By H.J. Herrick
Salem, Oregon is an awful place. Anyone who tells you otherwise has either never lived here or has ten children they are trying to shelter from the real world. For Christ’s sake, Salem is one of two towns in the entire country which actually has a city ordinance on the books making it illegal for a theater to sell tickets to an R-rated film to someone under the age of 18. I mean it, world leaders: you should nuke this shithole.
But, for those of us who are left to rot here, we must develop our coping mechanisms. Mine is a heavy drinking problem. It’s taken some time to find adequate watering holes in which to drown my sorrows. Most bars around here have serious problems: they are either devoid of class and ambience, or they close at midnight on a Friday, or they have piss poor beer and spirits selection, or they are frequented by assholes who never escaped the orbit of their fraternity. But, there is a small handful which I have found worthy of getting me drunk.
Lately my comrade in arms Upton Charles and I have spent a good deal of time at four of them: Brown’s Towne, Venti’s, Gilgamesh, and Half-Time.
Brown’s Towne is a good place to be to begin the night. They slow down and close too early, but that’s why you start the night and don’t end it there. They have a great selection of Ninkasi brews on tap, and stock a good selection of spirits. Their burgers aren’t half bad either if you need some ballast before you start your binge. Lately they have been hosting a lot of good live entertainment Friday and Saturday nights as well. Most recently, I enjoyed a show by a band called Faerabella.
Faerabella describes themselves as a gypsy steampunk jazz band. I’m not sure what makes them steampunk, other than that their two male members (the stand-up bassist and the horn player) wear wide brimmed hats with aviator’s goggles on the side-band of the hat. Nevertheless, their music was fantastic. Their lead singer, a lovely woman with golden tones and range like a sniper rifle, knocked it out of the park. My scrotum bunched up with fear and exhilaration while she was singing a ballad about stabbing her husband to death. Dark and brutal stuff. Well worth a listen. I’m told you can find them on the iTunes Store.
They are also great sports. The entire time I was there, our mutual friend Geoffrey Queen – the man who invited me to the show, in fact – was screaming at the top of his lungs, “I slept with everyone in the band, and they all have huge dicks!” Yes, Geoffrey Queen (pronounced “joff-rey”) is in fact a queen. And proud to flaunt it, bless the man. A heavy drinker after my own heart and a true friend. I had recently started dating his good friend Bev and was a bit enamored with her, which brought him no end of delight. This was a feeling he expressed repeatedly while I was there that night, as he couldn’t remember anything that happened more than five minutes previous at any point. Five times, he touched my nipple and said, “Seriously, I just love you. But don’t worry; I’m not trying to fuck you.”
Eventually he passed out at the table and a huge bull dyke in his circle of friends had to drive him home. I was left waiting at a table where I knew nobody drinking Ninkasi IPA for an hour waiting for Bev to return from an evening in Portland. Eventually a strange person with massive mutton chops and a Windsor cap engaged me in conversation. He was wearing a vest and dress shirt – really going for the anachronistic British look. Right down to his teeth, which seemed to be rotting out of his skull. Nevertheless, he was perfectly pleasant. He related to me how he worked for a private custodial and maintenance firm here in town which now does all the work on state buildings which the state will no longer pay its own workers to do. He went on to tell me how most state buildings in Salem are in horrible repair and on the verge of collapse. One, he said, had so many cracks in its foundation that it looked like cobwebs.
Just when I was started to get bored of the man, my lady friend showed up and rescued me. It was ten o’clock. Time to move onto Venti’s, the traditional second stop of the night…
Venti’s downtown location is delightful. Upstairs is a café which by day serves the most delicious food around. I heartily recommend their chicken teriyaki with vegetables and noodles. Downstairs is where the real party is at though, in their dimly lit basement bar. The space is small and always packed every Friday and Saturday night, but the atmosphere and music selection leaves nothing else to be desired. They have a list of taps offering microbrews from all over the Northwest and beyond, and – to my great delight – they refuse to serve any domestic beers. The selection is superb, and their spirits top notch. They even offer some of those that are harder to find at other bars, like those from the Rogue Distillery in Newport, Oregon. Try their Spruce Gin or you, dear Constant Reader, are patently un-American.
An alternate second or third stop of the night in Salem’s downtown district is Gilgamesh. This tap house offers a beautiful selection of beers and wine, and hosts live performances on a regular basis. I was there one evening recently with Upton Charles, Bev, Geoffrey Queen and some mutual friends. I was minding my own business and enjoying a Hopscotch, which is so fucking delicious it makes me proud to be part Scottish. Geoffrey was busy showing his driver’s license to another group of strange twenty-something women (no doubt trying to recruit more “bitches” or “wives” to his ever-growing harem), attempting to convince them that his last name really was Queen. Upton was getting solidly drunk off of his sixth Vader, which is a rich dark beer with an espresso flavor – I also heartily recommend this one.
While we were patronizing Gilgamesh that night, there was a one-man show going on: described as a ukulele thrash performance. I meant to pay more attention to the man as he head banged and violently strummed his little instrument on stage, as I had been planning to write it up as part of this series of venue and entertainment reviews. But by the time he was getting warmed up I was already drunk. I don’t even remember his name. It all just descended into background noise, harmlessly ricocheting off of my eardrums. But I’m sure it was quite good. Anyone who tries to reinvent the sound of an instrument like the ukulele in shocking ways is okay in my book, damn it.
A short time after Geoffrey returned from his escapades at the other table and informed me I was to be one of his wives as well, one of Upton’s friends showed up from out of town, trying to catch up with his old pal. This poor unsuspecting straight-laced bastard is named Kurt. He’s always been awkward but eager to impress: a man with simple tastes and interests, always trying to show greater depth than he may actually possess, bless his little heart. Although, he’s a perfectly kind and agreeable person to be around. Trying once again to entertain us, he started falsely flirting with Geoffrey, who he’d never met before. Everyone was laughing, and then suddenly he was unzipping his pants as if to taunt Geoffrey. Before I could warn him to be careful what he was doing, Geoffrey’s hand was down Kurt’s pants and grabbing his bare cock. Kurt leapt to his feet, his face red as a spanked ass-cheek, and fled the area wailing in horror. The whole scene suddenly became very ugly or hilarious, depending on how drunk or uptight you were. Geoffrey and Bev and Upton and I enjoyed a good guffaw, but some other members of the party made excuses and departed not long after. Kurt may never recover from having another man’s hand on his business.
When something like that happens, it’s time to move onto the closer: Half-Time bar and grill on high street, at the northern edge of downtown Salem. Full disclosure: Half-Time is a dive bar. Located in what was once a Rockin’ Roger’s burger joint, it’s small, looks seedy on the outside and only a little less so on the inside. Its main redeeming value is that it’s pretty much the only bar open after 12:30 in downtown Salem, unless Brown’s Towne is unusually busy and decides to keep their doors open later. Half-Time has other great qualities though. By that time of night, since you don’t care about what you’re drinking anymore, you can take advantage of their $1.75 Pabst-in-a-can special, which is on all day and night, every day and night. You can also take advantage of their awesome bar food. I’m always amazed by their bartenders, because the cheap dullard who owns the place – and often sits around drinking by himself or inviting himself to sit with paying customers – usually only staffs one person at a time to cook and bartend simultaneously. Nevertheless, these good folks fry up some of the best damn sweet potato tots and nachos around.
When they aren’t slaving away, the bartenders are all good company as well. My favorite is Larry, who has a shaved bald head and a gnarly bushy beard. When he’s not working or drinking at Half-Time, he’s drinking somewhere else. After he’s off his shift, he’s always hanging out with the patrons well into the night, often rap-battling them inside the phone booth in the parking lot, surrounded by an awed crowd of onlookers. The staff there also has a delightful game called “Hide the Gnome” which they play amongst themselves. They attempt to hide a small ceramic gnome from the next bartender on duty at the end of their shifts. The only rule is that it must be hidden somewhere behind the bar. When things slow down, they can often be seen tossing the shelves back there, cursing the wily ceramic beast.
Well, it’s last call and I’m sitting here in the corner of the Half-Time now, putting the finishing touches on this post. Larry is closing up shop. Upton and Bev are passed out on the table next to me. Geoffrey has long since departed chasing some man meat. After I finish up these last few sentences and polish off my sixteenth drink, I’ll haul these sorry wrecks home in a taxi and stagger to bed. On the way home, I might try to drunk dial Comrade Richard “Bingo” Little and threaten him with violence if he doesn’t post an argument to Disputationes that I can refute soon. But apart from that, it’s more and more nights and weird mornings to come in this land of Salem. If you know any good nooks, corners, holes or hideaways in which to pass the time around this berg, leave a comment and share. We Salemites have to stick together; it’s us against sobriety.