Bill and I opened the door, took one step inside and were stopped in our tracks by laser beams shooting from more than a dozen eyes. While the juke box twanged on, the rest of time and space stood still. The pinball machine stopped its pinging and buzzing, the customers ceased their chatter.
About fifteen feet in front of us was a bar, stretching to half the size of the room—half its stools occupied by men who looked like steelworkers, all of whom had swiveled in our direction. Beyond them, a ruddy-faced bartender, squat, balding, wearing a condescending grin that seemed to ask, “What the hell has the cat dragged in now?”
I whispered to Bill, “I told ya this was a bad idea!”
We were standing inside Air Devil’s Inn on Taylorsville Road in Louisville, Kentucky. Bill and I were 24-year-old students at the nearby Presbyterian seminary. At least a dozen times we had passed this place on trips to and from the J-Town Lanes where we bowled for The Holy Rollers.
“Look at that place!” Bill had said the first time we passed it. “It’s the perfect dive bar! All closed-in, you know it’s dark inside. Cheap drinks, I bet.” Bill was from Buffalo, New York, where dive bars were a-dime-a-dozen and a way of life. I was from the buckle of the Bible Belt where Baptist ministers based pledge-drives on the quest to close bars and taverns. Though I was a young man of “drinking age,” I could still hear my mom’s voice pleading, “You got no business in a place like that.”
But Bill had worn me down. Earlier on this night, upon leaving the bowling alley, he had declared, “This is the night! We’re going into that bar!”
And so here we were, inside the door of Air Devil’s Inn, frozen by a barrage of blue-collar glares. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the men at the bar turned back around, the pinball machine resumed its pinging and buzzing, and the bartender moved down the bar to serve a customer.
Bill moved toward the bar, and, against better judgment, I followed. We grabbed two stools. The bar was backed by a smudgy, wall-length mirror, off of which many laser-stares were ricocheting toward us.
One of the pinballers bellied up to our end of the bar and called out to the bartender, “Hey, Pops! Old Forrester!” Shortly, the bartender ambled down to hand the guy his drink. He didn’t look our way.
Bill spoke up, “Hey, Pops.”
The bartender turned slowly, looked venomously at Bill, and said, “Do I know you?” Obviously, a rhetorical question. Not even a question. More a statement. Years later this moment would spring to mind when I first saw Robert De Niro ask menacingly, “You talkin’ to me?”
“Uh, I’m sorry, sir.” Bill muttered, “Can we get two beers?” Without asking what kind, without uttering a word, the bartender reached into the beer case, grabbed two cans of Falls City, and plopped them before us. Bill and I each put a dollar on the bar. The bartender looked at me, pointed to Bill, and sneered, “He’s payin’.” He went to the register, came back, slammed a dime down in front of Bill, and walked away.
Wide-eyed, Bill took the dime between thumb and forefinger, and whispered, “Holy shit! Forty-five cents a beer!” He dropped the dime back onto the bar, turned to me, eyes gleaming in excitement, and whispered, “Stephens, this is the pinnacle of irony! We’ve found heaven right here inside Air Devil’s Inn!”
We had several more. I don’t remember exactly what we paid for them. But I do recall that we left a one-hundred percent tip and still felt as if we’d made a steal.
And, yes, we came back and back and back and back and…. Soon, the laser-beam stares diminished, and we came to be greeted with smiles and head nods. We learned the names and stories of some of those bar-stool regulars who had been so daunting on that first night. We learned their joys and pains. We came to see them as fellow travelers. And the bartender? Well, he was Bobby Drene, a horse’s ass with a heart as big as a washtub. Bobby would occasionally slip me free drinks as a gesture of thanks for my listening to his frustrations, which needed expression after his having listened to so many others’ tales of woe.
Sometime, toward the end of my senior year, as I was perched at the bar after nearly all the customers had gone home, Bobby asked me, “Hey, preacher. If Jesus was to come to Louisville, where’d ya think he’d go first—up on the hill to your seminary or down here to Air Devil’s?”
I didn’t hesitate. I slapped the empty barstool next to me and said, “Right here!”
“That’s what I think, too.” Bobby said with a rare smile.
“But Bobby,” I said, “You oughta be nicer to him than you were to me and Bill.”
“Oh, I will. ‘cause he won’t look like a wall-eyed turd the way you and Billy did!” He cackled and I joined him.
Now, nearly forty years later, I’ve amended my opinion. Today I believe that Jesus was already there in that dark, smoky, pinball-pinging bar. Now I see quite clearly that I was always closer to Him when I was on an Air Devil’s barstool than I was seated in a seminary classroom. One place was unavoidably real; the other was not. One place was sacred, the other—not so much.
Indeed, the pinnacle of irony.