Here I was, in one of the great underground jazz clubs in America, and there were mesh caps, sunglasses at night, and awkward high-fives, and the band was playing “Sweet Caroline.” I was at Bob and Barbara’s, but I felt like I was at the Republican National Convention. The lighting was terrific. The band sounded great. I was miserable. What had happened to the Bob and Barbara’s I had once known and loved? What had happened to a thick haze of smoke in a room dark enough to make Gollum comfortable, an angry bartender who wished I hadn’t come, a bathroom that made the Khyber’s johns look like a layout in Better Homes and Gardens, and a band all in tuxedos drinking whiskey and playing songs that had been popular during the Truman administration? All gone.
There was no more smoke. There were now two operating bathrooms, with working doorknobs even. The band, which now included two members who were not even in their 80s, was dressed in casual wear. The lighting, once non-existent, was now terrific. The walls, once packed with Pabst Blue Ribbon bric-a-brac that seemed to have been hung there in the 1950s, were now tastefully organized with Pabst artwork. At one point, I thought I even saw a bartender smile. What in the hell was wrong here? This place had come undone since I had last been here, and solemnly I drank my PBR.
I looked to my left and saw a Penn student wearing a Steve Largent jersey. I thought I even saw someone drinking a Corona. They offer Corona now? What was next? Were they going to start serving Beluga caviar?
I’ve had a fairly long relationship with B&Bs. When I moved to the neighborhood, it was one of a very small number of bars in the area. I never hung out there enough that I could ever call myself a regular, but I used to go there fairly often. When I was single, B&Bs was always a dealbreaker: If a girl liked watching the Crowd Pleasers after dinner on a Saturday night, she was worth going out with again. I had worked with the band on several events throughout the years. I once knew someone who was roommates with one of the bartenders there. My mom even went to her first drag show there. I had history with this place. And now, returning after a couple of years away, I felt like I didn’t know the joint.
This must have been how regulars at the Double Deuce felt after James Dalton took over security in Roadhouse. Bob and Barbara’s had become a Disneyfied version of itself. James Dalton had ripped the necks out of the characters who had once called the place home.
Of course, I am completely delusional. What I wanted was a time and place that is long gone. Bob and Barbara’s seems to be better run now, the music sounds better than ever, and the thick, oppressive smoke that made breathing in there a challenge is all gone. But it just feels like something is missing. I feel like I’m looking at a museum exhibit about Bob and Barbara’s. It’s clean and sober, and the fresh-faced kids all look good. It wasn’t like that before. The crowd had an edge, the music seemed to float in from a dark hallway, and you learned new things about the human anatomy and maternal relations when you read the bathroom graffiti. This time, there were no characters, just a bunch of young kids looking to drink some cheap beers. That isn’t Bob and Barbara’s fault; they serve beer to people who want to drink it. But man, the joint was just aching for some questionable characters at the bar, a bit of smoke in the air, a band wearing tuxedos, and some bartenders who wished I had never been born.