Monday, March 24, 2014

Speaking Easy

A recent Huffington Post article listed a dozen or so “secret bars” around the country, among them the Midnight Cowboy on Sixth Street in Austin (but not Houston’s venerable River Oaks make-out bar, Marfreless).  These pseudo-speakeasies are generally unmarked and often require passwords for entry. 

The Midnight Cowboy is housed behind a misleading sign left over from a former tenant that reads “Midnight Cowboy Modeling Oriental Massage.”  Among its house rules are:
            We do not allow smoking, guns, phone calls, laptops or rowdiness. While               
            our cocktails might loosen inhibitions and the building's past might encourage 
            licentiousness, we ask that you refrain from excessive displays of public affection 
            and unwelcome advances towards members of other parties. Reservations are for 
            two hours. Should your table or room be available past your two-hour window, you 
            are more than welcome to stay longer. If walk-in tables are available, the vacancy 
            sign above the entry will be illuminated. Please ring the buzzer marked "Harry 
            Craddock" for entry.

We tend to think of “speakeasies” as a product of the Prohibition era, but in fact they came much earlier.  According to a September, 1899 issue of the Cheney Sentinel, a newspaper in Washington state, “Unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as ‘speak-easies.’” 

The name originated because it was thought to be a good idea to talk quietly about such places in public, and also to keep your voice down when you were inside, so that neither nosy neighbors nor intrusive police would be the wiser. The term is reported to have originated with saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the late 1800s on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. When things got too rowdy in the bar, she’d try to quiet the customers by whispering, “Speak easy, boys, speak easy.”

A low-class cousin of the speakeasy is a "blind pig," or sometimes "blind tiger." This name originated when Prohibition-era bar owners would acquire a blind pig or other exotic animal and charge customers to see it, throwing in a cocktail “free of charge.” They couldn’t be arrested for selling booze, as they were only selling entertainment and offering liquor as gratuitous amenity.

Two alternate explanations for the term “blind pig” were (a) a reference to police who turned a blind eye to the illegal bar activities, and (b) a description of the liquor served in such establishments that was said to be so bad it would “blind a pig.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never patronized speakeasies, which are much too noisy for him. He prefers to sip in total silence, with only the gentle tinkle of ice cubes in the martini pitcher to assault his eardrums.

                        In a part of the town that’s quite sleazy
                        You’ll find a squalid speakeasy,
                        Whose liquor will move you to wrath, bub,
                        For the gin comes straight from a bathtub--
                        If you drink it, you’ll be mighty queasy.

No comments:

Post a Comment