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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Meet Me At Hemmy's.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.  So, why not go where everybody knows your name?  I used to back in the day.  That place was Hemingway's, nestled right among the dormitories of The University of Pittsburgh.  It was the kind of bar that you could walk into and disappear.  This was the kind of place that didn't cater to the meat market college coed.  It was a more refined outlet for libations and relaxation.  It seemed an unlikely fit for all the hustle and bustle of the campus lifestyle, yet it was the one place I could count on to provide me with what I needed.  Every college area has its various outlets for drinking.  We had a bar that specialized in Greek life.  We had one that dealt with the general meat market crowd.  We even had a bar that primarily embraced the alternative music crowd.   But Hemingway's embraced, well, everybody.  Yet, not everybody went.  That was the magic.  They didn't discriminate but most people couldn't get past the name when choosing it for a place to patron.  Most people felt it was a hoity-toity, high faulting, artsy fartsy, and other "pretentious words that don't exist" kind of place.  Really, it was a small pub that just emanated class.  Stepping off the street onto the tiled floor you can feel the history of this place.  It wasn't famous like, say, Bull and Finch but it had that ambience of an established watering hole.  The brass railings and "judges paneling" style of walls were the perfect setting for cracking open a book written by someone who has been dead for over a 100 years.  Granted, the place wasn't enormous but the mirrored wall behind the bar gave it that larger than appears look.  It seemed a timeless place that could never change to keep up with the habits of the college crowd.  Of course, that was 15 years ago and the bar has gone through extensive changes, not all for the good.

It was truly by accident, that I discovered Hemingway's.  Being a sophomore, one would think I would not be able to hang out in bars, let alone hang out in one that wasn't wall to wall drunken coeds.  I was a fledgling Theater Arts student and after successfully being cast in my first show at The University of Pittsburgh, I tagged along with a group of other well seasoned member of the Pitt Theater Community.  I sort of just kind of showed up and blended into the tapestry of characters.  Being underage and unemployed I didn't exactly have the means or the right to be there but nobody bothered to ask any questions.  It was a different scenario when frequenting the beer garden meat market just around the corner.  Two bucks and your college ID got you into the show and most people went for the quarter drafts.  Here, I was never questioned about my age, because I was with a group of people who frequented the bar enough that after a few visits, there was a drink in front of me before my butt was in my chair.  In fact it became so commonplace that as soon as we entered the premises, glasses began filling and were delivered to a table already established as our spot.   It was truly the kind of place I could get used to.   It was a dizzying courtship as I became engrained into the group.  One of the gang was taking orders and asked what I was drinking.  I told him I wasn't 21 and he gave me "pfft" and said, "So."  I replied, "But I'm broke, too.  I just came to hang out."  He said don't worry about it and got me a beer.  He was an upperclassman and had just received a small inheritance from a late aunt and was buying a few rounds.  Eventually, I did secure my own funds and became legal to drink, but by then, I was already recognized by staff and was given the same standard of service as my fellow cohorts.  When I had no one to watch Superbowl XXX with in 1995, I just went down to Hemingway's and enjoyed a few beers and a nice spread of sandwiches and snacks.  Hemingway's was that cool without being "cool".  I only wish we had beaten the Cowboys.  That would have been super cool.

If were to describe an evening with friends at Hemingway's, I would say it was laid back, a little smoky, and full of interesting tales.  I've spoken before about my friend Ray, who was the lead singer for a band out of Philly called, Open Cage.  We would sit and listen to his tales of being in the air force and every once in awhile he'd break out into song, usually leading to a rousing chorus with everyone joining in on the act.  We'd drink some more and eventually close the place.  It was never busy, but it was always doing good business.  Hemingway's had a built in fan base and even though the members rotated in and out every year due to graduation, it was always some place you could drop in for a reminder of what the simple life in a bar was like. 

Unfortunately, I cannot say that the owners of Hemingway's felt the way I do.  It had been quite some years since I had been in the bar, but in 2004 I met up with an old college friend who was in town for a conference.  It was also a chance to put a face to the name if you will.  I had told so many stories about Hemingway's that she was convinced that the bar was an old girlfriend and that any other bar just couldn't compete.  I merely related tales of what a real bar was like in comparison to the dives I had been dragged to by her friends.  When we arrived, it was like seeing your old house completely remodeled, but in a bad way.   There were colored twinkle lights that are only permitted in dorm room windows at Christmas time.  The back room where we held many an opening night cast party was now housing a pool table.  It was like a bizarro Cheers with Rebecca and Woody, not Diane and Coach.  Suddenly, the color drained from my face.  "Our" area was gone, replaced by tables and chairs that echoed a patio bar complete with plastic cups.   I was sick with grief over the changes. 

Because other bars had been closed for violations coeds were pushed like deer from the woods in favor of housing plans.  They migrated down into the once "deerless" areas and suddenly became a nuisance.  Seizing an opportunity to make more money, Hemingway's cranked up the college music and watered down the drinks and soon the place was packed wall to wall with loud and obnoxious students who didn't appreciate the architecture and acoustics of the bar.  Even the bathroom had been painted like a school locker-room taking away from the nostalgic "Here I sit, lonely heated..." decor.  My friend and I looked with a teary eyed as we saw our young adulthood wiped away with a coat of paint and string of lights.  The bar was gone, replaced with a younger, hipper, model that just didn't have the character.  My wife kind of liked the place.  She's younger, and doesn't get it.

Perhaps one day I will have the financial wherewithal and ambition to open my own bar and make it into a sort of Hemingway's, Too, or maybe just add the extra M to differentiate.  In any case, I will never cater to the crowd that sees it as a place to serve beer in a cup or shot in a test tube.  This place will have glass mugs, frosted within an inch of their life.  We'll have whiskey and scotch, aged to perfection.  There will be no quarter draft night and anyone who comes in will know that they are welcome as long as they don't tell the cool kids where we are.

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