Saturday, February 11, 2006

One Out of Three Ain't Bad

Published on the Internet

Once, a lifestyle acquired me. When I began drinking (in a hostelry not too close to home), two pints of ale was my limit, and each was hard-won enough, I thought, when, under-aged and pimpled, I swayed to the counter and made a mumbling order to a sarcastic, culchie barman.
The pub was well-known to us teens as a spot where you'd get a drink -- or a summons, if the Guards raided, which wasn't uncommon either -- until you'd had your limit, at which time you were tipped, unceremoniously, out a back door to wander, crabwise, for a bus.

Its interior was dark and smelly; its carpets threadbare; its floors treacherously uneven; the seating, if you could call it that, had ripped, brown leatherette coverings with cigarette burns, a leftover 70s working-man's pub, about to realise, grudgingly and late, that the 80s had come and were marching on and that the presence of youth meant money.

I only drank in that Terenure dive a short while before I heard about another place, one in which the young buck about town could enjoy his favourite poison, not hunched in a corner of the suburbs, one eye on the door, avoiding the baleful glances of his near-locals, but wrapped in city anonymity, in a perpetual fog of nicotine; overpowering heat; the primal smell of genuine leather; rich, oily perfumes, and the ear-splitting din of a bass-heavy, basement jukebox.

'Lead on,' I said, and lost the next eight years, underground...

Bruxelles of Harry Street was my spiritual and temporal home for most of the latter part of the 1980s. Out on the pavement, short rows of motorcycles tried to huddle inconspicuously away from the traffic wardens and gardai that from time to time wandered by, ticket-books in hand. As a customer, one tended to enter furtively, (even when of legal age... old habits die hard), and, if possible, early, before the bouncers came on and started making noises about I.D. and other inconveniences.

Inside were two lounges: one a street-level, would-be café-bar, whose decor fitted the Euro theme with flags and newspaper mastheads from many countries. A non-working mannequin pis threatened everyone who went to the counter with a good dousing. On busy evenings, it was only marginally slower than the service.

Below street level, accessed by a winding stair, was the deliberately seamy underbelly, a study in economic diversification. While the 'upstairs' catered for the 30-somethings and the passing lunchtime trade of tourists between the nearby, fasionable Grafton Street and the next-door-but-one Westbury Hotel, the basement attracted rebellious teens and would-be-teens again, who, (if they were like me) adopted denim or leather bikers' gear and stood self-consciously at bus stops.

The first time I entered Bruxelles' dark basement was a gloomy Autumn evening, the half-deserted city streets were rain-dampened and slick with motor oil, the shops were mostly closed and shuttered, a few late-workers hurried home under umbrellas, their collars up. A newspaper seller on the corner of Suffolk Street, shuffled from foot to foot.

The zodiac mirror on the lower landing reflected John's and my attempt to look older and cooler than we were or felt as we passed beneath the pavement slabs into unknown territory. In our nervousness, the descent seemed dizzying, disorientating, though only two short flights. They stopped, abruptly, outside a toilet door.

Left and right were murky bars, pale lamps cast an uncertain light at intervals through the smoke. Rock music from a generation removed blared out from unseen speakers, smothering the noise of the packed punters whose numbers spilled over into the entryway. Pint glasses perched precariously on shoulder-high mouldings of the panelled walls, or crouched, like their owners, on the sand-coloured floor underfoot. Long-haired, hard-bitten drinkers glanced at us in disinterest, or, it seemed, in near hostility. Somewhere in the distance, a glass toppled and smashed to the sound of raucous cheers. Motorcycle helmets piled like the trophies of some ancient, bloody conquerer filled one whole corner. But we'd come this far... Alcohol and the slight possibility of female company were too close now for us to turn tail. We took a deep breath, sucked in balls and bellies (the one for courage; the other for the look of the thing) and wound through the press to the nearest counter. A dog-faced, hump-backed barman filled our order wordlessly. We counted our change. There wasn't much; town was expensive. But we'd arrived! And we planned to stay.

Our first evening wore on. Those who couldn't find seats, us included, stood where best we could. The stairs became choked, and the bar staff and the bouncers cleared them. The pay phone that lived beneath the steps, rang unanswered. It was useless to pick it up; the place had no public address system for one thing, and finding a stranger in the throng was impossible. It was likewise foolish to try to make a call; the taped music over-powered even the sharpest ears.

People left for other pubs. New people filled their places. Occasional troublemakers or the over-emotional were hauled out of the crowd or the pub toilets by solemn door men. The cigarette smoke was blinding. Drink flowed, was stolen, spilled. I was terrified. It was great.

For every dog-rough, wall-eyed, pot-bellied, gnarlly, sour-pussed fella, there was a gorgeous girl. In fact, we noticed, the more pug-ugly a man was, the more likely to be accompanied by an amateur, fragrant, beauty queen. Naturally that was disheartening, for such handsome chaps as we.

And the women actually spoke! Not like in school, where your simplest greeting was answered by a silent, withering glare. These girls asked the time, looked for a light, posed nearby as if in anticipation of some effort on our part. The one failing was their tendency to move in shoals, like something predatory... I was a long way from the shore and knew it. John, more outgoing than me, chatted easily with one and all. I gulped my beer and stayed silent for the most part.

Closing time came surprisingly fast. The crowd barely thinned, until barmen started shouting at the top of their voices, "Guys and girls! Are yis right now, please?" Then, the last chance of refills gone, the tape-player unceremoniously unplugged in mid beat, staff buzzing about like angry bees, grabbing the empty glasses and stacking up the stools, sweeping around the fallen, we climbed out into the night chill and breathed in the fresh, cold air. Night One was over. There would be many more.

There's something about the smell of Dublin city on a cold evening. If you're lucky, and the wind is right, the James's Gate brewery fills High Street and Christchurch with the odour of new porter cooking, the air good enough to eat. If the breeze is the other way, the faint taste of salt comes in from the Bay, fresh and invigorating, chopping waves up in the muddy grey river, chapping dry lips. And often, in the vicinity of a pub, the warm smell of smoke and beer colliding in the open air is an alluring perfume. In this town, any way the wind blows is an excuse for a pint.

Ritual is important to the beer drinker. On Saturday, when the day had worn down to dusky twilight, I'd take the 54 bus from the long, lonely Tymon North road, stuck into a corner seat at the rear, upstairs, over the rattling heater. The bus bounced along the peaks of Greenhills to Walkinstown, took the roundabout in a wide swerve to Cromwell's Fort, stopped at the lights by the K.C.R, braked heavily on the sharp, Kimmage Manor bend, and joined the steadily decreasing flow of traffic at the Harold's Cross junction. It reached over the canal bridge before Clanbrassil Street, then wound itself up Christchuch Hill to the cathedral, until, as if knowing that the end of its journey was near, it rushed down through Dame Street to a brief halt outside the Central Bank before it disappeared in a cloud of diesel fumes at College Green on its way to the quayside terminus. When the smoke cleared, I'd be standing on the pavement, like the product of some magician's trick.

Then it was the quick step across the traffic, gingerly on wet pavement slabs to Andrew Street, quiet in the evening; half along Wicklow Street, scuttling by hidden Clarendon Street chapel at the back of Switzers department store; down the alleyway beside and in through the Westbury's new shopping mall, out of the rain, before emerging like a king in Harry Street, opposite the Weights & Measures, and Brendan Behan's old pub, to the finish line. Such a race developed the thirst.

In Bruxelles' dark corners lurked strangeness and comedy: wry street vendors, complaining about profits; buskers, rich on pennies and tuppences; apprentices piling in, grubby from work or tech; builders' mates from the few working sites in 80s' Dublin with tales of near calamity; rock-band members, who made sure everyone saw their leather pants and guitars; prim office girls who wore denim in the evenings; long-haired lotharios with winning smiles and disappearing tricks; performers all, whose enthusiasm would sometimes spill over into long, loud, drinking sessions; scenes of breaking glass or table-top, bar-stool sing-alongs.

Within a few months of my first Bruxelles visit, I considered myself a regular. That is to say, I had the right to look down my nose at the 'kids' that came in, trying to get served at the bar. I could nod sagely at the improvement a new jukebox would make to the general ambience, and race, knowingly, to the selection buttons when the timer cut off Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar" before its end. I approved Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" as the unofficial anthem of the place, and glared, disapprovingly at the trendies that inhabited a new disco bar in one end of the pub.

Actually, I seldom really disapproved of anyone, but the neon blue lights of the trendy bar (as we called it), and the fact that we would not be served in it made it a natural target of general hostility. Whether rocker's bar or disco bar, the punter's money inevitably ended up in one place. When we lads lined up at the urinals, conversations were struck up and, generally -- even the refugees from the trendy bar -- strangers proved to be just ordinary Joe Soaps like the rest of us.... if a little better dressed.

"Once upon a time was the backbeat.
Once upon a time all the poets came to life
And the angels had guitars even before they had wings.
If you hold onto a chorus you can get through the night..."
--Jim Steinman,
"Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through".

I woke this morning from dreams about guitars. I was a player, and I played well, effortlessly in fact. I just thought, and the sounds came, like Eric Clapton does in real life. A huge jamming session was in progress, myself and a half-dozen heads from Bruxelles, years ago. We played and played and played.

I should have known I was dreaming. The fact that we were outdoors, walking from Merchant's Arch along the Quays and across a misplaced Ha'penny Bridge was one clue. And, of course, the fact that I could never get guitar strings to make anything other than tuneless twanging noises while awake was another. I never wanted to learn how, just to play. In the end, I didn't know a single chord. Still don't.

In Bruxelles were two tabletop video games, one of which I don't remember too well, (probably Pac Man), but I liked the other one, Asteroids.

The idea was simple. Take your money and put it into the slot, then steer your tiny ship from left to right across a screen, dodging or blasting huge rocks that came your way. You sped off one side and reappeared on the other. The trick was to avoid getting unexpectedly splatted. Collisions could be avoided, if you moved in time, but the game had a slick, slippery quality, that got out of control easily.

No matter how well you planned ahead, or thought you'd planned ahead, you inevitably got your comeupance, your money was lost, and someone bumped the table and spilled half your beer anyway. It was the kind of game you knew wasn't good for you, but when money was a little more plentiful, when I had sold something to an American editor or to an Irish one, common sense and fifty-pence pieces were all lost one after another. I'd be Ready Player One, career my little ship headlong into trouble, turbo full-on, Game Over. Then the demo would start up, bright lights and action luring you in again, tempting you to get your name up there in its three-character roll of honour.

John introduced me to two girls one evening. After our initial first-impressions of the pub, we noticed that it was (and I presume still is) a fact that girls (and boys too) tended to travel in mismatched pairs. One would be whom we called "the good looking one"; the other was her friend.

The friend, this time, turned out to be nicer (at least I thought so), and, when sufficient courage had been swallowed, at £1.85 a pint, I experienced my first kiss from my first girlfriend. I was nineteen. She, I think, was seventeen. She was a Leaving Cert student, whose father happened to be a school teacher, which meant that boys and booze over books was a no-no in his book. Still, we met a few times "in secret" – she even managed to keep me out of the pub for a while – until reality and her impending exams got the better of us and we ended. I was broken-hearted; she, being of the maturer sex, was upset. We’d lasted maybe two months.

There's a saying that you shouldn't wish for things: you might get them. And that was my experience from the time I first walked into the pub scene until I all but crawled back out, years later. "Romance" was my chief interest in visiting Bruxelles, with booze (that is, getting mindlessly drunk) a close second. It wasn't long before I was having more of a "romance" with the booze, than the intended targets, the young women who passed through its narrow double doors and into the gloomy cavern of Flanders Bar.

Long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, ones with ginger heads, unpronouncable names... I drank them all. Sometimes, when I was lucky, I also had a girlfriend in tow. I shed my tears and drank my beers and met someone else at the video-games table. A dozen roses couldn't keep her from another guy, and later a child that ended her Bruxelles days rather too soon. A nurse's aide gave me six months of laughter; an arts student kept me off the streets for a couple of weeks; a wild, mountainy woman shared her passion for nature.

Someone introduced me to a drink called "snakebite" as a cure for each of the heartbreaks of lost love... Part lager beer, part cider, it looked like used dishwater and tasted much the same, but it kicked muleishly and rotted the teeth and guts and brain.

Plenty of people had a higher capacity for booze than me, and I never envied them. I always thought it was stupid to drink until you were incapable of getting to a place of safety (not necessarily home), and I still maintain that margin for movement. Nonetheless, on occasion John, or another kind soul, had to drag me bodily up the road.

I remember, one time, being too ill to travel further on the last bus home. I don't think John was too impressed by my getting off about five stops into the journey, with the prospect of a four hour walk (or five-hour drag) ahead of him, but to give him his due he didn't abandon me. We ended up inside an Indian takeaway in Harold's Cross. "Have you got any Alka-Seltzer?" he asked the man behind the counter. The guy looked carefully at the printed menu above him then mutely shook his head. Despite my condition we both roared with laughter, stumbling tearfully for the door, poor Will clutching the stomach he'd just emptied further down the road as he went.

Foreign food was best for lining the guts after a night's overindulgence, and you'd find one or other of us (sometimes both) stuck in an alley behind a pizza place, or draped over a canal bridge eating curry from a tinfoil container, sometimes slobbering doner kebab all over the place in the early hours.

By the middle and end of the 1980s, we'd expanded our activities to include two or three different watering holes within striking distance of Grafton Street. I enjoyed "The Pink Elephant" in the afternoons, when its "happy hour" served expensive cocktails at pint-prices. "Bartley Dunnes", which had a reputation as a gay bar, had that dingy quality and dim lighting that had disappeared from Bruxelles. Across the street, "The William Tell" had interesting nooks and crannies, a couple of pool tables, and sometimes an open fire in the fireplace.

But as the 90s approached, I was struggling. The marathon was unrelenting, and I was hitting my personal "wall". John and I moved in different circles, doing our own things, and, frankly, life was lonely, despite the crowds. I didn't see my family for days at a time; slept in damp bedsits on concrete floors, spare rooms or sofas lent out to me by fellow boozers. My self-destruct button had been pressed and I didn't know the whys and the wherefores of it all, nor could I see a future. I searched the bottoms of pint glasses in vain until, at last, I walked up the stairs and went home from there for the last time. I think, maybe, I was growing up. Bruxelles, for me, was over.


Anonymous said...

Deadly piece on Bruxies! Brings back memories of my first time going in there with Lisa and Donna, hoping that the barman would serve us a ritz!!!!


Willie_W said...

Ah, Ritz...! The height of sophistication! ;-) Glad you liked the piece.

Anonymous said...

Your sis again. Remember you brought me in there on one of my visits home ? I could see the lure of the place for you. Crazy days, we all had some. Still have some.

Willie_W said...

I'd completely forgotten that I brought you in here. Now that I think of it, I think I also accompanied the brother and the father there. Isn't memory a strange thing?

Anonymous said...

Fitz here.

Ah. Blades in Terenure. Yourself and 'Spider' :-) brought me there. Oddly enough my mother didn't mind.

You might not fully appreciate how important it was to me to 'fit-in' with a crowd.. any crowd really I wasn't pushed. Oh the humiliation at not getting served... and the irony of it all when I was finally over 18 and they wouldn't serve me.

Some things you never forget. I still boycott the Morgue in Templeogue (hahah) because they woudn't serve me . Me ? At the ripe old age of 19 !! So what if I was wearing a german army officers jacket, make-up and back-combed hair. Feckers.

Willie_W said...

It was probably the combed hair that did the damage. A comb in the Morgue is like pearls in the piggy food.