Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kelly’s Burned Down

I remember my twenty-first birthday. It wasn’t the first time I had drunk. But it was the first time I drank at Kelly’s.

Kelly’s had a reputation. There was no mistaking it as a dive--in Geneseo, a small college town without any legitimately nice or hip bars to speak of, Kelly’s Saloon was the lowest of the low. Walls littered with Sharpie writing. Dim lighting. Rows upon rows of bottom-shelf liquor.

Freshman year, my eighteenth birthday had fallen on the first day of classes, one of the loneliest experiences of my undergrad years for having made exactly zero new friends, in an era before Facebook birthday reminders and a week before my RA was equipped to start posting happy birthday banners outside anyone’s room.

Senior year, we celebrated.

We started at Kelly’s. I recall five or six of us lining the bar. The traditional insistence that I not buy my own drinks on that occasion. Asking for a rum and coke watching the heavily tattooed bartender pour rum up to the top line of the glass, then filling in the difference with a dash of Coca Cola from the tap.

One drink in and my face had turned bright red, my head had gone light. I was staggering.

*

Ten years after graduation, I got word of the fire.

There was an electrical fire on Main Street. Kelly’s had burned down.

I saw it on Facebook, posted by an old friend, then dutifully shared the news article with a caption approximating a Wilhelm scream of “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Word spread, different news articles, different outlets, the same sparse facts. No conspiracy. Little in the way of human interest stories. Just word of the fire.

Then the jokes, circling around incredulity that the bar, notoriously soaked in alcohol hadn’t exploded.

The sentimentality came afterward as we realized what we had lost. I hadn’t set foot in Kelly’s for at least five years, but the bar remained an especially poignant point of nostalgia for the knowledge that it hadn’t changed and it never would. It was the kind of bar that probably should have been improved upon, cleaned up, renovated, decades earlier that had resisted even cosmetic adjustment, and circled around to grow all the more charming for always remaining the same dank hole in the wall.

When I began to write this post, I tried to research if there were a Kelly that the bar had been named after. Maybe it’s a generic Irish name for a generic Irish pub that peddled green souvenir t-shirts with white shamrocks printed at their center. Maybe it was the original owner’s last name. Maybe it bespeaks the name of a woman someone once loved. I imagine a story of unrequited love, or the proverbial one who got away, or a woman who, herself, died in some fire or plane crash or other random happenstance not unlike the destruction of the bar itself, and a forelorn lover who drowned all sensation of love in beer after beer, whiskey after whiskey.

I found nothing.

But therein lies another piece of the charm of a place like Kelly’s. A refusal to succumb to such romanticism, a place that lived in the here and now of pouring stiff drinks for the embittered, the lushes, the celebratory. The townies. The college kids who had just turned 21, or who were making the most of their fake IDs.

In the mode of the day--disasters and recovery narratives, the next news that broke about Kelly’s centered on word that the business would come back. Timelines. Fundraising efforts.

I hope it’s all true. Sort of.

But then there remains that selfish part of me that knows Kelly’s will never be the same, and thus never be mine again.

Just the same, in an exposure of my own sentimentality and idealism, I exchanged texts with an old college friends in the days to follow. Vowing that when Kelly’s returned, so would we. Believing that everything burnt might one day rise from the ashes.

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