Making Merry

I know a man who swears that the best foundation on which to build a lasting friendship is mutual loneliness, desperation and self-loathing. He says the best place and time to meet new people is in a dive bar on Christmas Day.

I can't say I've experienced anything that lasted long enough to support his theory. But it's been a long time since I spent Christmas that way.

Until tonight. Christmas Day, 1997. After hanging out with friends to reassure myself, I'm ready to be alienated.

I drive downtown, park my car on Monroe, brace myself and walk into my hostelry of choice. I'm shocked; I've never seen the place like this before. It looks just like any other dive on Christmas Day--a handful of people sit at the bar, the woman tending bar sits and talks with them, and none of them even smells.

This is not what you expect from Newman's.
Newman's is a throwback, a living museum of an America that doesn't exist anymore, and that perhaps never did exist the way it's recorded in the collective memory. It's the kind of bar nowadays found only in the pages of Nelson Algren and Charles Bukowski, or in the songs of Dave Alvin or Tom Waits. It's populated with the type of men and women I grew up with, people who cough up bits of lung while reaching for another cigarette. People who bear pain and indignity without complaint, but who cry at sad songs on the jukebox.

The bar is adjacent to the Golden West hotel, one of the city's last flophouses. It's an incongruous sight in downtown Phoenix, an area whose spacious bars are the territory of people who own suits, people who sit around tables, not eating lunch but "doing lunch . . ."

Newman's is a small place. You don't sit at a table. You sit at the bar, or, more likely, you stand. Because, even in the afternoons, the crowd can be four or five deep. You don't go there to quietly read the paper, because you won't be left alone. People will talk to you. According to your luck and the time of day, the sanity and level of inebriation of the people who talk to you will vary, but people will talk to you.

Traditionally, a downtown area is one of wildness and diversity. Phoenix doesn't really have a downtown. When you say "downtown Phoenix," you're referring to a geographical location, not what that location contains. Downtown Phoenix is an example of gentrification at its ugliest.

City officials have described the building that houses Newman's and the Golden West as an eyesore. In fact, they're among the few downtown buildings that have any character at all. It's more likely that they're talking about the people who inhabit the building.

The less fortunate citizens who live and hang out there aren't welcomed by the businesses that cater to people with mobile phones and credit cards. A neighboring restaurateur has been quoted as saying that if Newman's closed, it would be the best thing that ever happened to downtown.

He's going to get his wish.
The professional building at Central and Monroe is to be renovated and turned into an Embassy Suites hotel. And Newman's and the Golden West are to be demolished to make way for the new hotel's entrance and parking lot. Obviously, in someone's damaged brain, there aren't enough hotels and parking lots downtown. One more attempt to make everything in the area look the same, and attract people who're all the same.

When Newman's is busy, which is most of the time, you can look at the patrons and wonder where they'll go when it's not there anymore. Few can go to the other bars in the area. They wouldn't be made welcome there individually, and there isn't a chance in hell they'd be tolerated as a group.

Some of the people who stay at the Golden West stay there as an alternative to the street. There are enough people already sleeping in the doorways of buildings downtown. Where else but those doorways will the residents of the Golden West be able to go when it closes?

I'm not suggesting that the downtown should be a cluster of dingy buildings full of derelicts. But it's outrageous for the city to allow the area to be turned into a village of up-market restaurants and hotels. Arizona Center has the right to be there. But so does Newman's. The area benefits from the presence of both.

Throughout Christmas night, there are never more than six or eight people in the place, and usually fewer than that. I sit at the bar and order a beer, and get change back from two dollars, another sign that Newman's is a relic of another era.

The most downbeat of the bar's clientele is elsewhere tonight, and it makes me happy to think that it had somewhere to be at Christmas. The people who come in tonight are for the most part pretty lucid, and are there because it's open rather than because it's Newman's.

"Nippy tonight," the bartender says to me.
"Yeah."
"Are there many people on the street?" she asks me.
"No, I didn't see many. I thought this place would be busier tonight."
"Me, too," she says. "You should've seen it last night. It was packed."

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