Young bucks at Big John’s knew another Charleston
Pluff Mud Chronicles
Although I have written on topics challenging my skills as a typist, never before have I been so intimidated by an assignment. To write about Big John’s Tavern? The Holiest of the Holies? I wouldn’t wish such an assignment on Tom Wolfe.
My first recollection of Big John’s was as a little fellow, driving by and noting its location north of the Market. As you might recall, we weren’t allowed even to go to the Market after dark, what with all the boozing sailors and painted ladies and the whispered rumors of nightly knife fights. And Big John’s was north of that! Past the DMZ! I got the shivers thinking about it.
When my brother, Tom, mentioned casually he’d been to Big John’s one Friday night, I immediately dreamed of the time when I, too, would be 16, and could go. If a knife fight broke out, my brother would protect me. Sure enough, right about my 16th birthday I strode into Big John’s, my face frozen into a look of nonchalance. He took one look at all 98 pounds of me, laughed and let me pass.
During our years in high school and college, there was no need for cell phones to coordinate with our friends — every single person we knew would be at Big John’s, and be there all night. Big John would sit atop his throne at the east end of the world’s filthiest bar and insult each of us as we entered.
But at least we were allowed to enter, as Big John refused entry to anyone he didn’t know, or wasn’t at least escorted by a known entity. Who knows how many foreign sailors exited the Columbus Street Terminal … headed downtown … attempted to walk in the door of the first tavern they came across … only to hear Big John say, “Hey, hey, hey — private bar. Get the hell outta here.”
I felt sorry for them, but the odds of me saying anything were the same as insulting a New York Giants linebacker, which of course Big John was — and back in the days when they gouged eyes, chomped flesh out of each other and worked jobs off-season to make a living.
It is impossible to describe the degree to which Big John’s was awash in spilled beer, dirt, grime and bacteria unknown to modern science. I cannot say with a moral certainty the floor had ever been mopped — at least in the decade I imbibed there. The men’s room was a sector where angels feared to tread and I don’t think Big John even knew there was a back room, much less cleaned it.
There were exactly three things to do in Big John’s: Drink beer, play pool on the one pool table and stuff quarters in the jukebox. If I ever hear “Piano Man” again, it will be too soon. It never occurred to any of us that our girlfriends might want to do something else — but then again, we never asked. Missing a Friday or Saturday at Big John’s simply wasn’t an option: What if you missed the tenth retelling of a buddy’s story? Occasionally someone would be smitten with a new lady friend and take her “out to dinner,” but there was hell to pay if the couple didn’t arrive before closing time to ensure the rest of us they didn’t view themselves as high-falutin.
One of my favorite aspects of Big John’s was the laser-precise accounting system; in my entire life, not a single beer purchase was entered into a cash register. The cash register did not work and the piles of cash were stacked all around it and were usually tall enough to hide the hand-iron insurance policy he hid behind the defunct machine. Everyone knew the cash was safe, of course. The legend said that one hapless soul attempted to rob Big John (long before our time), and in a panic shot him in the neck. Big John applied pressure to his wound with history’s most toxic bar rag, chased the man down the street, beat him to a pulp and then drove himself to the Roper ER. Whether the legend was true or not, everyone knew it — and more importantly — believed it.
Big John was an enigma — he seemed to go through phases of great cheer, and phases where he, well, kinda-sorta hated everyone. I remember there was a year when we bounced between Big John’s and the erstwhile Barnacle Jim’s at the end of North Market Street, and Big John viewed this as a betrayal worthy of a seat in the rowboat alongside Fredo Corleone. During this phase, his greeting to us was: “Hey, hey, hey. What the hell you doin’ heah? Why ain’t you at Buffalo Bob’s?”
Big John’s triumphant run as Vladimir the Brain Cell Impaler came to an unfortunate end when someone at the IRS astutely noticed there was a tavern in Charleston that hadn’t filed taxes for several years — as I recall, it was something like 1981 to 1987.
Big John’s comment to the Post and Courier? “The tavern didn’t do no business during those years.”
My subsequent belly-laugh caused me to spit my coffee on the paper. No business? What did he do with the $10,000 I ponied up?
One of Charleston’s leading CPAs (then a young CPA) dropped everything and drove immediately to the tavern. When Big John asked him why he was there during the day, our mutual friend replied, “Trying to keep you out of jail. I’m calling the IRS today.”
Our friend prevailed, and Big John retired to his house on Folly Road to live out his days until he went to his eternal end zone on Sept. 23, 2002, about a month before we printed our first Mercury.
Having laid out the Big John’s experience for our readers, I look forward to hearing some of your first-hand accounts about many of the area’s leading attorneys, businessmen, physicians and leaders. I will remind you those of us in the Fourth Estate enjoy complete freedom of speech, and I encourage you to name names.
Just kidding. But a lot of people reading these words just got a very sick feeling in their gut.
Like the Rockville Regatta, the Bachelor’s Society parties and an anonymous annual stag cruise, Big John’s Tavern continues to provide a wealth of tales — and some will make a few perpetrators beg for mercy. Worry not; hey, hey, hey — Challie ain’t tellin’. Yes, Big John is the only guy on earth who ever called me Charlie, which he pronounced in his determined manner. He gave many of us nicknames and I’ll not mention some but will report he called sister Laura “Hoodini”; we never understood that one but it is a hoot.
David Farrow and I exchanged a few thoughts about the bar years ago, and the late Mr. Farrow concluded he was more of a Captain Harry’s guy anyway. I was denied entry the one and only time I tried to get into Harry’s before it closed, but that was not the case at Big John’s.
As a reporter, my father visited Big John’s now and then to take the pulse of the waterfront and absorb general scoop from a myriad of sources. Dad and Big John were friends, so I got the “you’re-Challie’s-boy, ain’t-you” treatment, which was an entry into a swell fraternity for the tavern’s legacies — more coveted than a membership at Augusta National. As long as we played by John’s reasonable and limited rules of behavior, we could let loose and enjoy ourselves immensely.
When I was in high school and home from college, I liked to slip into John’s now and then during the 5:30 p.m. range because the older guys were all there and that is where you learned “stuff” you would not hear at home. Normally, I would go out after supper, but I guess I had this genetic predisposition for seeking out the nuances that made the town tick. Noonie, the Woodman, Big Big, Carroll Godwin, Col. Dick and many others would line up for cold beer. As a teenager, I even tried a parlay card on football and thought that forbidden fruit was the sweetest ever until I learned about the odds and quickly gave up the notion of making a fast C-note with a dollar bet.
It was important to get to the bar in time for the evening newscast. You did not want to miss the entertainment as the regulars gave Archie Bunker-like comments about all the events of the day and the scoundrels caught hell from the assembled. Meanwhile, Big Big could not stop explaining that he was in love with Debi Chard; she only recently retired from Channel Five after nearly 43 of service. When I worked for then-Congressman Arthur Ravenel, Jr., I would enjoy the political banter with the old boys after work and try to offer a serious response in a place where I soon learned that clever was better than smart. In the middle of the love stories, dirty jokes and tales of gambling woes or wins, John was watching the faces, and if you were in his fraternity, you’d get the wink that gave new meaning to the line from Billy Joel’s song from which Prioleau runs: “John at the bar is a friend of mine.”
My understanding of the place went to another level when John asked me to work one summer and help Big Big. I came in at nine and left at two; I earned $10 and all the soft drinks I wanted. I was not drinking as a result of some medicine I had to take because I was somehow exposed to the tuberculosis germ, as determined during a physical exam to work at the Hazel Parker Playground. I survived nicely, thank you. I had the youngsters by day and the seasoned citizens and youthful hell-raisers by night.
Prioleau, the “cleaning” actually happened, and it was always on Sunday afternoon when Isaac would come and slop around a mop for a while. If you were an insider, you would come by for a beer on the house.
Now and then, we had a celebrity night when some professional athlete, usually a football player, would visit the legendary Big John and chat at the end of the bar. Such a visit would be the talk of the week; then, comments would return to who was going out with such and such girl or what color bandana I had in my back pocket — a topic that fascinated John for reasons I’ll never know. “I bet Challie’s got a red one tonight,” he often said.
Big John was as predictable as he was kind to me. At two a.m. sharp, he would ask me to bring him his .38 S&W from behind the bar, which he would stuff in his back pocket. Then, he would ask for the banker’s pouch of cash, and I would dutifully hand that to him. He would then lock the door and waddle toward his white Eldorado and, without fail, say “God bless yah, son; give your parents my love.” We had no idea our teenage Hundred Acre Wood would be clear cut by natural progressions but more so by the much-discussed forces of development. Nonetheless, for a moment in history, it was a magical time to live in the honey pot of a less harried and fussy Charleston.
If you have a legend for the Pluff Mud team to uncover or a historical quirky point you wish for us to address, please send same to firstname.lastname@example.org.