Behind the Bar

A look at the mothers, writers and musicians who pour Tucson's tastiest drinks

The Surly One

Photographer Yoohyun Jung and I are waiting outside of the Surly Wench Pub at 9:54 p.m., Friday, June 20. I'm wearing a purple-striped tie from Target that only an ex-girlfriend would love. I regretted strapping on this fashionable noose around my neck while standing in the smog coming from a group of tattooed smokers outside in the 90-degree heat.

We finally enter the barely illuminated pub. There's a doorman menacingly smiling from ear to ear waiting to take my money. He doesn't bother asking for my driver's license because I'm at that point in my life. The doorman lets me pass, but not without marking me with an upside red cross stamped on the inside of my right wrist. The walls are dark as ink. It's like a Hall of Fame for saucy ladies like Joan Jett and Elvira. There's a giant velvet painting of a unicorn fighting a shark hanging on the wall by former Wench employee, Jason Decker.

I wander off to the bar to meet the Surly crew, but my attention was quickly stolen from the stage at the far end of the bar. Wench co-owner Stephka Von Snatch takes the stage and addresses the hundred-or-so fanatic females eagerly waiting for some hunky, manlesque debauchery. Snatch demanded that the audience behave themselves and refrain from throwing loose change. All of a sudden, Oliva Newton-John's 1981 hit "Physical" plays and the first "Manly Manlesque" performer, Patch, rushes the stage dressed as if Richard Simmons were a metal head. He dances across the stage stripping one item of clothing at a time until he's down to his skivvies.

After watching five dancers flashing their back-hair and man-taints, including the crowd going wild for a roller-skating appearance by "Balls Bunyan," I needed another whiskey and ginger ale. But approaching the bar, it's busier than a three-legged cat in a litter box.

This is a typical Friday night for bar manager, Megan O'Brien.

She has short, bleached blond hair and a devious smile that Dennis the Menace gives Mr. Wilson when he did something only he and the reader knew about.

I can see both of her tanned arms are covered with tattoos exposed by the black tank-top she's wearing. I asked "Which one is your favorite?" O'Brien stops to think, but replies without saying a word. She lifts up her arm and revealing a long brown bookworm wearing a graduation cap and red bow tie. There's a black untitled book covering the top part of its blue underbelly.

O'Brien was born in Georgetown, Colorado, growing up in the tiny ski town buried in the mountains a couple hours west of Denver. In 1999, O'Brien joined a group of friends and drove down to the Old Pueblo and never left. "I was looking for a change of weather," she said quietly. The 38-year-old has been employed with the Wench since day one, celebrating a 15-year anniversary with the pub recently.

"I'm really thankful the Wench has a solid group of local, older customers," O'Brien said. "We don't get a ton of college kids. Thankfully, we don't slow down too bad in the summer.

"It's not really a party bar. We have video games, air hockey, a pool table and darts. We try to be an everybody bar. We really just try to make a place that's comfortable for people," she said.

The Surly Wench has had its moments. "We have had multiple people propose (at the bar)," O'Brien said. "One time we had a crazy woman with a gun run in here once. She was mad because her boyfriend was there with another woman, so, she decided to come down and handle it ... Luckily, we had a friend that was undercover cop that happened to be there, and saw it all transpire."

While O'Brien also used to make ends meet as a barista, she became the bar's manager five years ago. "It allowed me to stop working two jobs. I was pulling late nights and early mornings at the Safehouse. I still don't really sleep much," O'Brien said.

When O'Brien isn't slinging whiskey and cokes, she reads and writes during her free time with a love for Neil Gaiman and comic books. "I read a lot of Archie comics growing up," O'Brien said. She writes poems and short stories and is working on a memoir and a couple of collections of poetry.

O'Brien doesn't plan on bartending forever, but she won't be done anytime soon. Watch out for the story of her life, coming to bookstores near you. "I'm working on it," she said.

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