Liquid Bisbee, AZ

a sign reading To Brewery Gulch via Youngblood Hill, a Dead End sign in the background

Photograph by Nathan

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There is absolutely no reason for anyone to ever get a DUI in Old Bisbee.

On the other hand, to not imbibe or even imbibe too heavily, is as likely an experience, even for the seasoned non-drinker. The town is simply a place where you feel like celebrating. You crawl into a hole in the wall and wonder if you’ll make it out alive as you’re circled by mostly friendly but ever real local fishes. You can fine dine over wine and remove yourself from the craziness of Main Street and the Gulch at night. You can sip vodka laden tomato juice while the younger generation sleeps off noon from a hundred or so year old porch. There is nearly all year round an abundance of locals, tourists and passers through who will be glad to have you buy them a beer. There are regular festivals that, if they don’t downright encourage it, certainly don’t seem to frown on hopping bar to bar with flask in hand between doors. Here are a few of our experiences in the local bars. Note that not all of these still exist, and some may rise again in a different form, but the general idea of what town has to offer, I believe, is preserved.

Those Damn Kids

There’s a bar perched on Ok Street, just above the Gulch, that looks down on all of Old Bisbee like an old man staring at the kids going by on his street. I can’t tell you the name of it, because it doesn’t even exist anymore. It lasted a year, maybe two, before the owners had to realize that your average tourist wasn’t going to make the fifty or so foot climb up Bisbee’s many European-esque narrow, steep mountain streets just to have a beer when similar said liquid sustenance could be found within a block of their downtown hotel. Even still, the metaphor stands, the grumpy old man now without even his alcohol and friends, must watch as the youngsters below frolic in their easy going good times.

On this particular day, when the OPEN sign was still being turned streetside every afternoon, I had been working late. Well into the 4:00 hour my money making pursuits kept me at Bisbee Coffee Company pattering away lines of code on my laptop, and so by the time I got word from Lady—us being here sans children at the time—that her whereabouts were this particular bar and could wrap up my cables and make my way upward in elevation, she was two whiskeys and a neglected Fat Tire into her happy hour.

Our preferred beverage combo at the time—being young, slightly frivolous and full of that joy that only comes to young lovers without children—was to share a shot of Jameson and each partake in our bottle of the best IPA would could find. This was usually enough to send her 110lbs of raw yogic womanliness into a tailspin and we’d chat for an hour or two before calling it a break, sometimes even a night. So to find her two shots and a little beer in before it was not only not 5 o’clock anywhere, but not three minutes before the hour even here, was an experience I rarely witnessed.

a tumbler of whiskey forefront, a pint of beer in the background

We sat and I drank while she laughed at jokes I told which I knew weren’t funny; but why waste the good ones if she might not remember in the morning, right? The bartender told us there would be music if we hung around, but as 6:00 became a time increasingly further into the past, we made our way back down the hill and to the Queen Mine RV Park to find a little “us time”, like only new lovers can do, in our 1978 Volkswagen Bus. The hours went by, the night took over the color of the sky, and we had fallen asleep.

When we woke it was nearly midnight and all four cylinders in each of our two hearts were ready for another venture into town. When you’re free of obligations, nothing seems more pertinent than walking the streets late night to see what mischief might befall you.

Remembering the promise of music at the old man bar atop the hill we made our motion in that general direction. We’d seen shows together before, mostly acoustic singer songwriter folk hippy shit type stuff, but a few harder bands as well. A relatively sleepy, if intoxicated, place like Bisbee was typically for cowboy banjo relaxing guys crooning about the pain of the railroad’s dying, though, so we assumed all would be nice and easy. Spic and span, if you will. As the walls of the bar shook until the windows started screaming “I swear, I’ll shatter!” and we paid the cover charge before walking through the door, no idea of what was in store could have matched up to this. The mosh pit overtook more than half of the bar. The band was strictly power chords and distortion turned up to 12 while their painted-like-skulls faces screamed back at the crowd, “What, what, can’t you dance more violently?!”

We grabbed two Fat Tires and immediately proceeded into the crowd. There was jostling, to put it mildly. I held my jaw wondering if my tooth had been removed by what almost seemed like a relatively polite “Get the fuck out of the way, I’m dancing!” kind of move. We almost lost our steady grip on one another’s hands.

But we endured, for two songs. One was a Misfits cover, not surprising given their corpsish garb, but decided that the third time just might not be our particular charm. I convinced the Lady to follow me to another bar just down the hill, where we partook in equal amounts: her barely any and me, well, perhaps just shy of excessive.

The next morning, as we each rose from our particular exactly one person sized halves of the Bus, it was evident that no amount of the night was to be discussed before we got into, “So, how exactly did we end up in a mosh pit and…was it weak that at least one of us didn’t do some sort of crowdsurfing maneuver?”

St. Elmo’s (Fire it Up)

“Hey man, what’s going on?”

“Hey…how’s it going man?”

“Ah man, I’m just sorry about earlier.”

Blank stare, “what happened?”

“That I didn’t call you, I know I told you I’d get you some bud and all, but my buddy, he’s in bed.” It was 8:30pm.

shelves of liquor in front of a stained glass sign reading St. Elmo since 1902

Unsure of what’s being discussed, “Yeah man it’s cool, I don’t really even know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, we were here last night and you asked about some bud, man,” with a suspicious look.

“Man, I think you have me confused with someone else, but if you don’t got any, I do. Let’s go have a smoke.”

The two smoke a joint out front of the bar. Some cops walk by and the guy claiming to be sorry for not selling the other guy weed just puts it behind his back. They walk right by. He continues.

“Thanks man, let’s take a walk, I like you man!”

“No problem, where we going?” They begin to walk down the street.

“Listen, you better not tell anyone about this, okay?”

Bewildered, “Alright, yeah, what, who would I tell?” The other guy fake punches him in the ribs.

“Nah, just messin’ with you man.” He turns around immediately and heads back to the bar. The completely confused guy who’d offered to smoke the local gentlemen up anyway continues his way away from the bar. Best to let crazy be crazy and just go with it, he assumes.

A Slow Morning on the Copper Queen Porch

9:58am. They’re not open yet. We ponder, should we just call this off. “Where else can we get a Bloody?” she, my Lady, asks. I think for a moment. There’s nowhere else in town, at least not where you can sit and smoke outside. We wait.

10:07. The bartender arrives. She sees us sitting on the concrete wall across from the bar. She doesn’t look, doesn’t even acknowledge us. Her eyes are red, her hair is a little disheveled. We look at each other. “Oh she’s going to be pissed if we walk in there right now,” I say. Lady agrees.

10:09. “Do you think it’s cool to go in?” I ask her. She doesn’t say anything, I think she sort of smiled, but it was hard to tell in the early morning sun of a New Year’s Eve hangover. “You’re a bartender,” I further my query, “what do you think?”

10:17. We’ve been sitting at the bar for eight minutes. The bartender hasn’t given any indication that we’re not invisible ghosts haunting these bar stools.

10:23. “Hey, what can I get you?” she finally asks.

10:38. We’re sitting on the porch of the Copper Queen Hotel. Fifteen feet or so above the street below, the weary red bricks of the porch’s floor leave our wrought iron chairs tipping back and forth with every movement. She brings our drinks out. My girlfriend is just finishing her cigarette. I’ve waited until getting my drink. Nothing says, “Good morning, today is going to be rough, but starting with a Bloody Mary and an American Spirit in tandem is the first step to being a hangover Jedi.”

a dimly lit bar, few patrons, antique architecture abounds

11:07. We’re both just starting our second. Life is beautiful. We’ve retold events that we both partook in just one evening ago over and over. We’re laughing. We’ve moved our chairs right next to one another, our legs are knocking knees in as innocent a way as possible. My girlfriend is happy. I am happy. The porch is thick with similar victims.

11:11. We’ve finished our second. I knew it would take a moment to cash out once the crowd got thick, so I’d cashed out while waiting for round two to arrive. I slurp the last bit of my Bloody, then finish off hers. She eats my pickle, I take both of her olives.

11:28am. We’re passed out back in the bed of our Volkswagen Bus. No further entries will be recorded until much later that night.

Locals First, Locals Only

Bisbee is a tourist town, there is no doubt about that. Regardless of the fact that most tourist towns would not survive without said customers, it remains a fact that most service industry workers are not fans of seasonal purveyors.

Today in the life of us, that being my striped shirt and plaid skirted, dreadlocks toting, gorgeous woman of my dreams Lady and myself, a thirty something wanderluster with a very old, very stinky hat, we find ourselves trying out the bar below the Bisbee Grand Hotel.

Few and far between are the groups of similarly minded drinkers at the bar this evening. A very tired old woman sits at one end, nursing a glass of wine and a shot of whiskey. Another well to do in the age range department gentleman, pink polo shirt and combover, keeps watch over the other end of the bar. We sit down precisely between them, perhaps ten seats away from either one.

The bartendress, a blond, nearly 40-something woman, can’t seem to find us. I’m not even sure if she’s looking.

A guy about my age, early 30s, walks in, head to toe black leather and a hat that I’m certain was once owned by Crocodile Dundee. She has no difficulty finding him. His beverage has been ordered before she’s even said “Hello,” in our general direction.

As she walks back with his beer, I decide to play the game where you just call out your drink at the bar. “Two of those Dave’s IPAs, if you don’t mind.” Dave’s Electric is a local brewery. His IPA is a pretty darn okay relief in a town more brimmed by lagers.

She says okay and continues to bring the leather clad Australianlike man his beverage. Then she proceeds to walk to the other end of the bar and pour our drinks. Mind you, this has all taken place over about fifteen minutes. My girlfriend finds nearly everything I say enthralling, and I’m happy to be the other end of the conversation.

a sign for the bisbee grand hotel and saloon essentially, but hilariously, stating No Weapons

The bartendress pours a third beer. She hands it to the older man to our left, way down the bar. He doesn’t even acknowledge that the drink has been provided. Only then does she bring us our beers. “Ten dollars.” She stares at the floor then off and out the front window. I look at her, then at our beverages. I put a ten dollar bill on the table and slide it towards her. For the first time, and last in my life to date, I never bother to produce another bill. She disappears into the back room and I discuss with my darling Lady the situation. I claim I’m considering not tipping. We discuss the whole hating tourists thing. Sentences like “Well then would she rather be making minimum wage down at the post office, until all tourists abandon the town for poor service and she’ll end up waitressing back in Tucson” are delivered. I feel bad. We drink our beers, then leave. The top of the bar doesn’t see another one of my dollars that night.

Distraught with humor at the fact I’m feeling queasy about the whole situation, we return the next night, expecting the same bartendress. In her place is a smile, a quick pour, and a “thanks”. My girlfriend, astounding as she is, looks at me. It doesn’t take a single syllable, we tip her ten dollars on sixteen and then another dollar just on quarters we ask for in exchange for pool table money.

We laugh into the eight ball at how any particular place is all about the people working there. A dive bar can feel elegant when the bartender chats you up. A martini bar can feel like a toilet bowl when you’re treated like trash. We walk out laughing at how upset other people can get us, how very, so very pointless it is. The bar is packed, but tonight’s bartender nods upward and smiles as we leave.

A Test of Intelligence in a Hundred Year Old Bar

It was a slow night in town as the tourists had forgotten to arrive in troves and perhaps some locals only party was keeping the usual crowd from showing their faces, at least here at the Stock Exchange Saloon. Dave’s Electric Lager was the beer of our particular choices, given a lack of anything in the hoppier range and the tendency toward Bud, Miller and their pointless buddy Coors to permeate the taps. I had met Dave himself and he recanted the tale of how his Electric Lager came to be. It was good, I can surely say, but not nearly as good as his IPA would be a few years from now. In all honesty, everything liquid produced in or around Bisbee left me with some sense that I’d been drinking copper mine water. Still, it did the trick.

A couple played pool and I watched the fellow half of them sink one after another, stopping short of the eight ball to give his more feminine companion a go. She scratched, he gave her a freebie. I turned back to the bar.

Renée and I had for some months now been playing a sort of rock n’ roll trivia game. I would name two bands and she’d tell me how they were connected. “Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash.”

“Neil Young!” she called out. They were mostly easy like that, but after a few rounds I decided to try and turn it up a little.

“Jeff Beck and Bob Marley.” She looked up at the ceiling, then over to the old stock exchange board from the 1800s which still hung, the same companies and commodities that had been listed on closing day written on its slate face.

“I have no idea. What do Jeff Beck and Bob have in common?”

“Jeff Beck played in the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, who covered Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.” She rolled her eyes.

“Is Eric Clapton allowed to use a fake Jamaican voice even if he is covering Bob Marley?” I asked her.

“Eric Clapton can do whatever he wants.” She was probably right.

black and white photo of the old stock exchange board and upturned chairs at the Stock Exchange Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona

“Okay, how about Eric Clapton and John Lennon?”

“Oh I just read this…Eric Clapton stole George Harrison’s wife. So George to the Beatles to John.” I was fresh out of ideas. It’s not that we lacked things to talk about, but having spent every day for the last several months, almost literally every hour of every day, sometimes it was fun to pull new tricks out of old hats. A box of Trivial Pursuit cards sat at the corner of the bar. I gave her a glance and pointed in their direction.

She didn’t hesitate to lean down the old, wooden bar and slide the aging box toward us. She produced a card from its depths, read the questions, then put it back. She did this three times.

“Are you looking for an easy question?” I asked her.

“Well you wouldn’t know these!”

“Try me!” I finished my first Dave’s, she was barely half an inch into hers.

“Okay,” she pulled a new card out, “Where is the deepest lake in the world located?”

“Russia, but that deck probably says the Soviet—”

“How did you know that?”

“I’m smart,” I professed.

She rolled her eyes again.

“On average, what animals heart weighs half a ton?”

“A dragon,” I smile, the joke giving me a moment to think, “no a blue whale.”

She put the card away without a word, I assumed that meant correct.

trivial pursuit board game, woman at a bar blurry in the background

We continued on, I knew the first five or so questions which simultaneously heightened my intelligence factor with her, while leaving me feeling pretty cocky about general trivia as I ordered my third round. She had a solid half of her beverage left. The couple playing pool cashed out. We were the only ones left in the bar. It was our own personal establishment at this point.

“Are we keeping you?” Renée asked the bartender.

“Huh? Oh not at all, I’m here until two either way.” It was 11:30pm.

“Are we done?” I asked my lovely lady, hoping the answer was a resounding no. With her, I could do this all night.

“Okay,” she skimmed through another card, put it down, then another. “Okay, whose vault, blasted open by Geraldo before a live national TV audience, yielded two gin bottles?”

“Oh, yeah, that would be…Hoffa, right? Jimmy Hoffa.”

“Al Capone.”

“What brand began hyping cheese products with a blue-winged bovine mascot called the Dairy Fairy?”

“Land o’ Lakes?” I hesitated, “No, they have an Indian girl, um…”

“Kraft.”

“What hurdler won 122 straight races from 1977 to 1987?”

“What hurdler?”

“Yes.”

“Lance Armstrong’s brother Tony?”

“Hah, no. I love that you answer everytime even though you don’t know.”

“Most of my earlier ones were just lucky guesses.”

“I knew it!”

“Okay one more, go with geography.”

“What Billy Joel opus listed 120 significant people, places and events from the previous four decades?”

“Um, it’s We Didn’t Start the Fire“, I sing the answer, “but I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s geography.”

“Whatever, it’s places.”

She had me there.

A New Year in Bisbee

The circus was in town.

Bisbee tends to go over the top for New Year’s Eve, and this particular night would prove no exception. We called a 1978 Volkswagen Bus our home at the time. It slept three, the two of us on a bottom bed which folded up into a couch, and when the roof was pushed up, called the “pop top”, an additional sleeping space was revealed, where typically my eight year old son would count sheep while we sat around some campfire wherever we might be calling home at the moment. We didn’t bring him to Bisbee though, instead he caught a big silver plane back to Pittsburgh to visit with his much older brother. We’d run out of money, or at least come close enough to zero that we decided not to spend any cash this particular last day of the year on an RV park so that we might have a few bucks to spend over a celebratory weekend. So we found a truly rare parking spot during such a profound event in an overrun by tourists on a big holiday in as small a town as this and called it our piece of the American dream for the night. I produced our trusty bottle of Jameson. The girl of my dreams, her name was Renée and she was 110lbs of solid gorgeous who’d I’d only two weeks prior finally convinced to leave her life in the sleepy, hippy town of Nederland, Colorado to join me in a fiasco I called daily living on the road, pulled a small flask from one of the Bus’ few drawers. We each took a pull from the bottle and then I filled the flask.

While other girls visiting town were attempting to cover their faces in the Sistine Chapel, she lit a cigarette and pulled up her boots. She was not a heavy drinker, I admittedly was. But she brought out the calmer side of me and in the time we’d spent together thus far, and for what most of our days on the road together would prove, I had not gone further than a third beer and a second shot. Tonight, I could tell as she pulled from the flask again, might be different.

The sun went down. The party in Bisbee was ever-present. Getting into a bar was an exercise in waiting in line from the door to the second or third row from the bartender’s view and hoping to get spotted. We made that mistake twice, once at the Grand Hotel where Renée, for the first time in our collective drinking career, finished her beverage before me. I split mine with her and our second attempt came via the Copper Queen Hotel’s bar, where a gentleman by the name of Pat Gahn, a sort of folk singing cowboy with a voice like an 90’s Bob Dylan and a face like the Marlboro Man, played us through our wait and we switched gears, me picking up the party’s pace and this women I still couldn’t believe was mine slowing it down a little.

Quick backstory, I had met Renée in college ten years prior. She was a photographer, I was an animation student. We dabbled in the playful pre-dating ramblings of love but where I went off to raise my son and get a job with a PBS station in Erie, Pennsylvania, she grabbed a backpack and hiked Europe. We’d email back and forth occasionally. She came to visit me in Erie once, then disappeared on some new adventure. I thought I’d never hear from her again, until I did. And when I did, I went after her like a pirate who’d finally sobered up and found his map. We’ve been together ever since.

Reluctant to spend the night standing in line for beer, I patted the flask in my vest pocket and she understood. We were back in the street before Mr. Gahn could finish another chord.

Raver hippy wanderer types were dancing, alcohol free but almost certainly highly intoxicated on something more Molly or X or LSD or at the very minimum, reefer, in the small park just west of the Stock Exchange. Three cops were watching them all from a distance, we weren’t sure if you were allowed to have open containers but no one in the sweat and neon bracelets of this dance were carrying anything liquid. The policemen simply seemed to be spectators, and as well as we all know that men of the law tend to be overeager to bust youths for having a good time, this did indeed seem to be an exception.

She was a former raver, and her dreadlocks and patchwork certainly shouted hippy, though she denied either as being appropriate labels for her these days, but even still she wasn’t interested in dancing. We could see a large congregation of people amassing near the city park just up the street, and decided to pursue.

Making our way up the stairs, a few pulls of the flask on the way, an old friend—both in the sense that I’d known him for years but also in that he was nearly 60 years of age—I’d recognized from prior visits was coming down that same flight of concrete steps. His fingers were bathing in the smoke of some rolled substance and his equally hippy-like style—loose cheese cloth pants, a massive beanie, dreadlocks pouring down—apparently struck a chord with Renée as after I shook his hand and gave him a hug, she proceeded to wrap her arms around her like a circle around Jerry Garcia’s sun. He patted her back and handed his smokey treat over to me. It was New Years, this was Bisbee, and we were young. How could I not partake? He just smiled a little as we all stood around and chatted slur after slurred word the joyous rebellion of this place on this particular night.

After we parted, though I’m not sure if he actually even left the spot we were standing in, the entrance to the party in the city park made as we walked off of the stairs and into the thick of it all was like a welcome home to every soldier who’s ever been missed by his mother, wife and kids. Dancers spun one around, partner to partner, in a glorious circle of the best of times. A crowd had gathered around a fenced off area which lead to the stage. The bleachers were thick with revelers anxious for the upcoming performance. Finding a spot to see the show, a circus troupe by name of Flam Chen, looked like a difficult affair given the already bursting at the seams crowd filling the park. Renée, likely from the high of whiskey and the night, and completely out of character, walked directly up to a police officer and asked him if she could climb up the gazebo to get a premium seat ontop.

costumed men on stilts waves flaming sticks as a woman dangles in the air at a City Park in Bisbee, AZ

“You could fall and hurt yours—” he began. She turned and walked away before the story could unfold. The crowd swelled as a hot air balloon began to rise from the open area in front of the stage. It rose like a claymation rocket escaping the drunken hoards of onlookers on some distant future planet. Ten feet, thirty feet, finally coming to a rest some fifty feet above us all. We looked up, every seat in the house was no front row as our collective necks kicked our heads back, hundreds of pairs of eyes staring up into the night sky. Suddenly a woman, as petite as they come, dark black hair, Asian of persuasion and immediately she, wrapped in a white sheet, fell from the balloon. As the sheet unravelled she came nearer and nearer to the crowd below. Her legs became one with the cloth as she wrapped them into its white throws, just before reaching the tops of the tallest onlookers, coming to a safe and perfectly beautiful stop. She proceeded to wind herself back into the sheet, gaining elevation and repeating the display over and over again in a multitude of varied swings, flips and swivels. Apart from the cloth to which she clung, nothing but her skill and seemingly lighter than air physique kept her from plummeting to the ground. Like a herd of Smurfs on the Fourth of July, the crowd “Oohed,” “Ahhed,” and “Ohed” the performance.

The countdown began, and all so many of our voices shouted the obligatory “10, 9, 8…” until the final moment arrived and we big adieu to the now gone year and said hello to another by kissing our lips against one another. The sound of celebrating the change of the Gregorian Calendar would revel on into January 1st’s dawn, but she and I slept through it all, happy to be with one another on this, our first New Year’s Eve together. In the morning the streets would be full of plastic red cups and vomit and cigarette butts and whatever debris and havoc the tourists could inflict on the place. We would be happy to ignore it all in the beauty of a hangover spent with your lover.end of article

Photograph by Nathan