“Let’s go to Maxine’s.”
I had just finished moving my meager belongings into the fraternity house when I heard those words, spoken by someone long forgotten. It was a hot August afternoon and I had been in Fayetteville for all of three hours. Maxine’s, I would learn soon enough, was a bar downtown, located a block from the Fayetteville square. Officially, it was Maxine’s Tap Room, but the popular name had been shortened to Maxine’s, much like Federal Express has become FedEx. I mentioned to my new friends I didn’t have an ID.
“Not a problem,” they said.
I had always known I would attend the University of Arkansas. Even as child, I was being indoctrinated by my mother, who thought of me as her own little Manchurian Candidate. I never considered another school. I remember touring the campus on a summer day in my early teens, thinking how great it would be when 1972 came around, and I could finally enroll. It’s one of the few things that I planned in advance that actually came to fruition. Now the day had arrived, and it looked like the first thing I was going to do as a college freshmen was go to a bar. I suppose one could find worse ways to commence a higher education.
Maxine’s was housed in an unassuming brick building on Block Street, and when we walked through the front door, it appeared we had satisfied the only requirement for being served. People said Maxine had connections at the agency that monitored alcohol sales, and that’s why she was so confidently lax about the drinking age rules. It was a rumor I came to believe in subsequent years, but I had no way of knowing that on my first visit. And as I sat at the bar toasting with my new friends, I also unaware of the role Maxine’s Tap Room would play in my life over the course of next four years.
I joined the fraternity the summer after I graduated from high school, and I lived in the fraternity house on Stadium Drive as a college freshman and sophomore. I loved the social aspect of fraternity life – the football games, the dances, the sorority functions, the Spring parties. It was also a great relief to have a ready-made pool of people to associate with, since making new friends was not something that came easily to me.
Maxine’s was the hangout-of-choice for my new brothers and me. After our pledge period was behind us, we could be found there at least a couple of nights a week. It was a budget-friendly bar for students of limited means. A glass of draft beer could be bought for thirty-five cents, a can of Busch was forty-five. We became experts on the bowling machine, betting against each other for beers. When we weren’t bowling, we played Pong, the pre-historic video game. We usually stayed until closing time, and many times we heard Maxine pick up the microphone and announce, ”You have ten minutes to drink up and get the hell out of here.” It was her legendary last call. Years later she had it printed on T-shirts.
In the Fall of 1974, my junior year, Wayne Ballard and I shared an apartment off-campus. Wayne and I had been friends for years. We attended the same junior high school, then the same high school, same college, and finally, we pledged the same fraternity. Wayne had job at Maxine’s for a short time, and I got the idea that working there would fit well with my college schedule, and I absolutely needed the extra money. A few weeks later I was sitting at the bar having a beer, and I asked Maxine if she would hire me. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Shit honey, you can’t work here. You’re not twenty-one.” I took out my driver’s license and showed her that I really was. I reported for work the next day.
Maxine opened the Tap Room in 1950, when she was twenty-four. Today the bar is referred to as “historic.” If it isn’t the smallest saloon in Fayetteville, there is no question it is the narrowest. I could walk from one side to the other in four long strides. Inside it was dominated by the bar, an imposing expanse of polished wood that ran for almost the entire length of the building. There was one window in the whole place; a tall, narrow one on the front wall, probably there to satisfy a building code requirement, because it served no other purpose. What little light there was came from beer signs that hung on the walls and from the ceiling.
During my time at the Tap Room it was a classic beer bar. We sold no mixed drinks or wine, only beer. Slim Jims, pickled eggs and potato chips rounded out the menu. Thursday night was always our busiest night. Moses couldn’t have parted the sea of humanity that clogged the aisle in front of the bar. There’s no telling how many fire codes we violated. Some Thursdays we sold completely out of beer, even the Pabst Blue Ribbon.
In the second semester of 1974, Wayne told me he was moving out of our apartment, so I rented a one-bedroom walk-up two blocks north of Maxine’s. They were called the Brown Apartments, and they were every bit as dreary as the name implied. Wayne and I were still friends, but he had found a new group of people he liked hanging out with. They were an eclectic mix of extroverts, and Wayne was the ringmaster of their high-octane circus. They performed for each other at a house on Spring Street, where Wayne had moved with two other guys. They were gregarious and obnoxious and uninhibited; everything that I wasn’t. I tried hard to fit in, but I was never comfortable there. Eventually, I stopped going to the house on Spring Street, and Wayne and I drifted apart.
Living alone made me appreciate my job at Maxine’s more than ever, because it kept me busy. I volunteered to work in the afternoons, doing anything I could to stay away from my apartment. I liked the afternoons because they were quiet, at least for a while anyway. That usually changed around five o’clock, when Marjorie Maxine Miller would emerge from her Cadillac and jolt the bar out of its sleepy malaise with the sheer force of her personality.
She blew in like a hurricane, loud and profane, with her big jewelry and her big hair, the wisecracks flying fast and furious. People seeing her for the first time often didn’t know what to make of her. Most were scared to death of her. The rest thought she was mad at the world and everyone in it. They were both wrong. In fact, Maxine was a sweetheart, and I learned that just because she cussed you like you’d never been cussed before, and she frequently would, it didn’t mean she was angry with you. Woe to anyone who had the bad judgment to lie to her, or worse, tried to steal from her, but just about anything else she could forgive.
Maxine’s family helped her run the bar, along with a revolving-door of college students, who must have numbered in the hundreds throughout the years. Her husband, Jim, was an attorney by day, but at night he could usually be found on a stool at the far end of the bar. Her sister, Bunny, worked the day shift, and Bunny’s husband, Wimp, was a fixture there, too. All of them were armed, with the possible exception of Bunny. Maxine carried a .38 Special. She opened her purse one night and showed it to me. Jim had what looked like a Colt 45. I’m not sure what Wimp carried, but I know he had something. My biggest fear was that someone high on something other than life would come in waving a pistol of their own, making monetary demands that Maxine would find unacceptable, and I would get caught in the crossfire between him and the Miller clan.
Luckily, no shoot-out ever felled me. But the late hours eventually did, especially when I started meeting co-workers at other bars after the Tap Room closed. I knew I had to quit, and so, reluctantly, I did. Almost immediately, I found another job at the Northwest Arkansas Times, Fayettevilles’ afternoon newspaper. My job there was to stand at the end of a conveyor belt and catch the papers as they came off the printing press. Then I counted and bundled them for the carriers, who took them away to be delivered. The nice thing about the job was that my workday was finished around four p.m. So almost every day after work, I would meet at Maxine’s with a couple of advertising salesmen from the newspaper. We drank beer and played marathon games of pinball for a dollar a head, and my circle that was Maxine’s Tap Room stayed unbroken.
In my senior year, I moved into an apartment with a friend from the fraternity, and my outlook on life improved tenfold. College progressed steadily toward graduation, and all the while, I was still a regular at Maxine’s. I had once entertained the notion of going to law school, but by the end of my fourth year as an undergraduate I had lost all desire to pursue my education any further. When my last exam was over, I packed up my still meager belongings and drove home. I followed Ballard, who limped along in the barely recognizable shell of the car he had steered so confidently into Fayetteville just a few years before. There is a metaphor in there somewhere. Wayne and I closed the book on college like we had started it, together, and once back home we resumed our friendship, as if the four years that just ended had never happened.
Maxine was eighty-two years old when she died in May of 2006. Her great-niece was running the bar at the time Maxine passed away, and to honor her memory, a memorial toast was held at the Tap Room after the funeral. Her niece told the Northwest Arkansas Times she had initially planned buy a keg and let the toasters help themselves, but she changed her mind after she realized Maxine would have been furious with her if she didn’t charge people. She was right. Maxine would have cussed her from the heavens, but then she would have thanked her for the sweet gesture, and to all the others she would have said, “You have ten minutes to drink up and get the hell out of here.”