On the Patio at Harbour Lights

(This was written on 1/27/2013 as an assignment for the MatadorU Travel Writing course)

One night at the Replay a man in a Deadmau5 shirt bought me a shot of whiskey.  I threw up in the alley within 20 minutes.  My friend Jamie walked me to her place where I puked in her toilet for an hour then fell asleep in her bed while she slept on the couch. 

I met Jamie at Harbour Lights on Christmas Eve, 2011.  The place was nearly empty that night.  I noticed her when I was out on the old patio reading Joyce’s ULYSSES on my iPhone  and having a cigarette.  It was cold out.  I went inside, sat across the room from her, half reading, half looking at her.  Something about her.  Made me think of classic movie stars like Lauren Bacall or Rita Hayworth.  

She walked over and asked, “You want to play pool?”

I said, “Sure,” wishing I looked more like Humphrey Bogart.

Harbour Lights is like a friend that’s always there for you.  The interior is virtually the same now as it was when Jamie and I met.  The same dimly lit one-room bar, the same graffiti on the same walls, the same old pool tables and warped cues, the same people drinking the same drinks on the same stools at the same bar same as they always have.  The bathrooms have been replaced, but everything else is the same inside.

I push my way through a crowd of people that have taken over every inch of open space  and head toward the outside seating where I can have a cigarette and perhaps reflect that smoking with a sore throat is not the best idea in the world but, I feel, makes me strangely in touch with the human condition.  I’m sure Gogol or Dostoevesky wrote something about that very thing, or at least they should have.  Some story about a man with a head cold having a beer and smoking cigarettes meandering through a bar crowded with strangers trying to find a table on the back patio.  The table represents a purpose in life, a place to call one’s own.  I find such a table and sit out on the first level, under a cloudy night sky, surprised that none of my friends are here tonight.

The renovations to the outside began in July 2012.  Harbour Lights is one of the oldest bars in Lawrence, KS, located at 1031 Mass. St. on the edge of the downtown strip and hadn’t changed for a long time up to that point.  There wasn’t upstairs seating.  The heat lamps worked, but not that well.  “Employee parking only” and “WE B TOWIN’ AND U B PAYIN’” was still painted on the old back wall from the days before the smoking ban, before the back area was fenced off and made into a reasonable facsimile of a beer garden–or something like that, just some tables and chairs, really.  When construction plans were announced, there was some worry with the regulars that Harbour may go too commercial and drive off the loyal clientele.  Now everyone comments on how nice the changes are.

Megan and that poet friend of hers who wrote the poems about a dead girl in the woods are now seated at the table with “PLUR” carved into it.  The “PLUR” looks like it’s been there for some time, long before Deadmau5 and Skrillex came about, when I used to be part of the rave scene in Kansas City.  I miss those days and am glad that table wasn’t tossed out.

Megan and I hug.  I take a seat.  Megan points and says, “There’s a roof up there now.”

I look up at the sheets of corrugated steel covering the rooftop seating area.  “That must have just gone in.  Wasn’t there last week.”

Megan used to have long dreadlocks that went down nearly to her waist.  For some reason I’m not entirely aware of, she cut them off a few months ago.  She hosts a bi-weekly poetry reading at The Gaslight I’ve attended a few times.  She says, “You got the crud?”

I blow my nose.  “Yeah, probably shouldn’t have come out tonight.  How was the poetry reading?”

She replies, “It was so great; it felt like the first real one we’ve had.  Everyone spoke from the heart.”

I think of Jamie.  I think about writing from the heart, writing about a girl I met in a bar who I’ll never forget.

Images from The Graffiti Room at The Java Break

If you’re at a loss for things to do in Lawrence, KS, the default options are to either go to a bar or to a coffee shop.  For the indecisive, there are a couple of combination bar/coffee shops, like Henry’s and The Bourgeios Pig.  However, for those who like to do one thing at a time, keeping your bar life and coffee shop life separate, there’s The Java Break, the only coffee shop in town open 24 hours a day.  The 24/7 business model allows people to either spend endless hours at a coffee shop instead of a bar; or to get a cup of coffee and then go to a bar; or to go to a bar and then get a cup of coffee after the bars close at 2 a.m.; or to get a cup of coffee, go to a bar, then get a cup of coffee after leaving the bar.  It’s a system that works.

Writers face similar challenges.  Write at a bar?  Write at a coffee shop?  Which to choose?  While some people write in notebooks or on laptop computers, other people take to writing on walls and tables with felt-tipped pens and permanent markers.  Perhaps this is a way of getting exposure for their work, similar to keeping a blog; I don’t know.  But there is a room at The Java Break dedicated to those people who can’t stand being confined to the traditional page and who just have to get their work out there somehow.

If ever you happen to go to The Java Break, be sure to go into the Graffiti Room and read the walls, because, as one graffiti-ist put it, “Earth without art is just ‘eh.’”

Here are some other memorable works:










Wednesday Night at Harbour Lights

Arnold Schwarzenegger is killed in a nightclub.  After a few moments, he wakes up and shoots everyone.  I take a sip of my gin and tonic and turn my attention away from TERMINATOR and back to Instagram.  New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder has posted a photo of insoles from her ballet shoes.

To my left, I hear, “I could do the ‘t’ and the ‘c.’”  “You could do the ‘c,’ eh?”  The bartender is playing Scrabble with two young women drinking mixed drinks at the bar, neither of which look like they could do a pirouette.

The insoles are toe-to-heel, one parallel to the other.  Ashley Bouder starts the comments with, “At least someone is hitting a perfect fifth today.”

The Scrabble game is interrupted by a woman who has just walked in.  Her hair is pulled up and back, into a pony tail.  She is selecting her words carefully, articulating each with the precision of a ballerina dancing en pointe.  “I’m . . . wanting . . . to . . . have a draw . . . of Anchor Steam.”  Arnold is wreaking havoc in a police station.  The bartender, “Actually, the Anchor Steam just exploded.”  He turns to a man in a hoodie and blue jeans, sitting on a barstool.  “Ryan!  Check on the Anchor Steam.”  Ryan gets up to go change the keg.  Back to the girl with the Love Missile F1-11 hair.  “A jar . . . of . . . Sierra Nevada.”  “All right.  And we’ll know about the Anchor Steam as soon as Ryan gets back.”

“@ahsleybouder I thought you wore Freed not Bloch?  Hopefully those are insoles from flat shoes . . .:-)”  Ashley Bouder replies, “I wear Bloch”

Two heavyset women in sweaters and jeans are at the bar before anyone can make a play in Scrabble.  The bartender asks to see their IDs.  They are either amused or annoyed by this; it’s hard to tell from their expressions.  “Any shot specials?” one asks.  “Single and double specials.”  “Two Jagerbomb shots.”  Then, to her friend, “Fuckin’ Wednesdays.”

Arnold puts on his sunglasses.  Love Missile F1-11 is back at the bar.  The bartender is on it.  “ . . . All this fresh new Anchor Steam we have.”

“What kind of Bloch do you wear?”  “I thought most company members wore freed?  Special order?”  “@ashleybouder hahaha apparently the awareness that you wear blochs has torn a hole in the space time continuum!!”

The Terminator is still on the hunt for Sarah Connor.  I’m done with my gin and tonic.  It’s time to go home.

7 conversation starters for your night out in Lawrence, KS

Downtown Lawrence, KS.  On any given night there are bar people doing bar things in bars drinking bar drinks talking about bar stuff, bar nights, and things that happen in bars.  If you want to bar it up with a Lawrencian and aren’t sure how to break the ice, here’s an initial list of topics to get you going:


The fucked-up state of Kansas politics.

The only way this topic would start a barfight is if you’re a firm supporter of Kansas’s present governor.  Or really hate gays.  Or have a large collection of automatic weapons.  Or think that Kansas is better without an Arts Commission in the first place.  The word “Brownback” has yet to be applied to a clinical disorder, but will be soon, I feel.  Just say something like, “Brownback is a shitty governor,” and someone will buy you a drink.


KU basketball. 

The Jayhawks are always either at the top of their game or are disappointing everyone in town, but, either way, they drive up business for bars.  Just say, “How about those ‘Hawks?”  Whoever you’re talking to will take it from there.  All you have to do is act like you know.



This seems to be one of those things people do but rarely talk about.  There’s probably a reason for this.  Just go to the Replay on a Monday night and you’ll find out.


Things that are going to happen and never do.

Try “Hey!  Let’s start a writer’s group!” or “There should be a film club,” or “We should get together in costumes and go out drinking on Friday” or “Let’s take that clown class at City in Motion in Kansas City.”  Don’t worry, no one will hold you to it.


TV shows.

THE WIRE, THE WALKING DEAD, BREAKING BAD, DOWNTON ABBEY.  I can’t figure out how everyone around here has enough time to watch all these fucking shows!  But this might explain why nothing ever gets done.  Just watch PORTLANDIA or ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and you’ll be fine.


Fucked-up things.

Bar people in Lawrence seem to know about the most fucked-up stuff.  Makes you want to drink more just to forget about it.   This article about a man trying to saw his own arms off should make a good conversation starter but don’t be surprised when someone one-ups you.



If nothing else, Lawrence bar people talk about problems.  There is a never-ending supply of problems.  A weird rash picked up at a music festival.  A crazy family member.  Bad allergies.  Noisy neighbors.  A stupid boyfriend.  A stupid girlfriend.  Gay troubles.  A bad pizza eaten at Intorno.  Medical bills.  Parking tickets out the wazoo.  And, to offset looking totally self-involved about your own problems, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about other people’s problems as well and to express a concern for their well-being.  And then drink.  And enjoy the time together.  Maybe sing some ABBA at karaoke, “The Way Old Friends Do.”