Winedale nation

A man, his guitar, and a last-chance bar on Greenville Ave.

In 1992, when I began performing Monday nights at the Winedale Tavern on Lower Greenville Avenue, it was Skid Row's royal palace in Dallas. There, some patrons behave as if released from Parkland Hospital's observation ward directly to the Winedale; others, as though sprung from the dog pound. The audience is the show, and favorite evenings are those in which gorgeous, albeit demented, young girls sit interspersed with babbling, nose-bleeding derelicts. No matter where I'm booked, I try not to miss this engagement.

Playing for the homeless seemed a noble cause when I filled in one night for local songwriter-emcee Bob Ackerman. I agreed to cover one more Monday--but my run has extended three years.

Opened in 1985 by local restaurateur Lota Dunham, the Winedale was conceived as a red-tablecloth "class" establishment. Indeed, it initially drew members of the Dallas Opera, being close to Nero's, the opera company's favorite Italian restaurant. But as the Dallas Opera began its slow decline in the late '80s, the Winedale began to attract a more derelict element. One can imagine Lota's trepidation, her dreams of polite society sipping Pouilly Fuisse giving way to a posse of dust-bowl panhandlers and Reagan-era homeless, who celebrate the art of alcoholism. Gone were the tablecloths. The Winedale became the Last Stop for those banned from every other bar on Greenville Avenue. The only beer joint on Greenville opens at 10 a.m. No poor bastard became truly homeless until he was banned from the Winedale.

The quintessential Winedale man of this era was Lance. Though homeless, he had a debonair gait, like a movie pirate. In fact, he had one eye. When on the rebound, he carried himself with dignity, wore an eyepatch, bathed, slicked back his hair. Although he slept outdoors behind dumpsters, he managed to assemble a natty outfit. In this mode, Lance could actually score a slow dance with one of the Winedale's femmes fatales.

But just as often, he was on a downslide, lost his eyepatch, and exposed an empty black socket, a grim abyss within his head. There was a shriveled mess of skin around this black hole. Without the eyepatch, his cockeyed look was downright menacing to women he stared down. The socket had a hypnotic effect, and women found themselves staring back helplessly before turning away in revulsion.

A hard-looking 42, Lance estimated he'd been in jail 250 times. These included overnight drunk tanks, three-day weekends, 10-day psychiatric observations. His longest stretch was three years at Rahway, New Jersey. "Do your time in a county jail," he advised. "Stay away from the federal pen."

A Monday or two might pass without Lance. Then he'd proudly saunter in, freshly sprung from Lew Sterrett Justice Center. "You don't seem like a bad guy, Lance," I'd say. "What could possibly have put you there this time?"

"Tickets" was his stock answer.
It was known that Lance held a job in construction during his youth, and that he was good. Building contractors, impressed with his suave demeanor, offered construction work. Lance graciously accepted jobs, toasting a beer to salvation. But he never showed up. He was determined to live off the streets, banishing the work ethic forever.

"I'm sitting here because I ain't all there," he would often say, pointing to his brain.

Early on during my tenure at this deceptively humble shotgun bar, I noticed Winedale bartenders burn out fast. In my first six months, four were committed to convalescence or rehab clinics. I regretted losing barkeep Tom Hedges, a scrappy little red-bearded fellow.

"A round of waters for the house, on me!" I'd announce, through the PA, after the crowd had drummed along, hands beating along on the bar counter, to my acoustic take on "Wipeout."

"We're outta water," Tom would bellow. "But the first drink's on God." Free beers were served to Jezebels twice his size. He struck out with all of them.

At first, Tom ascribed to good bartending theory: if you miss a customer trying to order his first beer or two, you lose him for the night. Once he's had two, he'll likely stay for four or five. But this strategy was abandoned while Tom disappeared to the bar next door, downing more shots each week. (The Winedale has no hard liquor license.) Long before last call, he slumbered on the silver beer refrig, curled up in fetal position, hands angelically tucked under his head. Rouse him awake to order a Coke, and he'd glare at you like you were insane. He eventually left the asylum to the inmates, letting gutter alcoholics fetch their own beers on the honor system.

The day after Tom was mugged while wandering disoriented up Maple Avenue, his friends arranged an "intervention," committing him to the V.A. rehab hospital. He stuck with the program, and began to excel at garden chores.

Screamin' Sadie, my second Monday night bartender, feared no man. She described half of her job as being "a professional escort to the door" for the unruly. Sadie eighty-sixed an average of five guys per Monday night, swiftly and without incident. She was a strict elementary school marm presiding over older men with arrested developments.

But the customer who caused her the most turmoil was an elegant, bejeweled Highland Park matron who always came undone during my acoustic rendition of "Tequila."

She danced the length of the bar, Egyptian Pee Wee-style, fishing out her tits. Winos went bonkers, more showing up each week. But our gal Sadie felt inclined to uphold some specific TABC license required when both beer and boobs are served. Citing bureaucratic regulations, Sadie evicted her each week, soon as the tits debuted.

Next week, the Highland Park woman's Jaguar rolled up to the Winedale curb. The mystery dame never fraternized with our old hippies or wino regulars. Aloof and silent, she awaited her cue--the opening chords of "Tequila," originally played by Glen Campbell in the Champs. By the fourth week of her midlife crisis, "Tequila" became my most popular request. "Go, baby, go!" clapped the winos. The lady stripped starkers this time, before Sadie could banish her for good. ("We could lose our license," Sadie explained.) To the groaning regret of many a derelict, bulky pop art collages were later suspended low from the bar ceiling. They prevent counter-top slut dancing to this day.

The pressures quickly took a toll on Sadie, who began to escort regulars out the door for imagined infractions. After six weeks, she cracked worse than Tom. Tanking up on shots next door, she returned plastered, crawling along the bar, her own breasts dangling out of her blouse, screaming "Fuck you!" to anyone who dared order a drink. She was promptly relieved, the management graciously arranging a long stay in a rest home. She was last reported to be doing fine, excelling in arts and crafts.

My third barkeep, an Irishman who came to America to work, was gung-ho to replace Sadie. He was a personable, cheerful rugby player in top shape. He cracked within a month and booked passage to Asia Minor, which he planned to cross on foot.

Next came Pedro, a hardened, humorless pro who worked other shifts at the Winedale. His sideline business was stenciling house addresses on sidewalks. "Everybody needs their address painted, but don't do it themselves," he said, boasting that he'd cornered the market. He came to work in freshly pressed Arrow shirts, with a trim goatee and a splash of witch hazel. An Aramis man.

Pedro prided himself on his utter refusal to ever "take shit from anybody." Yet Pedro adopted a generous "three-strikes" rule of crowd control. Some bum got two chances. He might whisper sweet nothings in some mortified lady's ear. He might jump on stage, or emit some hair-raising yelp. Hyperactive dancers who looked like they might screw themselves into the floor got a strike. Whatever, Pedro issued an order to stop. By the third violation, Pedro threw his thumb up for strike three and hollered, "You're outta here!" He'd scale his side of the bar, arguing chest to chest with a grizzled old offender. "And I don't take no lip!" snarled Pedro, finger-poking his man out the door. Last words were always reserved for the perennial wino's threat, "I'll be back!"

For a while, there was a dispute as to whether the Winedale should become a "one-strike" place--because once troublemakers demonstrate they're willing to take strike two, they're on a roll. As musical eminence, I felt obliged to remain uninvolved--other than playing "Howdy Doody Time" during bouncings. It was honor enough having a guy like Lance in the audience who'd spend his last few bucks nursing a couple of beers to hear me play some blues. This meant sacrificing a $4 room at the men's shelter and sleeping under the I-30 bridge. A quarter flipped into my tip jar from a homeless gent touched me more than a crisp hundred from a doctor or a rich redneck.

The Winedale sisterhood included young regulars Nellie and Tara, who were fairly skilled at glomming drinks. They never paid or tipped. They smiled upon impoverished men as long as it took for them to fish out their beggar's change and order the girls beers. Then they abandoned the suckers for the pool table.

Nellie, a top-heavy brunehilde, was the daughter of a once-renowned Dallas bar owner--a testament to why children shouldn't be raised in bars. By the end of the night, she'd slink out with a different vagrant, her eyes cast down in vacant disgrace. Next week she'd return with a black eye, bruises or stitches on her head. As soon as one black eye healed, she had an uncanny penchant for acquiring another.

"Fell off my bicycle," was her stock answer.

Tara, her bosom buddy, hadn't a clue that she was indeed attractive. With a low self-image and slumped shoulders, she turned haughty and sarcastic toward males. Nellie and Tara performed an ongoing routine for my benefit, a mock invitation to their hot tub back at the house. But they were often evicted as nuisance tenants, moving from apartment to apartment like two alley cats with suitcases.

Tara and Nellie often took barstools adjacent to the plywood stage, dreamily pencil-sketching themselves naked by their imaginary hot tub. Blushing, they dropped deranged pickup lines in my tip jar ("Hey, baby, I'd like to eat the peanuts outta your shit"). Tara deposited sketches of genitalia into my jar. I tried to persuade them to stalk Reverend Horton Heat instead of me.

Whenever I announced a Ladies Choice "Dance With Lance," it was Tara who obliged him. She was the Winedale's top drink scammer, 21 years old, blushing on Lance's shoulder, misfits at the high school prom they never attended. Lance's song was "Sleepwalk," a slow, crotch-grinding chestnut I played in Greenwich Village with the doo-wop group City Limits. (Back then, our diesel-dyke impresario of several lesbian cabarets softly professed, "I kissed my first goil to that song in high school.")

Follow-up Winedale dance announcements included a Necrophiliac's Choice, as well as singalong sections isolating just the ladies, then just the men, then the ex-cons, those out on parole, those with one eye or leg, etc. This was no joke. The Winedale resembled the Howdy Doody Peanut Gallery, shot to hell.

Pedro never cracked a smile at my smart-ass routines. Though he'd outlasted my previous three bartenders, I noticed his patience thinning. He was Born to Bounce--especially older, enfeebled violators who came for the music, not the beer. Order a water and he would begin the umpire shtick. Ultimatums came quicker. He communed with a few scowling cab drivers at the back of the bar, boasting how he bounced out truckers and bikers twice his size at previous bar jobs. The cabbies returned with tales of customer altercations that led to fistfights and macings. Pedro's corner turf became a separate Winedale nation from my acid vaudeville show up front.

"Lance could make something of himself," Pedro often complained, "but he don't want to work." If Lance arrived without the eyepatch, Pedro disapproved. He considered this uncouth grooming, improper etiquette during his shift. He reminded people that he ran this bar, and how all the street people knew not to mess with Pedro. But he usually kept his distance from Lance. "That guy can take care of himself. I wouldn't want to mess with him."

The Winedale is a shabby oasis, detached from the club circuit. I prefer its sublime natural acoustics to most rock clubs. If a stranger interrupts my set making unrealistic demands ("Play some Smothers Brothers, goddammit!"), a protective layer of hobos will form to my defense. "Play your own shit!" cry my alcoholic defenders, deflecting James Taylor requests from SMU students.

My three ultimate taboos: James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and Jim Croce. This unholy trinity constitutes the musically illiterate's microscopic vision of what someone with an acoustic guitar is supposed to cover.

I always felt secure that if I ever ended up overnight at Lew Sterrett, some guardian hobo from the Winedale would surely be there. Most likely Lance, who saw jail as a paid vacation from the streets. He awoke behind a dumpster most mornings, happy as a lark, amazed to open his eyes and hear the chirping of birds.

"Always thankful no one waltzed by with a crowbar to bash my head in," he told me. He ripped tubes from his body when he awoke in hospitals, propositioned nurses, and chuckled his way down the back stairs with stolen drugs--anxious to make Monday at the Winedale.

Lance claimed to have shared a cell in California with David Crosby. If his drug and legal problems weren't enough, Crosby must have been bombarded by Lance's song lyrics. He pulled crumpled sheets of paper from his trousers, rattling off fresh verses composed in jail, full of real-life hardship and hobo angst. He'd break into a thumb-popping hard sell, slinging lyrics at me while I was onstage, in the middle of a guitar solo, or between songs. Since Crosby, Stills, Nash & Lance never materialized, he hoped to join forces with me.

A few homeless regulars, disenfranchised though they were, felt compelled to go to bat for my career. One old leprechaun, reminiscent of Walter Huston in Treasure of Sierra Madre, showed up with a million-dollar record deal in the works. He enlisted backing from McDonald's, whom he alleged had finally warmed to my anti-jingle, "Thanksgiving at McDonald's in Times Square." The McDonald's leprechaun claimed to be tight, in his pre-wino days, with McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. Every week he returned with progress reports and recording studio dates. Then someone recognized the wino from his days handing out discount Chicken McNuggets coupons in the West End. His sphere of influence ended there.

Called on the delusion, he cackled so hard I thought he'd need a straitjacket. Lance, who himself had some TV deal in the works for me, wasn't charmed, and punched the poor guy out, which sent him scurrying off from the Winedale forever.

Pedro's nerves disintegrated slow but steady, like shock absorbers on a New York taxi. One night a young girl got onstage to sing "Roadhouse Blues." It was her first time onstage; she dreamt of being a folk singer. Some little stone freak hippie in front became overly taken with her. "She's great!" he exploded, continuing to applaud after everyone else finished. "She's great...and I suck! She's great, and we all suck! This place sucks. You suck, I suck, and fuck us all!"

At surreal moments of truth like this, when someone was about to go over the edge, the whole bar would come to a hush. Pedro took charge, hands upon hips, not about to take shit. "All right, pipe down." (Strike one.)

"She's great!" hollered the little freak, stalking toward Pedro. "You suck!" he ranted in meth-driven rage. "You suck, she's great, she's better than all of us!" he went on, now jabbing his finger.

"You're outta here!" Pedro yelled back, hopping over the bar.
"I suck!" the freak shot back, continuing his odd outburst with passive aggression. The guy insulted himself profusely, which confused Pedro enough that he shrugged and headed back behind the bar.

Lance was ultimately banned from the Winedale. Though he behaved commendably on my night, he apparently crossed over the line, prompting another evening's bartender to brand him persona non grata. If one Winedale bartender saw fit to ban a customer, all other bartenders upheld the decision. Lance, sans patch, may have whispered one of his hair-raising sweet nothings into women's ears at the bar: "How 'bout lettin' Lance in yer pants? Any chance?"

Thereafter, Lance began to appear like an apparition at the door each Monday night, peering in like a pauper at a Christmas store. "Hang in there, Lance," I'd announce through the mike. "This ain't no Shangri-La, this ain't no promised land. It's just the Winedale." A round of "amens" rumbled from the privileged class inside. But a tear fell down Lance's cheek from his one good eye. Cold, weather-beaten, having lost weight, he was too cowed to enter. My wife, who considers Monday a school night, had come on a rare visit. He gingerly tipped the front door and whispered to her, "Is it OK if I open it a little, to just listen?"

With Pedro's threshold for tomfoolery down to one strike, more regulars received permanent evictions. Especially music fans, stripped of citizenship at the Last Stop on Greenville Avenue. Banishment from the London Tavern, Service Bar, Nero's, or Simply Fondue was taken in stride. But Winedale banishment was a humiliation most found hard to accept. Excommunicated winos and old hippies paced before the window each Monday, pining to come in, awaiting forgiveness, shouting their favorite requests from outside.

I spoke up for Lance, but Pedro wouldn't budge. Ironically, it was another bartender who banished Lance, and neither Lance nor Pedro had a clue as to why.

"Speak to Pete," Pedro shouted to Lance outside. "Clear it up with him. Until he says yes, you can't enter."

"What'd I do?" Lance would ask week after week, from the door. He claimed not to know the bartender who banned him, couldn't fathom the infraction.CR>CR> But Pedro held steadfast.

I played "Thanksgiving At McDonald's" each week for Lance, who beamed at the door with other undesirables, slapping each other five. Among my sidewalk audience was Ray the Poetry Mugger. A black street hustler, he cornered yuppies on Greenville Avenue with his tip jar, jabbering psycho poetry as they stared vacantly. Stalking college coffee houses, he'd hold a whole table hostage with an epic like "The Days Of Your Week": "Monday is a work day, berserk day, get up early wash yo' shirt day..."

I often bring traveling guest musicians to the Winedale. A recovering Texas blues guitarist made the pilgrimage. "Give this man a hand," I told the audience, as he strapped on his guitar. But he'd fallen off the wagon that night, and fell, mid-song, off the stage. He collapsed in sections, out cold from a combination of beer and hard dope.

"Is that the blues?" asked two ingenuous SMU boys, hovering over his body, seeking musical knowledge.

"Not exactly," I said. "B.B. King don't collapse onstage. Now, give this man a hand."

Pedro began giving me the brush-off. Whenever I ordered a drink he'd say, "Get it yourself." When I finally got my own beer, he saw this as the ultimate affront to his authority. A three-strike offense. The worst infraction a musician can commit against a club is to help himself to a beer. Might throw off the books. He rallied his corner of the bar against me. A Mexican who ran illicit cockfights began flipping cryptic hand signals my way. I knew one of us--me or Pedro--had to go.

Then Lance appeared at the door. It was winter, and he'd bottomed out with the shakes. He stared into the bar mournfully. I was whipping out final songs of the night before two dozen hardcore customers. Suddenly, Lance began a game of cat and mouse. He opened the door. Pedro put his hands on hips. Then Lance took one step over the border line of public sidewalk into the establishment. Pedro shot out his thumb: "Outta here!"

At this moment, the crowd sCR>tarCR>ted rooting for Lance. I began my oft-played bouncer's march, "Howdy Doody Time" (sung to "Tra-La-La-Boom-De-Ya"). The whole bar, rather than hushing, became the Peanut Gallery, and I was Buffalo Bob Smith. The joint went bonkers, all the winos clapping and singing along. Especially Lance, a demonic, overjoyed grin on his face, stomping an Irish jig. He danced into the Winedale singing, "It's Howdy Doody time, it's Howdy Doody time!" Pedro, summoning reserve strength at the end of the night, bolted over the bar, locked an arm around Lance's elbow, and backpedaled him out. A weakened, underweight Lance danced madly backward, belting out the chorus. He fell in the gutter.

Satisfied that he bounced the guy, Pedro regained his authority, brushed his hands of the affair. He took his position behind the bar. And who should come goose-stepping back in, but Lance, more berserk with Howdy Doody than ever. The rafters shook with choruses of "Doody."

Another shoving match. But this time, with the entire Winedale Nation's energy against him, the bartender didn't win. Pedro's shoulders went limp, his resolve defeated. He backed down. He took shit. Lance was homefree. It was truly Howdy Doody Time at the Winedale.

Something in Pedro died that night. He mumbled under his breath. He told me I was through playing the Winedale. But he was fired the next day. After a month of soul-searching, he recovered somewhat and was rehired to work other shifts. Word has it he's been raising chickens. He won't take shit from poultry.

My current bartender, Steve Vail, has been with me two years running. His stock warning to panhandlers: "This is not a soup kitchen for the alcoholically impaired."

The demographics have changed a bit over the last two years, shamefully upscaled--though mostly Wednesdays, when dashing young rockers The Carsons bring in the well-scrubbed. But even a poorly attended evening can take a sudden surreal twist.

Not long ago, a tour bus pulled up at midnight unloading 50 FrCR>ench gCR>ynecologists. They were impeccably dressed in smart designer outfits, in Dallas for a vaginal summit. How they happened upon the Winedale I'll never know, but they lustily reveled in their discovery of an authentic American dive.

I'd luckily brought my Silvertone and Dan Electro guitars, drenching them with Texas blues. One doctor spotted the first 50 beers with a hundred dollar bill. The next 50 longnecks were popped open on credit. By 2 a.m., ties loosened, sweat circling beneath their pits, they'd danced and enjoyed life, bon vivants free from the constraints of the medical establishment. It was the only night I ever saw bartender Steve get looped.

When the last of the gynecologists had boarded the departing bus, tearfully waving au revoir, Steve realized they stiffed us on the beers. As is peculiar to France with its anti-tipping tradition, there wasn't one penny in my or the bartender's tip jars. Feeling diplomatic, I was glad they chose the Winedale for a taste of America over the plastic tourism of a Hard Rock Cafe.

Rarely does Steve have to bounce anyone, as he is beloved by all and doesn't need to assert much authority. Once I saw him take out his black midget bat when a sinewy mental patient refused to leave. Steve gave him his three strikes, but the guy wouldn't budge. He just presented his head, called Steve's bluff, awaiting the crack of the wood. When Steve wouldn't strike, he left disappointed. Steve already excels as a sailboat skipper.

Lance collapsed dead on Christmas in a construction foreman's car. It was the first day of a job he actually showed up for.

Editor's note: Pedro, Nellie, Tara, Sadie, and Tom Hedges are pseudonyms for actual characters in the real-life drama of the Winedale.

Josh Alan Friedman is author of Tales of Times Square (Feral House) and the musical The Worst!.

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