Notes From Salt Lake

If you ever want to feel as if your life has completely fallen off the rails and you’re in a holding pattern, try pouring drinks for an Annapolis graduate USMC Captain with four combat tours whose father was an astronaut in an empty bar. His name is Jeff and he was sitting at the club by himself nursing a beer and eating a quesadilla. Son of Bob Cabana, veteran of four space shuttle missions, Jeff is a bulldog of a man with a blond short cropped haircut, thick arms, piercing blue eyes and a soft smile. Sporting a large wedding band and a sensible wristwatch, Jeff and I talked for almost a half hour before the next guests came into Keys On Main. With his resume, we could have talked about anything ranging from space exploration to America’s role in the Middle East. Instead, you want to know what we talked about?

My hops garden.

I have always had an interest in gardening and this year I tried growing hops for the first time. I have been gushing about the success regarding my hops to anybody within ear’s drop and Jeff happened to be my next victim. Instead of directing the conversation towards something he might have a better grasp on, he asked questions and listened. As conversations from behind the bar go, this has been one of the better ones that I have had in a while.

Too often the first thing people want to talk about at the club is Utah’s liquor laws. And invariably, it is always hostile. Out-of-towners usually have two impressions about Salt Lake City. First, they are blown away by the natural beauty of the city. With the Wasatch Front, the wide roads, old homes and landscape of the city, people are awestruck by Salt Lake. I was. When I moved here from Las Vegas, the only images I had of Northern Utah were from the movie Fletch. And that was based in Provo. Salt Lake isn’t a great city but it is a damn good one. Given a choice between Phoenix or Detroit, there is no choice. Salt Lake wins on climate and scenery alone. Given a choice between New York City or San Francisco, once again there is no debate. SLC wins on affordability. First time visitors to Utah usually have preconceived notions that are shaken after a couple of hours walking around town.

Second, out-of-towners can’t believe that you can get a drink in Salt Lake. What makes this all the funnier and pathetic is that they are asking this while they are standing right in front of the beer taps. While I cast a large shadow, there is no way that I am blocking the entire wall of bottles behind me. It is absurd that people walk into the bar, present ID, see two full bars filled with liquor, beer and wine and still have to ask if they can get a drink. Starting today, when asked if we have booze my new answer is no. We’re putting on a production of Barfly.

I think this is what I liked about Jeff. Probably because he has travelled the world, he knows not to ask simply asinine questions the second he sits down at the bar. He wanted food and drink. After discussing the hops for a bit, the conversation invariably moved towards bar life in Utah. I told him that the most significant event in Salt Lake’s bar scene is the fact that Port ‘O Call closed a couple of years ago. In the diaspora of Port shutting their doors because of eminent domain from the federal government, the customers that used to visit downtown now need a reason to come to the city. In the wake of Port closing, there has been a rash of new clubs opening throughout the valley: Dick-n-Dixies, Bourbon House, Gracie’s, the remodeled Bar X, The Green Pig and The Beerhive. I think they are all decent spots but they all seem to have the style. There is nothing particularly unique about them. They all share the combination of exposed brick, dark stained wood and high-backed chairs. This is not a criticism of these bars. It just seems weird that after Salt Lake’s most popular club closes, the explosion of new bars all are carbon copies of each other.

I think this is endemic of the problem with the drinkers in Utah. Our native drinkers don’t like drinking. Sure they like getting drunk but they don’t enjoy drinking for the pleasure of drinking. It’s all about drink specials, what’s cheap and how large. I don’t fault them for this. I think the majority of my customers and those people who go downtown to drink are younger and not as well off financially. When I was younger, I used to drink the special simply because I only had so much money.

Last weekend, we were one of the stops on a pub crawl. The only question that I fielded was what was our drink special? A quick note about pub crawls: bring cash and don’t tell me what the other bar is doing. When 250 people come through the door, the last thing I want to do is run your credit card for a $3 pint of beer. I think because people don’t enjoy boozing the way they did even ten years ago, bar owners just have to provide the same experience and hope that their club becomes the next spot.

The noodle-scratcher regarding this is how different is Utah from the rest of the country. Like Jeff, I have travelled extensively throughout the US and I really don’t think that we’re as different as people make us out to be. If you remove Las Vegas from the equation, it really feels like sixes. Sure, there are better pours in other states and maybe last call comes a little bit later but in the finally analysis, it pretty much all feels the same.

What I love about being behind the bar is for a few hours every night I get to meet and talk with interesting people. The pouring drinks part of the job is fun but the real enjoyment is interacting with strangers as if we had known each other for a very long time simply because I am the bartender. I get to breakdown that fourth wall very quickly because that’s part of the job description. Keys On Main is a great fit for me because I get the best of both sides of the job. When we’re busy, it is gun-slinging bartending that values speed over intimacy. When we’re slow, I get to draw a club soda and hold court with a captive audience. It’s a lot of fun and sometimes, pretty profitable.

Maybe in the end, my life isn’t on hold. In comparison to Jeff, I think most of us have fallen short of our potential. He is a pretty extraordinary guy and maybe that’s where it benefits me. I get to meet folks like him frequently and that makes my job pretty damn cool.

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