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A storied past and Mario ‘stache at Atomic Liquors

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The allure of Atomic Liquor on Fremont
Photo: Bill Hughes
C. Moon Reed

Legend says that Atomic Liquors—the combined bar/liquor store—has the oldest liquor license in town. That it was a hangout for Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, et al. That the bar has had the same owners since it opened in the early ’50s. And that patrons used to watch mushroom clouds from the roof.

Barman Mike O’Halloran quickly dispelled the final one as myth. But he confirmed everything else, telling stories about the owners, who are in their 90s. As O’Halloran showed an unsigned head shot of Sinatra at the Rivera as proof of Rat Pack regulars, I pondered whether he was wearing the same blue Hawaiian shirt as the day before. The smoke obscured the pattern’s details.

Non-Olympic-caliber bar divers may be disconcerted by the empty parking lot. But unless it’s after 10 p.m., an empty parking lot doesn’t equal an empty bar.

Everyone loves the $1 Busch beers, aka the Atomic Special.

Everyone loves the $1 Busch beers, aka the Atomic Special.

“That’s because most people don’t come in cars,” my friend/Las Vegas native said. Sure enough, the bar was lined with hands holding $1 Busch beers, the Atomic Special. My friend ordered Jäger shots. Five dollars apiece! After we’d bonded over sticker shock, my friend asked me to refer to him as my Insignificant Other.

A man in a full Mario Bros. mustache was singing along to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Next thing I knew, I was singing to Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” I capped my hand over my mouth as I.O. laughed.

Behind the bar, on the wall that’s not the liquor store, sat a pot of coffee with mismatched mugs and an ambitious collection of wire art. Like incense, cigarette smoke snaked up from the bartender’s ashtray near the cash register. Smoke here didn’t dissipate, but kept its shape and then hung around the ceiling like a ghost joining a field of disembodied spirits.

A few patrons exited the back door sometime after two gray regulars got into a verbal fight over a pool game. Everybody looked like sailors on permanent leave; it was fitting they sat under the sign “Veteran’s Corner.”

The back door was a cartoon of six handles and locks. I worried about the safety of my car, a lone vehicle with a single lock protecting it.

O’Halloran put a dollar in the jukebox and selected a string of U2.

“Turn it up,” somebody yelled. Everybody sang along open-mouthed, revealing the need for dental to be added to health-care reform. At 10 p.m., the lights came up as “Babe” by Styx played.

The Details

Atomic Liquor
917 Fremont St, 384-7371

I.O. and I prepared our exit, but I paused to examine this much-loved jukebox. I’m not into jukeboxes. Blame a lifelong fear that my musical knowledge isn’t as good as everybody else’s. Yet I found a quiet pleasure in flipping through the mechanical music pages: heavy on classic rock and country with some ’80s and the anomalous John Mayer. That’s when the man with the Mario Bros. mustache approached.

“Who are you people?” Man said; we’ll call him Mario.

“I don’t know.” If he’d asked my name, I could have given a fast answer. But who am I? I was flummoxed.

“Put on ‘Babe’ by Styx,” he ordered.

“But that just played two songs ago,” said I.O.

Mario slipped a dollar in the jukebox and selected a different Styx song and walked away.

“You have three songs left,” I called out.

“You can have ’em,” Mario said.

This was the first time I stood at a jukebox with songs of my own. I felt a rush of power. My first choice (Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”) seemed fitting.

Mario returned. “What song is this?”

“A song about drinking. Don’t you like it?”

“No.”

“Oh. Do you like Led Zeppelin?”

“Yes.”

I picked two Zeppelin songs. Sure it’s cliché now, but that combination of music and atmosphere resurrected the long-dead excitement of first going to bars. When I returned to my barstool, Mario was in conversation with I.O.:

“I fell in love with a heroin-addicted hooker.” Mario talked with the same honest abandon as he sang classic rock. “All my life, I’d never been in love. Never been married. Never had kids. Then a year ago I fell in love with a heroin-addicted hooker. I was 50. My mom told me you can’t choose who you fall in love with. But Mom wanted to know why it had to be her.

“And I supported her. I gave her $20 a day for her habit until she went to jail. When she was in jail, I gave her $40 a week. But then when she got out she screwed me over.”

My I.O. gave Mario consolatory cheers of Busch, and he continued his story. I went to put my first dollar in the jukebox and returned to this conversation:

“The doctor said that if I had come in two days later they would have had to cut off my arm.” Mario explained how he had reluctantly admitted shooting coke to the emergency room staff. Lacking the same reticence at a bar, Mario pulled back his sleeve to reveal a large depression in the crook of his elbow. “They removed a golf ball-sized infection.”

Just then, the bar closed (10:45 p.m.). Mario invited us to the Western Casino. I was game, but I.O. declined. Instead he took me to a place with clear air and no mystery. It was nice to breathe, but also disappointing.

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