In memory of my father, William Lee Ballard, 1926 – 2007
One of the things my dad passed on to me was an appreciation for bars and bar life in general. I’m not referring to loud, hot nightclubs, but to a good neighborhood bar, the type of place dad referred to as a “good saloon.”
Back in the 1960s, when the business of advertising was still fun, Billy Ballard was a bit of a legend. Those were the days when four-martini lunches and after hours cocktails were part and parcel of the job. Dad had an extraordinary wit; he was notorious for his colorful tongue and outrageous irreverence, as well as his thoughtful generosity and unpretentious ways. He was also a resolutely unapologetic drinking man.
Over the years, during our many father-daughter lunches and dinners, I learned that a good saloon can take on an element of sanctuary. It is at once a meeting place, a book swap, a podium for debaters, and a message hub where you could also pick up sound advice. It was where you caught up on the latest news or local gossip, or where you could ask about a reliable plumber or a good stockbroker.
A good saloon was usually an establishment frequented by locals who expected or demanded the trusted absence of change. It was a place with a rhythm all its own, its dependable beat tapped out daily by the steady coming and going of its patrons. You could tell the time of day by who walked in the door, who was already settled into their regular spot, or by the absence of a particular patron.
And, for the last ten years of Dad’s life, that particularly good saloon was The Gator Club, in Sarasota, Florida.
Part of Sarasota’s early history, The Gator Club is a pinkish brick building on the corner of Main and Lemon and has served, over time, as Sarasota’s first grocery store, a brothel, a dive and a package store, and an upscale gentleman’s cigar and scotch bar. And for a good stint, the Gator Club served as what my dad referred to as his “office.”
Rose, the day bartender, said she knew it was opening time when dad’s face appeared at the side entrance, his wicker and Styrofoam ice bucket in tow, filled with his own ice cubes made in those aluminum, pull-handle trays. “Rose, don’t give me any of your half-assed ice cubes!” dad would protest. He also carried with him his own mixers in small bottles, feeling strongly that “the stuff that shoots out of that bar gun is shit, Rose. I’ve strongly recommended to Ernie (the owner) that he change to bottles, but Baby, I’m fighting an losing battle.” And of course dad always had with him his signature Tervis Tumbler he’d been carrying everywhere and at all time since the early 1960s, when they were hard to find.
Dad would take his seat at his table, the central-most round, marble high-top set on a heavy, filigreed iron pedestal, and directly beneath the line of wicker fans that swayed gently to and fro under the tinned ceiling. From about 11:00 a.m. until around 1:00, the place really belonged to dad. He even had a telephone installed at the back bar (which remained closed until the Gator transformed into a nightclub after dark) to use for personal calls with some degree of privacy.
Entering in dribs and drabs as lunch hour neared, the group would gather and the conversation took on a momentum that reflected whoever was present. There was quick-witted banter and serious, heated debating, or, more often, bawdy, ribald and racy exchanges.
At first glance into any local pub, and taking in each character one-by-one, they look like a pretty squirrelly bunch; a mix of kooks and misfits. But taken together, they made up a collective ethic you could trust, even to look after a lost kid until a parent or the police were contacted. And as far as characters went, The Gator certainly had its share.
At the next table was the unstoppable and loquacious, fidgety telemarketer, “Talking George,” whose left hand was limp from a war injury and who went in and out of jail. If the television channel was set to the stock quotes, “Flaherty,” a stockbroker whose eyes never strayed from the ticker running across the bottom of the screen, was in the house, sipping a vodka on the rocks. For a time there was “Alabama Rick,” an outrageously funny, loud and commanding gay dope dealer missing three bottom teeth. Alabama Rick held court at the table next to dad’s as his buyers came and went, until one day he was hauled off to prison.
One of the most colorful characters was a tall, albino diabetic, a double-amputee who managed to also be a gay veteran with no less that four angry ex wives. Dubbed “Peg Leg Charlie,” he once strode into the Gator on a new set of prosthetic legs and proudly announced that he was now a full two inches taller. And at the helm was Billy, my dad, the guy who set the rhythm going every day, the one everyone gathered around, asked about, checked in to see. The one they all went to for advice, for an occasional loan, and of course, for a drink.
Once, during dad’s Gator Club tenure, I overheard him on the phone in his kitchen as he gently directed the rescheduling of a planned, outpatient eye surgery so that the operation would end in time to allow for his usual Gator Club stop. He was polite and soft spoken with the receptionist as he gently explained his predicament. “Darling. You have them operating on me at noon. By then I’ll have had nothing to eat or drink starting the night before. That’s a full seventeen hours, dear. Now I’m a serious drinking man. I’m what you might call an accomplished alcoholic. And I’d like to have my driver pick me up from the surgery by one o’clock, at the latest.” (I was his so-called driver.)
Eventually the days of dad and his Gator group fizzled out. Talking George changed companies and had to switch bars. Peg Leg Charlie drowned in his tub after an evening of too much wine. Flaherty fell out with the group and stopped showing up. Others moved away. Alabama Rick went to prison.
But for a good while The Gator Club was a fundamental and integral part of dad’s and our daily rhythm. It was when and where he started his day, where plans were made, books and opinions exchanged, news and gossip shared. For a long time it was his compass. And for a long time, he was mine. Lucky me.