The end for the Esquire Tavern came suddenly like the death of an old relative that you never even knew was sick. We always remember where we were when we receive news of a catastrophe. I got the news late in the afternoon on a very hot day, at a mild, little watering hole called the Bar Lay Low.
“Did you hear the news?” the bartender asked me, as I was tipping into my third bottle of beer. “They’re going to close The Esquire. Tonight’s the last night”
“The hell you say,” I said, annoyed that anyone would even joke about such a thing. Sadly, though, it was not a joke. He produced an article in the San Antonio Express News confirming that last call had indeed come for one of my closest, oldest, and dearest friends.
Without delay I gathered up some people and made the trip downtown to see the old place for the last time.
I don’t remember the first time I ever went to the Esquire, but it it was probably in 1976. . Every time my grandfather took me with him on his downtown errands, and it was just the two of us, we would almost always end at the Esquire.
For years, it was the only place I could get an underage beer. They served me because they knew my grandfather. Even after he passed away, in 1989, I could drink there without hassle, as long as I sat in the booth in the back, so that I could slip out the back door to the Riverwalk, in case the authorities walked in the front.
It was strange walking through those doors, on 155 E Commerce St, knowing it was going to be for the last time. Those doors have offered welcoming shelter to generations of San Antonians, and visitors from afar, since 1933. To the left is the longest long bar in the State of Texas, stretching almost the entire length of the room.
On the right, the row of high backed wooden booths that had offered me anonymity and safety, were all filled up. We had to wedge ourselves into the crowded bar, amid the regulars, and fans, and the gawkers that had come to watch the old place go down in style.
After talking to a few people I found out that the two fat-cat grossero owners, who had bought the bar out from under the original owner 15 years ago, had, at last, tired of the place and had decided to rape the place for her charms, and dress her up into another trendy tourist trap. Blame it on the Riverwalk Expansion Project, or on progress, or on greed.
Whatever the reasons, however, it was evident that The Esquire was making her last stand.
"They're keeping the light fixtures and the bar, I think," said one patron. "But I think they're going to rip out the wall-paper and paint over the murals on the wall."
The ceiling, I found out, is also going to be kept. It's a wonderful goddamn coffered thing, a real work of art, the kind of thing that makes it look like a real saloon. Photographs don't really do the wall-paper justice, but that too is part of the whole Old West Saloon feel. It's textured, and old, and feels like touching the past.
"I offered to buy one of those lamps on the wall," he went on. "But the they won't sell me one." He took a deep swallow off his longneck beer. "I'm going to steal one when no one's looking," he chuckled.
The jukebox was playing something up-beat, and there was a band setting up in the back, so we stood at the bar drinking beers , with an occasional shot of tequila or bourbon, to mark the passing of a landmark, trying hard to forget how fast the clock was moving.
We are always aware of the mortality of our favorite places, the intense fragility of a time and a place, but one expects a certain level of venerability of such a thing as an old bar. When one of them is taken from you it strikes you hard, and leaves you feeling stunned and hollow, like a batter giving it your all and still coming up one run short.
News of such a tragedy hits different people in different ways. Some of them weep openly, others enter into a state of denial, and still others stoically belly up to the bar and take part in the age old ritual known as The Wake, wherein fond memories and bitter-sweet recollections are passed around like a bottle. Pain shared is pain lessened, as the old bar room adage goes.
A booth opened up and my party went to sit there, but I stayed at the bar, talking to Joe Anthony, who was so proud of having just been interviewed for the Express News. He told me how he remembered coming to the bar with his mother, when he was a child, and raising cain until she took him to the Woolworths down the block to buy him a toy. "I'll still keep coming here when they reopen it. It's the only bar I haven't been thrown out of," he chucked. "And I've been thrown out of lots of bars."
But I won't be back. A few years ago I had a friend come all the way from Tasmania to visit. For most of her trip, she found some way to unfavorably compare things to her country. Now, it’s always been my habit to take tourists and friends from My Famous Alamo Tour to the San Fernando Cathedral, by way of The Esquire. It’s right along the way, from either the Riverwalk or the street level.
With her, I cut the Alamo tour short, and herded her into one of those tall wooden booths, where for the next two hours, she sat in wonder, drinking cold beers, and rolling her own cigarettes, finally giving me the satisfaction of hearing her say “We have *nothing* like this back home.” How can I top that in a "Family Friendly Atmosphere"?. No. I won't be back.
A little later, I was at the bar trying to get a bartenders eye, when I met a lovely couple from Houston. They were intensly absorbed by the extra innings of the Houston v. Pittsburgh game (Go Astros!), and I struck up a conversation. It turns out that they just needed to get away, came down to San Antonio, and had found the bar by accident. He lamented The Esquires fate, correctly blaming it on “the yuppies”. It turns out that the same thing is going on in Houston, the "trendification" of historic sections of town, sacrificing historical value for the mighty tourist dollar. I was glad that, even on her last night as a real Bar, The Esquire could still pull them in from near and far.
I stood there, at the bar, glad to be there at that time, and at that moment, letting my hands drink in the rough, worn, wood on the lip of the bar, as if I could, somehow, infuse myself with a small part of the place, take it with me when I left, and carry it forever.
When I was a kid I remember watching men in Western movies step up to the bar and order a shot of whiskey, toss it back, flip some money on the counter, and walk out. Even when I was in Cairo, where I'd honed my drinking skills to a near expert level, I had never had occasion to do that. So, one afternoon, after a particularly sour date, not long after my return to San Antonio from Berkeley, I walked in to The Esquire, feeling low, and ordered a double shot of Wild Turkey. I swigged it down and paid before the bartender could even blink, and I walked out of there without a care in the world, feeling just like Jesse James. It's not something that I do often, nor is it something that I recommend for the faint of liver or will, but I do think everyone should do it, at least once.
Later, I sat alone in a booth, listening to the loud rockabilly stylings of Mitch Webb and the Swindlers, and I thought about some of the musicians I'd met here, over the years.
The Esquire was never known for being a music venue. Live music is not a staple in such a narrow and enclosed space, but I could list some names that have shaken the pillars of heaven and hell with their music. Legends whose music still moves with me and will always be part of the sountrack to my life. To not only have heard their music, and met them, but to have shared a beer with them, talked to them. That's a rare thing that will not come that easily again.
Some of them are dead already, and some of them are on their merry way, but for me, they will never sound as good as they did when heard from one of those little booths in that long, old, narrow room, with a cold beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Maybe that's they way it'll be when I get to where they're at, and maybe they'll sound just as good as they did back then, but I have a feeling that, wherever it is, it will look and feel a lot like The Esquire.
As one patron said that night : "Damnit, if they take away The Esquire, where the hell is Jesus going to go and get a drink when he comes back?"
I had been there a couple of hours, that final night, roping up memories like strays, and drinking beer like it would actually do some good, when I noticed that several people wandering around the bar had adhered bits of masking tape to themselves, and on them they had written little messages in support of preserving the old place. It was pleasant to see them doing this, and they all seemed to be really into the idea of saving The Esquire, but, I felt, it was too little too late. Where were they when the plans were announced?
To be fair, however, if the gant-hawk owners had bothered to let the people know of their intentions ahead of time I am sure that these people could have mounted one of those industriously futile, grass-roots, kind of movements to try and Save the Esquire, the way they do in cities that actually give a rats fat ass about their heritage and history. Maybe it would have gained some support from the city drunks, maybe even from the old timers from the court house across the street, who used to wander in for a lunchtime triple shot and an ice cold bottle of beer. Maybe it might have actually done some good. Unfortunatly, however, all we had left to offer were little ticky-tacky scraps of tape with which to offer feeble support for a cause that was lame from the moment it left the gate. I noticed that hardly any of the regulars were wandering around the place with pieces of tape stuck to them. Certainly none of the Staff.
In fact, I noticed that the staff seemed quite surley and bothered by the fuss. Maybe it was the crowd, the rush for .75 cent beer, that made them cranky, or maybe it was that they felt the loss in a very personal and deep way that they chose not to share with the public on the opposite end of the bar, but I did notice that the moment was not wasted on all of them, that at least this one took the time to take a picture of the crowd.
After seeing the little strips of tape everywhere I had to go in search of the people that were scribbling these tags, and fighting the good fight. I couldn't confirm that they came up with the idea, but I was led to this couple with the tape and the marker. It seems that they had moved back to their native San Antonio from San Franciso, and had found out the terrible news much the same way as I had, and had to hurry down to the bar, to give it their fond farewell.
I reminisced some with them about the bar, and some good times in the Bay Area, but, after a round of drinks, I realized that, sweet as they seemed, they were not at all the type of people that would have ventured out of the City unless they had to, not into the DMZ of the part of Oakland I loved, and certainly not into Connolly's bar, at 4822 Telegraph Ave. It just wasn't their kind of place, and neither, for that matter, was The Esquire.
I remember when The Esquire carried a certain kind of seedy respect, when it was the kind of place that you didn't take a respectable date, and you took your life into your own hands by just walking into the place. The Esquire has always had a shady, sort of rough reputation. In its 73 years of business, more than one patron came to a messy end mid-swig and unaware. This prompted the management to hire security to frisk patrons at the door.
One chilly night in December of 1999, I went in there dressed wearing my winter long coat, tall combat boots, mirror shades, and black leather gloves and young, plump security guard was suddenly busy elsewhere. Since I wasn’t frisked an entire section of the bar moved closer to the back door, and every conversation stopped when I settled in. For the duration of three beers and four shots, I generated enough nervous energy in those people to launch the space shuttle. Being a total nerd, however, I was oblivious to this until my uncle told me about it later. They thought I was going in there to take some one out; they thought it was a hit.
Just as near back as then, there were not yuppies in the bar, and people didn't think it was trendy to go there; they hadn't yet built up the balls to "slum" it in that side of town.
I think of all the places here in San Antonio that have been taken over by the young, and the fashionable, and the altogether clueless, like the Bar America, and the Mission Drive In, and the entire south side of downtown, and I suddenly don't feel so bad about how The Esquire went out.
She didn't get taken over by the tourists, or the cash-rich, or the fraudulently cool, like so many other places in this town. Whatever they open up in her place might have the same name, but the intention was made clear already to make it a "family" "BBQ" establishment. In other words, The Esquire of my youth is dead, and nothing can change that, but at least she didn't fizzle, and reek, and fester in the throes of transition, at least she didn't get her spirit squashed out by the invasion of the trendies.
My grandfather was the same way, a relic from a different age. The weekend he died, he went partying on friday night, saturday night out with his girlfriend, and then to church on sunday morning. . That night he took me in his arms and gave me a monsterous bear hug that made my spine crack, and it was strong, and memorable, and forever. Monday by noon-time, he was dead. Just like that. No illness, no worry, no fear. That's the way I'd like to go.
I'm glad that he went out that way, and in the same way, I am glad that The Esquire did, too. We should all be so lucky.
Every (hour) wounds, the last kills
- Inscription on Roman Sundial