BEER WITH A SOCIALIST: Throwback time, or “Finding Sanctuary on September 11.”


We flew to Baltimore earlier this week. It was September 11, 2018, a date determined by the major league baseball schedule, just another flight on Southwest into BWI on a Tuesday morning and back out again on Thursday.

Tuesday’s major news item was the apocalyptic approach of Hurricane Florence, with remembrances of 9-11-01 being reduced to those few airport televisions not already tuned to the Weather Channel.

At some point I began thinking about the terrorist attacks 17 years ago on September 11. They were strangely sepia-tinted, suggesting a whole different world. Perhaps this owes to the fact that for me, it really was.

My father had died earlier that summer of 2001, and my first marriage was rapidly disintegrating amid escalating preparations to build the original NABC brewery on Plaza Drive. It was a period of grief, stress, uncertainty and self-doubt.

I won’t deny my alcohol consumption was at an all-time peak even before the fateful day in September, which occurred less than two weeks before a “beer travel” group tour of Eastern Europe I’d been planning for many months. There was little choice except to postpone the trip, which eventually departed in May, 2002.

However, my first airplane voyage after the attacks occurred a couple of months prior to the international flight, circa March, ironically was from Louisville to Baltimore.

It was a very strange experience. People were still on edge. Seemingly overnight, air travel had changed in ways that now seem inevitable given what we know about Osama bin Laden’s efforts at inciting planetary war, but at the time were jarring and a tad Kafkaesque.

I’m digressing considerably, because the reason for this post is an e-mail I received while seated at the Max’s Taphouse bar in Fell’s Point this past Tuesday afternoon. It showed me this:

Something about it seemed very familiar, and for a moment I suspected a time warp, but no, Diana was right there beside me, and a repeat of the previous evening’s Washington Nationals game was showing on one of the televisions.

Clicking through, I saw Stan’s and Daria’s All About Beer story from January 1, 2002. First, a sobering thought.

Children Born After 9/11 Are Now Eligible to Serve in Our Endless War in Afghanistan, by Jacob Weindling (Paste Magazine; September 13, 2018)

We have become completely numb to our forever war in Afghanistan. It is the longest war in American history, and it barely makes the front pages anymore—despite the fact that the Taliban is getting stronger by the day …

… Tuesday marked the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. You can enlist in the army at age 17. Which means that babies born after the September 11th tragedy can now fight in the war launched in its name. If that doesn’t break your brain even a little bit, your brain is already broken.

As of July 27, 2018, 2,372 American military members have died in Afghanistan. Another 20,320 have been wounded. Civilian deaths are notoriously difficult to track, especially since our military is loath to admit their failures on this front, but a rough estimate pegs the total civilian deaths in Afghanistan at over 31,000. And for what? What is the mission in Afghanistan? Why are we still there?

In other words, I could have been drinking beers in Baltimore for the last 16 years, and the war Osama actually did incite in Afghanistan still would have served as backing track — after he was killed, a new building erected at the WTC site, and I was divorced, remarried and completely out of the NABC orbit.

Are we still taking our damn shoes off?

Anyway, the All About Beer article having returned to my consciousness after a long hiatus as I drank at Max’s, I could remember when Stan phoned to ask questions about the mood at Rich O’s on September 11, 2001. Clarity through the haze.

I hope the magazine doesn’t mind the full reprint below. Be advised that their website is an excellent source of information, especially the style essays, so please consider a visit to make their advertisers happy.

Finding Sanctuary on September 11, by Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky (All About Beer Magazine)

In the hours immediately after terrorists flew airplanes into the Pentagon and New York City’s twin towers on September 11, Rich O’s Public House publican Roger Baylor paced anxiously between his pub and Sportstime, the restaurant/bar next door that he also owns. Sportstime has television sets; his pub does not.

“I was freaking out, basically,” he said. He began to think of the many people with whom he wanted to talk, whom he should call. “Then I realized that I didn’t have to. I thought, ‘They’ll all be in here.’” Sure enough, as shifts ended, regulars began to drift in. “There’s a group of us; well, I’m always here; we all sort of appear at the same time,” Baylor said.

The regulars discovered that Baylor had put a television on the counter up front–the first time a TV had been in the bar in three years. Those who wanted the latest news could get it, then find seats out of television range. “People would retreat back into the bar to talk, to get away from these images for a while,” Baylor said. “The first few days there was only one thing that they talked about.”

Television news stories in the following days sometimes showed bulging barrooms across the United States, and other times, empty ones in tourist destinations. TV news reported patrons flocked to bars because they did not want to be alone while they watched the horrible images on the television screen, but did not differentiate between people watching alone in a crowd and those who sought familiar faces.

“People wanted to go to a place where they felt like they were with family,” said Daryl Woodson, who has been running the appropriately named The Sanctuary in Iowa City, IA, for 27 years. “They didn’t say that, but people who come in normally at 10 were in at 8.”

The Sanctuary has two fireplaces (one working) but usually not a television. Woodson brought one in on September 11, and took it out the next day. “People wanted to watch what was happening while the story was still unfolding,” he said. “One of our regulars asked where I got a TV with such lousy reception. I told him it’s called a cheap antenna.”

Throwbacks to Another Era

Rich O’s and The Sanctuary offer a broader selection of beer than do most bars–the best-selling beer at Rich O’s is Three Floyd’s Alpha King, and if an interesting specialty beer is available in Iowa, The Sanctuary is probably the first place in the state to offer it. These bars may be more noteworthy, however, because they are throwbacks.

The population of the United States has more than doubled since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the number of licensed drinking establishments has shrunk by as much as two-thirds. In Chicago, for instance, there were more than 10,000 tavern licenses at the end of World War II, and now there are fewer than 2,500.

In The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg notes that what he calls “third-place” taverns have been particularly hard hit. Oldenburg writes that not only have such taverns disappeared or changed–so have post offices, drug stores, grain elevators and similar “third places” (after home, first, and workplace, second) that provide informal gathering spots essential to the survival of any community.

The role of the tavern in American community life goes back almost to the time this country was settled. Parts of the American revolution were plotted in taverns. A century later, unions were born in taverns. Celebrations for soldiers heading to (and returning from) two world wars were held in taverns.

There are occasional reminders. Visit Cadieux Café, which has served Detroit’s Belgian enclave since Prohibition, and you’ll find a large display on the wall listing “Our boys at camp and overseas,” with the names of neighborhood boys who became soldiers.

Most such places are gone–torn down in old city neighborhoods, never built in carefully planned suburbs. Many watching the September 11 scenes from the rest of the country probably were surprised to find bars full of customers in much of New York City outside of lower Manhattan, but it is still a prototypical city, still has neighborhoods and still has bars that cater to those neighborhoods.

Neighborhood Bars

There are enough around that drinkers may choose a nearby place because the owner is Irish, because the happy hour prices are great, or even because the beer is more interesting than what’s next door. Across the country, beer with flavor has been an essential component in helping some bars build community, instantly giving would-be regulars something in common.

Beer is why many of the regulars started going to O’Brien’s Microbrew Pub in San Diego, but not why they were there the week of September 11. “Lunch times were ridiculous the first couple of days, nuts, just nuts,” said owner Jim O’Brien. Customers who usually visit only after work for the wide beer selection were also there for lunch, drawn by the food and televisions but also because they knew they’d find a friend on a nearby bar stool.

“We pretty much see the same faces on a day-to-day basis,” O’Brien said. “There was only one subject (of conversation). This place is never quiet and these guys aren’t afraid to be totally honest about what they feel.”

Things were quiet at the Country Inn in Krumville, NY, near the Ashokan Reservoir, which serves New York City and which was closed for safety reasons. “The original reaction was numbness; it’s still numbness,” said Larry Erenburg, the owner and guy behind the bar for more than 25 years.

The Country Inn doesn’t have a television, so customers sat quietly around a radio on September 11 before conversation returned to a normal level later in the week. Beer sales were up for the week, although the place was almost empty on Thursday when President Bush addressed the nation on TV.

“This place is a sounding board for people,” Erenburg said. But there are house rules against certain topics: politics, softball and chain saws. “There were flags waving, quite a show of patriotism in its own way, but it was just conversation rather than politics,” he said.

Politics is a more constant subject of conversation at Rich O’s, where The Economist and International Herald Tribune are always available for reading. “There’s a certain amount of discussion about the state of the world,” Baylor said, but also plenty about beer. “We always talk about beer,” he said, finishing with a laugh.

The discussion might center on what international company just acquired another smaller brewery or what to do with the firkin of Bell’s (Kalamazoo, MI) Two-Hearted Ale that accidentally got delivered to the bar. (The decision was to drink it.)

Woodson figures that about one-third of The Sanctuary’s customers come in for the live music (jazz, roots), one-third for the food (great pizza) and one-third for the beer and conversation. Few ask why there isn’t a television. “Having a TV is a good way to kill conversation,” he said.

His business was up in the weeks after the attacks. “I think people wanted to get away from it, seeing it all the time on TV,” he said. “Especially people who live alone.”

Affordable Luxury

Woodson, who in 27 years has seen more economic ups and downs than most of today’s brewpub and brewery owners, also doesn’t think that the economic downturn the attacks seem sure to worsen will seriously hurt a neighborhood tavern’s business.

“You are still going to go out for an reasonably priced meal, a decent evening, a few beers,” he said. “It is a luxury you can afford.”

Pam Brittingham, a bartender at The Globe in Athens, GA, saw a similar attitude in the weeks after September 11. The Globe opens at 4:00 p.m., so she and other employees listened to National Public Radio (the Globe has no television, and didn’t even offer one during the 1996 Olympics, some of which took place in town).

They kept the radio on in the first hours after the pub opened, but then changed to music at a low volume. “We wanted to give them some relief from what they had been listening to all day,” she said three weeks after the attacks. “By the weekend, people were needing to get out and do something normal, they didn’t even want to talk about it. It’s still probably what people talk about the most, but every three or four days somebody will say, ‘I can’t talk about this any more.’”

As important as neighborhood taverns were to so many people September 11, like too many other third places, they will probably continue to disappear at an alarming rate. But they really were “great good places” to be, and also to work, that day.

“There were definitely people coming in looking for each other,” Brittingham said. “It’s still going on. Everybody is extremely friendly and appreciative of each other.” And perhaps of having a good public place to gather.