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.