A bar's long history seeps into the present.
Way’s Lounge was a peaceful place at six o’clock in the evening. It was still light out, and raining softly. A half dozen men, retired or nearly so, had gathered around the one sociable curve of what was otherwise a long, straight bar. The NCAA tournament was on the TV, and they were discussing Temple’s old teams under John Chaney when a younger couple entered in a cloud of boozy chatter.
The lady wanted an Absolut and cranberry, light on the cranberry. She told the bartender that her name was Christmas.
“Where’s New Year’s?” he asked.
The more boisterous the couple became, the quieter the bartender got. He looked weary as he nodded at their talk, and eventually he sat down and turned his back on them entirely.
Wayman Seals III, "Butch" to old friends, could do as he pleased. He’d owned the bar since 1986, when he bought what had been Homie’s Spot from Charles “Homie” Jackson.
The lounge is housed in a magnificent wreck of an apartment block that curves from Hamilton Street to Lancaster Avenue and all the way around to 39th Street. Grand enough to be given its own name–Hawthorne Hall–it is decorated with a terra cotta relief of a maiden carrying a torch, flanked by birds, emerging topless from a scalloped shell.
Neither the building nor the bar had changed much since 1991, when I was 18 and lived around the corner. We bought takeout forties of Olde English 800 there, and sometimes we’d stick around to listen to the jazz combo and live out our Kerouacian fantasies. We assumed Way’s had been there forever;it never occurred to us that you could buy an old bar and slap a new name on it.
In fact, people had been doing that for a long time. Before it was Homie’s Spot it was called Lloyd’s Lounge, and before that, back in the 1950s, it was the Pink Slipper. Butch thought it had been a bar even longer than that, but if any period detail remained, it had been hidden behind fake wood paneling and a low drop ceiling. He relied on twinkly white lights and red tinsel to provide the bar’s atmosphere. Butch had grown up in the business–his parents had owned the Panther bar a few blocks away over on 35th and Mt. Vernon. He’d bought Way’s with his wife, Lucille. Forty-five years together and he still talked to her on the phone when business was slow.
That would make Butch 65 years old, and he walked like it. But he retained a boyish smile, and could pass for 50 from the neck up. Butch said he couldn’t credit clean living. He’d smoked and drank until a little more than a year ago.
“I had my fun and quit while I was ahead,” he said.
Christmas was 33 and still having a good time. Her name and her tight blue jeans promised as much, even if the bangs that fell over one eye gave her a shy look. So why Christmas?
“Because when you’re with her it’s your favorite day of the year,” said her friend Michael.
Michael might have been joking, but Christmas didn’t shy away from sexual bravado. She turned around and lifted up her shirt to show off the tattoo on the small of her back. Above her hot pink g-string was the word “HEAVENLY,” with angel’s wings on either side.
She said “VICIOUS” was tattooed above her pudenda. Hopefully it meant the opposite, like “gnarly”or “wicked,” but in any case she was sexy as hell.
I told her I didn’t have any tattoos.
“Well then you need some Christmas on you, baby,” she said, touching my hand.
We went outside to smoke and she showed me her other tattoos. They made up a personal history of love and loss.
Her granddaughter had died when she was three months old. Christmas had the baby’s name spelled out in child’s blocks on her right forearm. On her upper left arm was the imprint of the baby’s feet, taken at the hospital soon after she was born. The pads of her feet made marks that looked like islands; above them, the toes had formed a tiny archipelago.
A tribal pattern with two hearts on her right arm covered the name of a boyfriend she wanted to forget. But she’d left the name of her son’s father alone, even though they weren’t together anymore.
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