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The hair's gained Pollock something of a reputation around here. Silky and blonde, it tumbles down her face in columns, à la Farrah Fawcett's in Fawcett's heyday. Pollock stows her glasses up there.
Egan Jankowski-Bradley walks in looking for somewhere to hang out that isn't his parents' place. He just moved back from Seattle for school but used to be a regular here, years ago. Pollock shoots him a smile and asks how he's been—she recognizes him, if not by name then at least by face.
"I probably have been in this bar four times in the last five or six years," he says. "She knew me the minute I walked in the door."
He scoffs when asked what he thinks of the bartenders here, specifically Pollock. It's a rhetorical question anyway. Bartenders deal "with the worst of you," he says. They give you slack when you're drunk and treat you like nothing happened the next time you stop by. "They always manage to handle being busy and being personable at the same time," he says. "What more can you ask of a bartender?...Walking in here is like coming home."
At no more than five-foot-four, Pollock has to lean across the counter to hand out drinks or collect booze-drenched tips. A guy orders a glass of Pendleton. It's near the top shelf. Pollock has to stand on tiptoes to reach it. She still smiles.
The bar starts to fill up. Most of the stools are taken and a raucous game of ping-pong generates shouts from the direction of the stage. The keno player has abandoned his station for a spot at the bar. Both pool tables are occupied, with one group playing cutthroat. Pollock hustles from one end of the bar to the next, a blur of blonde hair and bedazzled denim.
A slender, dark-haired drinker strolls in. Janie greets him warmly and asks what he's drinking. He points to a half-sized bottle of champagne on the counter. She laughs and without another word hands him a bottle of Pilsner Urquell.
The job has its darker moments, Pollock says. Customers can get angry, even belligerent. Alcohol mixes with stress and emotions in strange ways. There's a bad apple every now and again, she says.
"But all the good people make up for that, hon. You have to keep on the bright side—otherwise, I wouldn't be here."
She calls everyone "hon."
Writers and journalists tend to flock here, from the university and the community. Most know Pollock. On the rowdier end, the Union is also an established hangout for the rugby players from the annual Maggotfest. The bar's sponsored a team for the past 10 years and hosts a lavish dinner for the rough-and-tumble crowd. "They light farts in the corner, put maggots on the bar," she says. "When one makes a goal—especially a young one—he runs through the bar naked and they throw beer on him."
Janie's figured out how to deal with the mess the rugby players leave behind: "I give them a mop and tell them to clean it up."
My buddy Mike walks in. Pollock remembers him, too. More to the point, she remembers a few months back when the Union was slow and Mike and I were having a heated conversation at the bar, about politics or music or some such. To the casual observer we must have looked a word away from fisticuffs—so Pollock jumped in with a beer and a smile.
I ask her how she could possibly remember that, given the number of conversations she's had tonight alone.
"There's a lot of things I don't remember, hon," she says.
Maybe, but she remembers the important stuff: your name, your drink, your ups and downs. A guy named Matt put it best earlier in the night: "The best thing about Janie," he said, "is Janie."
Within seconds of my arrival at Double Front Cafe's basement bar, Thor Morton asks, "You want a shot?"
It's still light out, on a recent overcast afternoon, and I have errands to run. I decline. But Morton is persuasive. He seems to pride himself on getting his patrons tipsy. It takes him only minutes to convince me to try the house special, "Smurf Piss," made with Captain Morgan rum and the sweet blue energy drink Liquid Ice, which, be warned, can lead to a morning after with a throbbing head and sticky teeth.
Morton beams as I sip it.
There are no windows in the Double Front bar. Rick James's "Brick House" plays on the jukebox. Afternoon regulars file in. I slowly sink into my barstool, feeling at home.
Morton, 40, is a tall man with a little paunch, dark hair and a thick, graying five o'clock shadow. His large pink cheeks make him appear strangely cherubic, like an overgrown child. He's quick to tell a joke and his booming laugh is contagious. He's a prince of barstool banter.
Highballs and tall tales are in Morton's blood. For years, his father and stepmother owned Swede's Bar in Drummond (which is now called "The Rough Stock Saloon"—which sounds like a gay bar, he says, joking). When he was growing up, Swede's was the place where neighbors commiserated about long winters and domestic dustups and planned for spring planting and summer rodeos. Morton learned the ins and outs of drinking there and began cultivating his own lifelong love of booze. "It's second nature," he says.
His downstairs domain at the Double Front is connected to the establishment's street-level restaurant by a staircase. The basement level smells like fried chicken but similarities end there. The Double Front's cavernous tavern feels like it belongs to an entirely different universe from the dining room upstairs, where families eat two-piece chicken dinners under bright lights.
Morton's worked at Double Front for seven years. Before that, he was a commercial crab fisherman in Alaska. He says he still dreams sometimes about hauling heavy nets from icy water, and wakes feeling like he hasn't slept.
Morton says it's the chicken that draws people to his clubhouse, but patrons like Garrett Smith, eating a ham sandwich at the basement bar, say Morton's the main attraction. "He remembers your name and makes you feel like you're at home," Smith says. "You get people who walk down the steps and see that Thor's not working and turn around and go back up."
Another regular, Gabriel, agrees. Gabriel's a vegetarian anyway. The draw here, he says, is more about the company, the feeling of being among a group of friends, even though many times you just met them moments ago. When Gabriel traveled to Ireland not long ago, Morton was the only non-family member to get a postcard. "It was a drinking-related postcard," Gabriel explains.