Outside McBride's On the Evening of Prohibition

Writer, futurist, dad. I like exploring how people and society change. Often my stories are set in history. I live and work in Washington DC, but step clear of the nonsense and mayhem as much as I ... [+]

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Friday, January 16, 1920

The regulars drifted onto the patch of sidewalk outside McBride’s the evening of Prohibition. It was Friday, it was their long-held habit to stop in.

Stopping in meant three hours on a stool, nursing an evening’s complement of drinks and continuing or ignoring the years-long conversations native to McBride’s barroom.

A saloon is an organic, living, breathing entity. It has a pulse, a consciousness, ups, downs, moods, and its own language. At least it does until a Constitutional Amendment and an Act of Congress shutter it. More than three dozen states, including the blame fool legislature of their own, saw fit to ratify. McBride’s would never open its battered, greasy doors again. But to a man the regulars could not comprehend that.

So still the men came. They came to see how such a thing could be so. They were drawn by their thirst for alcohol, but also for fellowship. They tried for fellowship now in the cold outdoors, on the gritty cobbles that ran along the front of McBride’s.

Men used to relying on the undergirding support of a barstool, and the anchoring presence of Hyrum Wallace, the barman, slumped against lamp posts and door jambs. The smell of whiskey and beer, no staler yet than any another day, lingered, like the cloud of perfume that hangs around an elegant lady and persists after she’s gone. That aura gave unwanted strength to the loss these men felt but did not yet understand.

Beyond the perfunctory greetings and jokes among the regulars, a new conversation developed. It was not the comfortable, nightly-repeated one that plied McBride’s battered copper bartop, like a streetcar you could mount and dismount, as circumstances necessitated. This new conversation was at once reluctant and urgent.

“This can’t continue long,” Bill Diggs said. The savvier men were too tired to reel around on him and disagree. Besides, they didn’t want to believe otherwise.

“’Course not,” came the answers. Years in the making, they still could not fathom Prohibition lasting the week.

Long pauses alternated in their discourse, the men having much to puzzle out.

Among the men were some with a store of spirits at home for which they could give a precise measure. And were they willing, they could calculate how long it would last. But none had worked out what they’d do after it ran dry.

“I’m going to see about The Black Rooster,” Eddie Martino, said.

“They are all shuttered tight,” said Joe Mitchell, the regular dedicated on Fridays to sorting out what was factual.

“Couldn’t hurt to be sure,” Martino said, now hurt-sounding.

“It could be stupid to think anything else,” Virgil Pont said.

This was out of line. It would not have been the first time if some man had thrown a roundhouse his way. Pont wore the crumpled nose of a street fighter, or more accurately, an annoying pedant. But no one seemed in the mood to shut him up.

“What in living Hell do we do now?” Bill Diggs said.

“Oh, I reckon go home to your wife, stop drinkin’ away your wages,” said Ted Blaine, a man who in no ways would entertain such absurdities.

“Join the Methodists, I suppose. Read the Bible,” said someone uniting with the absurd congregation founded by Blaine. This tentative jocularity lost its power after two or three exchanges.

McBride’s society and its discourse, counter to what the Women’s Christian Temperance Union believed, was peaceful, friendly, and rarely profane. The stressed men from whom that reassuring ingredient of life had been snatched were off-kilter, edging towards the opposites. The first to go was clean language.

“I’ll be Goddamned if I’ll take this lying down,” said Ben Pike.

“Listen to you Pike, never thought I’d hear you swear,” said Kid Thomas, at thirty-something the “young fella” of the McBride’s community.

“Well I’m fed up,” Pike said, voice over-loud. On instinct, he scanned for ladies present. None detected, he followed with, “Goddamnit.”

It was the beginnings of their fall from civility. But then there was a fleeting glimmer of hope.

“Hearin’ if you say it’s for religious purposes, you are permitted,” Maynard Conlin said.

This sounded like a chance. But the problem of how to orchestrate such a plan lingered in the air. These men were not finaglers or arrangers.

“Never thought bein’ a Roman Catholic might have an advantage other than eternal salvation,” Tom Riley said.

Shared laughs at this gave the men the feeling of McBride’s society as they had known it, though the impracticality of suddenly embracing religion remained.

More men arrived. The sense was somehow that all the regulars would gather at McBride’s and then. . . and then what?

Where would they go? They could disperse to their homes, except the point of going to the saloon was the emphatic opposite of going to their homes.

Could they draw on strength as a community never before manifested, and make something happen? Not surely without Hyrum Wallace, the barman, rag in hand, and his level, bartop-scanning gaze, as a centering force.

Not known to be a drinker, and out of a job, the presumption was Wallace was home with his wife. Things were that bad.

Rage had simmered in Eddie Martino, still stung by Virgil Pont’s putdown. All of a sudden the two stone-cold sober men were engaged in a grievous brawl. The regulars stared before it occurred to anyone to pull the men apart. Hyram Wallace would have stifled the fight in an instant, tossing the men to the street. The fight left both men badly damaged, and Pont near unconscious.

Someone muttered “Goddamned 18th Amendment.” It could have been any man there.

This was the bleakest day they had faced. Each man knew it had four or five useless hours left in it.

And then? Then they faced the future.