A Hatchet, Girl Scouts and the Death of ElleCappeyTan

March 16, 2011

L Capitan, Walden’s Lounge, Holly, Mich.

Guest blogger and dive bar lover Amber Shinn takes us on a hatch ride through the seedy spots of Holly, Mich. Though El Capitan was a disappointment, when it comes to dive bars, the Midwest always delivers. When one dive bar closes, another opens.

Turning to the oracle Google with loose bar search terms, the divine inspiration that bubbled up in the http tea leaves was a definition of dive bars from Playboy:

“A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows — bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”

Sufficient a nudge to barhop in my old hometown, the “historic” Village of Holly.

Growing up, Holly was bipolar on booze: In the early 1900s, Holly was graced with a visit from Carry A. Nation, a pre-prohibitionist who traveled around the country with a hatchet to chop up bars and rescue folks from their sinful boozy ways. After the bang-up bar tour from Nation, Holly toasted the visit with a historic marker and an annual festival. Eventually, participants dressed up as barmaid harlots, activists and gangsters to reenact the smashing spectacle. The festival’s most popular attraction: A beer tent.

I’ve got a soft spot for dive bars. They’re a sanctuary where people go to shut the cabin door on the wolves in the heart’s wilderness. I imagine a safe watering hole in the savannah for animals with bumps and bruises, a quiet home where the buffa-low roam to sip silently and reflect, without being asked to smile so everyone else feels comfortable.

Be it oppressive boredom of factory work, the instability of a changing economy, loss, fear, shame, the need for connection, a quest to find the grace of human kindness amid strangers—to me, the inevitable tough cards everyone is dealt at some point in life feel easier to hold in a dive.

Oh Captain, My Captain

I braced myself for the roughest Holly bar I knew: L Capitan. ElleCappeyTan.

Known as the “El Cap,” stories of long coke rails snorted off the bartop and Harleys snarling in the back door and roaring out the front made it a perfect dive bar. Wearing boots I hoped made me look taller and tougher, I practiced my cold-fish pout-sneer in the rearview mirror. Parking by the railroad tracks on a Friday afternoon while it was still light out, I came early to reduce the likelihood that I’d get beaten up, robbed or shot.

I kinda hoped I’d get just a little bit beaten up, robbed or shot.

Deep breath. Around the corner, out of the icy alley, squint in the bright snowlight at the bar window. I found the sign and my heart sunk. There was no toasting surly sea captain. The fearsome El Cap had become Broadstreet Station. I was looking at a railroad-themed café bar with tidy awnings and board touting some mayo-slick white bread nightmare.

Feeling jilted, I stomped back to my car, but realized in eyeshot of my bumper that I still wanted a drink. Besides, me and my danger blueballs wanted a salve and an explanation on the castration of El Capitan.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, But it Takes a Train to Cry

Dark tunnel, deep fryer, snowy stomp on damp musty carpet to Walk Like An Egyptian. The perky whistle of the Bangles high-hoed me along the brass bar to my seat. TVs cycled bouncing Keno numbers as my eyes adjusted to the dark and found trains and station memorabilia on every wall.

No patrons, just a ponytailed bartender.

Slumping into a barstool, I ordered a draft PBR as the prospect of meeting a big bearded biker or wise grey-haired bikeress with a vest full of stories from the road faded.

I leaned in: “Didn’t this used to be the El Cap?”

He leaned in as well, too close: “It was.”

I leaned way back for effect, silently blaming him for the empty bar: “Huh. This place isn’t as…rough.”

Ponytail then shared vague rumors of the rowdy Neverland I’d missed. Nothing I hadn’t heard. When a new owner bought it a few years ago, the old crowd moved on. It was safer and tidier now. Benign.

Over his shoulder was a hand-painted mural on the back wall. In it, I saw the face of the reformed Capitan, who swapped the sea to be a train conductor. Neutered and chained to a life of peddling O-bombs and lotto, he was leaning with his head in his hands, waiting, watching. Dying a slow bored death.

Two bucks on the never-been-snorted-or-danced-on bar top, I left with the same dread that bustled me out of town when I left for college. Fearing I’d have nothing to write about, I called my brother for a recommendation.

Girl Scout Cookies

I peeked into Walden’s Lounge, a squat cinder-block bar. Exploits of Charlie Sheen hummed over a waft of Windex, and up at the bar sat the cast of characters I’d been looking for: Bearded bikers, wheezy old men and even my lanky, pierced brother. The bar was tended by a goth-ish woman in pigtails, selling beer and Girl Scout cookies for her kid. Success.

I sat in the middle, watching the grey hairs nudge each other whenever the bartendress bent over. Which was often. Maybe intentional.

Moving in a slow indoor-outdoor orbit, the bikers brought back a comet tail of cigarette vapor, grousing over the smoking ban. When the grumbling arc of the conversation swung past sin taxes, the bikers campaigned loud on the equality platform of “shit taxes:” taxing toilet paper. We seven at the bar chimed in with toasts, votes and poo-puns before simmering back into silence.

Hard to tell the age of the woman behind bar. As we talked about jobs, I guessed she was younger than me, but looked older. After receiving emancipation at 16, turns out she was forced to leave her spot as a server (“not a dancer,” she clarified) at Déjà Vu Showgirls — per the request of an uncle who spent time there. The exasperation in her voice came from her 16-year-old self, I heard her go back in time. In an unexpected twist, that uncle was an undercover FBI agent, investigating illegal gun-running in Flint strip clubs on prostitute-heavy Dort Highway, and feared his cover would be blown.

With a one-armed hug, my brother headed back to work. I stayed behind, and signed on for a box of Thin Mints.

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