Mar 12, 2013

Jake's Corner Bar, where the bottles really sparkle
and the one-legged barmaid is long gone

Jake's: What's behind 
 that gray door?
The hairy guy's report:

By pure coincidence, on the same day the New York Times had a story about the popularity of table shuffleboard in hip Big Apple bars, we walked through a mysterious door into Jake's Corner Bar in downtown Bay City -- and found a shuffleboard table. Who needs Manhattan, anyway?

From the start, we had no idea what to expect in Jake's. The view from the street offers no clues, other than there's a bar inside. The bald guy was really expecting a dive. (He might try to deny it now. But trust me, he was.) That would have been OK with us, but it wasn't what we found.

You have to admit that we had cause to wonder. The outside is all boarded up. The door is bare. No Budweiser signs or anything like that. No nothing except for an awning. You might mistake the front door for the back door, actually.
The view inside

It's dark inside. The tin ceiling is painted black. Bud Light and Miller Lite are on draft -- $1.25 for a frosty mug, or $1 during happy hour -- which actually lasts four hours, 3-7 p.m. weekdays. An assortment of bottles are available; the younger crowd likes that, says longtime barmaid Joni (she works weekdays). No food is served, but you're free to get something delivered (menus are available).

Jake's, according to Joni, dates back to the Hell's Half Mile days. She suspects the single rooms upstairs were a brothel. The place was previously named the Pink Garter, then Finnegan's. "Years ago, they used to have shag carpeting around the bar," Joni says.

When we popped in, the TV had on a soap opera and some women sitting at a table talking about something. We didn't pay them any attention, and they didn't distract us from some spirited shuffleboard. (It turns out, according to the NY Times article, that Jim Cramer, the ranting CNBC host, is among those hooked on the game. He would have been a distraction.) And for the record, the hairy guy beat the bald guy. If you want to play, be advised: Leagues play Monday and Tuesday nights and every other Sunday.

Oh, one more thing: The bottles behind the bar get dusted once a week, Joni said, usually on Sundays. "Yeah, they really sparkle," the bald guy said, obviously impressed. That settles it for me: Jake's is no dive.

The bald guy's report:

Since there's no windows, from the outside it looks like an old-time speakeasy.  With even a speakeasy's name:  Jake's.  Looks like you'd to go to the narrow door on Saginaw Street and speak to a pair of cold eyeballs looking at you thru a little slide opening.  Like you had to have a password to enter.  And once inside it would be dark, murky, smoky, and you'd think the burgundy canopy outside should read, "Jake's Cave."  And there would be unsavory characters in pea coats and stocking caps hunched over drinks at the bar, not looking at anyone and not wanting to be looked at.  I told Harry be prepared to have to fight our way out of here.  (Yeah. As if. Coupla geezers.  I watch too many cop shows.)  After all, I'd been here years before and that's how I remembered it.
"Who sent ya?" Eyeballs growled.
"Big Louie."
"WHO?!"  I swear, they almost came out the slot at me.  Evidently not Big Louie.  Thinking fast I searched my database for any other character in my past, real or imagined--
The magic word.  The door opened and we were in.... .

Joni behind the bar at Jake's
Imagine my surprise to find it the opposite of what I'd imagined.   Borrowing from Hemingway, it was a "clean, well-lighted place."  I specifically mention lighting because the layout looked professional.  (I had at one time attended General Electric's week-long lighting school at Nela Park, Cleveland, Ohio.  I don't remember anymore how to do it but I remember what a good job looks like.)  I liked Jake's use of lighting, illuminating yet not bright, nor would you want it, it's a bar, not a gym.

I think they used that jewelry store lighting -- geezed out on this, I can't remember what you call it, some big lighting school graduate I am -- on the backbar mirror to add sparkle to the very clean and precisely-aligned bottles thereof.  It was obvious somebody here gave a damn.  And, as we bellied to the bar, we were about to meet that person:  Joni, the affable and attractive manager of Jake's Corner Bar.
I wove my way thru the murkiness to the bar and gave the place a quick scan -- a scan telling me to mind my own business.  Anything more than that could end up shiv-ugly.   I sat down at the bar, the cloud of smoke parted and thru it drifted an angel with more curves than River Road.  Golden hair framed a radiant smile and her lidded eyes flashed and flirted and challenged.
“What’ll it be, stranger?”  Her voice was husky and direct.  A woman who knew who she was and where she was going.  I liked that.
“Anything special here today besides you, dollface?," I asked.
Her eyes twinkled and a playful grin pulled at the corner of her lips.  “Just me, hotshot and,” sizing me up, “I don’t think you can handle the freight.”
So I ordered a beer and said, “Well let’s just see how much a guy has to haul.....”
One-legged barmaid is at bottom

Joni said her brother owned the place and she managed it.  She’d been here 17 years.  I told her how pleasantly surprised I was to see the place wasn’t the dive I’d expected (it was probably 30 years since I’d been here).  Oh yeah, she said, it used to be a lot of black, all dark, and closed in with a dropped ceiling. She detailed the latest renovation, dropped ceiling gone, pointing out the paint and the lighting and the ceiling, of the hammered-tin style painted a dark brown.  I remarked how eye-catchingly clean the bar bottles were and Joni explained they’re individually wiped down and polished (and pour spouts cleaned and disinfected) once a week, usually on Sunday, usually a slow day.  You could hear in her voice she made sure of that.  Like I said, she’s the manager and the place shows she cares.  (Evidently a devotee to the Big Boy restaurant dictum of “Got time for leanin’, got time for cleanin’.”)

The earliest record of the place is a photo one of the patrons found.  It’s from an era of beat cops — '20s?  '30s? -- and there was a station box right outside the door of the 3rd Street entrance.  It was Gus’s then and the photo is a group shot of everyone in the bar at the time -- and it was full.  On the lower picture prominent front right is a tall policeman in uniform enjoying a beer.  Opposite him is the One-Legged Barmaid.  As I was taking this picture, a regular, maybe my age, pointed out this feature.  He said, “She” (Joni) says I give the barmaids a hard time but imagine back in this time how they must’ve ran ragged a one-legged barmaid.  These girls got it easy today.” 
Side door, a lot like the front door

Joni was quick to point out she was holding the other one up, resting it, probably thankful for the photo respite, her feet were probably sore, they didn’t have fancy sneakers back then.  The guy referenced the One-Legged Barmaid again and again Joni corrected him. You knew her voice of experience trumped his assertion but you also knew this was a friendly, running banter between them.  That’s the kind of place it was.  Patron and proprietress felt comfortable enough for good-natured teasing.

But, Joni told us, the place dated all the way back to the lumbering days of Hell’s Half-Mile, with two small rooms with nor heat nor electricity above the bar that seem to have served no useful purpose then and now unless, as reputed, the place had girls working both upstairs and down.   So it would make sense.  (If Hollywood had picked lumberjacks instead of cowboys, Bay City would’ve been crazy-famous.)  You can find out more about Hell’s Half-Mile at both the Wirt Library and Bay County Historical Museum.    
We talked back and forth and I got pulled in deeper by eyes that promised much yet gave little.
“You know,” she said leaning over the bar towards me.  It took all my gentlemanly will power to keep my eyes glued to her face.  “There’s two small rooms above here that’s been there forever.  No heat.  No electricity.  Just two small rooms.  What could they have been for?  It’s said during the lumbering heyday this place was a brothel.”
And she locked my gaze so boldly I was compelled to look away, unfortunately/fortunately right down her blouse, which got me even more flummoxed.  Why, of all the things she could tell me, why tell me that?  Probably to see how I would handle it (she was that kinda dame) — not well, obviously — but if she was in a telling mood, perhaps it was time to pop the question I came here for.
“You been here 17 years, right?  Met a lot of people, right?  And yer a smart cookie, I’ll bet you remember a lot of ‘em, right?”  She allowed as how she did.  “Guy named Artie Banaszak ever stop in?”
“Why?  He owe you money?”
Damn, she was good!  Even though it wasn’t about the money.  Really. I can’t tell you how much it really isn’t about the money.  And yet it’s there, so when I told her he was an old neighborhood chum, I just wanted to re-connect, my eyes flickered and she caught it and knew I wasn’t being totally honest and knew I knew she knew.  Doobie, doobie-doo. Whew!
“Can’t say I recognize the name.  What’s he look like?”
It’s been 50 years or more, I had no idea. Like me, tall, dark and handsome.  (OK, tall, bald and portly.)  He was thin when I knew him but so was I.  Artie’s mother, Gertie, always said he had his Grandpa’s” futures.”  She meant “features” but then Gertie sometimes said funny things and things funny.  And sometimes her word made more sense than the actual.   And since I had no idea how his grandfather looked, all I could think of was “Polish.”  He looked Polish, which wasn’t even worth voicing, what does that mean, how do you tell somebody looks Polish, so I’d reached another dead end....
Shuffleboard table at Jake's

The d├ęcor belies its lumbering heritage.  First of all, the high ceilings, which were mandatory in the days of oil lamps, tobacco smoke, cooking fumes and no indoor plumbing, the already mentioned hammered tin ceiling, and the extensive use of the old-fashioned floor-to-ceiling grooved paneling and otherwise wood everywhere.   It covered the entire place. I wouldn’t exactly call Jake’s upscale, nor exactly genteel, but it’s close.  I would peg it at having Bay City Lumberjack Gentility, its own special charm.

One other piece of wood bears mentioning:  A full-sized, regulation bar shuffleboard table where they have leagues and regular competition. Harry, being a huge shuffleboard wonk, started wetting his leg when he saw it.   And I see in his blog he had to gloat about beating me, even though I hadn’t played since the Navy, almost 50 years ago and yet, by the second game I was already giving the little weasel all he could handle.

You really can’t call Jake’s a neighborhood bar because, well, there’s no neighborhoods nearby, just downtown commercial buildings.  In the summer, they get a lot of the spillover from all the events happening in beautiful downtown Bay City and throughout the year they get foot traffic from the huge Bay City Antique Mart(s) on Water Street.  And yet, even in a winter’s midday, in spite of no neighborhoods around, it easily drew as many people as the last place we visited (Bishop’s) and by the time we left, along with the regulars at the bar, there was a knot of young people gathered around a table sharing a drink and the day’s stories.  They were nice kids, well-groomed and well-mannered and their presence spoke well about the type place Jake’s was.
Shuffleboard table reflected in mirror

If you want a drink in a pleasant bar with a pleasant bartender and pleasant patrons, in a place steeped in Bay City history amid wood-paneled walls where you can almost hear the ghostly echoes of lumberjacks and drinkers-gone-by, Jake’s is the place.  And oh yes, it’s called “halogen” lighting.  PAR’s and MR’s.  (Got my groove back.)
I could’ve spent eternity jousting with the doll but the day was getting on, the place filling up, time for both of us to get moving.  I’d found out what I’d come for, with a blond goddess bonus.
“See ya, doll, I said, getting up to leave.  “Thanks for the a little warmth on a grey March day.”
“S’long, Hotshot.  Come back and see me sometime. Take you upstairs and show you those rooms.”
“I will” I replied, both knowing we were lying, both knowing the best course of action was to walk away.  Someone could only get hurt.  Besides, you didn’t need anything in the way when you’re on a mission prowling the night (well, actually, the afternoon but “night” makes it more dramatic) hitting the Bars of BC, searching for the soul of a city....

The particulars:

Jake's Corner Bar
114 Third at Saginaw St.

(This is where we would usually insert a helpful little Google map. But Google incorrectly locates Jake's as almost ready to fall into the river. So we'll skip it.)  

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