Gettin’ Ripped at Kegler’s

Like everyone else in town, I normally wouldn’t bother going to Kegler’s Bar & Grill. I know the mixed drinks contain almost no alcohol and the beer tastes skunky. I know there are less than five patrons here at any given time, unless there’s some horrible banquet going on. And I know that no one has ever — ever in all my days — told me about the wild night they had at Kegler’s.

I remember entering this place several years ago, against my better judgment, and ordering a drink just to see if balloons would drop from the ceiling and I’d win a prize for being the only customer. Instead, the bartender served me with all the enthusiasm of someone obligated to wake up and let the dog out at 5am.

Since then, I’ve avoided Kegler’s as much as possible. The fact that it’s in the same building as a perfectly good bowling alley, the Incline Station, hasn’t tempted me at all.

The thing is, avoiding Kegler’s is quite different than avoiding one of those typical neighborhood bars with a steel door and no windows. If you don’t go into a bar like that, you have no idea if it went out of business in 1998 or if it’s a crowded bastion of the kind of amoral activity you’re looking for. Kegler’s, on the other hand, is located kiddy corner from the Duluth Public Library and is half-surrounded by windows. So, without entering the building I remain keenly aware of how lame the place is just by standing at the bus stop.

Anyway, on this occasion, as I’m trudging along Superior Street, planning to catch a blue-and-green limousine out west where the real bars are, I glance in the window to see a packed house. And it’s not anyone’s “Lordy, Lordy Look Who’s 40” party, either. The attraction tonight is the Big Time Jazz Orchestra. Wondering what kind of bizarro universe I’ve staggered into, I pull my Hibbing Fire Department cap down over my eyes and step inside.

Kegler’s is one of a few area establishments in which the bar is in the middle of the room instead of against the wall. I like to consider the people sitting at such a bar to be performing in the round, and tonight it’s an all-star cast.

I’m not being facetious or metaphorical when I say it seems as if the short bus made a drop-off here earlier. It’s a very special crowd, if you know what I mean. About a third of the room appears to have a touch of the Downs. Another third appears to be under the age of 16. The final third is obviously there to keep an eye on first two.

Muscling my way though a horde of bobbing, suspiciously unhelmeted heads, I get to the bar, where I manage to order a noticeably dark whiskey/Coke and situate myself next to the drunkest guy in the room. He must be a transplant from another bar, I think, because there’s no way he got drunk on the stuff they serve here.

“I’ve beat over 6,000 people in Scrabble,” he says. “You play Scrabble? I could beat you in Scrabble. We should play. How much do you play for? Fifteen cents a point?”

“I don’t have a board on me,” I say. “Besides, I don’t play games for money.”

“We don’t have to play right here right now,” he says. “We can play tomorrow. You don’t play for money, but what do you play for? You wanna play for a finger?”

As I’m sitting there trying to figure out how to ask him whether the loser has to cut his finger off or do something much more intimate with it, he tells me he’s going to give me his number so that we can play Scrabble for fingers tomorrow. Then he pulls out an imaginary pen and an imaginary notepad, mimes writing down his imaginary number, then tears the imaginary sheet off and hands it to me.

I take it. And then I wave the bartender over to give me another drink.

When the orchestra finishes its final number and starts packing its instruments, everyone starts heading for the door. I can see the future, and it looks like the past. I think for a second about asking the orchestra’s alto flutist to drive me to Curly’s, but I think I know the answer to that question.