El Batey Bar
Batey is a Puerto Rican Taino Indian word for the meeting place of tribal chiefs a solemn place where their wisdom and years of experience were combined to make decisions that would affect the future of their people for generations to come. You can imagine how those noble chiefs would turn in their graves if they were to see that word is now used to describe a filthy, decrepit, festering (but immensely popular) bar like El Batey.
During happy hour El Batey Bar on Calle Christo in Old San Juan is the pit stop for a crowd of losers, alcoholics, and lonely men in white-collar garb on the way back home from work. Journalists drift in after covering the governor in his Palace down the street and share the gossip about the latest political scandal with local artists showing in the galleries next door. They engage in such furious debate about political theory and government policies that it's sometimes hard to imagine that only a few short weeks before they were washroom attendants at the local Hilton. After dinner the Batey becomes a distributor of paper cups full of beer and booze for hundreds (thousands on weekends and festival days which in Puerto Rico is every other day) of beautiful, affluent, Puerto Rican young people who overflow the bar and spill out onto the streets then spill their guts into the sewers. Around 2 AM, after all the other watering holes are closed the night people come. At 4 AM the mood is bluer than the cobblestone streets outside, as last nights fun dissipates into this mornings depression. And all those whod stopped in after work have shown incredible willpower and self-control if they dont find themselves passed out in their cars in the wee hours of the morning, or worse on a park bench sans watch and wallet, of course.
Still one can see why many feel comfortable in a place like this. A product of the Hand Grenade School of Architecture, the walls have not been painted or repaired since the Spaniards built it in the 17th century. Mold has turned the grout dark green, and the brickwork no doubt carefully laid down by master journeymen of the time is now worn away to the point that the walls look like they've been carved out of a limestone hill. The toilets have been pulverized so many times by falling bricks that many patrons prefer to urinate or snort coke out in the courtyard. There are signs in them that read "NO POT SMOKING HERE!" but nobody pays attention. It's a place where you know that no matter how poor your self esteem, no matter how low the standards you've set for yourself, this bar is proof that there's worse.
Yet in spite of it all, El Batey does have a charm that would be impossible to reproduce anywhere else. The walls are covered with George Mabuchis caricatures of the regulars, which is not only an uncommon touch of class but also a striking contrast to the regulars themselves, who have aged more than twenty years since the drawings were made. The lamps are covered with business cards of those who have been passing through for decades. The bar is carved with the names of many a regular. And the beer is the cheapest in town.
Davy Jones, the owner, does not serve Piņa Coladas. "This ain't no goddamn soda fountain," he snarls through the stub of his cigar. His orders to the bartenders are "Don't take any crap from the customers! " and "If I catch your fingers in the till I'll break them with that . . . pointing to the sawed-off baseball bat under the bar! Davy has become a millionaire even though his bar is the cheapest in town, a true extension of his personality. "I've made my bones," says Mr. Jones. He refuses to have the walls washed or painted for fear they will fall down. Plaster from the ceiling has been known to fall from time to time, so, if you go, request a hard-hat, one is usually kept under the bar for finicky patrons.