Finding Sanctuary on Nine-Eleven

This column was written for All About Beer magazine in September of 2001. File it under “Beer in context.”

In the hours immediately after terrorists flew airplanes into the Pentagon and New York City’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, Rich O’s Public House publican Roger Baylor paced anxiously between his pub and Pizza Time, the restaurant/bar next door that he also owns. Pizza Time has television sets; his pub does not.

“I was freaking out, basically,” he said. He began to think of the many people with whom he wanted to talk, who he should call. “Then I realized that I didn’t have to. I thought, ‘They’ll all be in here.’” Sure enough, as shifts ended regulars began to drift in. “There are a group of us, well I’m always here, we all sort of appear at the same time,” Baylor said.

The regulars discovered that Baylor had put a television on the counter up front – the first time a TV had been in the bar in three years. Those who wanted the latest news could get it, then find seats out of television range. “People would retreat back into the bar to talk, to get away from these images for a while,” Baylor said. “The first few days there was only one thing (the terrorist attacks) that they talked about.”

Television news stories in the following days sometimes showed bulging barrooms across the United States and other times empty ones in tourist destinations. They reported patrons flocked to bars because they did not want to be alone while they watched the horrible images on the television screen, but did not differentiate between those watching alone in a crowd and those who sought familiar faces.

“People wanted to go to a place where they felt like they were with family,” said Daryl Woodson, who has been running the appropriately named The Sanctuary in Iowa City, Iowa, for 27 years. “They didn’t say that, but people who come in normally at 10 were in at 8.”

The Sanctuary has two fireplaces (one working) but not usually a television. Woodson brought one in on Sept. 11, and took it out the next day. “People wanted to watch what was happening while the story was still unfolding,” he said. “One of our regulars asked where I got a TV with such lousy reception. I told him it’s called a cheap antenna.”

Rich O’s and The Sanctuary offer a broader selection of beer than most bars – the best-selling beer at Rich O’s is Three Floyd’s Alpha King and if an interesting specialty beer is available in Iowa then The Sanctuary was probably the first place in the state to offer it – but they may be more noteworthy because they are throwbacks.

The population of the United States has more than doubled since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the number of licensed drinking establishments has shrunk by as much as two-thirds. In Chicago, for instance, there were more than 10,000 tavern licenses at the end of World War II, and now there are fewer than 2,500.

In The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg notes that what he calls “third place” taverns have been particularly hard hit. Oldenburg writes that not only have such taverns disappeared or changed – so have post offices, drug stores, grain elevators and similar “third places” (after home, first, and workplace, second) that provide informal gathering spots essential to the survival of any community.

The role of the tavern in American community life goes back almost until the time this country was settled. Parts of the American revolution were plotted in taverns, 100 years later unions were born in taverns, celebrations for soldiers heading to (and returning from) two world wars were held in taverns.

There are occasional reminders. Visit Cadieux Cafe, which has served Detroit’s Belgian enclave since Prohibition, and you’ll find a large display on the wall listing “Our boys at camp and overseas,” with the names of neighborhood boys who became soldiers.

Most such places are gone, torn down in old city neighborhoods, never built in carefully planned suburbs. Many watching the scenes from the rest of the country would probably be surprised to have found bars full of customers in much of New York City outside of lower Manhattan, but it is still a prototypical city, still has neighborhoods and still has bars that cater to those neighborhoods.

There are enough around that drinkers may choose a nearby place because the owner is Irish, because the happy hour prices are great or even because the beer is more interesting than next door. Across the country, beer with flavor has been an essential component in helping some bars build community, instantly giving would-be regulars something in common.

Beer is why many of the regulars started going to O’Brien’s Microbrew Pub in San Diego, but not why they were there the week of Sept. 11. “Lunch times were ridiculous the first couple of days, nuts, just nuts,” said owner Jim O’Brien. Customers who usually visit only after work for the wide beer selection were also there for lunch, drawn by the food and televisions but also because they knew they’d find a friend on a nearby bar stool.

“We pretty much see the same faces on a day-to-day basis,” O’Brien said. “There was only one subject (of conversation). This place is never quiet and these guys aren’t afraid to be totally honest about what they feel.”

Things were quiet at the Country Inn in Krumville, N.Y., located near the Ashokan Reservoir that serves New York City, and that was closed for safety reasons. “The original reaction was numbness, it’s still numbness,” said Larry Erenburg, the owner and guy behind the bar for more than 25 years.

The Country Inn doesn’t have a television, so a bar full of customers – beer sales were up for the week, although the place was almost empty on Thursday when the president addressed the nation on TV – sat quietly around a radio on Sept. 11 before conversation returned to a normal level later in the week.

“This place is a sounding board for people,” Erenburg said. But there are house rules against certain topics: politics, softball and chain saws. “There were flags waving, quite a show of patriotism in its own way, but it was just conversation rather than politics,” Erenburg said.

Politics is a more constant subject of conversation at Rich O’s, where The Economist and International Herald Tribune are always available for reading. “There’s a certain amount of discussion about the state of the world,” Baylor said, but also plenty about beer. “We always talk about beer,” he said, finishing with a laugh.

The discussion might center on what international company just acquired another smaller brewery or what to do with the firkin of Bell’s (Kalamazoo, Mich.) Two-Hearted Ale that accidentally got delivered to Rich O’s. (The decision was to drink it.)

Woodson figures that about one third of The Sanctuary’s customers come in for the live music (jazz, roots), one third for the food (great pizza) and one third for the beer and conversation. Few ask why there isn’t a television. “Having a TV is a good way to kill conversation,” he said.

His business was up in the weeks after the attacks. “I think people wanted to get away from it, seeing it all the time on TV,” he said. “Especially people who live alone.”

Woodson, who in 27 years has seen more economic ups and downs than most of today’s brewpub and brewery owners, also doesn’t think that the economic downturn the attacks seem sure to make worse need seriously hurt a neighborhood tavern’s business.

“You are still going to go out for an reasonably priced meal, a decent evening, a few beers,” he said. “It is a luxury you can afford.”

Pam Brittingham, a bartender at The Globe in Athens, Ga., saw a similar attitude in the weeks after Sept. 11. The Globe opens at 4 o’clock, so she and other employees listened to National Public Radio (the Globe has no television, and didn’t even offer one during the 1996 Olympics).

They kept the radio on in the first hours after the pub opened, but then chose to change to music at a low volume. “We wanted to give them some relief from what they had been listening to all day,” she said three weeks after the attacks. “By the weekend, people were needing to get out and do something normal, they didn’t even want to talk about it. It’s still probably what people talk about the most, but every three or four days somebody will say, ‘I can’t talk about this any more.’”

As important as neighborhood taverns were to so many people Sept.11, like too many other third places they will probably continue to disappear at an alarming rate. But they really were “great good places” to be, and also to work, that day.

“There were definitely people coming in looking for each other,” Brittingham said. “It’s still going on. Everybody is extremely friendly and appreciative of each other.” And perhaps of having a good public place to gather.