort of bar, in addition to a jukebox that plays nothing but country-and-Western, has four or five clocks, each from a different brewery and each giving a different time. The most accurate of them is 40 minutes fast.

Class 5—No more than three clocks, at least one of which advertises a whiskey. This one is the "official" bar clock. It is more accurate than the others and it is 25 minutes fast.

Class 4—Usually two clocks, occasionally three. Can be distinguished from the Class 5 bar because one of the clocks advertises nothing at all and they all give the same time—15 minutes fast.

Class 3—This sort of place has one very attractive clock, advertising nothing, and giving the correct time.

Class 2—No clock at a11, and not enough 1ight to read a clock by, anyway. If you need to know the time, ask the bartender. He always wears a watch.

Class 1—The poshest place of all, at first indistinguishable from a Class 2. There are two major differences: The bartender is called a steward and, when you ask him for the time, he reads your watch to you.

There is one difficulty with my system. You may establish the class of a place successfully only to find, the next day, that you can't remember what it was, A return trip is in order—if you can remember where it was. Once you've classed a place, it's wise to make a note. Do it early—the last time I did this, I waited too long, and discovered the next morning that my note simply said, "Tshrib." If all else fails, you'll have to go back to the cruder but time-tested method of inspecting your pants cuffs for sawdust.