In A Bar In West Virginia, Watching Beyoncé Sing
by Brendan Lowe
On the TV in the corner of the Village Café, a roadside bar here, President Obama was in the midst of his second inaugural address, but Trish wanted to show off her penis cup. The cup is really a mug with a plastic penis standing erect on the inside. It was a gift to Trish, the daytime bartender, from a patron.
“When I drink from it, my nose touches the tip,” Trish said. “And it’s great.”
I had arrived at the Village Café at the end of a reporting trip. Hungry for a place to watch the inauguration — an event I take seriously and look forward to — with other people, I searched on Yelp, watched the local news, and did some Googling. I called the main branch of the Kanawha County library in Charleston, the state capital, to see if they’d be showing it, but the first person I spoke with seemed taken aback by my question, and when she transferred me to the reference desk, no one picked up.
When I called the Village Café, Trish happened to pick up — it was seven minutes short of 11 in the morning, but by virtue of Trish coming in early to scrub the bathrooms, the bar was open. When I heard Village Café, I imagined a coffee shop more than a bar, but that was beside the point — Trish was happy to show the inauguration.
I drove up to the bar, or where Google Maps indicated the bar should be, and found a one-room, single-floor rancher, about 75 feet long and about 20 feet deep. There were no cars in front or on either side of the building. Of the two main windows, one was boarded up and the other had the blinds drawn. Eight tall, narrow windows made me think of a prison. But the ‘Open’ sign was lit, and so I entered.
After the front door, I immediately reached a second door. You need to buzz to enter this bar. Unsure why or what that could portend for what was on the other side of the door, I pushed the button and Shirley let me in.
Shirley is Trish’s best friend, been her best friend for two years. Shirley lives a stone throw from the bar in one direction, and Trish lives a stone throw in another direction. They spend a lot of time together, at the bar or otherwise. Trish’s laundry machine is broken, so yesterday Trish called Shirley and asked her if she could come over to use hers. Trish had a bottle of Malibu rum, and Shirley had some fresh fruit, so they got drunk, played cards, and did some laundry.
When I entered the bar, Shirley was smoking. We were the only three people in the bar.
Unable to summon the courage to order a cocktail before noon — though I was curious what Skittles, advertised as a “Special Drink” for $5, was all about — I ordered coffee, and Trish and Shirley decided to join me. That’s how we got to the penis cup.
Shirley wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there — two entirely fair questions. I explained I was in the area to write a story on a gun show, which came as a relief to both women. Sissonville is where some of the characters are from in “Buckwild,” the rural “Jersey Shore”-style show that premiered earlier this month on MTV. Reporters have been poking around to get locals’ take on the show — few are amused, and most are tired of talking about it.
Trish and Shirley aren’t tired of talking about “Buckwild” or anything else. They’re fine with the show — too much drama from the girls, but generally they’re okay with it. They’re just happy the show isn’t about drugs.
Meth, Shirley says. “Sissonville Slim Fast.”
Trish says Sissonville has been on CNN for having more meth labs per capita than any place in the country. Like other things the women say — such as how Trish doesn’t want her daughter to look up to Hillary Clinton because she “slept her way to the top” — I don’t know that this is true.
That’s how conversations go at the Village Café. Shirley compares the bar to the diner in “Green Acres” where patrons came to dish gossip. Later, when Steve, who owns the bar, comes by, Shirley and he will go back and forth about who learned first that a local boy had been killed in a drunk driving accident — Shirley, who happened to be at her cabin in Webster Springs, West Virginia, at the time, or Steve, who happened to be in Myrtle Beach.
“When I hear a rumor,” Shirley said, “I say ‘Yes, that’s true,’ add something to it, and pass it along.”
Amidst the banter, President Obama has launched into his inaugural address. I hear his voice briefly and intermittently, like a drowning child who yelps whenever his head comes above the surface.
“By, and for the people,” he says, before the din retakes the room.
At this point, we have company. Five young adults have been buzzed into the bar.
“How ya heathens been doin’?” greets Trish.
“Stayin’ out of trouble.”
“Don’t be lyin’ to me.”
“It sounded good, though, didn’t it?”
Though both Trish and Shirley are staples here, neither, it turns out, is a local. Trish is from Evansville, Indiana; Shirley a Buckeye from Meigs County, Ohio. Trish says she moved here to marry a beer man and “raise hillbillies”; Shirley’s family has roots north of here; both women came here with the men they married, and since separated.
Trish has three kids — two in college, one in high school. She says the two older ones are in Mensa, “and if I got the third one tested he would be, too.” Trish jokes a bit less when she’s talking about her children — her affection for them is deep. “I raised them right,” she said. “I raised them so they’d know how to handle themselves as well in the governor’s mansion as in the local bar.” And despite her own needs, Trish has her priorities. “I have no insurance and three kids — they’ll get their teeth fixed first.”
Trish says she is 50. This admission draws an age-related joke from Shirley, who is 40 (and is therefore called “slut” while Trish is “momma slut”). No joke comes without a retort, this time from Trish: “I’m just happy I lived this long.”
Obama carries on: “…tempered by the flames of battle…”
Trish is single and, by all accounts, lonely. “She has two cocktails a day,” says Shirley, “because that’s the only bit she gets.”
Trish shakes her head.
“I leave the door unlocked and the lights on, and I still can’t get anyone to come in and rape me,” Trish said. “It’s terrible.”
Shirley, in a Harley Davidson hoodie to Trish’s Jeff Gordon crewneck, has a boyfriend. He’s 28 and has a 9-year-old daughter. Shirley’s favorite part of the week is Drunk Wednesday — that’s when her boyfriend’s daughter goes to stay with her mom, and, well, Shirley gets drunk.
“Except during Hurricane Sandy,” Shirley notes. West Virginia received a lot of snowfall, and the drunk day was moved to Thursday.
Obama: “…naïve about the dangers we face…”
When Shirley notes that Meigs County, where she’s from, is the “pot capital of the world,” I note how she’s lived in two different (purported) drug capitals. When I ask as a joke whether this is a coincidence, Shirley makes a broader point.
“It’s about poor people,” Shirley said. “Poor people are around drugs.”
I ask Shirley about Keith Judd, a federal inmate who, despite currently being imprisoned in Texas, was able to get on the ballot for the 2012 Democratic presidential primary by virtue of West Virginia’s (astonishingly) liberal ballot laws. Perhaps even more astonishingly, Judd got 40 percent of the vote and won 10 of West Virginia’s 55 counties outright.
Afterward, armchair journalists sought to explain this phenomenon. Judd, it just so happens, is white. In the photo released of the federal authorities, Judd’s hair is bushy in the front and long in the back, winding past his shoulder. If he had scalped a raccoon and stuck the fur on his head, he would look no different.
Obama: “Every single American…”
Yet the main takeaway of these journalists’ reports was that Judd’s strong standing was representative of a protest vote by West Virginians — where, it’s worth noting, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 measure — about the Obama administration’s policies on coal. While this response is not without merit — the state did in fact sue the Environmental Protection Administration about these policies — it did not seem sufficient to explain how an unknown man, whose name happened to be much whiter-sounding than Barack Hussein Obama, had received four in 10 votes, especially in a state where the late, legendary Democratic senator, Robert Byrd, was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. I figured Shirley would have something to say about the matter.
“For three-quarters of people in West Virginia, it’d be about his race,” she said. “That’s why they just don’t like Obama.”
By this point, I was feeling hungry — I’d been drinking coffee I didn’t even want for the last hour, and that was on top of the coffee I’d has three hours earlier. I looked for food options. There were four: “Ham hot pockets, pizza bread, six hot wings, Philly cheese steak.” I went with the pizza bread. Trish admitted it was frozen. I stuck with the pizza bread.
Obama: “…knowing that today’s victories…”
By the door, the young people who had entered earlier were smoking cigarettes and playing video casino games on five Game King and West Virginia Multi Game machines. My conversation with Trish and Shirley turned to education. Trish’s daughter had been an education major, but she’d recently switched to forensic science. I told Trish I was a former teacher. She smiled and started talking about the negative correlation between public servants’ contributions to our society and the public’s appreciation of them.
“The people who are raising this country, making it what it is,” she said, “are the people making the least.”
Obama: “…the United States of America.”
After his speech, our conversation ranged. We discussed the best way to make scalloped potatoes (leave the peel on — “that’s where all the nutrients are,” said Trish — and use commodity cheese — “the cheese they give to poor people,” said Shirley), creamed potatoes (white sugar is the secret) and green beans (“they only way they’re good is with baking grease,” according to Shirley).
Beyoncé, who we all agreed was beautiful, was singing the national anthem. We were silent until she finished. Then Trish spoke.
“They can bitch and moan all they want,” she said, referring to no one in particular, “but this is still the greatest country in the world.”
Brendan Lowe is a freelance journalist. He has previously written for Time magazine, GOOD magazine, and the Baltimore Sun.