The bar has been open for less than 15 minutes when the gentleman seated to my right, having just downed his third shot of Jägermeister in finger-snap fashion, announces that he is off to purchase “another” gun from a friend.
Thus begins my 11-hour marathon in Aspen’s Red Onion bar and restaurant.
For many years, I have wanted to spend an entire day sitting on a single barstool in a single bar—the premise being that bars exist on a sometimes wobbly temporal plane that transcends the obvious diurnal versus nocturnal. My goal is to enter this one the nanosecond it opens and stay until “last call” floats through the early-morning air—words I have not heard in many years.
I chose the Red Onion because I feel most comfortable in old bars—plain and simple. And having been in operation in various incarnations with different names since 1892, the Onion is one of Aspen’s most venerable.
I enter at 11 a.m. sharp on a beautiful September Saturday and park on a centrally located stool that will eventually bear the imprint of my posterior, probably forevermore. The setting is aesthetic perfection. Long and narrow, the space’s only connection to the outside world is a pair of large windows and a door at the front. The walls are brick, the ceiling pressed tin. The back bar looks straight out of the mining era, with well-polished, inlaid wood stacked with hundreds of bottles. The bar itself boasts enough scuffs and divots to indicate a multigenerational narrative thread that continues to this day. Take away the TV screens, and the entire scene could be a daguerreotype.
The initial wave of patrons consists of regulars who do not even have to order their beverage(s) of choice. The day bartender (who asks that I not use his name) has their preferred libations uncapped, drawn, and poured before ritual salutations are fully complete. Everyone seems comfortable with one another, like they know each other’s stories and can finish each other’s sentences. I envy their familiarity.
During the hour-long lull after lunch, a few couples—some with young children (tomorrow’s bar patrons, one hopes)—enter, nibble on appetizers, and mostly, eyeball their phones. One lady to my left spends her entire meal showing her partner videos of America’s Got Talent, played at maximum volume. They laugh and laugh. It’s contagious. I end up laughing with them, and I hate cell phones.
At 1:23 p.m., a woman orders a dark and stormy. When I mention that I have not heard of that particular drink, she insists I take a sip. She then insists the other people within earshot follow suit. It is a bar form of passing the Communion cup. I assume the high-octane ingredients will likely render inert any pathogens being passed from one communicant to the other.
At 3:08 p.m., the first visible sign of intoxication manifests: a spontaneous release of the F-bomb by a man who has burned his lip on a bubbling ribbon of queso dip. Families in the dining area wince a bit. The bartender wags a good-natured, no-nonsense finger and the offender sincerely apologizes.
At 3:27 p.m., a group of well-fed tourists at a corner table embarks upon a beer-gut contest. First, they see who can suck their ample bellies in the farthest. It ends up a tie. Then they see who can distend their paunches the most. Again, a tie. Their wives tell them to knock it off. They order wings, cheeseburgers, and several pitchers of beer.
A different college football game plays on each of the bar’s numerous television sets. At about 5 p.m., a large group of boisterous twentysomethings has pulled together three tables behind me. They are there to watch what I ascertain is their mutual alma mater—Clemson—play Auburn.
The most rambunctious of them essentially demands that the bartender—Jordan White, who has just come on shift—turn down the music and raise the TV sound.
I can see in Jordan’s eyes a micro-flash of justified offense. But, being a pro, he calmly tells the young man that, since other people are watching other games, he will maintain the acoustic status quo. The miffed Clemson fan walks off while muttering that Jordan can essentially kiss his ass. The bartender laughs and goes about his business.
Evening has set. A gaggle of comely young lasses sits to my right. It does not take long for the happy Clemson fans, their team having just emerged victorious, to stroll over and begin an inebriated courtship dance. To my surprise, the ladies are very receptive. I try to eavesdrop, thinking the lines being used might come in handy if I ever find myself single and young.
Turns out the crux of the communication consists almost entirely of variations on the theme, “Can I buy you yet another drink?” The damsels milk their suitors for gratis beverages for several hours. I have long been familiar with this mating ritual. Such has been the case since we were all drinking in caves.
By 7 p.m., my butt is going numb. Whenever I rise to visit the men’s room, my knees seize. I begin to realize the chances of making it till last call are fast dissipating.
With each passing hour, the average age in the bar seems to go down by five years. At 8, I feel like a chaperone at a middle-school dance. By 9, I am someone’s fuddy-duddy uncle visiting from lands faraway. Maybe North Dakota. By 10, I start to feel like a dirty old man.
I suffer a bit from claustrophobia. The bar is now so packed it is impossible to sit without being jostled by people telling stories, dancing, and caressing. My beverage intake has passed double digits. It is time to go before I somehow embarrass myself.
“You can’t go!” Jordan says. “It’s only 10!”
I walk out as he slowly shakes his head in feigned disappointment. The sound of mirth and merrymaking from the Red Onion follows me most of the way to my hotel. It stays with me for days thereafter. As does my hangover.