by Christopher Bacas
The last place I saw Mike was a joint facing the water in Fell's Point. Taking up first floor of a Civil War-era structure, you enter to a rectangular bar opposite a raised stage with chest-high sides. Tall stools scatter from front windows and along the wooden bar to the back room. Tagged, splintery walls surround everything.
In the 70's, a minor, flush with inheritance, bought the building. Unable to manage it legally, he asked a former teacher to act as surrogate.The two tough guys ran a drinking establishment on a stagnant waterfront in blue-collar Baltimore. It attracted men who didn't fear a closing time stagger to their vehicle through dim streets.
The younger guy, once he could actively manage his establishment, encouraged members of a local motorcycle club to hangout. They policed the space and kept order, until a back-room stomping brought the enterprise to the brink. The new liquor license expressly forbade the club's colors. Not chastened, the junior partner grew into his responsibilities and made alliances with the IRA. Their agents used the building as safe house. His barkeeps kept secrets under the kegs.
H, a New Orleans Jew, Navy medic in Vietnam. Possibly the most fearless man I have ever seen. A bit over five feet and pudgy, he stood up to drunken, belligerent giants. Waiting for their swing, then dropping them with a single upward jolt of his thick hand. We'd help him drag the bums outside afterwards.
T, a scrawny jabberwocky, nose powdered to oblivion, blithely ignored new customers while he gabbed inanely at regulars. In deep to dealers and bookies, he took cash advances from the register until the boss banished him, keeping cops out of it while expecting timely repayments.
J, an erudite lush, who, when he heard patrons discuss philosophy, profanely offered free drinks as long as they agreed to eschew weighty topics. After hours, he held mobile Bacchanals; his battle cry: “Vodka tonic, no fruit!” After an early demise, neighbors inaugurated a festival in his name and wore shirts with VTNF printed on the back.