Home is what the heart defends blindly

BY C.T. GILBERT | MARCH 13, 2009 7:30 AM

What do you call home? Is it your place of birth, the family house? Or maybe less literal, the “home is where the heart is” kind of deal: the ragged and rotting bedroom in a five-person one-bathroom leased house made precious because you live there with the shining, eternal love of your life. I like to think that home is a place I can claim as mine, literal or not. And when I look around at all the set-pieces of my life, I can’t help but feel as though the strongest feelings of belonging and ownership — they’re the same coin, where home is concerned — settle around bars. Friends to meet, business to conduct, a reliable jukebox, and a shelter from your basic daily storms. My favorite bar has given me some of my closest friends, an escape from my ragged-rotting bedroom, stories galore, even my job was offered and accepted there. So it is with something more than idealistic but divested interest in public rights that I bang my fists about every latest state restriction on owners and their taverns: This is an attack on the stronghold.

A proposed law change would restrict, or strip, state liquor licenses from establishments that knowingly fail to report criminal activities in such adjacent areas as parking lots, alleys and sidewalks. Examples from Des Moines and Ames show a high number of people killed next door to bars. The point seems to be that the lines of wicked behavior unfurl from the gin houses, and that as long as they’re going to inflict their poisonous, drunken magic on the world, they should at least be made to self-police. That irony is part of what puts me on the defensive: They’d no longer be policing themselves, but places and people around themselves. Suddenly, it’s the responsibility of the proprietor to control the antics of his neighborhood as though the bar were the central cause of it all.

Then again, because they might actually have quite a hand in the antics, they’re called public houses for a reason. They are the common grounds of the world, operating as living rooms, dining rooms, studies, the back porch, your friend’s divorced dad’s basement. Pubs may feel like my home, my familiar, friendly place where I know the bartenders, chat up the regulars, and have a usual, but it feels like transients come and crash on the floors, too. Bars are home to many, so perhaps it’s a good thing that all these legislative measures are pushing through, a standard set, a safety net hung, just your general minding of all the terrible things that could go wrong. Then why doesn’t it feel like my homes are being held to the noble duty of guiding their charge, and more like whole primers of red letters are being pinned above the doors?

I saw a sting once. I was propped on my stool on a slow, sunny afternoon, enjoying a beer before leaving to accomplish whatever it was I’d been putting off. I was talking with another regular during a commercial break of “Cash Cab,” and two people strolled in from the street. One was a woman who angled straight for the ATM in the corner; the other was a young man who blinked a few times in the dimmer light before approaching the bar. He asked, “Can I buy some Camel Lights?” He was asked for his ID. No go. He left, the woman right behind him. The bartender looked at me and smiled.
Now, police-orchestrated spot-checks aren’t that uncommon. And I bet most of the bars screened by these super-slick plainclothes pass. But there’s been a turn lately in what seems like the nature of that scrutiny, a sort of out-to-get-you zeal driving the push for restricted happy hours, smaller cocktails, downtown zoning — with every undercover agent turned away by a request for a driver’s license I picture Dr Claw shaking his fist and growling “I’ll get you next time, Inspector Gadget!”

I love my home, my bar. I know I should be able to step back, see the forest for a minute, see the social matters at work, understand the risks of lax policy with regards to how drunk the patrons are or where they go to stab one another, but every further tightening of the reins feels incredibly personal. Where does societal harmony override comfort-zone stubbornness?

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