Lunch In The Brennan’s Time Machine

Brennan’s Irish Pub, Berkeley, CA

I’m increasingly perplexed by the new Brennan’s. I realize this as I’m waiting in the food line for my sandwich. I’ve been here quite a few times since they moved but I’m alone today. Maybe I’m just feeling sentimental.

A young woman is slicing meat for my sandwich. She’s very pleasant but she moves slowly and carefully. She’s not one of the old guys. One of the old guys is working next to her. He used to be the young guy who didn’t know anything but now he handles the carving knife like a ninja — using both edges of the double-sided knife, slicing, skimming, dropping some meat to the plate then back to carve without missing a beat. He moves like the knife is an extension of his arm. The ninja has made three sandwiches in the time it’s taken the woman to make one. She smiles at me and hands me the plate. The old guys never smiled. They’d look at you quizzically to prompt you to order. They may ask if you wanted your roast beef rare or medium, or what type of bread you wanted. The old guys didn’t mince words. They made your plate and shoved it at you unceremoniously under the glass partition. I like the friendliness of the woman but I like the old guys too. I guess we’ve grown used to each other.

I slide down to the cashier who is taking money from the person in front of me. The customer wants the woman to validate her parking. Brennan’s used to be an island in a vast sea of parking places. People who had spent all afternoon sucking back Irish Coffees could clear their heads walking back to their cars. If necessary, they could take a little test drive around the parking lot. Maybe take a little nap. Now there are only a few spaces on the side of the building. There’s a two hour limit for those spots. No good for the regulars who spend hours inside talking to their friends. You can’t park on the street unless you want to shovel money into meters all afternoon. True, you could park down at Aquatic Park… if you could find a spot. Otherwise you’re banished to the Spenger’s lot where they accept validations. You sit in a line of traffic, watching the gate go up and down for the cars in front of you; become part of the stream of strangers who file across Fourth St. and push through Spenger’s double wooden doors. The customer in front of me is an older woman. She has probably lived in Berkeley for a long time. Now she’s a tourist getting validated.

I sit at one of the long rows of tables. They are arranged in the same way as they were in the old place, these long rows, family style. I may be alone, but it feels like others will soon join me. When they do, they don’t have to sit too close. I can talk to them from a few seats away. No need to invade a person’s space. We can be friendly, we don’t have to move in together.

Even in the daylight, the green paint on the walls isn’t quite right. They were trying to match the old paint. This shade is too blue. It’s a cozy place now, smaller. I like that. But I also miss the vast dining room, row upon row upon long row of tables. I miss the dingy expanse of linoleum under the tables and the echo of footsteps on the hard floor in the hushed dimness of late afternoon. It was so very much like a real Irish pub back then, very authentic. Not the fancy tourist pubs in Killarney. Neighborhood pubs where people brought their families. No intricately carved bar, no wall-to-wall oak, no stained glass windows. Just a place to sit, drink, eat and socialize. A place where the kids could run around.

I’m looking over at the southwest corner of the bar. There’s a little inglenook with several tables and a single television mounted on the wall. The prize bull at the Cow Palace, a photo from the old place, is mounted next to the TV. The TV is tuned to a cooking show. It’s always tuned to a cooking show. Why? Regulars at the old place fought over which games would be shown on the two big projection screens. There were heated arguments. Hockey vs. basketball. Baseball vs. football. A cooking show? Not a chance. Not unless it was a hockey guy and a football guy cooking together, then maybe. Who watches this television? The tables are empty. Who sits there? Maybe the cooks come out on their breaks and brush up on making a roux or tempering chocolate.

I study the walls. Pretty much like the old place with one exception. There’s a poster announcing that XBOX is available — fun for the whole family. XBOX? Do they project it on the TVs? It used to be that the kids that came in with their parents would watch sports or talk to their family. Read a book. Do homework. In some sad cases, they just sat idly while the old man get hammered. XBOX…

There are several suits sitting at the tables next to the windows on the west side of the room. The windows look out on the train platform. They must be from one of the startups that have recently moved into the area. But startup people don’t wear suits, do they? Maybe they sell wine. Or condos. Or pharmaceuticals. The only people you used to see during the week at this time of day were retirees, truck drivers, sailors, and hardcore alcoholics. Now we have guys in white shirts and suits, looking very starched and very serious. Drinking iced tea. They have briefcases for gods sake. Briefcases in Brennan’s — that might be worse than XBOX.

The seats at the bar are mostly unoccupied except for a few men huddled at one corner. They’re regulars. You can tell by the way they lean in to talk then erupt suddenly in laughter. They see each other here all the time. They call to the bartender. They know her too. The bartenders haven’t changed. This is the most amazing thing about Brennan’s — the help stays forever. I am comforted by the bartender’s presence. There is something about the way she laughs and talks to the men, the repartee that passes between them, that convinces me that it’s the same old, friendly neighborhood place that it’s always been. The paint may be off a bit, the trains may pass a little closer, the sun may shine in through big arched windows and XBOX may be available on demand, but it’s really the same, timeless place. Deep down. Under the skin.

I’m glad it’s still here.