Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mono-Lagering: Union Hall

Given a gift of free beer coupons from 30 different bars from, Mr. Rice has decided to visit each one, and record his thoughts.

Back on the road for another Mono-Lagering--well, back on the subway, at least. My ignorance of Park Slope geography showed up again as I found out Union Hall was also ridiculously close to my friends' apartment. So this past Tuesday, I decided to drop by for a couple of drinks to relax after a stressful day of watching my students try to puzzle out the labyrinthine tricks of standardized testing. My first hint of what was to come was outside, where a placard advertized burlesque (more on that in a second) and "Adult Education: Social Anxiety."

My expectations sank deeper than the Marianas. Was that an actual class? On social anxiety? At a bar? I could imagine few worse ideas. On the other hand, maybe it was just a band with a very terrible name, designed to make sure no one but total freakshows ever showed up for a gig. Either way, I sort of steeled myself, took a breath, and walked in.

I stopped dead in my tracks. The place is fucking huge. This was seriously one of the biggest non-beergarden bars I have ever been in at any point in my life. There's a long bar along the right that had to be fifty or sixty feet long. (Maybe more: my concepts of space and time are horribly lacking.) But that's not all; to the left there was a large library/lounge. I immediately loved that little bit. It felt like an old Gentleman's Club (not the sort where Russian women testily ask if you want a dance every ten seconds), the sort of place Victorian adventurers would gather to swap stories of tigers, intrigue, and turning invisible or something.

And still this bar went on. Behind the lounge were two bocce ball courts, side-by-side. Behind that was a raised section, marked "Reserved for Bruklyn Knights." I didn't even go downstairs, where there is apparently a performance space. This is a bar so big it has a split personality (another point I'll touch on again in a bit).

But the overall vibe I got on that pleasant afternoon was that of Men. From the library/lounge to the competitive sport indoors to the private club planning to meet in the back, everything felt like that mostly-illusive idea of a Club of Men, which has long fascinated me. My grandfather was a fairly high-ranking Mason. My Dad was a member of the local Elk's Club. Both interest me for differing reasons.

My first real experience with the Elks, outside of a conversational reference point, was when my first band played their first show. We were dopey assholes that barely knew their instruments and had songs about hillbillies and making fun of Pearl Jam. We opened up for a punk band called the Connie Dungs. Though half the crowd came for us (we had sold so many t-shirts that we actually had to perform), the other half was decidedly not amused. If I recall correctly, a Taco Bell "burrito" was thrown at us at one point.

But that wasn't the Lodge my father belonged to. Dad's Elks' Lodge was something of a speakeasy. In the middle of a dry area of town, it's a full bar and gambling emporium. I actually got to visit it a couple Christmases ago. Dad and I escaped a boring party thrown by my maternal Aunt (sweet lady, but that party was a snoozer). On the way we had one of those great father-son talks. He was also an early divorcée and, as he put it, the Elks was his Harefield; that is, the bar where he found a second home after a marriage failed.

That made it even more of a significant event, visiting that place. Boy, was it a sight. It was mostly old men grumbling at each other, just talking shit the way they have for fiftysome years. Card games going on at one table with rules Dad did his best to explain to me. Dad bought me a Bud and we chatted and I was introduced to his old bar buddies. It was fucking great. I bought the next round, and put in a shot of Maker's for myself because, why not? When I realized the two beers and a shot cost me around six dollars I never wanted to leave.

Speaking of buying booze, back in the present, I sat down at the top of the bar and selected Left Hand Stout from their twelve, wonderfully-varied taps. It was creamy, thick, and delicious, while not being overwhelming or heavy. The friendly bartender chatted me up a bit and it's apparently very light in both alcohol and caloric content. A sort of micro-brewed American Guinness I guess. I munched on a long pretzel and realized I miss the prevalence of bar snacks.

I've long been fascinated with the Masons. First off, I adore my late grandfather. GK Harmon was one hell of a man, the kind that sends us into tizzies trying to outworship his generation. But also, the Masonic story is fascinating, and the conspiracy theories even more. Directly post-college I tried to drum up interest in joining the Masons with my pals. That landed with a horrible thud. Even if the worst theories are true, damn, man, I want IN on that!

There's just something about a Men's Club that feels . . .intriguing? I'm not sure. I hesitate to dwell on it too much, as I don't especially like the gender politics of exclusion. However, I cannot deny that it's damn fine to just sit around and spend time with other dudes every now and then. I've always been friends with a lot of girls, and sometimes even catch hell about it. But I love a night of Men and I'm not sure if I could ever place why. I don't tend to buy into theories that men and women are naturally so different; it doesn't sit right. Sure, there might be some intrinsic differences (psychologically/emotionally, not just, uh, genitalially), but cultural indoctrination seems more likely for "Men are like ______, but women are like ________!" CUE LAUGH TRACK.

Hell, sometimes hanging with the boys includes a girl or two. Just like I've crossed over into being "one of the girls" there's sometimes a girl who is freely accepted in dudery, from poker night to late-night drunken trips to horrible strip clubs.

Tangent time. What the fuck is up with burlesque? God, I hate it. It has all the weird social discomfort of real stripping except no one gets naked. They wear nerdy costumes, have stupid fake names, feel way too confident about the way they look unclad, and generally just annoy me. I feel this tangent drawing to a close because I just figured out what is up with burlesque. It's Nerd Stripping. Nerds ruin everything, including things that were already terrible.

I'm not sure what exactly makes an individual apt for boys/girls night crossover; could be the fact that this individual never has and never will do sex on any of the members of the opposite gender in question. I could also be gay.

Anyway, Union Hall didn't have many people there at four, but most all were men. There was the helpful bartender, an older man drinking mixed drinks, and two younger fellows playing bocce with some of the weirdest body language I've seen. The Stout had been tasty, but it was too much to have more than one in a row. For my free pint, I chose a Captain Lawrence Kolsch. Been drinking a lot of kolsches lately; the warmer weather is bringing out the crispness. The Lawrence one is particularly crisp with a nice sweetness, very refreshing. To make up for the low alcohol content of the Stout, I paired the Kolsch with an Old Whiskey River.

Musing over the snack menu I noticed they served beer cheese. I've tried to explain this stuff recently, and it isn't that easy. It's a spreadable cheese, kind of like pimento, I guess? Except it's spicy and has beer in it. It's popular back in Kentucky, and harder than hell to find up here. As the owners of Union Hall (and Floyd's and the Bell House) are from Kentucky, so they've started making their own. Dear God is it delicious! And amazingly terrible for you, but who gives a shit, right?

Beside the head of the bar is a giant bulletin board where all the upcoming events are advertised. Bands, karaoke, game nights, classes (?), interviews . . .it honestly felt a little disparate and desperate. It's like Union Hall has a multiple personality disorder. Is it a men's lounge? Is it a venue? Is it a bocce joint? I mean, it is big enough to host not only multitudes of people but ideas, so I guess it's all right.

There's something hard to define about Union Hall. I liked it quite a bit, but something makes me slightly uncomfortable if I try to think about it. I guess it's like a Men's Club or a boy's night that way. Yeah, it's great, but if I try to examine why I get squicked out and worry I'm going to ruin the enjoyment I get. It can't be that I am uncomfortable exploring my feelings both about myself and my fellow males, can it?

That's just a stereotype, and those are bullshit.


  1. Like a lot of subcultures, modern burlesque is essentially pretend rebellion for white people.

  2. Oooooh, score one for Michael. Well-said.

  3. Did you ever figure out what transpired at 7:30 RE: Adult Education: Social Anxiety ?

  4. I'm intrigued.

    Let's go.

  5. Whoa.

    Alas, it was this past Tuesday.