It was the guts of the recession, and my wife and I were both manning hamster wheels at jobs that were slowly shrink-wrapping our souls. It was a time for crazy talk. And sure, on paper, taking our modest nest egg out into the street and braining it with a length of rebar would’ve been the more prudent play. But the more we talked the less improbable and, well, less stupid the idea of opening our own neighborhood bar in the then un-condo’d wilds of St. Johns sounded. And hey, man ... free drinks for life!
Six years later I’m standing here scrubbing a booger off the mirror of our bar’s graffiti-smeared bathroom. Outside a construction crew is noisily pouring the concrete foundation for what will soon be our very own little rock-’n’-roll venue. The Fixin’ To, our shambling honky-tonk, is alive and well and growing—a testament to the truth that, sometimes, bad ideas are the very thing the world needs more of.
Back when I was writing full-time, I traveled the world in search of weird, wonderful people to write about. I once got loaded with Matthew McConaughey in a trailer park in Austin. Now, weird, wonderful people seek me out on a daily basis. On a good day, bartending can generate the kind of drug-free rush your yoga teacher is always yammering on about. Waging trench warfare against a roiling sea of customers on a Friday night as Black Sabbath bellows from the speakers? Watching a first date veer into the ditch? Pouring victory shots after a Blazers win? Realizing that a fever dream sketched on a cocktail napkin could not only thrive, but take seed and grow a community on its shoulders?
No amount of chugging beers with McConaughey can top that.
That’s the thing, though. Tell people you own a bar and their whole demeanor changes. Like they’re meeting an astronaut or a politician or Beyoncé. You mean, you get paid to party all the time?
No. We get paid to clean up your party. All the time. We mix and muddle and smile through gritted teeth. We call you cabs and mop up your unmentionables. We fashion together a series of straws to poke at you from underneath the stall door after you’ve locked yourself in the bathroom and passed out. It can feel like a horror-thriller remake of Groundhog Day where the sun rises and sets with us—bleary-eyed and stone-cold sober—hard at the wheel of a clown car from hell.
And those are just the most obvious perils of the bar life. My wife and I have divorced approximately 873 times in the past six years, fighting over everything from payroll taxes to chair arrangements. We’ve done battle with a litigious ex-employee, an unhinged landlord, and henchmen from one of the music industry’s charmingly thuggish royalty-collection outfits. We’ve learned that Yelp is a tool for the brain-dead. That the City of Portland is fat off every pound of flesh they’ve taken in the name of “fees” during this construction. And that even if you’re likely to get your head caved in by that rare, rampaging drunk, when it’s your name on the mortgage you will always defend your bar. With fists if you have to.
There are still days I contemplate testing the bounds of our insurance policy with a well-placed match. But to use this surprisingly obstinate booger on the mirror as an analogy, you keep scrubbing. For the loving regulars who keep the lights on. For the employees who become your family. But mostly for yourself. My bar is my personality: a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll—and a whole lot of duct tape holding the damn thing together.
As bad ideas go, this one has been my best.
Bart Blasengame, a former editor at Details and Portland Monthly, owns and runs the Fixin’ To in St. Johns with his wife, Marli Blasengame. The Southern soul bar’s expansion is slated for completion this June, with more room for live music, karaoke, vinyl nights, and other curated events.