Bennett’s chop and Railhouse
St Paul, Minnesota
It was cold and here we stood, waiting for the bar to open at 10:58. A few others had arrived even earlier, eager for the doors unlocking, huddled on the battered outdoor furniture that keeps its faithful post year round. A crowd of seven gathered near the entrance like some underwhelming movie premier. John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” breaks through the frosty March air and a glance at my phone reveals an unsaved MN number. Ok, that’s weird. Normally this wouldn’t get picked up, but I’m visiting Minnesota and now I’m just too curious. 11 am and the door creaks open. While the others file in, I hang back to take the call. It’s a contractor for my home warranty claim scheduling a time to look at the leak coming in through the kitchen ceiling. I had discovered a huge puddle in the middle of the floor one sleepy morning and immediately thought Gus had had an accident. The faithful Shepard though, was looking up at the source; a drip coming down near the light fixture. So the initial bad possibility had turned worse. But as misfortune finds us, the typical next step is the tangled hell of trying to get an insurance payout, and here is the much-delayed callback. Once business is taken care of, I mention that I’m in MN. “I’m from Minnesota” he says unsurprisingly. “Yeah, I’m at this place that gives a free shuttle to the hocky game.”
“I know exactly where you are” His tone is final and serendipitous, and he is right. I am at Bennett’s chop and Railhouse.
Bennett’s is a faded yellow painted building, yellow brick front, yellow block side wall, yellow paneling, or plywood behind, with red trim facia boards above. The establishment sits in a residential neighborhood like so many of its as of yet, uncharted contemporaries. Run down from long winter common houses stand like night sentries’ outposts in the harsh weather, scattered throughout these midwestern neighborhoods that often resemble scenes from the Wonder Years. Walking into this rather large sports bar, one is confronted with the great midwestern bar pastime of pull tabs. The automated machine holds thousands of tabs and the prizes to be won are laminated above each selection. As a winning ticket is redeemed, the staff scribbles out the amount from the display. Resisting the temptation to gamble and deferring to the vices of food and drink, I find my party at a center room table. A grand horseshoe bar begins filling up with a majority of patrons drinking what I assume to be screwdrivers. A drink order at a bar top can easily become contagious to the next undecided gal or fellow who bellies up and looks to what others are drinking. I love a morning beer and am happy to order the local tap selection; the Fulton lonely blond.
TV’s flash the NHL playoff picture as hockey jerseys both line the walls, pinned in behind glass, and adorn most drinkers in attendance. Half of us were going to the game, and the other half would post up here. A red hockey goal light hangs above the register at the bar. “Does that baby go off when the Wild score?” I ask the fifty something server. She is confused. I bet she makes a great casserole.
“The red light, does it work? Can you press a button to celebrate a goal with it?”
She gets the question now, and turns back to me “No.” Her pad is ready for a food order and her shift is just starting, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, she is looking at us with a gentle “are you going to order” look. The bar tender behind the bar is sharing a debrief session with one of the older regulars about how busy it was the night before. “I’ll take the stuffed mushrooms” was my next utterance.
An old timer comes round informing the departure time of the bus. He’ll be making three trips, the first one in five minutes. This beauty has the Bennetts logo of tipped martini all over it. A white shuttle with thick red pinstripes. It suffers the rust associated with salted winter roads, some of which has even eaten through the floorboards where the seats are bolted, but otherwise seems in sound condition. We definitely want the first trip and quickly settle up. Sports radio blares within as the trek is made towards Xcel Energy Center. The sheer amount of dive bars we pass on this journey is truly astounding. Havens of unknown reality behind closed doors, and beyond neon light, snowy roofs and dim interiors.
Bennett’s was good on its word, picking up and dropping us off from one of the more expensive bars, a professional stadium. A sports bar loves a loyal fan base, even if from a visiting team, and to their credit, the Wild fanbase were accommodating to us Bruins fans, even in the face of defeat. A group of locals were lamenting the trade that took Charlie Coyle from them and sent him as our 3rd line center. All I could do was thank them, and smile at all the conversations between sports fans of things we don’t control but take ownership of. It’s fun, until it isn’t…usually in concert with too much drink. One such victim, who had ridden with us to the game, was not gonna make the return home with us. She sat in the snowbank crying, tossing her cookies in front of the large departing crowd, and waiting onlookers behind the shelter of the glass doored vestibule. Her partner stood behind her looking dumbfounded, and longingly looking at our bus which was pulling away. Flashing lights were stopping in front of them I could see from around the bend, and I wondered what the price was going to be for that ambulance taxi. I wonder if insurance covered alcohol poisoning, and if it would be worth the trouble to try and run that gauntlet with them. Misfortune and insurance, an experience that hits like Tysons left and uppercut. You can ride Bennett’s party bus, but please keep your booze handled.