Friday, July 22, 2011


I recall reading a quotation, now long misplaced, that said that when a man regretted the passing of some vanished brand of ale or lager, he was actually mourning his own lost youth.  There is some truth in that.

But I regret the passing, not of a particular type of beer, but of the tavern at which I once imbibed it.

Culla’s was one of those rare places that did not fit any conventional description.  It was not a Biker Bar, or a Jock Bar, or a Gay Bar.  Certainly all of those types wandered in on occasion and were made welcome.  But if you had to call it something,  Culla's was a Yahtzee Bar.

“Ma Culla”, the proprietor, was a beak-nosed elf with a sharp tongue and hair dyed bright red.  She had an inner circle of friends who all sat at one end of the bar and played Yahtzee for hours on end.  The impact of the hard faux ivory dice over the decades had actually worn a crater in the hardwood counter.  Sometimes a regular would be absent and Ma would peer over her kitty spectacles and ask, “Wanna play some Yatz?”   Sadly I never volunteered, suspecting that even a game this deceptively simple could be played at some ferociously competitive level.

I started going to Culla's in 1974.  At that time the clientele was a mixture of fresh scrubbed Lutheran College students, ancient Scandinavian immigrants, and hippies who just never got around to moving out of the neighborhood.  But you could see anyone there.

One fellow regularly came with a tubby old dog, which would sit by his barstool and accept the occasional potato chip or lap of beer from a proffered glass. 

An occasional visitor was a cheerful, deranged man who had legally changed his name to Freedom, and wandered the city enthusiastically espousing incoherent philosophies.  He is the only person I have ever actually seen wearing a pyramid hat covered with aluminum foil.  But I think it was not to keep Government Spy Beams out so much as to spare us the full magificent force of his incandescent lunacy.

When you stepped into Culla's it always felt as if you had dropped out of current time.  The furnishings were older than many of the patrons, and that is saying something.  The pinball machines were ancient mechanical types where the bells and turning dials sent tactile messages to your fingertips.  The newer digital versions don’t do that.  If you wanted to listen to the ball game there was an old Hamm’s Beer advertising radio with the word “Harmon” scrawled on it, remembering the departed slugger.  Even the beer was obsolete in a sense, two brands on tap, both from famous breweries that had fallen on hard times and closed, their brands still being brewed at some “undisclosed location”.

The tunes on the jukebox also seemed to be from some alternative time or place.  Janis Joplin, Hoyt Axton, and Jerry Jeff Walker, this last of whom had apparently put on an  astonishing performance at the local college that set up some interesting collective resonance long after all charges had been dropped.

Even the architecture was odd.  Built near the end of a triangular shaped city block it was an irregular trapezoid shape, and I doubt any two corners had the same angle.  It was disconcerting until you got used to it, like one of those “mystery rooms” you used to see at cheap tourist attractions, where you could make a pencil roll uphill.

Most businesses exist for a reason.  At any major intersection in suburbia there will spring up like colorful neon fungus, a convenience store, an Applebees, a strip mall.  Culla’s existed for no particular logic.  I can’t see how it turned much profit.  It did serve to provide a home away from home for a collection of semi-rootless people, but mostly it seemed to exist, well, just because it did.

I was honored the year I was finally considered enough of a regular to be invited to the buffet on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  The menu if I recall rightly was hot dogs and free beer.

Culla’s appeared to defy change, but it would be more accurate to say that it could only resist it tooth and nail. Slowly, slowly there were alterations.  Johnny, Ma’s boyfriend, was found dead in the Men’s Room one day.  A new owner bought the place and grumbled about money.  But the essence of the place was unaltered.  The Yahtzee cabal still held court, and Ma did not mourn long.  Truth be told Johnny was a sourpuss.  I recall him with a frown and a Navy watch cap, his skinny arms swinging on either side of a belly that from long association with barrels of beer had begun to resemble one.

But for me things did change.  After eight years my patronage of the place dropped off when I started residency in another state.  But I was still comforted by the belief that Culla’s continued on more or less the same, and on my trips home I checked in now and again to make sure.

In the end progress did win. It always does.  The owners of the land on which Culla’s stood sold it to build some high-end housing.

I wasn’t there the day the place came down.  But I have heard that the bulldozer put its bucket to the side of Culla’s and pushed and strained to no avail.  It seemed as if something more than the honest labor of 19th century bricklayers was holding it together. 

But in the end, you can only resist change, not defy it, and with a shudder and a plume of brick dust a part of my younger self crumbled away.

At an undisclosed location in Wisconsin. Spring 2011


Bodwyn Wook said...

Here's a link to my write-up on the old place!

Tacitus2 said...

Well done sir, well done indeed.

I have no doubt we stood elbow to elbow a time or two.

I miss the place, or at least I miss the times.

I heard that Ma Culla once had a chance to own either this bar or a place called The Goal Line over east of the U of M Campus. After Cullas went down my brother and I would occasionally visit the Goal Line just to pick up a few faint vibes of Cullas...