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Eye Openers / JD Clapp



Homer’s, a long-gone drinking hole that once graced the corner of one of San Diego’s working-class neighborhoods, had a big sign reading: “Open at 6:00 a.m.” Like a siren’s sweet serenade, that sign beckoned, urging passersby to stop in for an eye-opener. In 1980 when I was in high school, I drove by Homer’s five times a week as our carpool headed to deposit my sisters at the all-girls Catholic School they attended. We were chronically late. Once the girls were sprinting to class, my carpool mates, the Hyatt boys and I leisurely headed to the Catholic all-boys school a few miles away. As we rolled in style in my three-on-the-floor Dodge Dart, Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting from shitty after-market speakers, our conversation often turned to Homer’s, and how we were cursed being too young to start the school day off right with a 6:00 a.m. beer. To our underdeveloped, juvenile, testosterone-fueled male brains, fondling a beer at 6:00 a.m. seemed as natural and desirable as fondling boobs. Hell, it was almost a sin not to have a morning beer. So, we made a solemn pact to throw back a couple at this imagined mecca of morning merriment…we just needed serviceable fake IDs or to turn 21.

 

As it played out, unfortunately, we never darkened Homer’s doors. Like most underage drinkers living in San Diego back then, we drank across the border in Tijuana. By the time we were 21, the idea of hitting Homer’s couldn’t compete with the local beach bar scene. By the time I was rediscovering the inherent charm of neighborhood dive bars, Homer’s had packed up the cats and cheap booze, and shuttered its doors.


My desire to drink before some arbitrary civilized hour matured overtime. In college, noon seemed a reasonable time to crack a cold one. Admittedly, I did occasionally employ that imbiber’s caveat back then: it’s noon someplace. But, by the time I entered the grown-up work world decades ago, I set 5:00 p.m. as a respectable start to happy hour. And my desire to get blotto at 6:00 a.m. died well before I could legally partake. But I still wondered, who went out drinking at 6:00 a.m.? And, what was it like to sling drinks at such a place?


To answer those questions, I visited a neighborhood joint in one of San Diego’s older, working-class neighborhoods. The bar—I’ll call it Phil’s Joint—is a squat little brick building located on a busy main drag; it looks like it belongs in the area but is getting squeezed by gentrification from one direction and urban decay from the other. It’s an area with a mix of businesses, small houses built in the 1940s, and apartments built when bell bottoms were the shit.


I walked into Phil’s around 6:30 a.m. on a Friday. I went unnoticed long enough to see it was the most basic of bar layouts—a long backlit bar with stools sat on one wall, one pool table graced the middle, a few TVs, some cheeky signs, posters for beer promotions, and few random tables with chairs. The booze and beer selection were solid, not pretentious—there were no $2000 “trophy bottles” spot lit on the top-shelf. Most drinks came from the well.




           

On the morning I visited, six guys sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the far end of the small bar. Like me, I’d guess they were all north of 55 years old. They all gave me the once over when I walked in. I later learned the group were regulars, all former Marines, who had self-assigned stools and coffee cups.


When I plopped down, bellied up, and ordered my Irish coffee, I had six geriatric heads spin to shoot stink eye at me. Jay, the owner and barkeep, made my drink quickly and set it before me in a normal glass, no decorative chocolate sprinkles, no handmade whip cream, no sprig of organic mint. Me being a Phil’s morning newbie, Jay was curious how I landed on his barstool before breakfast. “So, did you just drive by and see we were open?” Jay asked.

           

I explained what I was doing, and Jay and I chatted about my story. We talked about the bar scene in San Diego now and how it was back in the day, when we had hair and our tattoos hadn’t faded.

           

“These guys are all regulars…” I said, realizing it was more of a statement than question.

       

“Yeah, they all live in the neighborhood. They all walk over. Some mornings they are outside waiting before I get here,” Jay told me, shaking his head.

         

“Do you have any nighttime regulars?”

       

“A few, but we do 70% of our business in the day. We have lots of retired guys come in early and hang out a few hours, then walk home,” Jay explained.

          

I tried chatting with the guys at the bar a bit about what I was doing. They thawed just enough to answer questions but were quick to get back to their conversation about how Clint Eastwood’s character in Heartbreak Ridge would be an ideal president.

           

When I first explained I was a writer, one old boy sternly snapped, “Don’t go writing a story that will draw a bunch of assholes in here and ruin my mornings! I told him I thought they were safe. His mate a stool down corrected him, “unless they are nurses or strippers ready to party after a long night at work. You can tell them to come.”

           

There was some mumbling about nurses and strippers I didn’t quite catch, but the bobbing gray heads all seemed good with the idea of adding strippers and nurses to their eye-opener club. I did learn later those two professions, along with bartenders working the closing shift make up the non-regular patrons at most morning bars. Makes total sense and kind of blows the notion that all morning drinkers are alcoholic miscreants. Sure, there were a couple of dudes who looked like they stepped from the pages of Factotum, but really, would you expect anything different?

           

I spoke with a regular, Ron, who wanted to be clear about the “regulars vs. outsiders” issue.

           

“I’ve been coming here most mornings for the past five years and it our own thing. We self-police the bar and are protective of what we have here. It’s a great place to drink. You don’t fuck with Marines,” Ron offered before he went into a coughing fit.

             

Thinking about it a bit, I realized it was the type of bar Ray Oldenburg, the now deceased famous sociologist called a “third place,” a space to go besides home or work where you feel like you belong.

           

I asked one of the old boys, why drink at 6:00 a.m.?

“Because I’m fucking awake then,” he said, draining his Screwdriver.


Hard to argue with that.


Before I headed back to face my day (now with a slight buzz), I decided to buy them a round, since I disrupted their normal morning routine. Jay whipped up a pitcher of some concoction comprised of vodka, cranberry juice, 7 Up, and OJ. He calls the drink The Jay-Z. He poured out double shooters for everyone and we toasted Jay. I instantly knew this was a drinker’s drink. No burn, easy down the hatch, and fucking dangerous. The round cost me $18. I chuckled to myself thinking about the scores of single drinks I’ve bought over the years that cost that much or even more.  As I got up to leave, Jay invited me back anytime. Before I could say anything, one of the old Marines said, “but don’t bring assholes with you.”



Cheers to that.


/


JD CLAPP writes in San Diego, CA. His work has appeared in The Milk House, Rural Fiction Magazine, Wrong Turn Literary, Revolution John, The Whisky Blot, among several others. He has forthcoming work in A Common Well Journal, Fleas on the Dog, and Literally Stories. His story, One Last Drop, was a finalist in the 2023 Hemingway Shorts Literary Journal, Short Story Competition.

 

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