There are a few key things you need to make Ships Lounge the real Ships Lounge. First, of course, is the jukebox. Second is chili dog night. But maybe the most important part of making sure the Lower Greenville dive, which reopened last month after a year out of business, stays true to itself is the presence of longtime bartender Pam Shaddox.
"I could not ever see myself working at another bar," she says. "The year we were closed, I did not work at all. I just kept praying that Ships would open again."
Shaddox is going on her 16th year of service behind the bar at Ships, and she can't imagine life any other way. Nor, for that matter, can many of the bar's customers. "When people started posting stuff on Facebook [about the reopening], they were like, 'Pam or no way!'" says Shaddox.
The bar, long operated by Charlie "Red" Hunt, was being taken over by Matt Pikar and Naser Nayeb of nearby Nora restaurant. "They were like, 'Well, how do we get a hold of this Pam?'" she says. "I got on there and was like, 'I think I'm the Pam you're looking for.'"
That year without Ships, which Hunt had closed in July 2015 due to health reasons, was a difficult one for Shaddox. Initially, it was only supposed to be a temporary closure while Hunt looked for a buyer. But a month turned into two months, then six, then a year.
There were close calls along the way, the closest of which came last November when Truck Yard owner Jason Boso went to the Lower Greenville Neighborhood Association to apply for a permit to keep the bar open until 2 a.m. When his bid was rejected, Boso gave up on reopening Ships.
"I was very disappointed because I thought for sure that was a sure deal," says Shaddox, who remembers Boso coming in as a customer. "Knowing that fell through, I was very discouraged." She pauses and looks down at her drink. "I was heartbroken," she finally says.
Pikar and Nayeb announced plans to reopen the bar in January, but it wasn't until early July that there was any further news. Finally, almost exactly one year to the day since it had closed, Ships reopened on July 13, under the same terms that Boso had refused. But Shaddox wasn't there right away.
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"It just so happened the week they asked me [to come in], the very next day something happened with my mom and I had to go to Gun Barrel City. I told him hey, sorry, I'm not going to be able to make it," she recalls. Another week went by before she heard from the manager again, who texted her out of the blue to offer the job. "I was like, 'Yay!'" she says, clenching her fists with a squeal. "I was glad they were patient with me, as I was with them."
When Shaddox saw what the new owners had done with the bar, including adding a new upstairs area in the back, she was thrilled. "I was so excited. I praised them for keeping a lot of the same things," she says. "I saw what they did upstairs and it was awesome. I love that part more than anything."
Shaddox admits it's been a work in progress. "Every time I come in, it's a little bit, gradually, more like Ships," she says. At first, the jukebox was missing songs because some of the CDs had been stolen, although they've since been recovered. The Christmas lights that used to line the walls are no longer there, although Shaddox says she's been told they'll return. They've even brought back the chili dog night every Wednesday.
But not everything's quite the same. Ships now accepts credit cards, which has been a learning curve for Shaddox after all these years dealing only in cash. "The only thing I regret is we don't have the speaker thing anymore — and customers have asked me about that," Shaddox says. "That used to be a really big deal. I would get on the intercom thing and say happy birthday, embarrass the hell out of somebody."
Shaddox, who mostly works day shifts during the week, says she's seen plenty of new customers coming in, but more of the regulars have returned as word has spread that Ships is reopened. "There's a new group of people coming in, which is always good. I like meeting new people," she says. "But I'm trying to get some of the older customers back here. ... I'm trying to reach out to some of the people I still haven't seen yet. Like, 'Hey, why haven't you been here yet?'"
For someone so inextricably linked with one of Dallas' most beloved, and oldest, dive bars, Shaddox admits that she wasn't always a fan of dives. "I actually didn't go to many dive bars growing up. I really didn't," she says. "I went to my share of concerts. I was all into AC/DC and all that, ZZ Top, whoever was coming to town. I wasn't into bars."
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The first job Shaddox remembers having was at a daycare, but eventually she stopped doing that when she reached the point that she would've needed more schooling to continue. "I did like it. Then I went from that to accounting — and I hated it," she says. Bartending happened by accident. "I went to a bar and the bartender was having a difficult time getting glasses washed and whatnot," Shaddox recalls. She offered to help out, even though she didn't know the bartender's name. "That was how I started, because then the owner was like, 'Do you want to start working here?'"
That was at O'Malley's, and later on Shaddox would bartend at the Barbecue Pit — both of which she worked at for five years or more. But Ships has always been her favorite, which is why she's stayed so loyal to it. "I've liked every place I've worked, but this did stick out to me," she says. "Most of my memories here are really terrific. I've seen people get proposed to, I've seen people have anniversaries here, I've seen many, many birthday parties here."
Had Ships gone away for good, Shaddox isn't sure what she would've done. "I probably would've moved to Iowa. I have a niece and nephew up there," she says with a shrug. Her older brother, Rex, had moved there after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer three years ago. He'd only been given six months to live, but made it another two before passing away last year. "Me and him were very, very close. ... He used to park himself in here a lot," she says, smiling, and points at the chairs along the bar.
But Ships is really where Shaddox belongs. She doesn't even think about the prospect of retiring. "I want to work here as long as I can," she says. "My son was telling me, 'Well, Mom, you can get a job somewhere else, you can do something else.' But I don't want to. My heart is here. After all these years, my heart is here."