Making Friends & Enemies at the Milano
by Nicholas Heller, April 5, 2010
Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Don’t break my heart, my achy breaky heart,” murmurs quietly from the overhead speakers above the liquor shelf as a group of men occupy the far corner of the bar, using the telephone to contact an apparent drinking buddy. They were attempting to cajole him from his decision to stay in and begging him to join and have “just one drink.” I sense the depleted voice on the other end, wavering, trying to reason with the drunks, doing his level best to stay sober this evening.
“Come on. Just one drink. Then a ginger-ale.”
In the nearly empty Fort Bragg neighborhood hotel bar, the Milano, the hard drinkers’ persuasions and pressures on this poor man at home were painful to hear. In a place like this, the realities of boozing are plain and clear. There are no distractions. You come to this rectangular box of a room to get stewed, plain and simple. It is a dejected cycle that this man on the other end of the line was obviously caught up in.
In the time I have lived here, I’ve noticed the Milano looming on the corner of Oak and McPherson Street—mysterious, somewhat uninviting, and an obvious hang-out for regulars unlike me. It’s a gray, two-story, non-functioning hotel building built around 1900, off the beaten path on a residential corner, displaying a red sign reading “Milano” in white letters with a martini glass protruding from an outside wall hanging above the sidewalk. It stands as one of Fort Bragg’s oldest drinking establishments, keeping company with the Golden West (1895), the Tip Top (late 1800s), and the Welcome Inn (1930s), though it seems the least popular of the group. I don’t know anyone who goes to the Milano. There are no dart boards, pool tables, or jukeboxes, the standard form of bar entertainment in Fort Bragg.
Inside, the wood paneled walls are neatly lined with Budweiser mirrors containing images of dogs, ducks and deer. The lighting is dim, and the tables lining the parameter of the room are few and empty. It is pleasantly unremarkable. A sign behind the bar reads, “Save a logger, eat an owl,” and arrays of Milano ball caps are displayed for sale (camouflage is one option). I count three busts of bucks hanging from the walls. The pints are reasonably priced, and framed portraits of men holding fish catches line one wall. There are two televisions on either side of the bar. One flashes a sporting match, the other, a chef preparing odd dishes. But no one is watching right now.
The men at the end of the bar play a game of dice with the barmaid, Sarah King. There is talk concerning the quality of food at Burger King, a mention of McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Sarah shows me the back patio, where you can smoke cigarettes and drink beverages among irises, geraniums and water ferns in pots filled with gold fish. Small plastic Budweiser flags are strung about the patio roof, flapping in the breeze and a sea-shell wind-chime rings out in the chilly air. Rain droplets plop beneath my feet as she shows me her pet chickens, kept in a cardboard box outside the back door. “I feel bad leaving them in a cage at home when I go to work,” she explains, adding that the animals are quite used to humans now.
Back inside, the men generally seem to be in good spirits. Sarah, whose great grandfather used to bartend here, takes me on a little tour of the establishment. Behind the barroom is a larger, rarely used area with a giant wood burning stove from the early 1900s. It is through this room that women patrons can find the ladies’ room, which, according to a trusted source, is filled with photos of hunky shirtless men. Sarah tells me the nine rooms upstairs are no longer in use and that no one ever goes up there. There are rumors that the Milano may be haunted, and Sarah entertains the possibility. She relates that on one occasion, a hotel room door upstairs slammed shut. Upon investigation, Sarah found no evidence of human activity.
It is laid back inside the Milano. The customers take warmly to a newcomer (me), and keep a comfortable social distance, which I prefer and maintain for a short time. But it doesn't last for long. When Sarah asks who I'm writing for—and I respond—a man, seated a few bar stools away, slams his beer bottle on the bar. “I wish I would have known that before—then I wouldn't have talked to you!” he says, his tone acquiring the kind of late-night fury oft heard in Fort Bragg's drinking establishments. An intense pause—punctuated by background country music—follows.
Now, I've found that when someone a good deal sturdier than you feels passionate about something, and the emotion is anger—directed at you—it is best to be as docile as possible. So I explain that I don't work directly under the print editor of the AVA; this falls on deaf ears, however. Without being specific, he says he'd been wronged. Apparently I was little more than the sum of those alleged offenses, here, in the flesh, just a few feet away.
Faces redden and Sarah’s cheerfulness evaporates. The man can barely sit still: his blood is boiling, he says. I repeatedly tell him that I'm not the man he's angry with, that I merely write for the website. Then I prepare for a quick exit.
The man calms a bit—perhaps realizing that I'm harmless—so I half-heartedly try re-gaining rapport with Sarah. But my every move is under surveillance. “I can’t think of anything else to tell you,” she says, sensing the good times are over. It's mutually understood that I won't be ordering a second beer (though she asks anyway).
My exit is prompt, but not too hasty. As I rise from my bar stool, the man delivers a warning: Do some research on the AVA publisher. Make sure I understand what I’m getting into. With every eye either on me or looking away in humiliation--and with a country singer's whining lament on the radio--I flounder out the front door into the black, drizzling night.