Tucked away, behind a tall stand of trees, a mortuary, and another restaurant called the Figg Tree, was a rustic bar in Phoenix called the Monastery. I’m not sure when it opened, probably in the late 60s, but I spent a ridiculous amount of time there from the mid-70s through the mid-80s. Whoever was tending bar always wore a monk’s robe while serving a miniscule selection of cheap, ice-cold beer and embarrassingly bad wine by the glass.
This truly was a “Cheers” kind of place. I often took calls there and stopped just short of having my mail delivered there; others certainly did. This is the actual logo, which I found in a dusty photo album, from a Monastery “Old Timers’ Reunion” invitation:
The Monastery is where my liver really came of age since, as far as I knew, wine and cigarettes were actually food groups. I mean, what’s the point of having a liver if you don’t give it something to do?
There was always a core group of regulars, but the rest of the people who wandered through the doors varied by the day. The Monday through Thursday crowd was a bit more sedate. The Friday-Saturday crowd always attracted more new and dangerous prey. And Sunday afternoons generally drew the backgammon, sand volleyball, and Pac-Man crowds (which were three separate groups, needless to say).
The inside of the bar contained three rooms, bound completely by dark wood, a few dirty windows, and indestructible, heavy wood tables and benches. Imagine picnic tables built by drunken lumberjacks and you’ve just about got it. The restrooms were pathetically small and insufficient, but the walls and ceilings were completely covered and permanently shellacked with naked pictures of the opposite sex. And there were two more outside seating areas and a sand volleyball court.
The music was great, loud…real rock before it became “classic”: The Boss, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Seger, Joe Walsh, Fleetwood Mac, Heart…you get the idea.
Sharon and George owned the Monastery at that time, and Sharon even took her turn in the monk’s robe once in a while. Most of the time, there were one of three bartenders in charge of keeping us regulars happy:
- Greg was a giant bear of a man with a substantial beard and a mound of brown, curly hair that always escaped the hood of the monk’s robe. An ideal bartender for this unique bar, silently looking for the love of his life, who eventually arrived: A petite brunette with curly hair named Cathy.
- Kim, a tall, lovely blonde who had to have been a cheerleader in high school, with long, curly hair, a bubbly personality, and the ideal fantasy for most of the male regulars.
- And my best friend, Barb. A tall, Faye Dunaway look-alike, with an aura of calm and class that could handle any drunk who got out of line.
The bar’s eight stools were typically inhabited by very specific people, depending on the day:
- Tom, the aging, divorced, marketing exec, wasn’t there to get lucky, just to hang out.
- Jerry was the cynical, tortured journalist/writer type, hoping to get lucky, and occasionally did, but never had any repeat business.
- Phil was one of the psychiatrists at the local state mental institution who looked like a cooler Dick Cavett, if you know who he is (and no, he’s not dead). More fun at the bar stool than elsewhere, as I discovered.
- Sandy was a finish carpenter, with a gorgeous and sweet wife who occasionally joined him but who didn’t really fit in; when she didn’t come, he was on the prowl. Hope she eventually dumped him.
- Ron, a Trapper John lookalike with more hair, was undoubtedly an alcoholic, but the rare kind who only got sweeter when he drank too much.
- Karl was the token black guy in the bar– handsome, charming, and rarely went home alone.
- Bridget was a good friend until she fell prey to my temporary Italian fiance’s advances (no, he wasn’t a temporary Italian; you know what I mean); an Irish beauty with a glass of cheap white wine permanently attached to her left hand, and a Marlboro to her right.
- And there was Doc, who was just there to recover from long his nights in the ER, especially the night that Barb showed up there after a midnight bike race (that I was supposed to also be in), struck by a drunk driver, and died moments later.
And me. I’m a little concerned about the statute of limitations on some of the stupid things I did back in “the day,” so I won’t say more.
I often met up with Skip there, an architect and good friend for several years. We hung out together when neither of us had dates (in other words, a lot) and shared a lot of laughs and cheap wine, proving that When Harry Met Sally was wrong. He eventually married a Jewish chiropractor and was never seen or heard from again. The best thing about Skip, long-term, was that he introduced me to two of his girlfriends who eventually ditched him (but that’s not what he said) and became my good friends.
Since all of this happened right after fire was discovered and before cameras invaded our daily lives, this is just about the only photo I have from the Monastery years of me and Skip (and I have no memory of who took it or why):
The best thing about the above photo is that it is proof that, at one time in my life, I had a waist.
The Monastery was a classic bar that attracted all types, but those who didn’t fit in with its particular vibe just didn’t come back. In the spirit of Hotel California, once the Monastery pulled you in, it never let you go. For fun, since I am feeling all sentimental about the place, I googled the Monastery, just to see if there were any mentions of it. There were, surprisingly, after all these years, and all with 5-star ratings and comments like these:
“Easily the most eclectic crowd in Phoenix, you’ll drink beers next to doctors, lawyers, bikers, and mechanics. Nowhere else in town will you buy a burger and have to cook it yourself, but that is part of the charm of this place. “
“This was my favorite bar of all time. Loved it. I don’t know why they had it torn down because now it’s just an empty field. How sad.”
“Haven’t been there since 1988… great bar! Outdoor volleyball.. bartenders dressed like monks.. grill your own burger outside on a grill.. you couldn’t even see the place from the road. Had to know it was there. Behind a funeral home, I think… always wanted to go back…. only in memory now. Bummer!”
I haven’t set foot there since 1987, just before we moved to Idaho. By then, my life had changed dramatically. I’d gotten engaged and married, amazingly, to someone who had never frequented the Monastery. I did go back once, just for grins, a few years later, and discovered that someone else owned it and had turned it into a sports bar. Not an improvement. The place was empty; I left before ordering. Guess you can’t go home again.
Very little of my last thirty years, however, has been spent in a bar. We’ve had a few special restaurants where we came to know everyone who worked there and they knew what we’d always order. But no bars. Gary just isn’t a bar fly; it was never part of his life.
Lots of people have misconceptions about us bar flies – it doesn’t mean we’re drunks, necessarily; it just means that this is our social life for a while. In lieu of family, work buddies, or serious relationships, for almost ten years, the people in the Monastery were my tribe.
And we also often drank too much.
There’s a reason I’ve been pining for the Monastery for the first time in decades. I recently spent part of an evening at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum, Idaho, with three girlfriends. It was the last night of our weekend getaway and we wanted to take in some local color.
We’d just finished a delicious Italian meal and a couple bottles of wine by the time we got there. We are all experienced in the wine-drinking department, so this just meant that we were happy, full, and potentially capable of embarrassing ourselves if too much Jameson’s was involved. When you hang out with two Irish girls, you gotta go with the flow, you know. And then, our plan was to slip out to enjoy some quality hot tub time at our vintage hotel.
Since sometime in the 50s, the Pioneer has been the quintessential, old-style, bar in Ketchum. Classic Idaho with plenty of dead animals, red naugahyde seating, heavy wood, and generous drinks.
And if you think I’m overly sensitive to dead animals on the walls (which I am, but not in this case), check this out:
Enough about the dead animals. Maybe Hemingway shot some of them, I don’t know. He’s not talking, but he surely frequented this place.
Anyway, we ordered our Jameson’s and, since there were no seats at the bar, we settled in on the long benches, where a few other late diners were still waiting to be taken to the restaurant portion of the Pioneer for a side of beef and a sprig of parsley. The bar area was loud, the energy was high, and there seemed to be a never-ending stream of locals and tourists coming in.
Maureen and I are the “senior” members of girl group, having recently hit 60 and with mixed feelings about it. Regardless, we are under no delusions about our marketability in this or any other bar: We could care less about it, which is a nice place to get to, frankly. Maureen’s younger sister, Colleen, is a full 10 years younger, tall, elegant, and with legs as long as any self-respecting giraffe. Seated next to her, a full five years younger still, is our friend, Candy, who also is blonde and stunning.
We were just sitting here, sipping our Jameson’s and minding our own business. Then Colleen was hailed by the four guys sitting across the tables from us to take their photo. Colleen snapped off a few pics for them and then sat back down, suddenly finding herself pulled into conversation by one of the four 50-something guys, as follows:
- Andy: Every pack of guys has a leader, and this pack had Andy. These old buddies get together a couple of times a year to endure some unthinkable mountain biking adventures, punctuated by a little amateur fly fishing and barhopping to recover. He is from Bend, married, and has the personality of a salesman. Potential barfly. And player.
- Mike: He is a little more subdued than Andy, but pleasant. A chemical engineer and “regular dad” from eastern Idaho, married; oddly, he’s more of a touchy-feely type, as he talks about his love of yoga and massage. If you had to pick a guy to sit next to on a long flight, he would be my pick.
- Dave: He’s the kind of guy who wears a hat 24×7, in hopes of retaining a semblance of youthfulness in spite of his naked, bald head. Seattle-based and probably the most fun-loving of the bunch, he was more curious about how old we thought he was than charming any of us.
- Mr. Cranky Pants: This last guy refused to engage with any of us for the entire two hours we chatted it up with his friends. He clearly either didn’t approve of his friends’ behavior or was still mad that he was the last guy to cycle up to the top of the Big Ass Hill. Hard to tell.
Anyway, these guys had just finished their personal cycling challenge for the week and were out to soothe their sore muscles. Of the four of them, Andy was the most likely to be out for more, but Candy quickly dispelled his hopes and he soon vanished. I couldn’t help but wonder at his hubris; if Candy or Colleen were to succumb to anyone’s advances, would it really be Andy they would pick? I guess it never hurts to try, but seriously…
Dave came over and talked with me for a while, and the subject soon landed on their flyfishing trip the next day. I admitted to knowing a teeny bit about flyfishing, but hardly more than he did, so that subject, thankfully, died out quickly. Maureen took Dave up on his offer of another Jameson’s and, after a few sips, they seemed to be on a par with each other in lack of sobriety and sense of humor. They bantered and I, seated between them, kept score.
I glanced over to see more newcomers streaming in. The overdressed, aging, trust-fund yuppies recovering from plastic surgery, mixed in with some interesting May-December relationships. The blinged-out, sweet young things who reminded me, painfully, of my own past. Still reasonably sober, my mind jumped back and forth between this bar and the Monastery, trying to figure out what it is about classic bars that I enjoy.
Some things never change. The guys who are players today were players back in the day. The nice guys are still nice guys. And the jerks are still jerks. This is not startling news.
At this milestone age of 60, I do not regret the time I’ve spent in bars. While to you, it may seem like a colossal waste of time and money, I see it differently. Admittedly, I have no interest in parking my sorry ass in a bar stool every night like I did back in the day. My reasons for going now are different than they used to be. I am no longer looking for the father of my children or someone to soothe my fragile ego or raging hormones.
While I can’t prove this with quantum physics, time seems to stop when I’m at a good bar with friends. The very act of placing myself in a bar stool means that I’ve committed to taking a break from the world. Each small sip of that vodka martini slows the manic parts of my brain and opens another portal to creative thought. Ideas can hatch, dreams can be admitted to, unfiltered honesty can leap out of nowhere. Logic takes a much-needed nap while whatever is in my heart delights in being heard. And, even though it’s alcohol-induced, that doesn’t make it any less sincere. Time slows for a while, and I don’t know about you, but I like to feel that occasionally.
You may call this irresponsible while you head to the gym instead, but hey, that’s up to you. There’s only so much lemon water I can drink, kelp I can endure, or seconds I can spend on an elliptical machine.
Regardless, I hope to run into you at a bar sometime. Unlike so much of the rest of our lives, there’s no telling what might happen. And isn’t that the fun of it, now?
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.