Jules Mae's is what every bar in America aspires to be, so comfortably well-worn it actually inspires one to drink. In the old days, the crush of brewery workers must have been overwhelming--burly men elbowing their way up to the 20-foot polished bar for a glass of the golden product they helped create. Tonight, however, the place houses me, my date, an older couple well on their way to a meaningful drunk, a man in a plaid jacket, and June Espeland. June is the owner and the barkeep; a hale, handsome woman who would rather chat than watch TV. The news is on, anyway... pros and cons about Safeco Field. If the brewery still functioned, it's possible Jules Mae's would still be a corporate bar; a revamped, logo-swathed hangout, perhaps, fresh with brass taps and glove leather upholstery. Thank God it's not. The decor shifts with stale dust: '70s-style political prints butt up against chintz-flowered plates on the walls. A bowling pin with a bow tie lolls in one corner. The man in the plaid jacket beside me points at a square opening in the wall behind the bar and asks, "Hey, what the hell is that?" Turns out it used to hold a block of ice. "I'll be damned." The man relaxes. History is quaintly reassuring.
* * *
Jules Mae's opened for business in 1888, five years before the brewery, and well before the street was paved. Georgetown existed as a bustling corporate town then, puffy with civic pride. According to newspaper clips that adorn the tavern's walls, Mr. Mae possessed the friendliness requisite to bring in drinkers, the kind of pioneer interest in the habits of strangers that endears customers. One hundred years later, June took over the business. Things have changed a bit--the bar itself used to be several doors down, and was re-established in 1939, after Prohibition ended--and the small amount of remodeling, like the cement gray acoustic tiling above the bar, smacks of odd modernity. Still, time remains trapped here, coating the walls like the smell of good cooking.
Oh, and you can eat at Jules Mae's. The back room, once a bookie joint, has been filled up with diner booths. The menu is calculated for breakfast or lunch, and is heavy enough to prepare the stomach for later excess. I've watched other people eat here; the sausage seemed sinewy, the eggs good and salty. The toast looked like my favorite kind, thin and stiff as winter muslin.
But my reason for coming here is to drink, so I do.
* * *
On a Saturday night Hogan's Heroes is on TV, followed by Beach Blanket Bingo. "This goddamn movie always was too long," one customer complains. The same older couple sits at a table, every bit as skillfully soused. This time there's a man tending bar, and I order up a Rainier. I ask where June is. "Oh, I don't know," he grins, cryptic. "Mama's gotta keep her game up."
"Are you her son?" I say stupidly.
"Nah," he says. "We got the same birthday, though. We get along."
I get drunk enough to peruse the walls without self-consciousness. In the dim light, everything looks ancient, and it's hard to tell what's history and what's just been conveniently stuck in frames. Back when Jules Mae's was a company saloon, with Rainier the monopoly on tap, there were 20-odd bars in the neighborhood, cutthroat in creative competition. When beer started becoming the drink of choice in America in the late 1800s, manufacturers decked out select taverns with swank furnishings, prostitutes, and free lunch, trying to attract every working man. Jules Mae's still tips its hat to the day, giving a place of honor to an old print of an odalisque--once a kind of universal symbol meaning respectable women weren't welcome. This odalisque has her back to the viewer, though, and despite her long hair, looks ironically masculine.
Nowadays, Jules Mae's offers Rainier, Mack & Jack's Amber, and Full Sail on tap. The hard alcohol is sort of scattered around, but it's clear this bartender knows his stuff. When I sit back down someone orders "a lime juice and sody water." "You forgot the liquor!" someone else reprimands. The guy who orders shakes his head and says, "Oh, well, let's just say I'll pretend."
Georgetown is not the place to stay dry. The cloud of change hanging over the place is as heavy as regret. After I left Jules Mae's, I had a dream I spent the entire night there, with my mother. It was a charming and strange dream, haunted with a nostalgia for a familial congeniality, aided by alcohol. Of course, I know the opposite is equally true, that liquor can bring out a blunt ugliness. In Georgetown, at least, there is a place to exorcise both extremes.