Drinking It All In

Meet the regulars at St. Elmo's, perhaps the oldest bar in the state

It's early Sunday afternoon, and the sunlight filters gently into St. Elmo's Bar. The Bisbee drinking establishment looks dingy in the daylight. A cast of regular characters lines the bar, including the guy with the upside-down cross tattooed on his forehead. Posters, old license plates, hunting trophies, neon lights and even bullet holes decorate the walls.

Elmo's is the quintessential dive bar.

The claw vending machine sitting next to the Ms. Pacman game is filled with colorful stuffed animals and sex toys. Basketball plays on the four televisions perched high on the wall just above the liquor cabinets. The pool table in the back of the bar awaits the first game of the day. The room next to the bar, with the stage and dance floor, is empty. Perhaps St. Elmo's is still recovering from the night before. It gets notoriously rowdy on Friday and Saturday nights.

A longtime St. Elmo's employee wanders in, and the regulars greet and hug him. His real name is Valente Rodriguez, but everyone knows him as "Tequila," a nickname he says his mother gave him. He recalls that when he was 2 years old, his father would invite friends over to drink tequila and play Mexican music. He says his dad would set the bottle of tequila on a table while they played.

"I would grab the bottle and drink it, and I liked it," he says.

According to Tequila, his father was also a patron of St. Elmo's. "I used to come get my dad out of here, and take him home," he adds.

Tequila's brother, Mike Rodriguez, sits at the bar. He lives in Nevada, but comes back to Bisbee once a year to visit friends and family. He says St. Elmo's is always his first stop.

"It's a ritual," he says. "This is home away from home. ... It's amazing. There's always someone I haven't seen in years."

Shortly after that, two women he went to high school with come into the bar. "I haven't seen them in 35 years," he says.

As Rodriguez sips his drink, the jukebox kicks on, blasting "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. Next to the jukebox, old black-and-white photographs cling to the wall beneath the stuffed buffalo head. They are mostly pictures of Bisbee during Arizona's mining boom in the early 1900s. Among the old photographs is one of longtime patron Frenchy riding a horse when she was a little girl. Phil Yossem, the current owner of the bar says, "She calls in sick when she doesn't come in." She even has her own designated bar stool.

In addition to its cast of eccentric characters, St. Elmo's brims with unbelievable stories and memories from more than 100 years of operation. According to Bisbee historian Boyd Nicholl, St. Elmo's opened in 1902 and is the oldest continuously operated bar in the state. Nicholl calls it "one the last of the old-time Western bars." Bartender Heather Rowley says it received the 20th liquor license issued in Arizona, and it "was good for prostitution, gambling and liquor."

Located in Brewery Gulch in historic Old Bisbee, St. Elmo's continues to live up to the legacy of this part of town, which, according to the Discover Bisbee website, housed 47 saloons in its heyday during the mining boom. Bordellos, better known as brothels, once lined the Gulch as well. In fact, Yossem says that part of a former bordello, the Blair House, constitutes the third floor of his building. He said it once rested at ground level farther up the Gulch.

"A bunch of horny guys had to carry it down the street ... there were no cranes then," he added. Apparently, they plopped it right on top of the St. Elmo's building.

"They needed more rooms for fucking," Yossem says with a laugh, adding that the bathroom doors in St. Elmo's came from the bordello.

Yossem owns the bar by himself now, though he used to have a partner, Jan Carter-Light. "Jan exiled me from here for six months once—I had too much fun," he says. "I've been drug outta here by my ankles, out crying on the curb."

Yossem describes St. Elmo's as "a focal point of the community." He says the bar is never closed, even on holidays, because for the regulars, "this is their family." According to longtime bartender Buzz Pearson, the ashes of five old-time regulars rest above the liquor cabinets.

This prompts Pearson to recall a time when one of them, "Loki," wanted to snort rum off the bar. Pearson says he decided to pour a tiny puddle of the liquor onto the bar for Loki. "His eyes immediately teared up," he says. "That was the day he licked everyone that came into the bar." Loki also took his shirt off and set fire to his chest hair that day.

Tequila remembers another occasion when Loki stuck his bare butt out of the second-floor window above the bar. "Tourists were taking pictures and freaking out," he says.

Yossem calls St. Elmo's "the most eclectic bar in the world." He says police officers come in to drink, and "they know so and so is a drug smuggler, but they don't care. Elmo's is like Switzerland—it's safe. People let their hair down here. You can do whatever you want to in here."

Pearson recalls that you could once buy women's T-shirts in St. Elmo's that said, "Just another good girl gone gulch."

He remembers his reply when a female customer asked him what that meant. "Let's take you for example," he recalls telling her. "You're getting drunk, maybe you go out and take a couple of hits, do a couple of bumps. Next thing you know, you're up dancing on the bar, topless," he says.

According to Pearson, she then asked him, "If I do that, can I have one of these shirts?"

"Absolutely," Pearson says he replied. And he swears that she did, and to a packed bar. Just another good girl gone gulch.

On nights like that, when the bar gets rowdy, things can get a little fuzzy toward last call. It takes real effort to get everyone out after closing. For some reason, people don't want to leave St. Elmo's.

Nicholl says he spent more than three years bartending at St. Elmo's to help put his daughter through college. He recalls being in the bar alone late at night after closing.

"It has a real aura when you're in there by yourself," he says. "You get everyone out of there, you can feel 100 years of emotion—love, hatred, despair, the whole thing."

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