Ed. This week's music feature traces a week at the Stagger Inn Again in Edwardsville, Illinois. But you don't spend all that time in one bar without sampling liberally from its wares -- here's what the week looked like through our reporter's pint (and shot and cocktail...) glasses.
What happens when you go to the same neighborhood bar every day for a week? You shoot the shit with the regulars, listen to their stories when they feel like talking and take the shot when they hand it to you. When Stag Beer, your old reliable steed, starts bucking you mid-week, you switch to bloody marys the next day. And it takes the entire next week to "dry out."
I slid into an empty stool at the Stagger Inn Again in Edwardsville everyday for a week, putting down 31 total drinks in the process. Here's how it broke down:
Friday: • (2) Jagermeister shots • (2) Rolling Rock Pale Lager • (2) Stag Beer • (1) Bell's Two Hearted Ale • (1) Boulevard Black Stout
11:45 p.m. Drink #4: shot of Jagermeister
Hooch asks me if I smoke. We step through the kitchen, past the spice rack and out the back door. We sit on a flat wooden bench in a small brick-walled patio at the back of the building. It has a concrete floor with a crack near the wall out of which one of the kitchen workers is growing a tomato plant.
He introduced himself about an hour ago, Jake Houchlei. Everyone calls him Hooch. He's been a cook here for two and a half years. That's three St. Patty's days, he notes. He has red hair, buzzed closed enough to see scalp, wears a black sweatband on his head and speaks with a breathy voice in eyes-half-open cadence.
He asks what I'm doing after the bar.
I don't know⎯probably driving the back home, I say. I'm switching to water.
He says he and his buddy are going back to his house to drink a few more beers afterwards if I feel like sticking around Edwardsville tonight. He has an open couch. It's nearby, just down Buchanan Street, past the Farm Fresh Milk Store. I thank him for the offer and say I'll let him know.
We walk back inside through the kitchen door. He and his friends have a round of Jagermeister shots waiting for us.
Hey Hooch, I say. About that couch⎯
Saturday: • (2) Whiskey & Coke (rail, always, unfortunately) • (1) Jagermeister shot • (1) Stag
10:20 p.m. Drink #10: Whiskey & Coke
I can't decide if Aurora Bihler dislikes me or is just weary of my reporter's notebook, but she's agreed to be my shuffleboard partner, and that's great news. She's a solid, point-per-turn player⎯gentle during the release and smooth in the follow-through.
Her friend, Ross B. Brady stands next to me and slides the red pucks once I've putted my blues. He's got a mop of curly hair, freckles on his cheeks and seems indifferent about his eventual loss of the match. Tonight is his first night to The Stagger.
"When I come inside, I could be back home or anywhere in America," he says. Brady just moved here from Massachusetts, home of Cheers. I hear at least five people this week independently compare The Stagger to Cheers, the bar and show that depicted what went on in every neighborhood bar across America. Everybody knows everybody's names in those places.
Sunday: • (3) Pabst Blue Ribbon • (1) Jagermeister shot • (1) Sierra Nevada Pale Ale • (1) Two Hearted Ale • (1) Whiskey & Coke
10:40 p.m. Drink #15: Bell's Two Hearted Ale
"Do you want a real beer?" says Connie Winton.
I look down at my can of PBR.
"I mean, a good one," she says and asks me to pick one from the taps. It's on her.
I say I like Bell's Two Hearted Ale and she orders one. She was at the end of cranberry juice and vodka, so I return the favor.
Calls herself "The Queen of The Stagger Inn." The bar made her strawberry shortcake for her birthday this year. She's 25. Dark hair. Pretty and knows it. She says she's done dating musicians. Monday: • (1) Stag • (1) Whiskey & Coke
9:05 p.m. Drink #20: Whiskey & Coke.
When people ask Matt Meyer about The Stagger's long-rumored reputation as a gay bar, he says, "'Yeah. It's true.' It's a filter to keep closed-minded people out."
It's not a gay bar, though. At least not according to two other people I met who identify as gay and handful more, but they say it probably is the most LGBT-friendly bar in town.
"There's an open mindedness that you don't find elsewhere," Meyers says. He met his fiancée here five years ago. "It's a thinker's bar," he says. " You can sit next to a sociology major and discuss life an death." Then, he starts telling me an origin story about the "Play that motherfucking Urge shit" chant at the Urge concerts.
Tuesday: • (1) Stag
12:08 p.m. Drink #22: a bottle of Stag
Stag has turned on me. It lingers sweet on the tongue, sits hollow like a bag of marshmallows in my stomach and kicks like a buck in rut. I order water and a roast beef and ham sandwich for chasers.
I slouch on the barstool, pick at my lunch and talk bluegrass with Bobby, the bartender. It's my fifth day here, but feels like it could be my tenth. I take the night off. I don't go to a bar.
Wednesday: • (2) Bloody Mary (add clam juice) • (1) Jagermeister shot • (1) Sambuca • (1) Whiskey & Coke • (1) Whiskey & Diet Coke (an awful accident)
9:15 p.m. Drink #23: Rail Whiskey and Coke
BJ Bertels pushes copiers and fax machines for a living, but on Monday and Wednesday nights he likes pushing shuffleboard pucks "with the boys." He takes care of the board and has been organizing annual tournaments here since 1987. He often wins.
His girlfriend is performing with the Duct Tape Duo Trio at the open mic. Right now, she's sitting onstage at a percussion kit of chimes, woodblocks and a crash cymbal and clacking drumsticks above her head.
Bertels has grey hair, glasses, and a goofy of demeanor you might see in a 17-year-old. That's how old he was when he first came to The Stagger. "I parked my motorcycle right on the sidewalk," He says. "I wasn't of age, of course, but I was tall enough they didn't ask." He's 6'5.
He drinks a Stolichnaya Orange with club soda and watches the stage.
Thursday: • (1) Sierra Nevada Summerfest • (1) Stag • (1) Stag & A Pickle (dill)
7:30 p.m. Drink #31: Stag & A Pickle
It's the last night of my residence here and my 27th birthday. I sit to the left of the beer taps, where most regulars sit.
I eat a shrimp po' boy with my Stag and chat with regulars, Lindsay and Matthew Schmitz and Mike Barth about jobs we worked as teenagers. I slide a pickle spear into my bottle of Stag. The conversation rubbernecks like that pickle was a turd.
Stag & A Pickle, I tell them. It's tasty. Makes it a dash briny, like how some old guys drop salted peanuts into their beer. My grandpa used to do that. The pickle is just a variation I learned in college.
I take a sip. They squint their eyes and exhale in disgust. Everyone doubts until they try it. I pass it down the bar. "Oh, that's actually not bad," says Matthew. Lindsay and Mike also try it and echo his reaction.
I finish what's left of the salty beer, my 31st of the week and my last, and ask the bartender, Tim Earley for my tab. I shake his hand and thank him for the hospitality.
I say a few more goodbyes at the end of the bar and head towards the door. Matthew orders a Stag & A Pickle.