The Greenwood Lounge in three acts4/10/2013
The Greenwood Lounge sits shadowed by a marquee on the north side of Ingersoll. Its exterior is reminiscent of an old strip club: ’60’s-style siding with windows covered by blinds so the patrons, who are clearly up to no good, are barely visible to their forsaken families.
Entering through the small vestibule does not calm the concerns raised by the exterior — you’re fairly certain that you might be stepping into that stranger’s car your mom warned you about. But then, relief. You see the old bar, the chandelier, the Constance Depler murals of dogs playing poker, and you hear the soft murmur of voices. You’ve walked into a different time. A slower time. A time of gentlemen and gentlewomen.
Behind the bar is Bobby. Bobby would put an aloof Parisian waiter to shame. You’ll get your drink, don’t worry. But he’s not here to introduce himself by his first name, he’s not here to ask how your drink tastes, and he’s certainly not here to be a part of your experience. To the contrary, this is a place where the bartenders are professionals. You’ll be tended to when the time is right. Bobby will let you know when that time is. And, by the way, he’ll know your name and your drink long before you know his. He’s a pro.
Jim, standing on the other side of the bar, is the repository of collective knowledge. Comfortably out of the limelight, he smiles and greets as people approach. And people do approach. They want to talk about sports and teams and restaurants and food and music and the news topic of the day. And Jim not only knows what they’re talking about, but he knows the parents of whom they’re talking about. You wonder if maybe Jim has dropped out of some utopian commune given his ball cap, ponytail and quietness. Or did you just get hustled?
And holding down the end of the bar are two curmudgeons with wicked glints in their eyes. Treading into their territory seems definitely ill-advised. Old Jack and Jim smile like sharks for the camera.
Pictures over the bar show bartenders past. Bobby reminisces over a graying photo of a young man in a white, pressed shirt, thin, black tie and an easy smile, with his arm draped around a friend: “Paul had an old-fashioned respect for the job that bartenders had 60 years ago and few have today…” Bobby rubs under his glasses as he’s thinking. “I can’t hope to follow in Paul’s footsteps.”
Paul, a relatively young man in this aging group, used to be the bartender on the shift following Bobby’s. A private person, Paul was admired for his propriety and kindness. His marriage a couple of years ago was big news for these patrons who considered him family. Then, on the cusp of all this happiness — cancer. Horrible cancer. Incurable cancer. Relentless cancer. And it took his life in late winter, when the snow still blew.
How to acknowledge this tragedy? How to right the inequity of this death? How to bring the universe just a bit back in balance? Noting that Paul always dressed in a pressed shirt, black tie and waiter’s apron, Jim had an idea: “I thought we could all show up dressed as Paul was dressed, out of respect for Paul — who dressed that way out of respect for the job.” And so they did, on a cold Wednesday afternoon in March.
White shirts, black ties and waiter’s aprons ushered a life out of the community. And glasses were lifted in honor. Reserved and respectful. A wake from another time. A bartender’s wake.
And what of the curmudgeons at the end of the bar? Old Jack, seeing a drawing of Paul that was gifted to the bar several days after the wake, leaned into his buddy Jim and said, “I’ll have to get a picture of me, and you can put it up.” Not missing a beat, Jim responded: “They can hang it in the john.”
Life at the Greenwood in three acts. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.