My tavern is closed indefinitely tonight, after a fire that broke out early this morning.
I had just dropped off my daughter at day care, and heard a bulletin on 1400 AM, one of our two sports-talk stations. I didn't even know they did local news, but at least on this occasion, they did. All I heard was "evacuation at Court Square" and I immediately thought I should drive over there.
The big building at 500 Court Square was still standing, so that gave me a bit of hope. People were moving around Market Street, and seemed happy. Or at least, not burned. Then I turned up 5th Street, and saw one of the front windows, covered with a tarp, and a huge pile of debris on the sidewalk.
Oh crap, I thought.
I've worked at the Tavern since August of 2004, and have gone through many ups and downs while there. I started as a server, and became a manager and began bartending that December. It was the first place I was able to work since my separation from my first wife. Working there made me feel human again, made me feel like I could get through the day, made me feel less ashamed of being a person who had made some pretty questionable choices. The entire summer of 2004 I sat in a house doing nothing, because I didn't want to hurt anyone or hurt anything.
I'll spare readers the details of all that, but Court Square Tavern is the place where I became a member of this community, where I became a resident of Charlottesville. Sure, I lived here before, but I didn't call it home. CST is an icon here, a place where so many people have met so many other people. A place where many beers have been imbibed. Where many cigarettes have been smoked. Where I'm sure more than one relationship got started. And where I met great people who live and work in this area, and choose to call it their home away from home.
It's often said that Court Square Tavern is the closest thing you can get to a British pub in Charlottesville. That may or may not be true, but that's certainly how I've felt about it. No music. No advertisements for domestic beer. Best of all, no god-damned flare.
The Tavern has often been known as a place where your beer is likely to be served with more than a bit of attitude. You're not entirely certain to be comfortable there, especially if you sit at the tiny five-stool bar and get involved in a heated discussion about politics. It's an honest place, where people say what they think, and don't act all polite if they disagree with you.
And, I needed that. I needed a place to be honest with myself, to find out who I was. As a server, I had to stand up to a certain bartender who was there when I first worked there, and ended up taking over his job when I told the boss I'd had enough of him, and so had everybody else. So, I did what I swore I would never do again, and ended up as a manager, a guy in charge of a restaurant.
Yet, this gave me new confidence, which allowed me to begin to dream again about who I was, and what I could offer the world. Of course, I didn't want to go full-time, didn't want a set of keys because I needed to make sure it was just a way-station, not a terminus, on my journey from birth to death. On slow Monday nights, I had plenty of time to think of the possibilities podcasting might offer to me, sketching possible business plans on note pads usually meant for take-out orders.
It's always been odd for me, working there while also being a public radio journalist, sometimes waiting on people I saw at press conferences, living a double-life of sorts. Which identity was mine? Bartender or reporter? Corporate president or the guy who runs the cashier when everyone leaves in the early hours of Sunday morning?
I've finally come to realize, though, that I am both, and that I am proud to work there, in a place that time seems to have left behind. Thirty years ago, CST was one of the only places to get a beer and a sandwich downtown. Now, the success of the mall has pushed CST out of popularity, and out of fashion. Any of the regulars will tell you it was different back then.
Yet, the place is a salve to me. Walking in is usually like stepping back in time, to another time when Charlottesville was a bit smaller, a bit more personal, a bit more real. That's the Charlottesville I know, a Charlottesville of possibilities and tradition.
And now, what's going to happen? I don't know. I'll be honest, I'm very worried about my finances and my ability to continue the Charlottesville Podcasting Network, because serving drinks has been the only thing allowing me to do a lot of the CPN work for free, as a public service. Bill Curtis, CST's owner, has been very kind to me, pays me well, and without that, I'm going to have to make up at least one half of my income. I don't know how they'll be closed, and how long I'll be out of work, but you know, the financial uncertainty is not what has me all teary right now.
What brings me to the brink of tears is that I'm not sure that a place that is so important to me will ever be the same. CST has kept me sane, has provided me a lifeline and a livelihood. I'll miss my regulars, miss my co-workers, and I'll miss meeting strangers, making new friends, hearing what people have to say.
I'll miss feeling like I'm at home.
It was so horrible walking in there today. Thankfully, there was a parking space open right away, and I was able to get in there right away. The pile of debris had bottles of beer mixed in, looked like some kind of smokey fruitcake. The door was open, which is never true at 10:00 AM, and as I opened the door, this horrible smell hit me. Admittedly, CST always smells kind of funky, but this was different. Ash covered everything. Broken glass was all over the place. Thankfully, it was still recognizable and mostly intact. The damage is mostly contained to the bar and kitchen area, which is really just a small part of the place.
I called out, but no one was in there. It felt so lonely, five hours after the blaze. I managed to get the general manager on the phone, and she confirmed we'd be closed for at least a month.
You have to understand, the Tavern is my stage. Usually, I'm too scared to act, too cautious, too scared to let anyone see my creative side, too aware of my vulnerabilities. But, on a Friday night, that place is mine, and I run it with a sense of joy and possibility. I become the most perfect version of myself that I can possibly imagine, making people happy by bringing them a drink before they even know they want it. Because, that's who I am.
My grandfather was a bartender. My brother owns part of a restaurant in Florida. Service is deeply entwined in my DNA, but yet, I'm an independent person like my dad, who left England to get away from people who he thought discriminated against him because of his Liverpudlian accent. I've always waited tables my way. Not anyone elses. I've never apologized for how I do my job, and CST gave me the freedom to be myself.
I'm repeating myself. I know that. I can't help but write this all out, and hope that others who have a sense of connection to the place will respond or comment. I want to make sure the owner has a reason to re-invest in the place. I want people to chime in with their thoughts and prayers. I don't want to feel I'm alone in my sorrow.
Sure, half the town won't ever come in because of the smoke, but I think Charlottesville would lose a big chunk of its past if the Tavern has been closed for the last time. And what would that mean of its future?