In the late ‘90s, home from college, I told my dad about this great bar I’d found. It was a little place, kind of a dive, and it had cheap beer, good music on the jukebox, and a horseshoe pit out back. He immediately said “You’re talking about the Back Door Tavern.” It turned out my discovery was actually a longstanding family tradition. My dad and his friends used to have regular Wednesday night “Prayer Meetings” there fifteen years earlier, when he was working as a printing salesman, driving back and forth to Knoxville every week.
I asked my dad what he remembered about the place, and he told me about the “good, greasy chili” they had. He said the woman who ran the place would break up fights by swinging a garden rake from behind the bar. And he told me about throwing horseshoes: “You can probably still see the marks in the wall where my horseshoes hit. Hell, we chased horseshoes out into the road.”
The bar had changed hands in the decade-and-a-half between my dad’s last visit and my first — it was now called Toddy’s Back Door Tavern – and the chili had given way to free hot dogs and dollar bags of microwave popcorn. But otherwise, it was more or less the same, right down to the carpet, which had been worn down to a sheen in the places it wasn’t worn out altogether.
Over the next few years, the Back Door Tavern became my regular haunt. You could get a 32-ounce draft beer for $3 and that, paired with a free hot dog, made a perfect bachelor supper. I’m sure my mother would say my buddies and I spent too much time there. Upon walking through the door, one of my friends would routinely turn to the wall and pantomime sliding a timecard into a punch clock – clocking in for his daily shift. My mother was probably right.
Barry, the owner of the place, greeted most everyone by name, and usually had an “aww shit” grin on his face. His friendly, unassuming personality permeated the place, and the general air was one of congenial familiarity and good-natured trash talk. We were even nice to the occasional Alabama fan who wandered in, so long as he wasn’t an asshole about it. Even the décor, such as it was, made you smile. The last time I went in, among the faded photos of ‘70s NFL stars, I noticed a new, apparently homemade sign: “Please don’t throw your cigarette butts on the floor – The roaches are getting cancer.”
Toddy’s was strictly a beer bar, but if you brought in a bottle from the liquor store out front, they’d sell you a “set-up” — a can of Coke and a red Solo cup full of ice. You would occasionally see women drinking wine from those same plastic cups, but that was rare. Toddy’s wasn’t really the kind of place you’d go to meet girls, but if your girlfriend was willing to accompany you to the Back Door Tavern, that was usually a good sign. It demonstrated a hardiness of character on her part, and a willingness to tolerate a certain amount of good-natured foolishness. My now-wife and I had not been dating long when we found ourselves in Knoxville for a concert at the Tennessee Theatre, and stopped by Toddy’s beforehand. She said she liked it. We are very happily married. I do not think those two things are coincidental.
Toddy’s was democratic in the best possible way. On any given night, the lineup at the bar might go lawyer, truck driver, college kid, banker, electrician, and, of course, printing salesman. The gravel parking lot was mostly trucks and SUVs, some with leather seats, some with a phone number on the side in vinyl letters, and some with the hood held down with bailing wire. But so long as you had a few bucks – Toddy’s only took cash – you were as good as any man on earth when you walked through the door.
In my mind, Toddy’s was perfect. But nothing good lasts forever.
Toddy’s closed its doors for the final time this week, with no fanfare and not much notice. I didn’t know it was closing, or I would have been sorely tempted to make the eight-hour roundtrip to see the place one last time. It seems Barry is having health problems, and finally had to call it quits. I’ve heard that the building is in violation of a whole host of building codes, but is grandfathered in so long as Barry owns it. Any change of ownership will require the new owner to bring the place into compliance, and the cost of making the necessary renovations likely exceeds the value of the building itself. As a result, the Back Door Tavern is probably going to be razed.
Thankfully, I did get to go to the Back Door Tavern with my dad. It was the early 2000s, and I was 24 or 25. My mom was out of town, and he drove down to Knoxville so we could spend the weekend together. That Saturday night, we sat at the end of the bar furthest from the door. He cracked jokes with my friends and charmed the bartender. We drank beer until well after midnight, then went out for sandwiches before finally dragging ourselves back up the stairs to my apartment. It was a glimpse of my father I’d never seen before, and have rarely seen since: The responsible man, set free from his responsibilities. My father had been a young man the last time he’d walked out of the Back Door Tavern. Of all the happy memories I have of the place, my favorite is the night he walked back through those doors and became a young man again.