Jane’s Diary: The Bar Sinister

Paris, London, Rome, Butte. Yes, Butte, Montana! This may seem a weird line-up of favorite cities, but it’s true. I have traveled the world a fair amount and have gone to places exotic enough that I worried about strange bugs biting me, but few have been as memorable as Butte.

I am not an authority on Butte and have only visited once a long time ago, so people may read this and question why my memories of Butte remain as fixed and eternal as a fly in amber.

If you know nothing about Butte, I will spare you a long history lecture (which is good, since I don’t have one), but I will say that Butte is an iconic Western mining town where hard-bitten men and women dug a difficult living from the land. In 1864 Butte was a mining boomtown, then tragically the site of what is officially called the 1917 Speculator Mine disaster — the largest hard rock mining disaster in history. A good chunk of the town slid into the collapsed mine.

Along with mining, Butte was a place of bordellos, labor insurrections, socialist uprisings, clashes between ethnic groups like the Chinese and the Irish, who still make up much of the city’s population. It would be fair to say that its residents are some of the toughest people on this earth. The wild west might historically be past, but Butte’s bad-ass reputation is still as solid as a silver dollar.

My favorite off all things Butte is The M&M bar. Michael and I are not bar flies. We don’t hang out in taverns, and if we want a drink, we have a drink and leave. But the legend of the M&M preceded our visit. It was a top must-see.

We learned about it by reading Jack Kerouac, who wrote, “It was Sunday night, I had hoped the saloons would stay open long enough for me to see them. They never even closed. In a great old-time saloon, I had a giant beer. On the wall was a big electric signboard flashing gambling numbers …What characters in there: old prospectors, gamblers, whores, miners, Indians, cowboys, tobacco-chewing businessmen! Groups of sullen Indians drank rotgut in the john. Hundreds of men played cards in an atmosphere of smoke and spittoons. It was the end of my quest for an ideal bar…”

Kerouac had found his Mecca, and there used to be a rumor that Hunter Thompson said The M&M was the only bar he was afraid to go into. But we had no hesitation about visiting. We assumed that modern life had buffed the rough edges off the place, and we choose 2 pm on a bright sunny weekday to visit. We pushed through the front door that is never locked. The M&M is open 24 hours a day, and legend has it that when someone tried to padlock the place, a customer quickly shot the lock off.

I can’t say what the M&M was like in Jack Keroauc’s day or decades before, but it is hard to imagine that it could have been any more atmospheric then what we stumbled into. Lined up on bar stools was a cast of characters that looked more like the alien cantina scene in Star Wars than a Montana watering hole. In my memory, every man was missing a body part. There were patches where eyes once were, hooks instead of hands, one ear, no ears, part of a nose and two legless whiskey drinkers who were strapped to their barstools with belts. Each had a revolver on his hip. I have been inside prisons and once found myself a guest at an outlaw biker clubhouse but nothing came close to the vibe here. It was not terrifying, just surreal.

Since this is a Roadfood Diary, I would like to tell you about our lunch. The M&M bar was packed, but there were a few little tables off to the side. A gruff woman pointed to one and said, “Sit there if you want food.” So we sat for a while and when the woman walked past our table again, we asked for a menu. She looked at us like we had asked her to juggle balls on her nose. “No menu, just spaghetti,” she said.

So, spaghetti it was. The waitress went behind an old dusty floral curtain and came out with a small plastic box, the kind you would use to store shoes. The box was filled with soft, worm-thick spaghetti in a ketchup-like red sauce. “You want me to heat it up?” she dared us, and we said it was fine as it was. We sat speechless, looking at our plates and at the plastic box of pasta. How long had it been there? Did anyone ever actually eat it? Did they serve it to Jack Kerouac?

Like all great mysteries in life, the questions went unanswered. The M&M lives on in our mental scrapbook as one of the most fantastic places we have ever visited. Butte is a town of roughhewn hard-core survivors: survivors of mine accidents, survivors of bar brawls, and survivors of plastic boxes filled with historic spaghetti.

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