October 13, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Westwood

I have discovered my new favorite bar. Babe's Cafe, where have you been my whole life? Bars on the West Side of Cincinnati are like nothing I have ever experienced before. First, they all claim to be the oldest bar on the West Side. Unless The Crow's Nest and Babe's Cafe were opened on the same day, they can't both be the oldest. History and tradition are important to Westsiders, even if effective advertising necessitates tweaking that history from time to time.

Westwood is Cincinnati's largest neighborhood, covering more than six square miles and housing over 35,000 residents. In comparison, Westwood is bigger than the eight combined neighborhoods directly to its east. Originally incorporated as a village in 1868, many of Cincinnati's wealthy citizens (including James Gamble from Procter & Gamble fame) built homes in Westwood to escape the Queen City's growing inner-city population.

Interestingly, Cincinnati's recent streetcar debate is nothing new. Shortly after incorporating, Westwood community leaders spearheaded a drive to construct a railroad that would help to overcome their transportation issues, ultimately making the area more attractive to new residents. In the mid-1870s, a narrow gauge railroad was born called the Cincinnati and Westwood Railroad. Unfortunately, it encountered financial problems almost from the start. (Sound familiar?) Operations came to a halt in 1886. (Sound familiarer?) Thankfully, the railroad was restarted a year later due to efforts of community leaders and was converted to a regular gauge in 1891. So, fellow Cincinnatians, all we have to do is wait another two decades and we'll be riding the rails of Cincinnati once again! Lovely.

In 1896, the village of Westwood was annexed into the city of Cincinnati. Seven years later, a red brick four-story building appeared at the corner of Applegate and Glenmore Ave. Seventy-four years after that, a bar formerly called Babe's Tap Room moved across the street into that brick building, and thirty-four years later, I walked into Babe's Cafe.

Tony might be my favorite bartender of all time. Anyone with a fresh tattoo written in Italian that reads, "Fear No Man," on his right bicep and, "Trust No Bitch," on his left bicep is my kind of dude. He was a friendly guy who was liked by everyone in the bar. When I asked if his tattoo was inspired by a specific woman, he said, "All of them." Well played, Tony. Well played.

The guy sitting next to me was even better. At one point, he excused himself to go home (he lived close) and smoke a bong. He returned about ten minutes later much more relaxed with a craving for Cheetos. I'm pretty sure that dude smokes a lot of weed, even though his pregnant girlfriend and small child live with him. The thing is, he didn't seem like a bad guy. I know "druggies" get a bad reputation in our society, but it's ironic that I was consuming an addictive drug (beer) that kills thousands of people every year, and I judged him for smoking an non-addictive drug (marijuana) that hasn't directly killed anyone. Silly laws.

In fact, my stool-mate seemed like a hard-working guy. He mentioned a long day of work at some factory job that seemed awful. Maybe self-medication is a reasonable way to survive blue collar jobs. I'm almost positive I don't have the physical or mental toughness to do what he does for a living. Teaching is easy; it's fun; it's rewarding. I went to school for many years and earned the right to enjoy my career, but I respect men and women who get their hands dirty every day at work. My dad supported his family by working in a factory for four decades. Maybe I am drawn to Westsiders because I see some of him in them (minus the weed ... I think).

I keep returning to this same point every week, but there's something about the West Side. I've spent more time on the rival side of Cincinnati during this experiment than I have in the previous thirty-four years combined. My impressions of Westsiders have always been lowpoor, uneducated, and regressive topped the list. But something magical happens in their bars. A sense of community emerges that leaves me feeling jealous. There is little time for pretensions when everyone legitimately cares for others in the bar. They're friends. It was like walking into an episode of Cheers. Not only did everyone know everyone else's name, but they had all gone to the same wedding over the weekend. Literally. There must have been fifteen people in the bar, and they all attended the same wedding. Community like that seems so foreign to me. You mean, places exist where people actually care about others without trying to use them to get their personal needs met, manipulate them to further their own agenda, or abuse them to stroke their own ego? Trippy.

I knew I had found the right bar when, five minutes after I sat down, we witnessed a car accident outside the front door. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but it sure was fun drinking a beer as the two drivers confronted each other. I also enjoyed the honking, cursing, and bird-flipping as other drivers expressed their frustrations to the driver who refused to pull his car off to the side of the road. When a cop finally showed up, the first thing she had him do was move his car so it stopped blocking the intersection. Obviously. People are bizarre little creatures.

Also like The Crow's Nest, Babe's Cafe claims to be haunted by "strange things that go bump in the night." Their official Web site claims, "Unexplained occurrences make the owners wonder, but the exact history of this building's previous inhabitants is unknown."

The only unexplained occurrence I experienced in Westwood were a bunch of awesome people that continue challenging my misconceptions about bars, Cincinnati's West Side, and the Queen City itself.