The “norm” of the Berkeley: On being a regular

berkeley huler inside

text and photographs by Scott Huler

Playing barroom pool once, during one of the multi-hour lunches that define the life of a journalist, I heard my name called.

“Huler!” cried the bartender. “Your editor called. She says get your butt back in the office; you got an edit.” This was in the days before everyone had cell phones. To underscore the scene: Pool; long lunch; a bartender who knew my name; an editor who knew to find me in a bar. I finished the shot.

My colleagues, if I recall, looked on me with something like awe. You may keep your Pulitzer Prizes, your fellowships, your life-changing stories. The highlight of my life as a journalist occurred at that moment, in the Berkeley Cafe, in
Raleigh, N.C.

And then the Berkeley closed, and I needed a new home. The Berkeley wasn’t much to look at. Brick walls, booths with wobbly tables, a low ceiling, Christmas lights all year long. For quite a while, there was a back room big enough for a stage and two pool tables. I can’t say the food was what drew me there. My colleagues first took me for lunch to the spot on Martin Street, across from Nash Square, early in my tenure at the paper. But after that I went there voluntarily for 20 years, once a week, meeting my best friend – another journalist – for lunch.

So now I do not know what to do.

I will try to explain. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” – not home, not work, but a place for community, for togetherness. A coffee shop, a bowling league, a community center. And he’s on to something. But I’m not talking about just a third place. I’m not talking about an urban asset or a community meeting place. I’m talking about a bar. Where they sell beer. And play oldies music that everyone pretends to hate.

I walked into the Berkeley once with another friend, and the bartender brightened and said hey. I was such a regular by that point that I not only went behind the bar to refill my own table’s tea or soda, I sometimes jumped up to help the waitresses by refilling them for others. If making yourself agreeable to waitresses is important to you – and I claim it should be – this is a good way to do it. Anyhow, I walked in, and the bartender cheerily smiled. So did the cook, and the owner. In those days the Berk fed half the newspaper, it seemed, so a lot of heads came up at tables, and some called my name. My friend turned to me, astonished: “You’re the Norm of the Berkeley!” Another moment for which I would not accept in trade a mantelful of more recognized honors.

When the Berk took to laminating its tabletops with photographs, I was in some of those photographs. So was the birth announcement of my older son. So you can understand my heartbreak and loss at the closing of the Berk.

This doesn’t happen by accident. You develop your appreciation – and need – for a place like the Berk over the long haul. It’s fairly likely your college years centered on a bar, probably called the Rathskeller because at college they always are, where you learned to drink beer in a basement that smelled of stale, cheap beer. If this stirs no comfortable memories, you should probably stop reading now.

I’ve never been much of a drinker – built for distance rather than speed, I prefer nursing a nice two-cheap-beer buzz to a roaring blitz. Which has meant a bar needed more than alcohol to make it pleasant: It needed company, it needed entertainment. It needed what we can broadly call personality, which I define by dimness and year-round Christmas lights, which in looking back I recognize as a shared characteristic of the three bars that have been, at various times, my own.

 huler's matchbookMore dim booths, ratty pool 

First came London’s West End, into which I stumbled in San Diego. The West End had a ratty pool table, a few dim booths, and darts tourneys, which gave me something like a foothold in my disoriented post-college years – I had learned darts during a year abroad in England. I entered a tournament, in which I lost my first game but won the rest, meaning I took the championship of the loser’s bracket, meaning I went home with a trophy that said I was the winningest loser. You can broadly call that personality, too. The barkeep there, in handing me the trophy, said they considered their tournaments something of an in-house affair – and so he expected me back, and not just on tournament nights. Eager for companionship, I did go back, and an entire 18-month life subplot ensued, which in those drifting years meant far more than any work life I was able to muster. I still have those darts trophies.

Yet as nice as the West End was, I moved to Philadelphia, where I eventually found Chaucer’s. A nice walkable six blocks from my apartment, Chaucer’s had more than a literary name attractive to a scribbler. It had a long, narrow barroom with booths even by the bar; it had a ceiling low enough that when you climbed the stairs to the back portion you felt like ducking; and yes, Christmas lights all year long.  But above all, Chaucer’s had Jack behind the bar.

Jack was taciturn, he listened well, and he occasionally told you you were a dope. When I broke up with a leggy regular over an inconvenient additional boyfriend, Jack did just that. One year Jack invited me to the secret regulars-only Christmas party. From the other side of the bar Jack overheard the same reeling conversations I did and said more with a look than I could have said in an hour’s jokes. And Jack cracked a Rolling Rock without even asking when I walked in the door. When I left Philadelphia for Raleigh, my compatriots at the Daily News took me to Chaucer’s, and Jack stuffed a Chaucer’s T-shirt in a brown paper bag and solemnly presented it to me at our table. I still have that T-shirt.

But Chaucer’s finest moment as far as I’m concerned came some years later, when, visiting Philadelphia and anxious to show off the object of my affection, I dragged my wife to Chaucer’s. It was just past 4, so Chaucer’s, barely opened for dinner, was utterly empty. When we stepped in, there at the bar stood, of course, Jack. Who took one look at me, cracked a Rolling Rock, slid it down the bar, and went back to his business as though a decade between visits scarcely merited mention. I might have felt at that moment like the president of the entire world. In front of my wife, no less. Now that is a bar.

Jack chatted with us companionably for a few minutes, but only because the place was empty and it was clear I wanted to. Jack was above all a bartender, and Chaucer’s was above all a bar. Chaucer’s has since closed. The West End, I learn, remains not only in business, but justly celebrated among San Diego dives.

But I live in Raleigh now, and Raleigh has gone on without the Berk, and I have been alone. My friend and I have floated from place to place, but we have not found our lunchtime home.

And now – now, finally, the Berkeley plans to reopen. In “the spring,” which could mean anything from late March to … I don’t know, June? I don’t care. I just know it’s coming back and I, at last, will have a home again. Better, its new owner is Rose Schwetz, whose beloved Sadlack’s Heroes was 2013’s other Raleigh divey restaurant death in the family. I’m told she’s bringing along not only Sadlack’s awesome sandwiches but its actual bar. Nice, but I was always a booth guy.

I know it can’t be the same. How can it be? It will not have pictures of my firstborn on some table. It will be all new.

Just the same, we’ll still have Berkeley stories. The night the drunk held the guitars hostage, the night El Vez wasn’t satisfied with his entrance and so went back out and came in again. The night Mary said the guy drank the ketchup. You haven’t heard the story about Mary saying the guy drank the ketchup?

Classic. Come on, I’ll tell you over lunch. Let’s go to –

Hot damn. Let’s go to the Berkeley.