Paul Blackburn and Das Rhinegold

I had my first Rheingold at the Mars Bar in New York City a few years ago when I was doing a tour of some Old School bars.  In the area around Houston, I walked into Milano’s, the 7B, and the Parkside Lounge.  Then I walked up past Cooper Square, where Floating Bear was mimeographed for time, and spent the good part of an afternoon at McSorley’s.

Like Ballantine Ale, Rheingold makes me think of 1950s/1960s New York City, particularly of landmarks like the Parkside Lounge.  And the poet I most associate with that time and those places is not Frank O’Hara or Ted Berrigan, but Paul Blackburn.  He died in 1971 of throat cancer at the age of 44, a few years old than I am now.  I quit smoking a couple weeks ago on my doctor’s advice.  It has been much easier than I thought, but I am sure that the next time I am sitting alone in a place like McSorley’s or the Parkside surrounded by empty mugs of brown ale or bottles of Rhinegold I will feel the itch for a smoke and the conversation of a guy like Blackburn, who treated McSorley’s like a poetry workshop.  Such a McSorley’s and Parkside are nowadays merely utopias.  Even if I was smoking, it is tough to find a bar on the Eastern seaboard were you can have a smoke. Do poets still corrupt the youth in smoky bars?  Or does that all occur strictly during designated office hours in a non-smoking building? 

When I was a young teenager, I read Suds and Dregs’s Bars of Reading until it fell apart and then I bought another copy.  Here is the New Yorker article by Calvin Trillin that I mentioned earlier:  I could not wait to have a beer at Stanley’s.  (Later I would learn that the Lower East Side had its Stanley’s too, and I wanted to go there just as badly.)  No women allowed and it would be a rite of passage to piss at the trough urinal.  Or to saddle up for a drink at Al Kline’s Paddock.  And then I watched in horror as all these places went out of business a discussed as fossils of a pre-historic era whose time has come, before I turned 18 let alone 21.  So for me, my knowledge of those bars was and is based only on the myth-making of Suds and Dregs, and surely they had to be exaggerating.  No bar could be so seemingly wonderful.  Yet the whispers persist.  The rumors remain strong on message boards.

On Stanley’s:  “As to Stanley's its claim to fame was that it did not allow women in the bar.  Many have tried but Stanley would just ignore them.  A quaint anachronism and a step back in time for better or worse.  It also had no bar stools, a stand-up bar as it was called.  In the early '80's when I lived there beer, as with many places in Reading, cost 25 to 35 cents a glass.  A decent lunch could be had for a couple bucks.  I lunched with female coworkers in the dining room having its own ladies entrance.”

On the Paddock:  “My favorite bar, now gone, was Al Kline's Paddock.  Huge neon signs adorned the neighborhood facade.  Inside, you were greeted by a horsey theme where booths looked like horse stalls and several bar stools were saddles.  German clockwork machines of horses and horse racing memorabilia including a sulky decorated the walls.  It was a theme but not kitchy or ‘concepted.’  It was sincere reflection of the man behind the bar, Al Kline a former horse racer, retired but not gone from his sport and vocation.  That was his life and his history up on the walls.  A beer, conversation and a sardine sandwich was a couple dollars but worth thousands.”

Paul Blackburn would hang out at Stanley’ and the Paddock.  These bars were the McSorley’s of Reading, and Suds and Dregs were their Joseph Mitchell.  And that is why Calvin Trillin wrote about them in the New Yorker, it was step back in time to Mitchell’s McSorley’s, which I would expect that Trillin himself felt he had missed out on back in the 1930s.

Like with Olson, I am quite happy being a historian rather than an active participant.  The cheddar and crackers at McSorley’s really do not taste that good and the bartenders give you more foam than beer.  Blackburn would not want to talk to me anyhow.  I would gag on a sardine sandwich at the Paddock.  All this history is fake and repackaged anyway.  Rhinegold Brewing was shut down in 1976, and the company that revived it also produces Trump Vodka and Dr. Dre Cognac , for christ’s sake.  In any case, it is healthier that I am no longer smoking and it is better that bars have become clean, well-lighted places where both sexes can share a drink and a conversation.  Things have evolved; we are progressing.

But I am a collector and a historian at heart.  And one that is easily and deliberately deceived at that.  I missed out on Stanley’s and I never walked into the Paddock, but I did spend quite a bit of time at the Northeast Taproom in Reading and I sat in the corner looking at all the regional memorabilia, such as photos of Sally Starr or the various Reading Beer cans from days of old.  Or I just kept quiet with some friends and watched Pete and the Captain play their roles to perfection.  And to this day, the Taproom remains my most beloved bar, it is my McSorley’s, partly because it, like Stanley’s and the Paddock, has changed and has passed into history.

Blackburn’s poems have this sentimental nostalgia washing through them as well.  It must be the steady stream of that sweet, brown McSorley’s ale.



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