Beer and conversations
By Jim Poling
There are moments when you miss the ‘good old days.’ Well, maybe just pieces of the ‘good old days.’
We live in times with so many important issues to talk about. So many challenges to meet. We have access to torrents of information.
Yet there is never time to really talk; never enough time to sort what is authentic and what is superficial.
Social media connects more of us more often but it also has distanced us from our traditional interpersonal communication. So many information exchanges and conversations are the digital banter of abbreviations, snippets, Emoticons and other shortcuts that save time but dilute context.
One part of the ‘good old days’ that I miss, TBH, is the beer parlour. Yes, to be honest, I miss the beer parlours, or hotel beverage rooms.
Beer parlours were abundant in every settled Canadian landscape. Any place there was a factory, mill, mine or timber operation, there was a beverage room nearby. They were working class social meeting places where the news, information and opinions of the day were shared face to face.
In Ontario they popped up like mushrooms in 1934, six years after Prohibition ended. Ontario allowed them in hotels, where they quickly became the most popular places for men to drink. After the Second World War, women were allowed into beverage rooms, but they were restricted to separate rooms marked ‘Ladies and Escorts.’
Beer parlours were simple places in simpler times. In their original form they were rooms with tables and chairs and seven-ounce glasses of draft beer on round trays delivered by waiters.
You had to be sitting to be served. There were no stand-up bars like in the western movies. And, you needed a government card to drink and the government kept an interdicted list of persons forbidden from being served.
There was no entertainment, no food, no gambling. No distractions, unless a fight broke out. Just beer, cigarettes and conversation – face to face with friends and colleagues, usually after work.
There was context in those conversations because you could read the faces and body language of the people sitting across from you.
My introduction to beer parlours was in Sault Ste. Marie, which being a steel plant town had by my fuzzy memory close to two dozen beverage rooms. The most popular were the Roosevelt (The Rosie), The New American (The New A), The Beaver Hotel, The Nicolet, The Algoma, The Lock City, The Royal, The New Ontario, The New Toronto and The Empire. And, of course, The Victoria House (The Vic).
The beer parlours attracted all kinds of characters, and some of the most interesting were the owners and the servers.
The Sault’s Victoria House was owned by a Chinese family – the Chows. Charlie Chow established the place and his five sons took it over in 1951 after he died.
Each of the Chow brothers – John, King, Joe, Albert and James – had a distinct role in running the beer parlour. But any one of them could be seen pouring beer behind the bar or delivering it to the tables.
The trademark of the Chow brothers was their uncanny knack of knowing the favourite beer of each of their customers. The regulars arrived at The Vic, took a seat and were served their favourite without ordering.
The memories of the Chow brothers were remarkable. I returned to the Sault for a visit after a two-year absence. I went The Vic to see if any of my former colleagues were still about.
I took a seat at an empty table and saw Jimmy Chow place a bottle of beer on a tray and head in my direction. One hand covered the bottle label as he approached my table. The other held a bottle opener.
“Ole We-enia, Jim,” he said in his sing-song accent.
I hated Old Vienna beer and always drank Crystal lager. I threw up my hands in protest. “No, no Jimmy. Wrong one!”
Jimmy snapped the cap on the beer and placed it on the table, turning the label toward me. It was a Crystal Lager. He went back to the bar, giggling all the way.