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9 minutes reading time (1895 words)

A Bar That’s the Closest I Can Get to My Father

Millicent Souris
Benjamin Holbrook for Getty Images

“If you loved Uncle Bobby you’ll drink out of his shoe.”
My cousin Kelli was holding up one of my father’s duck boots, luckily brand new. She opened the Busch tap and filled it, then her sister, Erin, presented the shoe to each person in the bar.

My father’s lawyer was also behind the bar, collecting payment for services rendered with a case of mixed liquor of his choosing. I was 18 and drunk and sad and I think there was a point where I held my arms up and exclaimed, “This is my bar.”

But it wasn’t.

The night before my father’s funeral was the last time the bar was open to the public and operated by anyone in the family, over 25 years ago. My cousins bartended; they had been keeping it open so we could get enough cash together for the gravediggers at the cemetery on the other side of town. They only took cash, or maybe they knew to only take it in this instance. If memory serves me right, it cost $1,500 to dig a grave in 1991.

The next day, the pallbearers, including that lawyer, struggled to carry the coffin and Erin wondered if anyone would notice if she needed to vomit in her purse during the funeral. The wake ended at the bar, again, with my mother refusing to drink beer out of the shoe and John Wayne, the local street person, coming in and handing us the $10 he had borrowed from my father. He sunk to his knees and kissed the floor of the bar. My mother thanked him and handed him a pint of his poison.

Souris’ Saloon sits at the intersection of York, Dulaney Valley, and Joppa roads and has since 1934, probably before a few of those roads existed. Originally named Souris’ Restaurant, it was opened by my grandparents, Aritee and Christopher Souris, Greek immigrants. My grandfather, Papou, returned to his home, the village Karavas on the island Kythira, to find a bride after some time in the United States. My grandmother, Yia Yia, was a seamstress, and had been asked by three young women to make their wedding dresses, each one anticipating that Christopher Souris would propose. Instead, he asked the seamstress to marry him and move to America. In the only picture I have seen of their wedding day, Yia Yia sits atop a donkey in a white dress. You can’t see the road for the amount of villagers surrounding her. They moved to Towson, Maryland, just north of Baltimore City, and opened a candy shop in 1928. Then, in 1934, they opened Souris’ Restaurant when Prohibition ended.

My grandparents lived in the apartment upstairs, raising my father and his three sisters. Yia Yia worked every day, dishing up homemade food, drinks, and advice. People called her “Mom Souris.” The bar was in the middle of three colleges — Loyola, Goucher, and Towson.

My father, Bobby, took over the business when Papou died in 1966. It automatically went to him as the only male in the family. He changed the name to Souris’ Saloon, painting “Booze to Go” on the building so people knew they could buy packaged goods there. It’s a gem of liquor license: He could stay open every day until 2 a.m., didn’t have to sell more food than booze, and could sell carry-out. Way before his time, Bobby made pens and ashtrays and T-shirts and calendars and just about anything else you could put a logo on to give away. He came up with the slogan “Attitude Adjustment Facility,” brandishing it on pocket calendars and nightshirts.

My sisters and I grew up in the bar, along with many cousins over the years. We called it the store. A bartender would pick us up from school and take us to the bar to hang out until our mother left work at Towson. Sometimes this person was a begrudging cousin; often they had a quarter to give us to play Space Shuttle pinball or Donkey Kong to keep us busy. We climbed the 6-foot taxidermy bear that stood on its hind legs by the bar’s entrance. In my memory and in photos, it was a brown bear. In reality, it started as a polar bear, discolored after years of living in a bar full of cigarette smoke. It disappeared sometime around my father’s death.

Photo courtesy of Millicent Souris.

I liked cleaning rocks glasses in the three-compartment sink, intently inspecting for any lipstick traces after sanitizing. The menu was pared down over the years to a flattop behind the bar for burgers. Sometimes Yia Yia would make the Greek chicken lemon rice soup, avgolemono, in big batches in the back kitchen, cracking eggs two at a time in a giant stock pot. She was a Greek translator for Spiro Agnew as he came up through Baltimore County politics. After her death, we found a picture of him and his wife signed to her with a White House stamp on it face down in the bottom of her vanity. Obviously she was unimpressed with his alleged crimes of fraud, bribery, and criminal conspiracy.

On Fridays, friends and family would come for happy hour after work, and Yia Yia would sit at her booth and host, as she had for decades. The year my mother took charge of the Girl Scout cookie sale, she made the bar the cookie pickup. The other mothers shamed my mom for working and for being connected to the bar, so my mom made them come to the bar in the afternoon, and be seen coming to the bar. Yia Yia was once arrested for possession. A few Goucher students heard there was going to be a raid in the dorms, so they gave her their pot plant, telling her they couldn’t keep it alive. Yia Yia then put in the front bay window of the bar, where it flourished. What did she know?

The weekend afternoons brought out the regulars, men hanging out after work. I remember Charlie best, a burly, bearded man who worked at Baltimore Gas and Electric, drank glasses of Busch on draft, and smoked Pall Malls. He taught me how to light a match using one hand. We’d while away afternoons playing red hands, the game where one person holds out his palms upward and the other person holds hers on top, palm-side down, trying to pull away to avoid the slap from the other palms. It becomes more skewed the more decades there are between the hands.

My father was always at the end of the bar with his stack of mail, mail-order and liquor catalogs, and a small plastic electric fan on, facing him, regardless of the season. A terry cloth towel was perpetually around Bobby’s shoulders and neck to mop up any sweat. His was always the last liquor delivery on the route; drivers knew it was pointless to show up before 4 p.m.

One of his bartenders was in nursing school, and part of her shift work included giving him his insulin shot. He had a love affair with Christmas that went beyond December to every day of the year. The bar was decorated in garlands and lights that stayed up until a poor bartender lost their mind dodging sagging sparkle and tinsel, usually around May or June. The jukebox was a mixture of old crooners, Christmas music, and whatever any bartender could get past him that might appeal to anyone under 50: Blondie, the Bee-Gees, the Go-Go’s, REO Speedwagon.

For a while there was an inflatable Mrs. Claus hanging from the ceiling above the bar. The cop on the daily beat would check in and say hi. This decoration caused her great grief, mainly because it was deflating. Every day she implored Bobby to take it down. “Christmas is every day of the year,” he’d answer, then sort through some papers from the pile and leave it at that. Driven to the brink, she shot it down one day. The bullet hole, and bullet I presume, remain in one of the ceiling tiles.

I still visit the bar when I go back to Maryland: It’s the closest I can get to my dad, Yia Yia, these afternoons, and my family. All the loss.

We sold the bar after my father’s death; he was in the process of selling it, so my sisters and I finished the deal. We were all under 21, in college, with no adult willing to take responsibility to co-sign the license with us. The sale went through, and Souris’ Saloon gained another life, with a new owner and her own family to raise there.

Kathy Harden bought and ran the bar, embracing its decades and history, keeping the name and the legacy. The grand re-opening was Thanksgiving weekend less than a year after my father’s death, months after the sale. I drove from Ohio to get there, arriving at last call. I blew through the door and took it all in. Underneath all the wood paneling my father put up was brick, beautiful brick, and windows. Who knew? Seriously, who knew?

Photo courtesy of Millicent Souris.

Two guys in front of me, in their 20s, preppy and clean, turned to each other. One of them said, “Remember what a shitty dive this place used to be?” The other nodded his head.

I was so angry. I wanted to fight. I wanted to punch them both with my tornado of grief and rage and sadness and isolation. But I didn’t fight anyone that night; I wouldn’t stoop to it. My mother had always told me to call my father if I got arrested, sort of as a joke, as much as any single mother can joke about her daughter getting arrested. She was standing right next to me. Her side eye told me there would be no bail money.

I use the word “dive” to refer to a bar sometimes; it’s not a completely bad word in my book. I’m not going on some crusade to get people to eliminate it from their vocabulary.

But I do want to point out that a dive bar is not a place to indulge yourself and act worse than you usually do: It is not there for slumming. It’s not there for you to hang out with “real” people. It’s not a workwear jacket to try on and see if it’s an identity you can pull off. It is not a phase in life, and if it’s a true bar, it will outlive any phases. It’s a bar where lives are lived and accounted for, and someone’s going to check on you if you don’t show up one day. It’s a beautiful, begrudging family.

These places see a lot: births and deaths, a lot of funny things and intensely dark ones, diplomas, birthdays, anniversaries, love affairs, divorces, dates, break-ups, and memorials. The bar is changing hands once again, and for now, that bullet hole is still in the ceiling tile. The bear? No one knows where he went. It’s one of my father’s last mysteries.

Original author: Millicent Souris
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