Early on a Friday night, O’Neil’s Tap in Charlestown doesn’t attract many besides regulars and the few people who venture in for a cheap beer. It wasn’t the bar you choose to go to first, more like the bar you end up at last. Carl was walking back from the jukebox and “Let’s Go” by The Cars came over the speakers. He sat back down at the table with Tony and Jake. “I love this song,” said Jake, leaning back in his chair.
“The Cars, man,” said Tony. “They were the real deal.”
I love the nightlife baby…
“Imagine living in Boston back then when they were around?” said Carl. “It must have been so cool.”
“The city was different then. It was real,” said Tony. “My dad was at Northeastern in the 80s. He said the whole city was incredible, says he doesn’t even recognize it now.”
“Seeing the Celtics at the old Garden? Larry Bird, Robert Parish. Those must have been the days,” said Jake.
Carl, Tony, and Jake were childhood friends who moved to Boston at the same time after college. Carl worked for the state doing research on the budget, Tony worked in finance for a bank downtown, and Jake worked at a local coffee shop and was trying out his dream of being a playwright. When Jake and Carl went to Tony’s apartment in Charlestown to hang out, they always made a point of having a drink at O’Neil’s.
When you walk into the bar, there isn’t much to look at. It’s a small dive with low lights and sticky floors. The bar is on the left with padded stools and a large TV. In between the liquor bottles lined up behind the bar is a stained-glass window. To the right are high top tables with stools and another TV hanging on the brick wall. An ATM sits in the corner, used by those who don’t know that the bar is still cash only. The space gets progressively darker as you walk towards the back where the tables are. Pictures of Bobby Orr and the old elevated subway hanging on the wall hang above the jukebox in the back-left corner.
“You know what the problem with this city is?” said Carl. “For a place with the nickname ‘Beantown’ there aren’t a lot of spots to get beans.”
“That’s true,” said Jake. “There was Durgin-Park, but they closed.”
“And the Fours, but they closed too,” said Tony.
“I can’t think of one place right now where we could go and get some beans in this whole city,” said Carl.
“That’s messed up,” said Jake, shaking his head.
“You want beans in this city, you have to look hard to find them,” said Tony. “It shouldn’t be hard. Where’s the pride?”
“Exactly,” said Carl. “You go to Philadelphia, you get cheesesteaks, and you know where the best cheesesteaks are. What do you think of when I talk about Buffalo, New York?”
“Wings,” said Tony and Jake.
“You want wings in Buffalo, you go to the Anchor Bar,” said Tony.
“But Boston? No one has any idea about where to get beans in Boston.” Carl sat back in his seat. He took the last sip of his beer. “You guys want another one?” Jake and Tony gave him a thumbs up. He went over to the bar to get another round.
“The old Garden sucked,” a guy sitting at the bar said to Carl.
Carl turned to face him. “What’s that?”
“You guys were talking about seeing the Celtics at the old Garden. That place was awful. There were poles everywhere so you couldn’t see what was happening, it was hot, and the seats were so small you needed a shoehorn to get in and out of them. I’d take a seat and my knees would be up in my chest.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad,” said Carl.
“Oh, it was,” said the bartender, putting three beers down on the bar. “People like to get all warm and fuzzy about it now, and I mean, it was nice because it was cheap, and the team was good, but overall? I’d take the new Garden over the old Garden any day. You want another one Walt?”
“You know it,” he said, sliding an empty glass forward.
Carl put a $20 bill down on the bar and the bartender left to get him change. “You guys like beans?”
“You mean like from a can?” asked Walt.
“Yeah, like Boston baked beans.”
“I like them,” said the bartender.
“Yeah, me too,” said Walt. “I eat them with hot dogs. Why?”
“Just wondering,” said Carl. He left a tip and went back to the table.
Tony was standing in front of the jukebox. “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers came on through the speakers.
Jake was singing along to the song. He used his empty beer bottle as a microphone and did his best Jonathan Richman impression.
I’m in love with modern moonlight, 128 when it’s dark outside, I’m in love with Massachusetts, with the radio on...
Tony sat back down, and Carl handed out the beers.
“Tony brings up a good point, Carl,” said Jake. “What about clam chowder? We have that here.”
“Ah, well here is where you’re wrong Tony. Clam chowder is regional.”
“What do you mean regional?” said Tony.
“It’s called New England clam chowder. New England.”
“What’s your point?” asked Jake.
“It’s not just a Boston thing. It’s all throughout the region. You can get it in any New England seaside town. You ever been up to Maine? Chowder basically flows out of the faucets up there.”
“I like chowder,” said Walt, turning to face their table. “You guys been to the Captain’s Log in the North End? That’s good chowder.”
“Yes, there is good chowder here, but it’s different. It doesn’t count. Boston’s food is beans,” said Carl.
“The beans again?” said Walt.
“Think about it, man, we’re in a city nicknamed Beantown,” said Jake.
“It’s kind of a stupid name,” said Walt.
Tony, Carl, and Jake all turned and looked at him.
“How could you say that?” said Tony, sneering.
“I read something recently about this,” said the bartender. “Baked beans were originally a Native American dish. They made it with venison, corn, and maple syrup and would cook it in holes in the ground filled with hot coals. When the pilgrims came, they liked the dish so much they started making it themselves, and eventually it evolved into what it is today. I think it was sailors that liked it a lot when they would come into port in Boston because it was so cheap to eat so they gave the city the nickname Beantown.”
“Where the hell did you read that?” said Walt, turning back towards the bartender.
“I don’t know, the Globe or something.”
The phone started ringing, and the bartender left to answer it. “You know, I don’t actually like beans that much,” said Tony.
Walt rolled his eyes and turned back towards the bar.
Tony’s girlfriend Jody and her friend Tara walked in and joined them at their table. “Hey guys,” said Jody as they both grabbed chairs. “What have you been up to tonight?” She gave Tony a kiss on the cheek.
“Talking about friggin’ beans,” said Walt. “You two nice ladies really like to spend time with these guys? With all the bean talk? I hope you’re coming from something more fun.”
“We were in the Seaport,” said Tara. “We went to that new restaurant and then to an art exhibit. It was fun.”
“Ugh,” said Carl. “The Seaport.”
“Remember when that area was just parking lots?” said Tony.
“I remember when a guy got shot in front of Anthony’s Pier Four down there,” said Walt. “I wonder, is there anything that doesn’t bother you about the modern version of this city, or at least anything from this city’s past that you aren’t nostalgic about?”
“I think that’s easy for you to say,” said Tony. “You lived through all the stuff we’ve been talking about.”
“You know,” said Walt, “when I was your age, me and my buddies would sit around the bar doing the same thing as you. ‘Oh, wouldn’t it have been great if we could’ve seen Bill Russell play? There’s nothing to do in this city ever since they cleaned up the combat zone.’ And 20 years from now, you know what’s going to happen? There’s going to be a group of guys sitting here saying, ‘It would have been so great to see Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum play for the Celtics. The city’s not the same ever since the Back Bay filled in with water again.’ You know what I mean. It’s turtles all the way down!” Walt picked up his drink, finished it, and signaled for another. The bartender brought one over.
“He’s right,” he said. “I’ve been bartending here for a long time now and I hear the same conversations happen over and over again. But with you guys? It happens more than usual.”
“I’m going out for a cigarette,” said Walt, getting up from the bar and putting on his jacket.
Jody turned to everyone. “I love you guys, you all know that. And I appreciate how much you like this place. But if you keep hanging out here exclusively, you’re all going to end up being that guy at the bar someday.”
“Actually, I think you’re all him already,” said Tara.
“What do you mean?” said Carl.
“Sitting here at the bar alone, arguing with some guys in their 20s? You already come here every weekend,” said Jody.
“We go other places,” said Tony. “I take you out to dinner,” he said to Jody.
“I don’t see a problem with it,” said Carl.
“No, she’s right,” said Jake. “We come here all the time and just sit and complain. There’s got to be more to life than this.”
The door to the bar opened and Walt led about a dozen people wearing Celtics gear in. The game had been on the TV behind the bar, but they had only been paying half attention to it. The postgame show was on now and they saw that the Celtics had beaten the Bucks 115– 106. The people were in a celebratory mood. The bartender started filling glasses and grabbing bottles and trying to keep track of who ordered what and who still had to pay.
One of the newcomers went to the jukebox. As he walked back to the bar, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond came on over the speakers.
“I think that’s our cue,” said Tony.
They all grabbed their jackets, drank the rest of their beers, and made their way towards the door. They walked by Walt, who had his arm around a guy in a Jayson Tatum jersey singing along.
Reaching out…touching meeeeee, touching youuuuuuu…
He nodded to them as they passed. They walked out right as the whole bar broke into the chorus together.
The five of them stood outside on the sidewalk debating what to do next.
“Maybe we can go to a place that has beans?” said Tony.
“Enough with the beans,” said Jody, shooting him a glance.
“I’d go for any food,” said Jake. “I’m starving.”
“We’re taking you boys out,” said Tara. “I know a great place to go.”
Carl turned around and looked inside the window at everyone in the bar. There was such joy on their faces as they sang together, buying each other drinks, sharing a moment. He made eye contact with Walt and waved to him again. Walt waved back and then shrugged and smiled before going back to singing along with the rest of the bar.
“You good Carl?” asked Jake, putting his hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said. “Really good actually.”
“Pick it up then or we’re leaving you behind,” yelled Tony, who was already a block away with Jody and Tara.
Carl and Jake jogged down the street and into the cold night to catch up with them. They saw the bus coming from down the road and started to run to the stop, waving to the driver so she knew that they wanted to be picked up.