Two blocks from the school where I study (and teach) jiu-jitsu is a bar called 21 Nickels. It’s built in the low, narrow style of urban bars: bar running from entrance to bathroom, row of bar stools, aisle and a row of tables. This makes sense in the heart of a city, where square footage is at a premium; less so in the Watertown suburbs. But architecture is a language; the space evokes a type of bar, just like the high ceilings and faux ranch construction of an Outback Steakhouse evoke a type of restaurant. Realizing that occupancy counts more toward rent than ambiance, however, the owners added a side car. Literally: a dining car, rolled up on the long-rusted tracks that used to bisect Watertown, welded onto the side of the bar and connected via two sloping walkways. The dining car’s windows, which look out onto the wild grasses between a clapboard tuxedo rental outlet and the local Armenian lodge, are framed with imitation velvet curtains.
The jiu-jitsu class goes there at least once a month, typically after the belt test and promotional on the fourth Thursday. The owner recognizes us and goes out of his way to accommodate our size and post-workout stink: grouping tables in the back, firing up a preliminary order of nachos before we even have to ask, pouring out pitchers’ full of ice water. Last time we were there he kept the kitchen open late. We migrated from our usual exile in the dining car (don’t mind us) to take over the front bar, which was empty save for a middle-aged Mediterranean romancing a bottle blonde with a tan like a Camry’s driver seat. Every time we’re there we order vast quantities of food and streams of beer, then try to split the check six or seven different ways. And they always oblige. Not that Watertown’s a bad neighborhood, but most bar owners would consider being known as “the bar where the jiu-jitsu school drinks” a sound business investment.
I can’t hang like I used to – I could never really hang – so I’m usually one of the first to go. 21 Nickels is covered in sports memorabilia, old press clippings and iconic photographs, like every local bar in every suburb in America. As I exit, I note one that strikes a subsonic chord in my gut every time. Google Image Search isn’t helping, so I’ll have to describe it; this’ll be a good exercise for me.
A white man – not just white, but white – in a turn-of-the-last-century suit and tie, chin at his chest, eyes closed, mouth curving into a smirk’s imitation of a smile. He hovers over the State House like a giant ghost rising out of the earth; it’s visible through his torso. Hundreds of hands reach up from the bottom of the illustration, clutching the air through which this titan passes. A vague limning along the top of the black-and-white drawing, perhaps meant to convey a halo over the hovering figure, suggests nothing so much as a slow dawning horror, especially as the rest of the picture is chiaroscuro black. The entire drawing invokes nothing so much as a Lovecraftian terror – Nyarlathotep, perhaps – and the listless hordes drawn toward him. “THE MAYOR OF THE POOR,” the caption reads. “ELECT CURLEY.”