Why Bars Close at 2 a.m. (Part 1)

The Southern Review

Like the ocean 17 miles away, McDonough’s Pub was ruled by diurnal tides: the graveyard shift workers and derelicts that drank boilermakers during daylight hours; and the ink-stained employees of the Savannah Morning News & Evening Press who repopulated the place in search of spirited comfort after midnight deadlines.

In an effort to accommodate the latter group, the management at McDonough’s took a proactive approach to the city’s problematic 2 a.m. closing time—by drawing the shades and ignoring it.

The cops didn’t care, mainly because they, too, needed a decompression stop after the second shift. Besides, they had bigger fish to fry. Savannah in the late 1980s may have been middling in population, but it was in the big leagues where crime was concerned, with one of the highest murder rates in the nation. Thus did most members of the Savannah Police Department carry their weapons, concealed, when they were off duty.

It was at McDonough’s that I met Glynnon Sells, a Detroit native who loved being a cop in Savannah, especially when his assignments took him to the grittier sides of town. He liked the action, so much so that he eventually left Savannah for a spot on the police force in his hometown of Detroit, reasoning that he was at the point in his career where he needed to be at ground zero of crime in the U.S.

The surest way to inflame Glynnon’s dander was to call him Glynnon. He preferred Tim. In his early 30s, his curly hair had already faded from red to dull brown and was retreating from his forehead. Slight of build with wire-rimmed glasses, he looked more like a Jewish accountant than an Irish cop. To offset his unintimidating veneer, he took to talking out of the side of his mouth, like a gangster in a 1930s movie, and lacing his sentences with invectives.

One August night in 1989, with the humidity still as thick as fatback six hours after sunset, Tim and I pulled up to McDonough’s simultaneously.

The front door was locked and the blinds were drawn, but the lights were ablaze.  Fortunately, both of us were privy to the cunning password system.

“Charlie!” Tim shouted as he pounded on the window, “open the fucking door!”

Charlie, the bar’s ex-con manager, cast a wary eye through a raised slot in the blinds. The door creaked open. “You’re late,” he said in the same tone my mother used when dinner was getting cold. “Where are all your cronies?”

Tim shrugged his shoulders. “Ridding the streets of guys like you,” he said, taking the first of what was usually a litany of good-natured digs at Charlie’s vaguely criminal past.

“What about you?” Charlie said, nodding at me as if I were responsible for the dearth of newspaper employees in his establishment.

“Maybe it’s that,” I replied, pointing at Charlie’s open ledger on the bar. Twice a month, Charlie made an attempt to square the accounts of Savannah Morning News & Evening Press employees, virtually all of whom ran tabs at McDonough’s. Collection days tended to scare away the customers.

“Except that this isn’t the normal day of reckoning,” Charlie countered, showing off his latest vocabulary acquisition. Sure enough, the word-of-the-day calendar hanging above the cash register read “Reckoning.”

“Goddam reporters! Do you think someone tipped them off about the new collection date?” moaned Charlie, who strayed toward paranoia when he was drinking, which was on any day ending in “y.”

“Maybe it’s the Jim Williams trial,” I said, attempting to keep Charlie from straying to the dark side. “They acquitted him today, and everyone is busting their asses to put out special editions.”

Savannah’s most famous murder case had culminated earlier that day in an Augusta courtroom, several months after the defense, after years of trying, had finally succeeded in securing a change of venue. Williams, a Savannah art dealer who restored dozens of the city’s historic antebellum residences to their original glory, was the only man in the history of Georgia jurisprudence to be tried four times for the same crime. After a soap opera of mistrials, convictions and appeals, Williams had finally been acquitted of the 1981 murder of his homosexual lover in Williams’ famed residence, a house once occupied by Savannah native son and legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer. 

The eight-year saga would later be fleshed out as John Berendt’s epochal bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil.

The story had been covered diligently by our paper for years. Now that it had come to a conclusion, my colleagues on the news side and in the production and press rooms were working deep into the night to put out special editions for the morning and evening papers.

“Goddamn butt pirates,” Charlie said, summarizing the narrative with trademark brevity.

“You owe $27,” Charlie added, swinging the ledger around in the event that I wanted to double-check his math. There was no need. I undoubtedly owed three or four times that amount, but I had the gamesmanship to order most of my drinks after Charlie started talking about his experiences in the “big house,” the point at which everybody knew he was too shitfaced to engage in accurate bookkeeping.

I paid Charlie and watched as he credited my account. Then I started another tab and ordered a drink, which I nursed while waiting for the magic moment when Charlie broached the subject of his incarceration.

There were only two other people in the bar. One was Dee-Dee, whom we knew not to disturb while she was in the midst of her 3 a.m. ritual of reconciling her cash drawer, a task made exponentially more complicated by the largely illegible IOUs from newspaper employees that Charlie stuffed in the drawer at various intervals throughout the night. Dee-Dee nightly faced the task of sorting through a random collection of scribbled notes written on the backs of old receipts, corners of pages from the telephone book and, when pulp was at a premium, sheets of toilet paper.

Sitting quietly on the barstool in front of Dee-Dee was a man I hadn’t seen before.

Dee-Dee paused to blow us a kiss and introduce her friend.

“Guys, this is Roshni” she said, then resumed her counting.

We exchanged hellos and some small talk, during which we discovered that Roshni was a grad student on a visa from Iran.

“Are you sleeping with her?” Charlie asked Roshni accusingly, a sure sign that he was approaching his three-sheets phase of dubious ledger maintenance.

“Charlie!” Dee-Dee screeched over the top of a stack of freshly counted bills. “Behave!”

Charlie waved her off. “You know who I slept with in the big house?” he slurred at nobody in general.

Tim took a guess. “Other guys in the big house?”

“Liftoff!” I whispered to Tim, who also knew the signal that free booze was at hand.

“C’mon, seriously,” Charlie said. “Guess who I slept with in the big house?”

We were genuinely curious, given that Charlie had told us, on several occasions, that it would be front-page news if the records of his conjugal visitors were ever revealed. But he left us hanging once more. Distracted by the noise of the dishwasher, Charlie stared into the dark kitchen and then wandered off.

“Keep an eye on him,” Dee-Dee said as she opened the safe behind the bar and deposited her cash and reports. “He’s in rare form tonight.”

“Where are you going?” Tim asked. “We want to buy you a drink.”

“We all know who’s buying the drinks,” Dee-Dee said, pointing toward the ledger that Charlie was now too intoxicated to navigate. “But we’ve got to go. I’m giving Roshni a ride.”

Protocol called for one of the guys in the bar to accompany Dee-Dee to her car. Tim and I had both risen for the occasion, but upon hearing that she was equipped with her own escort, I returned to my barstool.

“You sure?” said Tim said, lingering in his stance.

“Completely,” Dee-Dee said, giving Tim a peck on the cheek as she headed for the door with Roshni. “Lock the door behind us, hon.”

“I don’t know about that guy,” Tim grumbled as he walked over and turned the deadbolt.

“You don’t know anything about him,” I replied. “He seemed nice enough.”

We were trying to decide which one of us would lead the search party into the pitch-black kitchen, where Charlie was lurking, when we were jarred by urgent pounding on the door.

We looked at each other, baffled. The pounding continued, accompanied by loud and incoherent screaming.

Tim instinctively reached for his service revolver, a .38 that he kept tucked in the back of his pants. He reached behind the bar and grabbed Charlie’s baseball bat and tossed it to me, then silently signaled for me to cover one side of the door while he slid into place on the opposite side. Slowly, he unbolted the lock and pushed the door open.

Dee-Dee burst into the room, sobbing hysterically, her ample bosom and derriere shaking like Jell-O on a washing machine.

Charlie suddenly reappeared and the three of us rallied around Dee-Dee, but it was more than a minute before we could get a cogent word out of her. In the meantime, Roshni slipped back into the bar unnoticed.

Dee-Dee finally gained enough composure to give us an accounting. In the 30-second walk to her car, she had been mugged. Worse yet, she was carrying more than a week’s worth of tips, having failed to get to the bank in the past week. The perpetrator got away with more than $800, she estimated. That was likely to skew Dee-Dee’s budget for months.

Tim tried to wring a description from her, but all she could offer was that it was a black guy. 

Tim went ballistic. He ran outside and charged up and down Drayton Street, gun drawn, looking for suspects and scaring the living hell out of a group of late-night partiers from the Savannah College of Art & Design, whose students were easily identified by their hodge-podge collection of thrift-shop attire and neon hairstyles. He veered off into the park across the street, rousting the homeless black guys.

I gave up on chasing him and returned to the bar, where Dee-Dee was sobbing in Charlie’s arms.

Tim followed in short order, kicking the door open in unadulterated rage after failing to collar any suspects on the street. It was then that he noticed Roshni sitting quietly at the far end of the bar, in the shadowy section near the jukebox.   

“Where in the hell were you when all this was going down?” Tim screamed as he charged toward Roshni. Thankfully, he had tucked his gun away.

Dee-Dee pulled herself out of her torpor. “No!” she yelled at Tim. “It wasn’t his fault.”

I jumped up to intercede, cutting off Tim’s angle. “Let’s find out what happened first,” I suggested. Tim glared at Roshni, then nodded at me.

He returned to his seat. Charlie had disappeared into the kitchen again, so I took the opportunity to jump behind the bar to refill Tim’s tumbler and pour Dee-Dee a nerve-calmer. I poured an extra beer and placed it in front of Roshni.

“Should we call someone in your division?” I asked Tim.

“Sure,” he said. “Then we can figure out a story to tell my sergeant tomorrow when he asks me what I was doing in a bar at 3:30 in the morning.”

“Goddamnit,” Tim continued, slamming his glass on the bar. “Somebody needs to start filling in some blanks, pronto.”

Dee-Dee, however, had had enough. With her mascara streaked across her face like a mutant raccoon, she told us she needed to go home. “Just a minute,” Charlie said as he disappeared behind the bar. We could hear him rummaging around in the safe. As he sealed the door, Roshni stood to follow Dee-Dee out the door.

“Oh no,” Charlie said as he navigated his way around the bar, holding up his arm to block Roshni’s progress. “She needs a real man to walk her to her car. Sit your fuzzy ass back down, Roshelle.”

With that, Charlie, who weighed about 150 pounds soaking wet, draped one arm around the considerably more substantial Dee-Dee and used the other to stuff a fat wad of bills from bar proceeds into her bra. She kissed him and began crying again. The pair headed out the door as Roshni stood there, his mouth ajar.