“I’ll buy you a beer if you can tell me where matter comes from.”
I tensed. It’s the fundamentalist Christian’s idea of a “gotcha” question, and I wasn’t in the mood for a confrontation, especially not at the pub. But you’re sort of asking for it when you have “Town Atheist” inscribed on your pub mug,* the tone was friendly, and I had to admit the question itself was phrased in a clever and playful way. And as I turned around to face my interrogator, he was grinning and holding a beer of his own.
“I have no idea,” I told him. “That’s always bothered me, and it probably always will. Quantum physicists have made stabs at the answer to that, but nothing tangible enough for me to wrap my head around. I can accept there are some things I just won’t get. But I’m not going to go reaching into things that don’t make sense to me just to tell myself I have an answer. But, then, you have the same problem.”
“Sure. Where did God come from?”
“He’s eternal. He’s always been there.”
“Right back atcha,” I laughed. “Same answer for matter. And about as satisfying. So, are you local?”
You bet I was changing the subject, and my new friend knew it and played along. Besides, the point of the conversation wasn’t really to iron out the mysteries of the universe. The point was to strike up an interesting conversation with a stranger in a friendly pub. That’s what pubs are for, and why my new pal and I were there.
* * *
That was maybe a year ago, at the Old Forge Brewing Company in Danville, PA, my old haunt. The place is, and was, a gem. One thing you have to give Pennsylvania is they know their beer – too many Germans settled the state back in the day to tolerate careless brewing. In Pottsville (about an hour from my old place, and also a town I’d lived in as a kid), they boast Yuengling Brewery, America’s oldest. It’s a great tour if you’re ever in the neighborhood, and on it you’ll learn that the day Prohibition ended, a cart pulled up to the White House loaded with their finest lager, brewed (wink, wink) miraculously that very morning.
Old Forge had everything I looked for in a pub, and I miss the place and my friends there. The beer was outstanding; over a dozen taps of their own brew, plus two on nitrous. I had my go-to brews, but it was good to try something outside my comfort zone from time to time to keep my palate educated. Chris and Kat behind the bar were especially good people to field the request, “blend me something interesting.” A small, but intentional menu – they weren’t going to make anything if they couldn’t make it well. Everything on the menu and in the beer that they could get local, they got local. Local art on the walls, local entertainers on the (small) stage, and hand-wrought furniture everywhere. And a great staff. Millennials, mostly, but I like millennials. Talking with engaged, intelligent, and earnest young people about politics, music, and Marvel movies keeps me on my toes.
There were two things the pub lacked that also turned out to fundamentally define the place. One was a deep fryer in the kitchen. Sure, it would have been nice to have fries, or put a beer-batter fish ‘n’ chips on the menu. But in a small kitchen, once you add a fryer, it tends to take over the menu. Not having a fryer forces the kitchen to be more creative, healthier, and more attentive to flavor and fresh ingredients. The other addition-by-subtraction: no televisions.
I don’t mind one television in a pub – sometimes watching a game can be a great way to pull people together and get conversation going. But once you add a second screen, you’re separating people, not bringing them together. There’s nothing wrong with a sports bar; there’s a time and a place for that. But a pub is about good food, good spirits, and conversation. Diversions are okay; distractions are not.
Old Forge was a place, outside of home, where I felt most at home. I’d go there every Tuesday night for dinner and a couple beers while I wrote The Knucklehead his weekly letter. Saturday was always errand day, and I’d stop for lunch with my Kindle to go through the New York Times Book Review. Apart from that, well, if My Bride had plans that took her out of the house, sure, why not go over to the pub and have a pint and chat up my friends?
The pub was where The Knucklehead and I had many a dinner. Sometimes I wanted to talk about something important with him in an environment less emotionally weighted than home. Sometimes, I just didn’t feel like cooking dinner. On breaks from college, we’d go over for Trivia nights, where we’d always come up with a movie-themed team name (“Tommy’s Shine Box,” “Rodents of Unusual Size,” and “Weyland Corporation Employee Picnic” were some of our favorites. Oh, and of course, “I Am Jack’s Trivia Team.”**).
* * *
When The Knucklehead himself turned 21, he was farther away from home than he’d ever been before; on a semester abroad, in Granada, Spain. By that time, he’d already been abroad for a couple months in a country where he was legal the moment his plane landed. A few weeks after classes started, I received this message from Knucks: “There’s nothing like having a Guinness in an Irish pub in Granada while watching the Irish national team win a soccer match with a bunch of Irishmen.” I smiled to myself; Knucks had found his first home pub. I found out later that it was a place in Granada called, yes, “Paddy’s” that was run by Paddy himself, in Irish immigrant. Knucks loves soccer, particularly European soccer, and in Europe pubs are much more the social center than bars are in the States. The Knucklehead got to know Paddy, who apparently was impressed enough with my boy and his friends to host a 2:00 AM live viewing of a World Series game. It made me feel oddly comforted to know that my boy had found Paddy’s; a pub was something I could get a handle on in the foreignness of Spain. I had my pub, The Knucklehead had his. It was a small scrap of connection, and I seized on it while he was away from me.
In a video chat one evening, Knucks told me, “There’s nothing funnier than hearing Spanish spoken in an Irish accent.”
I laughed and told him, “You do realize that Paddy could say the same thing about your American accent, right?”
The Knucklehead, to his credit, smiled back. “Good point.”
* * *
I’ve got seven Old Forge Brewing Company mugs in my kitchen. If you’re a member of the Mug Club, you get a mug with your name (or nickname or whatever you want), which you take home with you at the end of the year. It was My Bride that gifted me with my first membership, adding “Dadofknucklehead” as my moniker. She told me later that when she purchased the membership, a slightly bleary gentleman at the bar overheard the transaction and declared, “You’re the best wife ever!” I can’t disagree. Each year after that, I renewed my membership, and held a thought in my head: As soon as Knucks is old enough, I’m going to buy him a membership of his own. Father and son mugs at the pub. The idea was irresistible.
Funny thing is, The Knucklehead doesn’t even like beer all that much. I can count on one hand the beers we’ve had together since he turned 21, and each time, it was Knucks being polite, or willing to try something new. He likes the mug I got him for the same reasons I like it: it’s a connection between us to a place that has meaning for us. Each of us has something tangible to remind us of a rare place outside of home where we felt at home. I’ve written over a hundred letters to my son in that pub. The Knucklehead is as indelibly ingrained in that place to me as the wood in the bar. I know it’s a place my son will associate with me every time he walks in, no matter what the company.
That’s what’s in our mugs. The beverage is beside the point.
* * *
Now, I’m three thousand miles away. I arrived on the west coast less than two weeks ago, and along with finding the nearest supermarket, and movie theater, and DMV, I’m starting the hunt for a new home pub. A new place from which to write my Tuesday letter to The Knucklehead. Fortunately, Olympia, WA has something of an embarrassment of riches in this area, and it may be impossible to narrow the choice to a single pub. So far, the Three Magnets has great beer and atmosphere. Fish Tales has the best clam chowder I’ve ever had, and my family is from New England (it also has a plaque at the bar reserving a stool for one of their regulars, which something inside me finds utterly charming). And the place in my own neighborhood, Pints and Quarts, which the English major part of me had to check out.
But it’ll come down to the people, as always. It’ll be a place where I find myself engaged in conversation with an interesting customer or employee. A place where I can talk about the beer I’m drinking, or a book I’m reading, or metaphysics, or local history, or even how the Sounders are doing (terribly, apparently). It’ll be a place where I can pass a few hours just listening to the chatter at the bar if I don’t feel like joining in. A place where I’ll eventually have a go-to “comfort” order if I don’t feel like being adventurous. A place I can call home.
A place I can introduce The Knucklehead to when he comes to visit.
*Sort of. It’ll be a good day when that sort of thing is unremarkable in central Pennsylvania.
**It was a tough choice between that and “The Name of this Trivia Team is Robert Paulson.”