|Julie tending bar at the Union Brewery|
I can’t remember when I first tried a darker beer. But after two years in Pittsburgh, were I was weaned from whiskey and began regularly drinking larger beer, mostly Rolling Rock and Iron City Lite, I headed west and for a year settled down on the Comstock, in Virginia City, Nevada. This is a town known for drinking. Even Hoss and Little Joe of Bonanza fame (the TV show) would ride up to the city and enjoy a beer at the Silver Dollar Saloon (and yes, there is such a bar and inside there is a life-size painting of a woman with hundreds of real silver dollars in her dress).
Although I would frequent many of the bars along C Street, the one place I was more or less a regular was the Union Brewery. The brewery was in a typical old storefront that faced the street. It was a long and narrow room with a bar on the north side (not a lot different that the coffee shop in which I am currently writing my memories). The floors were wooden, the walls plastered, but also plastered over with pictures and junk, and the ceiling was punched tin from which hung and artificial Christmas tree that was decorated with bras. This wasn’t exactly a “politically correct” establishment. On the glass mirror behind the old bar was a sign asking if you’d been rude to a tourist. There was also a sign that beckoned back to Jim Crow days (which to my knowledge never existed in Nevada). Let’s just say the sign gave the impression that certain races weren’t welcome there. I complained about it and Julie promptly removed the sign, but a few years later when I visited it saw that it was back out. By then, Julie was no working there or married to Rick, who owned the establishment. Rick didn’t give a damn what I thought, or anyone else for that matter.
Rick was a jerk. Once, in the spring of 1989, a guy drove up from Reno in a fancy sports car. He parked out in front and swaggered into the bar like he owned the place. Ordering a drink, he threw a Ben Franklin on the counter. Rick picked up the $100 bill, looked at it and said he wasn’t impressed. He went on to tell the high roller that he wasn’t a bank and if wanted to pay for his tab with such a large bill, he’d have to buy the entire bar a round. There were about a dozen of us in there and the guy acquiesced. We all got a free drink and the till wasn’t depleted of change. I appreciated the free drink, but if it had been just Rick in the bar, I don’t know that I would have ever gone back. Mostly it was Julie who tended bar while Rick drank or slept it off.
I met Julie the first night in Virginia City. Victor, a neighbor, had seen me move in and invited me down to have a drink with him. Victor was a recovering alcoholic and the Union Brewery kept a supply of non-alcoholic beers on hand for his consumption. Julie brought him one right over and when she asked me what I wanted, I asked about their selection. It was then I learned the Union Brewery really was a brewery. This was in 1988 and the micro-brewery/brewpub concept hadn’t yet taken off. Up to this point, I’d had a few beers made by friends. Most of these weren’t very good and I would sip politely till I found a place to dump it and reach for a commercially brewed beer. Not only that, I’d only had a few dark beers up to this point in my life. Deciding to be brave, I told Julie I’d try a glass of their beer and she brought over a pint of dark foamy brew and I feel in love. However, it was like being in love with someone who’s bi-polar because the beer Rick brewed down in the basement varied greatly in quality, depending partly on his condition and temperament. Word would travel fast when the brew wasn’t good and I’d wait a week or two, drinking Sierra Nevadas in the meantime, before going back to the local brew. Today, I almost exclusively drink local beers, generally ports, stouts or on a hot day when I’m thirsty, an IPA.
In the low light of the bar, Julie looked angelic as she danced back and forth with tight jeans and a half open shirt, keeping everyone’s glasses filled as she laughed at the jokes and smiled at the compliments. Up close, the wrinkles on her face showed a hard life. It was a year after I’d left Virginia City that I first returned for a visit. Julie was still behind the bar then and ran over with a beer in her hand as soon as I walked into the door, welcoming me back. It was mid-afternoon, just before Labor Day. We chatted a bit, and then I noticed a political sign behind the bar. In the middle was a photo of Rick, all cleaned up. He was running to be the Justice of the Peace. I laughed, pointed at the sign and complimented them on a good joke. “It’s not a joke,” she said. “He’s running.” I couldn’t image it and obviously nor could most people in Storey County, but he did get 40% of the vote that November.
A friend later filled me in on the story. Rich had a fit when the current Justice of the Peace had taken away his driver’s license after his third DUI. It didn’t matter to Rick that the JP was only doing what the law required, he was out for her job. There was some question if he could even legally serve in that capacity, but no one was sure of what was on his record.
|Karl, working on the Christmas lights on Mt. Davidson|
That year I lived in Virginia City, I spent a lot of time at the Union Brewery and had a lot of conversations, especially in the winter when it was cold and the town dead and there were also a few souls huddled around the woodstove at the back of the bar. I spent many nights talking philosophy to Victor, a former college drama instructor, who had become an attorney and was trying to build his legal career. And then there was Murray Mack, a man still wearing double-knit leisure suits in the late 80s, banging out ragtime on a ratty old piano. He was good and made that piano sing. Murray did glass work and would die shortly after I left there. I was told that afterwards there was an unofficial attempt to keep his legend alive with “Murray Mack Days” when folks dressed in leisure suits they’d picked up in thrift stores in Carson City. But no one could replace him on the piano. There was Norm, a well-rounded cook from the Solid Muldoon, the restaurant next door. The only thing larger than his belly was his heart. He was a binge drinker and once, at the request of his wife, I spent an afternoon with him as he sobered up for a three-day drunk. He told me the story of losing his son, who had been just a teenager when on a dare climbed an electrical transmission tower. I then understood why at times he could no longer hold it together. Doug was another regular. He was a couple years younger than me, with a degree in Creative Writing from Chicago (or was it Wisconsin). He’d come out West to sow some oats. We often played basketball together and took some hikes out into the desert. Karl, who always drank wine (or was it Port) was another character I remember. He was a talented stonemason and a Deadhead, back when everyone in the group was alive. One night, we had a long conversation about the Grateful Dead becoming a new world religion. I kept egging him on, but he was serious! Sometime before Christmas 1988, Karl, another guy and I fixed the lights up on the mountain that outlined the “V” above town. That November, he was elected to the Storey County commissioners. He’d run on a campaign to throw the old boys out and was one of two new commissioners, the other being a former madam at the Mustang Ranch. She represented the River District, which was out along I-80 near Reno, but that’s another story.
I’ve lost touch with most of these guys and many of them are gone from the Comstock or, if around, buried in the cemetery north of town. The Union Brewery has changed hands (a couple times, I think) and I am not even sure it’s still operating by that name. But my memories remain, probably because I got out of town after only a year and with most of my brain cells intact.