Who says you have to wait until the sun goes down to have a good time?
On a recent weekday morning, feeling sick from downing a can of baked beans, oysters in oil, and three cans of Budweiser only a few hours before or, as my away-on-a-ski-trip hubby would later tell me, "The worst dinner I've ever heard of - the kind a hobo would eat," I donned my shades and ho-boogied to the nearest spot where I could self-medicate with the sunrise: Kitty's on 36th Street and Thomas.
I stumbled in - literally. My boot didn't clear the half-step up through the side entrance.
"Hey, we got a new one!" someone yelled.
Nice. Thankfully, I saw my good friend, Ronda, ex-co-proprietor of the recently departed Ruby Room and Day Drinker play-date at the end of the bar. I made a beeline for the stool next to hers and proceeded to get in touch with my surroundings.
Having been to my fair share of dive bars in the twilight hours, walking into one at 8:30 in the a.m. felt like the time I got the address of a friend's party wrong and walked into the living room of some seasoned citizens instead - whoops, this can't be right. Where's the clacking of pool balls? The bing-bong-bing of electronic entertainment? AC/DC blasting out of the jukebox? And, wait a second, why the hell is "The Price Is Right" on?
I heard a voice from behind the bar. "Ya gonna take my picture? 'Cause I ain't got no good side. I just got an attitude," it chuckled. Then, from out of the darkness and into the glow of Drew Carey asking three contestants for the price of a new sofa, the man behind the voice said, "My name's John."
With a mug like Hal Holbrook crawling out of a ditch and a voice like Gary the Retard, John, donning a white T-shirt and mustache clearly inspired by anyone named Bo in 1970s movies involving a semi and a CB, was instantly likable and easygoing. We shook hands and watched him pour our first drink of the morning: Bailey's and coffee in festive holiday mugs.
Then, like any decent, breakfast-time bartender who works seven days a week from six to noon after years of installing pools in Sedona, John introduced us to the rest of Kitty's a.m. regulars: There were Pittsburgh and Oakland (named for the NFL ballcaps on their heads), Dennis the Menace (all-around troublemaker), and Stid or Stiv or Sid or something like that, who arrives at Kitty's every morning at 8:40 sharp to watch The Price Is Right and Cash Cab. All were grizzled, glad to be done with their third-shift jobs, tossing down the sauce, and friendly as hell.
With pleasantries out of the way, and Ronda and I on our second mugs of Bailey's and coffee, our ad hoc breakfast club, hosted by John, chewed the fat on the economy, spouses, ex-spouses, the unfairness of combined birthday and Christmas gifts, the correct way to wrap earrings, and the pros and cons of my being six feet tall, all while yelling the answers at the contestants on Cash Cab or chiding their trivia ignorance. After a solid hour of this, Larry Bird walked in -- or at least his namesake did -- sporting a blue windbreaker and a hat that read, "No Money, No Honey" in bold, white lettering.
"Let's get it on!" Larry commanded.
Quarters suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The Kitty's clutch quickly shifted their positions and attention around to Larry Bird. A symphony of hands tossed quarters in the air, slapping them down on the bar in fervor met with cheers or cries of despair. Ronda and I, festive mugs in hand, broke away from our stools and peered over Dennis the Menace's shoulder.
"What's this game called?" I asked. The question was met with annoyance at my interruption. Everyone had his own name for it: Luck, Dumb Luck, Odd Man, Odd Man Quarters, but, finally, they agreed to call it Odd Man Wins. Winning, it seemed, meant your quarter's head or tail was the only one showing post-slapdown. If no quarter was the "odd man," the bounty went into the kitty and another round of quarters was played. After four years of college and 10 years of competitive bowling, how this quarter game had eluded me until now was a question best answered after a bathroom break.
Let's face it, bar bathrooms aren't known for a pleasing smell, but if they smell like Kitty's first thing in the morning, it's probably best to avoid them as much as possible. That shit-hiding chemical appliqué must have been sprayed moments before - meant to last 24 hours and burning any nasal cavity daring to venture in before noon. Mouthbreathing recommended.
Eyes still tearing, I stumbled out of the bathroom to find a grinning Ronda scooping what must have been $10 worth of quarters into her hands to the sound of grunted "beginner's luck." Apparently, Odd Man Wins had a victor, and its name was Ronda.
"I just had to get in on that action," she said before buying us Bloody Mary's, made just the way they should be -- with a kick -- and a peppermint shot for our host, John, who by this time had transformed from bartender to patron simply by stepping around to the other side of the bar and donning a ball cap. It seemed Pittsburgh was giving him a ride to the "phone place."
"I gotta see if they can take what's in this phone and put it in that one," he explained, showing us the two phones and using his finger to demonstrate how the information would flow from one to the other.
We laughed 'cause we liked the way he talked. We laughed 'cause Ronda won Odd Man Wins. We laughed because it was only lunchtime.
Kitty's 2836 N. 36th St. Phoenix, AZ 85008 602-957-9786