Every town has at least one. Maybe two. Maybe more. I’m talkin’ about a neighborhood watering hole where the local yokels can belly up to the bar and leave their worries at the doorstep. Say Cheers in Boston or McSorley’s in New York. Lakewood used to have more than its share. A place where friends, old and new, could polish off the workday with a few laughs or cries. You know, someplace where people who need people are the most wonderful people in the world. Barbara Streisand people. A place where stories are born and , over time, embellished into legends.
On the western corner of town was The Alligator Inn. I hung out there with a couple of the boys back in our mongrel days. Andriis was a mason by trade. Cowboy, a carpenter. Friday afternoons, the lion’s share of their paycheck ended up on the bar. By Monday, they were pretty much broke. Didn’t matter until they decided to visit a mutual friend who had just moved to New Mexico. Week after week, they tried to stick to their plan but somehow shots, and even water goblets, of Cuervo stood in their way.
Then they designed a scheme to outsmart themselves: leave right after work on Friday before they had a chance to blow their money. And so, the following Friday, that’s exactly what they did. Met at The Alligator , never went inside and parked Andriis’ truck in the lot. Off they sped to New Mexico. Ten minutes down route 70, they came around the Lakehurst circle. Eisenhower’s Bar and Liquor store stood about halfway around. “It just makes perfect sense to pick up a case or two for the ride”, they both agreed.
That’s as close as they got to New Mexico. Saturday morning they were back in their seats at The Alligator.
Along the northern border of Lakewood stood the Cabana Bar and Grill. When the liquor stores closed at ten, you could always pick up a cardboard container of beer at the Cabana. I observed a couple of old timers there every now and then. Cecil and Manny. They had been friends a long time and it was difficult to determine who was a bigger pain-in-the-ass to who. The more they drank; the more they bickered; both in broken English. Sometimes in their native tongue which didn’t seem to be the same. They also ironically shared the common inability to tell time.
This became particularly irksome to Manny because Cecil sported a beautiful gold watch which he was fond of showing off even though he had no idea what it said. And so Manny was constantly subjected to the oohs and aahs that his nemesis was always getting.
Well, one rainy day they found themselves parked on barstools on either side of a used-to-be attractive woman whose name is buried far beneath the dustpile of my memories. A few highballs down the road, Cecil pulled out his celebrated watch which was sure to score points with the old girl.
“Ever see anything like this?” he asked. Before he could answer, Manny broke in. He had had enough of this unwarranted bragging.
“Say, Cecil, what time is it?” he slurred in an attempt to out his buddy’s ignorance.
But Cecil was quick on his feet. Without missing a beat, he thrust his arm across the lady and into Manny’s face. “There it is!”, he offered.
Not to be outdone, Manny replied, “Damn if it ain’t”.
To the south where Lakewoood bumps into Toms River, sat GeeWillikers, a bar that attracted a different kind of crowd. Patrons who were a bit more genteel, refined…and horny. Before the Internet gave rise to on-line dating, GeeWillikers served as a boulevard of broken dreams where desperate widows, divorcees and damsels in distress could find an amorous car salesman, off-duty cop, or an assistant to an assistant manager. Who says you’re entitled to just one soulmate per week? In this world of martinis and chardonnays, many wedding rings were stowed in pockets, pocketbooks, and glove boxes. Sometimes you were the predator; sometimes the prey. And every once in a while -both (maybe in the same night).
Higgins Bar drew its clientele from the poorer, rougher east side of town. Just a step below blue collar on the social ladder, guys (and a few gals) with no collar would supplement their diet with boilermakers and shots of Wild Turkey. Ruffians and lowbrows ready to get it on when that tidal wave of alcohol mixed with excessive testosterone into some psychotic cocktail.
“Take it outside!” the bartender would bellow. He was a huge man. Big and bad enough to be both bartender and bouncer. In a classic tribute to irony, they called him Tiny. Tiny liked to keep the peace. It kept the cops out.
Outside, in the alley, renegades of the downtrodden masses cavorted in a rendition of the Wild Wild East. Here two meatheads slugging it out. There a circle of gamblers shooting craps. Behind the dumpster, a not-so-discreet couple pawing each other, oblivious to the bum blowing his beets next to them.
All this just across the street from the town library where kids were doing their homework. The kids that never did homework? Someday they’d end up at Higgins‘.
I stopped there one afternoon with Cockeyed Charlie. He got his name from one eye looking straight at you and the other parked in left field. He explained that when he was in reform school, if you had a beef with someone, they’d make you put on boxing gloves and settle it in a ring. Charlie, being a rather slight boy, was not up to such rigorous combat and, unfortunately, exited one of these competitions with his left eyeball deposited about an inch over.
Anyway, me and Charlie were painting an apartment about a block away and figured we’d grab a quick beer and burger for lunch. We were the only ones in there when some guy walked in through the side door. Tiny knew him well. “Hey, Joe!” (I don’t remember his name. It could have been Joe). “Haven’t seen you for a while. Where ya’ been?” I watched as Tiny slid him a Jack Daniels straight-up. He remembered what he drank.
“Oh, I guess I hit a cop. Had to do six months in the county lock-up” Joe explained.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry.” Charlie interjected. “When’d you get out?”
Joe pushed up his sleeve and looked down at his watch. “‘Bout twenty minutes ago”.
They’re all gone now. The Lexington, Buckwald’s, Nat’s Place, Scotty’s Pool Hall, The 121 Club. Brushed aside and dozed over for a new population. A population disinclined to the vagaries of alcohol.
Higgins Bar, possibly the recipient of Lakewood’s first liquor license, managed to prevail for some 35 years more after the Franklin family bought it in 1983. They renamed it The Laketon Inn and quietly became the “place where everybody knows your name” for the indigenous Lakewoodites. To at least two generations, it became the home away from home; the home to go to when you didn’t want to go home. The home where strangers became acquaintanaces; acquaintances – friends; friends became family.
Inside Timmy, the manager, holds court. A big man with an even bigger personality, he’s always at the ready with a quick joke, a putdown or a comeback. He keeps it light. With his gravely voice and booming laugh, he seems an unlikely candidate for a manager. But it works because the crowd is unlikely. It doesn’t sport the crazies of The Alligator, the two-fisted drinkers of the Cabana, the on-the-prowlers of GeeWillikers, or the rascals of the old Higgins. They’re just people from Lakewood enjoying the last remaining comfort of their town.
“City” patrols the bar, keeping pace with drink orders from a standing room only crowd. (I should mention, there’s only twelve barstools so “standing-room-only” is not that big a deal). On the other side of the bar, I chat with Jimmy who plays the bagpipes; Janis who knows the words to every bawdy barroom tune and is always on deck to start it off; and Sharon, the adorable ageless head cheerleader. Cops, mechanics, musicians, teachers, contractors. All Lakewood products. All basking in the bond of their hometown heritage. The booze only feeds the comraderie. The Laketon Inn – just a slice of a lost Americana.
But Alas! The Laketon had its last call on December 7. Gobbled up by the benefactors of a burgeoning society. It was bound to happen. Lakewood had been sold, piece by piece, to the most well-connected bidders. It’s not even a town anymore. Maybe a metropolis. Maybe a city. Maybe a ghetto. There’s no Little League field. No parades. No malt shop, Y, or library. It has no flavor. No room to breathe. The air saturated by carbon monoxide. The movie theater doesn’t show movies.
The lake, Carasaljo, has lost its luster. No one swims in it anymore. No one skates on it. No one’s out there fishing. This jewel of the pines is festooned with the filth of overflowing garbage cans. Where once people picnicked, now discarded bottles and styrofoam and dirty diapers.
The woods? What little is left of them is slated for the bulldozer by a planning board that is merely a rubber stamp for greedy developers who can’t tell the difference between people and sardines. Might be time to change the name. There’s no lake. There’s no woods.
Yes, The Laketon Inn was all that remained and now its doors are shuttered. When Timmy called for “last call”, it was for more than just a bar. It was “closing time” for Lakewood.