Columns » Vodka Yonic

For the Good Times

A childhood spent at a neighborhood bar isn't for everyone, but it worked just fine for me.



Psychological research suggests that the first five years of your life are the most influential in your development as a person. So it probably doesn't bode well for me that I spent mine living in a bar.

The bar was called Bud's Tavern, and it sat on a residential street in a part of Cleveland that nowadays you'd be wise to avoid at night — actually, even during the day. Back then, it was a typical blue-collar urban neighborhood made up of the usual suspects: kids with too little supervision, sweet and slightly unstable old ladies who passed out butterscotch candies, crotchety neighbors who stockpiled Frisbees that landed on their lawn, and — fortunately for business — more than a few drunks. These are the characters that populated my childhood, the Brunos and the Pauly Millers who spent more time with my family than with their own. These men showed up every morning when the doors opened. As a kid, it was endearing that they were so eager to see us. Now, it just makes me sad.

My parents purchased the bar in the late '70s as a side project. By day, my dad wore a suit and worked downtown in the tallest building I'd ever seen — 32 magnificent stories — as an accountant for the government. By night, he donned a polo with a dishrag over one shoulder, making drinks and conversation alongside my mom.

Though unconventional by most standards, my childhood experiences never seemed all that different from kids who grew up in "normal" homes. My brother, sister and I built forts, but out of liquor boxes. We played hide-and-seek, usually among kegs and cases of Jack in the stockroom. We were lulled to sleep by music, quite often the sweet strains of "Cherish" and "Bop" reverberating through the floorboards from the jukebox below.

Our after-school snacks consisted of the only kid-friendly fare behind the bar: Hershey bars and orange or grape pop. (Pop, not soda, and definitely not "Coke.") Our after-school activities alternated between catching snakes at a nearby park or buying candy cigarettes and Big League Chew at the corner market. Booze and nicotine were, strangely enough, the most familiar commodities to me as a kid, although anyone who grew up in the '80s knows that the best children's candy was modeled after tobacco products. Even more bizarre, perhaps, is how little either one ever appealed to me, in adolescence or adulthood.

The rest of our free time was spent on more entrepreneurial endeavors. Rather than manning lemonade stands, we found it more efficient to hustle buzzed patrons for cash. We offered jukebox services — for an extra quarter per song — or tableside newspaper delivery for a buck. (Sometimes five bucks if the customer was intoxicated enough.) And there's no better place to peddle candy bars for a school fundraiser than to an inebriated crowd. My brother, sister and I sold more than 1,200 candy bars one year. We won a typewriter — every kid's dream!

All in all, my parents owned the bar from the late '70s until their deaths in a house fire in 1988. My brother, sister and I took legal ownership of it for a year at ages 11, 10 and 7, respectively — excuse me while I add "Young Business Owner" to my LinkedIn profile — while the staff managed it, but ultimately it had to be sold. It stood vacant for a long time, and was later converted back to a residential space.

It was a short-lived dream for my parents and an unusual place to spend my youth, but if psychological research is to be trusted, it played a significant role in who I am today. It taught me the value of a dollar — you try hand-delivering newspapers to drunks with poor personal hygiene and see how easy it is — and the importance of committing to whatever you're passionate about, even if that thing is owning a bar. I can strike up a conversation with anyone from anywhere, and I'm probably one of the only people in the world who gets misty-eyed with childhood nostalgia at the hum of a neon bar sign or the scent of stale beer.

"Normal" has always seemed a foreign concept to me, and one that wasn't all that enticing. You can have a picket fence and freshly baked cookies every afternoon without a moment of peace, or be surrounded by chain-link and the scent of pool chalk and know every happiness in the world. Life is less about the things that you do, and more about the people you laugh and talk and cry with along the way. Bud's Tavern allowed me to witness that from a front-row seat — albeit a rickety old bar stool.

Add a comment