by Daren Wang
”Everything seems right here. You know, I come back to Michigan, the trees are the right height, the grass is the right color…”
— Mitt Romney, 2012
TOWN LINE, N.Y. — I felt bad for Mitt Romney when he took so much flak saying that in a campaign speech. I’m from western New York, not Michigan. But I understand exactly what he is talking about.
I’ve lived in the South for 30 years, but over the last decade, I fell in love with the story of my childhood home — Town Line, New York — and eventually wrote a novel about it. And I fell in love with the place again, too. Because everything does seem right. The trees are the right height, the grass, the dirt are the right color.
I left this little hamlet I called home when I was 14 and never drank there. It isn’t the South, but is the only place north of the Mason-Dixon Line to secede from the Union during the Civil War, and for that, I get to call it the South. So, it was with that in mind that I took my friends from Buffalo out for a drink at the Countryside Inn in Alden, a mile or so from my old house.
The Countryside Inn is 30 years old and has a spaghetti plate special for $8.95. We’re day drinking on a Sunday afternoon, but the Bills had already lost on Thursday night, so it’s quiet.
I’m going to start with the bad. The Old-Fashioneds were not good. There is a gun pourer for well whiskey. One button for vodka, another for bourbon, another for gin. I don’t know what type of bourbon came from that gun, but it wasn’t good. Watery. Bland.
Okay, I’ve got that out of the way. I finished the cocktail and ordered Labatt’s Blue.
And now on to the good. Karen, one of the owners is behind the bar. She is not a mixologist. She is a bartender. She’s occasionally funny, always friendly.
There’s a guy running lotto numbers at one end of the bar, a couple friends at the other end, gray-haired regulars drinking beers. They’re all chatty, but not too chatty. One them orders a beer made to taste like a jelly donut. Snark ensues.
The idea behind this quest is to drink with writers in their places as I tour around. Today, though, I’m drinking with my friends Joe, Bill, and Jeff. None of them are writers, and Town Line isn’t their place. It’s mine, though I haven’t lived here since 1982.
My novel “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires” is set here, during the years of the Civil War. The converted barn I grew up in, now over 200 years old, was an Underground Railroad stop. In the middle of a Northern town that seceded. I spent 10 years researching the history of this place, trying to understand what it tells us about who we are now.
I am happy to come here after 35 years gone, with all the ties frayed and broken long ago, and to sit at a bar and drink a beer and feel both strange and familiar to this place. It isn’t a normal type of comfort — instead it creates a sense of unbalance and ease at the same time. I have good friends with me, and we’re drinking, and the bar is one of a hundred good gin mills that dot the western New York landscape.
There’s a shuffle bowl machine built into the wall. It’s an old style game, the type where you slide a heavy chrome puck down a wooden surface toward plastic pins that pull up when the puck crosses trip mechanism below it. It was probably old when the place opened 30 years before.
We’re there for an hour before we notice the jukebox in the corner. There’s tail fins on this thing. 45s. Bobby Vinton. Jerry Vale. Freddy Fender. The Polka Chips. The Hollies. CCR. A dime a play.
I order wings like a pro. Extra crispy. There’s Kielbasa, Golombki, Pierogi on the menu, but I’ve been back in western New York for three hours, and I need my wing fix first.
The thing is, there’s no irony here. The only history lesson today is on the jukebox. It wasn’t compiled by some musicologist, or the guitar player for a multi-platinum band after much research. It’s what people listen to here.
The wings were great, but they aren’t smoked and the sauce isn’t some update with chipotle and ghost peppers. It’s Frank’s hot sauce and butter, as God intended.
If I could pick this place up, move it to lock, stock, and shuffle bowl to Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, the bespoke signature cocktails at the bar would go for $20, and you’d have to wait for 35 minutes before you could get your order in. Very Beautiful People, in town for the filming of whatever Marvel movie is in the works, would be spotted here nightly. It would be wonderfully throwback and ironic.
But here, it just feels like the way a Bar Bar should feel. And the trees behind the place are just the right height.
I wouldn’t tell anyone to drive to Alden, New York, for the Countryside Inn’s Old Fashioned. It just wasn’t very good. But it might have been my favorite so far.