When we were all cub scouts the greatest dare was not to spend a night alone in the woods. It was, rather, to say our dibs, get out of the dull meeting and head on up Huntsville’s Main Street to the Empire Hotel where we’d mill around the pickup trucks and rusted station wagons parked alongside the building. If you looked into a station wagon and could see shopping bags with celery leafs hanging limp over the sides, you knew it was a good night: people had been drinking since store closing. And then, if the darers wove their magic, one brave cub would swing the big doors open, dash down the stairs on milk knees and cast-iron feet, open the inner door and look in. If he was able to breathe he would smell ashes, urine, stale beer and fear. But even if he just looked he would see the Snake Pit, and if he returned he was worth knowing.
There is a first bar in everyone’s life. It’s as unforgettable as puberty — in both cases it’s a strange, uncomfortable world at first: terrifying, exciting, more than likely dirty. The kind of dirty you can’t bleach out. And like all first sins, you discover in later years how much you treasure it.
My first bar was the Snake Pit, the unofficial name for the Empire Hotel’s pub. It’s a good name — depending on how it’s mouthed it can sound obscene or exotic (obscene if your mother or cubmaster uses it, exotic if your older brother drops the name casually). The Pit has played host to me as a cub, as an underaged delinquent avoiding the stares of my parents’ friends, as a bigshot, as a hustler, in sorrow, in happiness and in absolute, decadent idleness.
When I graduated from university in the midst of the last great unemployment scare, it was the Pit that took me in and made me a tapman for $80 a week. And I took to it like a wise fish to beer, naturally. I learned to “run 20” by reaching for one glass with my left hand while filling another glass in my right, then spinning the empty glass under the tap just as the first glass filled — until I felt I could go on forever in this proud rhythm. I learned to scream “Is Gordon here?” when I answered the phone, even though Gordon was always sitting directly in front of me. It was invariably Gordon’s wife calling and Gordon tipped well if his friend could yell “No!” back and I’d hang up.
I grew to appreciate the joys of Snake Pit madness. One slow Saturday afternoon a stranger came in with two bags packed full of greenish, clear plastic sheets, walked up to the black-and-white television and slapped one of the sheets over the picture. Then he stood back: “There you see it, gentlemen — instant color. Surprise the little lady tonight. Give her blue skies and green grass for Bonanza. Give her fleshcolored faces. Turn that old black-and-white into a color TV for a mere five bucks. Whatdoya say?” The bags of clear plastic emptied quickly, the man walked out with a roll of fives and I ran 20 just to make sure I was awake.
But the characters from outside never rivaled the “regulars.” Any Saturday night you could catch the Seagull making his rounds, swooping from table to table, promising to
bugger off for a measly drink and forgetting later in the evening just who he’d given his word to. Upstairs once, in the classier section, a regular brought his horse in on a cold night, tethered it to an empty chair and had us set up a couple for it. But the best nights were always when Philip, 250 pounds and gentle, would drop around. Philip sounded exactly like Elvis Presley and was so shy he’d only join the New Muleskinners on stage after several drinks and on the condition that he could keep his eyes closed.
One very slow Saturday we were asked if we’d host a wedding reception. The couple, like so many of the rural people around Muskoka, Ontario, were dirt poor, and the bride was underaged, but we said why not and figured we’d have a few laughs. The groom was resplendent in a new Eaton’s suit with but one tag still attached and a partial part in his hair. She was in her grandmother’s satin wedding dress and she’d updated it by taking scissors and cutting across about three inches above the knees, no hemming, and it was fraying at a shocking rate. Over her left breast she wore a large, black handprint, hopefully her husband’s.
The money from the newlyweds and their families ran out within the hour, but by then the Pit had taken them to heart. As the place filled up so did the beer kitty on their table, and the night wore on through endless toasts and dancing. Around midnight the groom was located in a familiar spot, asleep on a john in the men’s washroom, but they got him away into the night. Not, however, before the tearful bride kissed her thanks to everyone in the place.
When another job opened and I took it, the Snake Pit people refused to let me off without a farewell party. On my final night, after last round had been called and served and after the last drunk had been spilled out onto the sidewalk, the boss ran 20 himself and brought them over to a table. We drank and reminisced, and later we all wandered off to the home of one of the waitresses, where we stayed up till dawn singing and drinking and saying good-byes. When someone noticed the sky pinking over the town we all went out into the backyard. And as the sun rose, big Philip set his bottle down in the dew and, loud as his Elvis Presley lungs would allow him to, sang The Lord’s Prayer. As I looked around I noticed several of the people were actually crying, and though I didn’t myself, I sometimes wish I had.
That’s all in the past, obviously, but the Pit keeps on going. I know, because I check it out whenever I can. They’ve changed the furniture and they’ve even hired a guy to walk around dumping ashtrays on the floor. But spiritually it’ll never change. It’s a touchstone, and every time I’m back in Huntsville I end up there with my old friends, wife, brothers, sister and cousins. We get the news out of the way fast as we can and then get on with the stories of the Snake Pit, never letting on we know them all by heart. It’s a tradition.
And I know I’m going to be sitting down there some night as a petrified cub scout sticks his head in through the doorway. And I’ll scowl, as the ritual requires.
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