The most wonderful bar in the world is in Charleston, South Carolina.
Cutty’s is, affectionately, a dive bar. It’s tucked squarely in the Elliotborough neighborhood, where the food and beverage industry workers somehow find landlords who take cash and charge half that of the rent-gauged college students next door. In perhaps the greatest business strategy I have ever seen, there is a pizza shop across the street, owned by the same two brothers who own the bar, a scheme to which I often played victim.
The hallmark of a great dive, Cutty’s has minimal exterior, advertorial signage. In this case, simply a single red light bulb that illuminates a placard of the bar’s name below a logo of an eye-patched cat imposed on a Jolly Roger. Inside, the bar is dimly lit with no windows, and decorated with ticky tacky: handwritten notes and drawings, strung up Christmas lights and Mardis Gras beads, someone’s old bedside table adhered upside-down on the ceiling.
The bathrooms are well-graffitied, predominantly with absurdist cartoons who chug beers and smoke cigars. These characters are lovingly referred to as Trash Monstrs (sic), which a long-time patron once created a handcrafted card game based on. This place was more than a bar, it was a clubhouse. There was a certain culture there, though if you asked anyone exactly what that culture was each person would tell you something slightly different, but no one would be wrong. And like any good dive, it was a place where everyone was welcomed, but it was not wanting or desperate. It was a place that could get along without you. A place full of wanderers who had stumbled in and one day realized they were regulars.
I first wandered into the bar for the comedy open mics, but later crossed the threshold to regular barfly a couple years later when I moved just down the street. This would become the only bar where I have ever gotten free drinks (it didn’t hurt that my roommate was one of the bartenders). There is something alarming about walking into a bar and an immediate pouring of a double bourbon ginger in a pint glass with a splash of bitters — but also something endearing.
Inevitably there would always be at least four other people I knew there, but this of course was textbook drinking buddy territory. The content of our conversations were typically complaining about bad shifts at work, but sometimes dovetailed into topics like the influence of Napster on the music industry or to what degree we liked to believe in horoscopes.
Jim and I usually talked about writing and college sports. He was around the same age as me, but wore it like a sunburn. When we first met he was often side-by-side with his girlfriend Amy, who was tall and blonde with a surfer punk aesthetic and an unapologetic affinity for Dolly Parton. But after about a year of trading shots with the two of them, one day it was just Jim at the bar. A series of shouting matches fueled by PBR and Marlboro Reds had culminated in them breaking up just a week after signing a lease together at an apartment on Ashley Avenue.
One night in the week after the breakup, Jim was in bad shape at the bar. He was a Latin professor at the college and with his classes typically being out by 3pm, he was often at the door of the bar waiting to be let in at 4pm. I don’t think I had even taken my usual seat at the bar that night before realizing that Jim needed an escape plan from himself. I wrapped my arm around his shoulder, signed his tab for him, and walked Jim through the brackish night air of Elliotborough.
His weight against mine meant we were both stumbling, the retarding effects of alcohol and a new address had Jim telling me to turn this way, no wait, that way, until eventually getting back to where he would spend the night alone on Ashley Avenue. Opening the door, the apartment was dark but the street light that crept in showed a place that mashed up two lives coming together: a mitigated decor of sports memorabilia and surfer punk aesthetic. His now-ex-girlfriend was staying with a friend while hunting for a new apartment. That night, Jim would punch a hole in the living room wall.
For the next year Jim would often recount that night, citing me as a great friend and buy me well shots of bourbon without expecting any reciprocation. We often made plans to get lunch, an opportunity to move beyond drinking buddies, but never did. That September I went up at my last-ever open mic at the bar, packed my things into a U-Haul, and drove to New York City–a place where everyone is welcome, but nobody needs you.
After about six months of living in Brooklyn, I came back to visit Charleston. I figured six months was long enough to feel like I was coming back to visit an old friend and not crawling back to a former lover. I was relieved to find that the return trip was exactly what I needed: familiar ground, embracing friends, and bittersweet confirmation that I had made the right choice in moving. But I also needed a drink, specifically a double bourbon ginger in a pint glass with a splash of bitters.
The bartender, Sarah, went wide-eyed when I walked in. She welcomed me back with a hug and my usual drink on the house. Jim was seated down at the opposite end of the bar with a PBR in hand, his pack of Marlboro Reds at the ready, but didn’t seem to notice my entrance. A small group of regulars surrounded me, and I gave them my bottled speech about life in New York.
Still, my friend Jim was off somewhere else and when I finally got to him, he snapped up. He was excited to see me, his drinking buddy. But he didn’t ask me about New York. He just mentioned that he was surprised he hadn’t seen me at the bar in a while. Had it been a month? Two? I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t live at the end of the block anymore, but rather 750 miles away.
I shouldn’t have expected anything more, and he shouldn’t have either. After all, we were both just wanderers who had stumbled here anyway.
The Last Word:
3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz green chartreuse
3/4 oz cherry liqueur
3/4 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
Hunter Gardner is a writer and comedian in Brooklyn. He’s been featured as a live storyteller on PBS WORLD Channel’s Stories From the Stage and been published on popular humor websites including McSweeney’s and Points In Case. He has three very, very cool nieces and owns exactly one plant.
image: MM Kaufman