Cold Beer & Warm Hearts: Togetherness: Along the J-shaped bar of Long Johns, the regulars gather to raise a mug and share the stories of their lives. Today they'll celebrate 20 years of cheer.

March 08, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Friday night at Long Johns Pub, and the regulars have assembled in their usual places:

George "Sonny" Heineke, a retired city firefighter, and Kenny Eiker, who finds good deals on crabs in the summer, are side by side on their stools, sipping Miller Lite and catching up on neighborhood gossip.

Around the corner of the J-shaped bar, Margaret Elburn assumes her regular pose, one hand under her chin. Margaret has lived within 200 yards of Long Johns for 37 years and adores the place. Given a little lubrication, she'll make a microphone of a dead soldier and render "Stand By Your Man" with passion.

Next is Helena Bigham, a self-declared "native of 28th Street" who has no desire to live anywhere else. "Only the Lord will take me out of Remington," Helena declares, and those around her laugh and nod in agreement.

And then there are "the Sunpaper Mikes," me and my colleague, cartoonist Mike Lane. Almost 17 years ago, we set out to find the ideal Baltimore bar. We didn't search too long before we stumbled onto Long Johns one Friday evening.

You've passed the place forever. It's at 398 W. 29th St. in Remington. Last bar on the right as you head toward the JFX. Nondescript on the outside, warm as Grandma's kitchen on the inside. It's nothing fancy: just an unpretentious tavern with a low ceiling, a couple of TV sets and the requisite poker machines. But it suits the neighborhood, an enclave of sagging rowhouses just south of Johns Hopkins University that has fallen on hard times.

The regulars live within easy walking distance. Most have lived in Remington for a lifetime or near-lifetime. (A couple of them live just over the line in Hampden, Remington's arch-rival to the north, but the less said about that the better. It's the spirit that counts.)

They've been to each other's weddings, celebrated births and mourned deaths. They vacation together in Ocean City. They put on dinners each Thanksgiving and Christmas to raise money -- $1,200 last year -- for Remington people down on their luck. And today at 3, they will gather at the bar to celebrate its two decades under the ownership of Phillip Crouch.

"I was in my long johns when I got word the deal had gone through," Phil says, "and that's how Long Johns got its name."

He's held on for 20 years, quite a record in a town where bars change hands with the regularity of Oriole relief pitchers. It hasn't been easy. The state raised the drinking age to 21 and knocked out two-thirds of the Hopkins crowd. Then the Orioles moved downtown, and walk-in business on 29th Street declined.

"We're a neighborhood place now," Phil says. "People don't drink and drive like they used to. It's hard running a bar, but I'm just happy to have made a living and keep going."

It's the regulars who have kept Long Johns alive: Sonny, 57, who bears a striking resemblance to Cliff, the mailman on "Cheers"; Kenny, 53, with humor as dry as a cracker; Helena, 66, who will burst into an Irish song at a moment's sip (you could map an Irish vacation on her face); and Margaret, 58, den mother, dancer and leader of the annual jaunt to Ocean City.

Going down the ocean is a tradition for the Long Johns gang. As many as 30, including wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, take up most of a motel and carry on for a long off-season weekend.

Phil sometimes goes and picks up the tab for at least one dinner.

"One year," Margaret remembers, "someone got the idea that we could get a free round of drinks if we pretended it was Phil's birthday. So we sang 'Happy Birthday' to him, even though it was months before his real birthday, and sure enough they came along with the drinks. We loved it, but Phil just about s- ."

"Well, it was dishonest," he insists.

Phil, 61, presides over his empire from a seat near the ladies room, keeping a sharp eye out for troublemakers. He has no patience for drunks; he'll toss out customers for loutish behavior or foul language at the blink of an eye. He insists that unaccompanied women be treated with respect.

"Phil keeps the lid on," says Jewell Meadows, who tends bar Friday nights. "He runs a tight bar, and he won't take any nonsense."

Jewell, 53, is the bar's historian. She knows the entire cast of characters at Long Johns and can tell stories about all of them.

There's Duckie, whom Phil harbored in the bar basement when the former fell on hard times; Blue, a Vietnam veteran who claimed to have been mistakenly declared killed in action and buried entirely too prematurely in South Baltimore; and Shorty, who lost his false teeth in a rowhouse fire 10 years ago. After the fire, the Sunpaper Mikes contacted the University of Maryland Dental School, which provided a new set of dentures at no cost -- and just in time for Christmas.

Much of the talk in the bar these days is of Walter Pierce, known to everyone as Dogie. He's a retired truck driver who grew up in Remington and played as a kid on Huntington Avenue's cobblestones and once had a tryout with the Phillies. "I was too light," he says, "only 138 pounds."

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