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Authors: Ken Wells

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BOOK: Travels with Barley
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A few things caught my eye: a sign on the wall that said “Having Sex on the TV Can't Hurt You—Unless You Fall Off”; the fact that a huge number of bras, in various stages of deterioration, were hanging from the raftered ceiling; and that over at a table by the bandstand a couple, oblivious to this sea of happy turmoil, was furiously making out. I knew even if crusty old Curley were here they wouldn't get thrown out: nobody could get to them.

Someone had sent word to Gilchrist that we had arrived and out of this chaos he appeared, slowly fighting his way through the crowd like a salmon swimming upstream. Long introduced us. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries and off we went on a Cook's tour of the place. It was so crowded and noisy and Gilchrist was so often stopped by friends and well-wishers that we agreed we'd meet the next day for a proper interview over lunch. Then he was swallowed up by the crowd again.

I wandered around on my own for a bit, satisfying myself that the rest of the Bama would live down to the first of it, and it did, quite nicely. (Somebody, in fact, would later describe the bar as “the kind of place where you wipe your feet on the way out”) Then I decided to go back to our starting point to see if I could get an explanation for those bras. I spied a few other things along the way that warmed me to the joint; one was a vending machine that, besides the usual items like chewing gum, pocket combs, and potato chips, sold guitar strings.

I fought my way back into the room where Jezebel's Chill'n were playing, found a seat at the bar and ordered a Heineken. During a break in the music, I learned from a bartender that sometime back in the '80s, the time frame no longer being exactly clear, the Bama had experienced, like the mysterious appearance of crop circles, a rash of women prone to ripping off their bras for no particular reason and flinging them at people. Somebody decided that the spoils of this spontaneous sport should be tacked to the ceiling—and, well, here they were. This practice had stopped as mysteriously as it had started, thus explaining the dated and forlorn look of the garments.

When the band finished its set and the bar started to clear out I wandered over toward the bandstand and bumped into the smooching couple, who, though not smooching anymore, were still sort of pawing each other. They smiled and I smiled and we exchanged pleasantries. They told me they were Steve and Wanda from Birmingham, that they loved the Bama, that they drove over a couple of times a year and were—would you believe it?—
married
. This is about as far as we got: some friends of theirs barged over to grab empty chairs at their table. But before we said goodbye they told me I couldn't possibly leave the Redneck Riviera until I'd heard Rusty and Mike play on this very bandstand.

“And be sure,” said Steve, “they play that Wal-Mart song.”

“You mean the one about the guy bringing his drawers back to Wal-Mart?” said Wanda.

“Yeah, that one,” said Steve. “And the one about the manatee, too.”

I slipped out of the bar, promising to try to take their advice.

The next day, Gilchrist and I sat down for a leisurely lunch over platters of fried mullet at a restaurant called the Point that he said had the best mullet around. I had to admit this was the first time I'd ever eaten mullet. Where I grew up in Cajun Louisiana, nobody eats mullet; they are bottom feeders that people use for fish bait. But I did grow up eating alligator, frog legs, fried rattlesnake, snapping turtle, crawfish, squirrel, and raccoon; and once, on assignment in Alaska, I politely nibbled microwaved whale blubber with an Eskimo who had just graduated from Harvard. So mullet wasn't that big of a challenge, and my inaugural mullet was crispy, tender, and good.

I asked Gilchrist, a graduate of Auburn University, if he had an overarching philosophy about life. He smiled and said, “I like beer and money. But beer, like money, is never really yours. You just get to use it till you piss it away.”

That's a nice line for the guy who owns one of America's great dive bars, but Gilchrist clearly knows what he's about. Before buying the Bama he'd made a study of successful area beer joints and decided he wanted to transfer “that feeling that comes with a neighborhood bar” to a beach location while avoiding the pitfalls of many beach bars—they simply become tourist traps. He was dedicated at the outset to the prospect that live, original music would be part of the formula (and the Bama has live music 365 days a year). But he was also wary of imposing a “Bama notion” until he had a firm idea of the kind of crowd the Bama might naturally attract. “In large-building construction, a lot of landscape architects will go out and put in the landscaping and walkways before the building is ever done,” he said. “But then they find out that people will pretty much walk where they want to anyway. I figured the best approach was to watch where people walk first.”

We later talked about the Mullet Toss and I asked him about his greatest concern in putting on an event that big. He said it was “keeping the beer cold.”

Two weeks later when I arrived for the Toss, it was pretty easy to see what a daunting task that would be. It was mid-Friday morning of Day One and already the parking lots around the Bama were pretty much filled up, there was a tailback a couple miles up and down the highway and people were streaming into the bar. It was a warm, clear day and would no doubt get warmer—a beer day if I ever saw one. Gilchrist had told me that Mullet Toss beer chores largely landed in the lap of guy named Body, who, for lack of a better title, was the Bama's beer wrangler, and I should look him up when I got to the bar.

I introduced myself to a woman behind the Bama's package liquor counter named Susan Poston. She knew what I was up to and directed me to an inner storeroom behind the package store. I found Body (pronounced just like the human body) in a cluttered, tight room surveying the Bama's vast reserves of beer and booze. Nobody calls Body anything but Body and I wouldn't find out for a couple of days that his first name was Edmund. Or that he'd worked his way up into this post after spending a few years as the Bama's janitor, cleaning up the landslide of empty beer cans and bottles after the place closed every night.

I quickly learned four things about Body: on this overwhelmingly white strip of the Gulf Coast, he was one of the few African-Americans around; he was always busy; he ran the bar's beer distribution network with the cool of a college quarterback used to dodging rushing linebackers; and he wasn't a man that anyone would ever accuse of being loquacious. By doggedly following him around all morning and peppering him with questions, I did find out that preparations for the Mullet Toss had begun with a series of meetings starting back in November and that the planning for the event is one part war gaming, but mostly, Body said, “like putting on a county fair without having to worry about the livestock.” The Bama normally has about 150 employees but it hires 50 to 100 extras during the Toss, depending on the weather forecast. Body's main job is to order enough beer in the right proportions (Bud Light, Bud, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Miller, Coors, and a few imports, pretty much in that order) to serve 20,000 people. Then he has to commandeer a clutch of workers and, with hand trucks, move in a perpetual circuit stocking the bar's numerous giant beer coolers. This plan is also dependent upon an unusual logistical arrangement: the Bud, Coors, and Miller people agree to park diesel-operated refrigerated beer trucks on a lot next door to the Bama and keep them there for the entire Toss.

“We just don't have enough coolers on premise to handle the load,” said Body, who is thirty-something and built like Tiger Woods.

When I asked other people at the bar what they thought of Body's job, Susan Poston told me, “Body's job is impossible. On the ordering side, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Imagine being in a position of having somebody say during the middle of Mullet Toss, ‘Hey, you just ran out of my beer!'”

I had no idea that a beer wrangler's life was so pressured. I decided I would come back and watch Body in operation during the height of the Toss—late Saturday afternoon and into Saturday night when Gilchrist had told me the crowds could peak at 5,000 or more.

Saturday was another clear, warm day and I arrived a bit early because Rusty and Mike were playing on the same bandstand where I'd caught Jezebel's Chill'n on my previous visit. I'd left town then without being able to hear them and I was curious about a duo that wrote songs about the return policy at Wal-Mart. They'd already started by the time I got there and were in the middle of one of the songs that Steve and Wanda had hinted at regarding a manatee. It was actually a song about a hapless barfly who, his judgment blinded by liquor, went home with a woman he was sure was a beautiful mermaid and “woke up with a manatee.” The room was packed and everybody laughed every time they sang the chorus.

They then launched into a raunchy though equally hilarious number that sounded like it came straight out of the Bama's bra-tossing period. It is an appeal for certain kinds of women to keep their shirts
on
. The first two lines go:

Hey, lady, please don't show them tits

You've done run all the bikers off and you're scarin' all the kids

This song pretty much brought down the house.

It occurred to me that, though I'd never heard of a genre called Trailer Park Rock, this was pretty much what this music was; that Rusty and Mike were performing songs that Jimmy Buffett might have written had he grown up, say, dirt-poor in a storm-damaged double-wide with cars up on blocks in the front yard. Once you cut past the humor, the music seemed to have an appealingly raw honesty that went down well on the Redneck Riviera. In their own way, Rusty and Mike sold a lot of beer.

I'd later learn that of the two, Rusty McHugh, a big-boned, long-haired guy who looks like he could've been the bouncer at Woodstock if Woodstock had not been a love-in, was the songwriter. His sidekick, Mike Fincher, played straight man on guitar and backup vocals—well, straight man, if looking uncannily like one of the stoned-out players in the band ZZ Top could be called straight. When their set ended, I went up to introduce myself and buy one of the CDs they were peddling. Rusty, staying completely in character, said I could steal it if I wanted to, as long as I spelled his name right in the book. (I paid, and promised to spell his name right anyway.)

I went outside into the dazzling late afternoon sun looking for Body, hoping to observe some serious beer wrangling. It was broiler-hot now and the crowd was a rippling sea of T-shirts, tank tops, and swimsuits and it was hard to spot a hand that didn't have a beer in it. The aroma of boiled crawfish filled the air—a serious beer association for me. I got in line and after about fifteen minutes snagged a Heineken, then started pushing my way through the mob. I figured a black guy in a sea of white faces would be pretty easy to spot, but it took about half an hour.

I finally caught up with Body pushing a dolly laden with about a dozen cases of Bud into one of the outdoor coolers over by the faux tattoo stand. I stepped into the cooler with him. His face and polo shirt were drenched in sweat and he was consulting with a helper about a crisis: this particular beer cooler, having been opened so many times already, was registering 60 degrees. That's a nice temperature for an air-conditioned room but that's not cold enough for mainstream lagers like Bud. (The Bud people, in fact, recommend you drink their beer at 40 degrees F.)

As Body puzzled over how to resolve this, he said he'd already pushed about 600 cases into coolers and expected to reload them with at least 600 or more tonight. He'd been at it since nine this morning; he figured he'd be done at 2:00
A.M.
He then unloaded the hand truck in silence, wrestled it outside, and trundled off to reload.

I decided not to follow; I realized a lot of hard work went into beer wrangling but not much drama. Later, I asked Body, after three consecutive eighteen-hour days of this, if he ever dreamed of pushing beer cases around; he said he didn't, mercifully. The one thing he did worry about, though, was catching cold as he moved from the hot sun in and out of the chilly coolers.

I decided to conduct my own little experiment. I went up to one of the outdoor beer stands and punched up the timer on my watch, interested in knowing how quickly the beer was moving. The answer as that over the ten-minute period that I clocked, five bartenders were serving about 3 beers a minute, or about 180 beers (7.5 cases) an hour. A number of the seventeen beer stations were two-person jobs, so clearly not all were doing this brisk of a business. But this was a sobering amount of beer—conservatively, I calculated, at least 100 cases an hour. It was now 5:00
P.M.
; if that rate were anywhere close to accurate, Body's 600 cases would be gone by eleven.

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