I was introduced to the Red Key when local artist and Manhattan drinker, Kipp Normand, invited my husband and me to his favorite bar on a Friday night. I followed Kipp's lead by ordering the drink rendered on the neon sign outside and became a Manhattan drinker myself. Lana served our drinks in the vintage glasses with the "R" on them (now gone), and filled us in on the rich history of the place. "Frances Farmer used to drink Old Fashioneds here," she told us and went on to talk about the time Ben Affleck visited the Red Key to film the adaptation of hoosier novelist Dan Wakefield's Going All the Way.
On this particular evening with EKD, patrons nursed beers and watched Animal Planet's Shark Week episodes on the tube. Eyes went wide with excitement and more beers were ordered as the sea creatures kept us all in captivated.
I ordered a Manhattan and Erin ordered a beer.
I began drawing a customer at the bar, Marc Jacobson, because I know him as a professor from my days at Herron. He sat at the bar switching his attention from his book to the sharks and back again. Now, the thing about drawing people you know is that when the drawing does not look like the person, it is hard to enjoy your drawing at all. I crumpled my first attempts until I got a good Marc Jacobson down. I looked over and Erin's markers were gliding over her paper without hesitation. Perhaps I needed to loosen up a bit.
Our waitress, Brandy, came over to deliver more drinks. She told us she had been working at the Red Key on and off for about 10 years. "Since Russ passed away, there are younger people hanging out at the Red Key. Some of them don't know the rules."
Ah, yes, the famous rules. I do remember being told on my first visit about the rules: Hang your coat; you cannot move the furniture; no swearing; and no standing around. "I think the rules are what keep the spirit of Russ alive," Brandy said. "Russ is what makes this bar special."
Erin remembers the first time she learned about the rules; "I had my feet up on a chair, and a lady tapped my feet." She said that it was a moment that taught her "reverence for the place."
I ordered another Manhattan, this time without the cherry -- the equivalent of taking your shoes off on a wedding dance floor. There is a thin man with a blonde coif, and I really want to capture how amazing his hair is.
Everything we draw seems silly now. And so I draw the man who turned to look at us as we cackled away throwing Corn Nuts into our laughing mouths.
By the end of the night I was sipping whiskey on the rocks and had run into a handful of more Herron professors with whom I brought up my grades to at one point. I wobbled away to my husband who was parked outside; it was time for me to go home.
The next day I woke up and looked at my drawings (more can be seen at jengadillo.tumblr.com) -- cave painting Polaroids, they seemed. Hasty symbols of yesterday. Many artists must know this feeling. It is my consolation for the consequential headache to be part of that experience.
The Red Key is not considered an artist's bar; all kinds of people come here. But all who come do have something in common. Whether it is Kurt Vonnegut, Russell Settle, Frances Farmer, Dan Wakefield, or Ben Affleck (doubt it), we all come here with those who were here before. Here the lines between the city's history blends with our own personal histories (and, in my case, the lines on the sketch pad).
What history do you share with the Red Key?