25.7.16

End of the Line for The Terminal Bar's Flem Shows how Dives Are Precious

I was sad to hear of the death of Flem, who had owned and run The Terminal Bar in Northeast Minneapolis for over fifty years.

Think about that for a second.

[Flem.]
Here’s the first half of the obituary:

Fleming, Clarence G. "Flem" 10 year veteran, United States Marine Corps On May 14, 2016, God needed a cribbage partner and he chose the BEST. Flem spent 79 years perfecting the art of telling jokes and becoming a master storyteller. Flem was a faithful son, remarkable brother, devoted husband, proud father, adored grandfather, warm-hearted uncle, helpful neighbor, and valued friend. Flem was also larger than life with his booming voice, infectious laugh, and generous heart. Flem was the ultimate family man, a selfless community supporter, a strong promoter for upcoming musicians, and a contributor to rugby clubs. As owner and bartender extraordinaire at the Terminal Bar for 51 years, he loved to enliven, captivate, and entertain the customers with his sense of humor and joyful hospitality.
Flem's passing holds a special place in my heart because he was synonymous with one of the purest examples of the "dive bar" genre in the Twin Cities. After the tour in January, I recently published a guide booklet that included some stuff about Flem and his bar. Here's an excerpt:
[Flem's back nook.]
The Terminal Bar is Kryptonite to progress, so resistant to change that the walls reflexively tighten with each smart phrase unsheathed. Its timelessness is to the dicey credit of its owner, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of owning the place. 
Flem bought the bar in ‘65 coming out of the Marines and unable to find a straightforward job. For the next half-century, he and his wife have run The Terminal, which he calls a “working man’s and families bar”, though he admits it’s a dive. Annette opens it up around 4:30 and Flem gets there at 7:00 to keep it going until nobody remains. 

The bar itself is 84 years old. I assume Flem is around the same age. I also assume the name comes from its proximity to the old Great Northern Depot. These days it has the feel of last legs: piles of strange objects stacked in corners, forgotten walls, a broken scale. It’s a reminder of mortality and, because of that, it’s one of the purest examples of the dive bar genre you’ll find in the Twin Cities. 
Wandering here resembles exploring the basement of an old uncle’s house, decades of accumulated entropy. Unfulfilled intentions, good ideas at the time, areas of taste and gathered acquaintance piled up and fill rooms claustrophobically like spiderwebs. Across the wall from the bar, a display case half-full of classic car models, small plaques, the remnants of long ago trends. In the back past the stage, a large green scale, glass display cracked, a masterpiece of an era when weight was a novelty. Objects settle like calcium marking time, and it reminds me of nothing more than memories of a childhood home, complete with aging humans. But like Grandma’s, there’s something sad about The Terminal, meaning endpoint.

Say what you will about the atmosphere, hours, or stand-up comedy at The Terminal (and I have), owning and running a Northeast bar for fifty years is one hell of an accomplishment. These are not philately shops, and keeping them running requires constant effort. As the years go on, dives reflect their stewards and owners reflect their dives. Walking into The Terminal was like getting to know Flem himself. And half the time, he’d be sitting at the end of the bar anyway with a friendly word.

[So... don't go to The Terminal for fine dining, then?]


Dive Bar Habitat Loss

Thinking about Flem and the Terminal, both of whom were clearly on their last legs for years, makes me think about dive bar mortality. At root, dive bars are overlooked and under appreciated. You rarely see dive bars appear in the newspaper, apart from those periodic lists which typically focus on former dives, hipster magnets, or some of the most famous and/or played out examples like the CC Club, Grumpy’s, or Palmer’s.

Yet few will people speak for dives. There is no dive bar Lorax, and you almost never see politicians say anything nice about them, let alone spend much time in one. Dive bar ownership, and especially the clientele, have few connections to influence, and it’s safe to say that dive bar regulars don’t often vote.

Instead, dive bars become targets, scapegoats for urban problems. When Eric’s Bar on Saint Paul’s East Side was demolished, the mayor was there celebrating. Ramsey County transportation officials seem to delight in destroying corner dive bars like Diva’s Overtime Lounge in the North End, was torn down to add a turn lane to the Maryland Avenue (four-lane death road). When Lake Street dives like Champions or (the original) Country Bar closed down, you could feel deep pockets breathing sighs of relief, because their disappearance represented a cleansing of the neighborhood, pushing crime or poverty out of sight.

[Newspaper at the Sunrise Inn.]
It’s somewhat surprising because, if you hang out in dive bars for long enough, you realize that the people there pay attention to the news and have strong opinions. There are often newspapers laying around, which men pass around and sometimes read out loud. At many dive bars, people actually watch the local TV news and talk about it. And (unfortunately) there’s almost always a few guys who listen to talk radio all day and are chomping at the bit to deliver a tirade about “tree huggers” at the drop of a hat.

This is to say that the urban dive bar is an endangered species. Dives do not make money and are often for sale. Owners and barkeeps work long hours, forced to be both servant and guardian, breaking up arguments, putting up with stress, and world-wearily bouncing rabble. These are marginal businesses caught between the rock of improving tastes and the hard place of the erosion of the working class. A dive must balance on the fine line between the two great threats: remodeling and real estate.

In other words, when a dive bar is gone, it’s gone forever. Precious few are created, because what kind of fool would intentionally set out to open a dive bar? (As with housing, the vast majority of new bars and restaurants are aimed at the wealthy.) And the loss of the dive is a loss for society, because these places offer experiences you cannot find elsewhere, meat raffles and pull tabs and tasteless jokes and all kinds of music. Dives form a foundation for working-class relaxation and do underappreciated work to bring neighborhoods together and grant them rare identity.  

But dives disappear. Ten years ago, my old North End neighborhood had twice as many dive bars as it does today. And places like The Terminal, planted in blistering real estate soil, are fated to change.

I predict a similar fate to Bonnie's Café over in the Midway, which lasted for about a year after the death of its eponymous owner. For a while, relatives or friends might carry on the tradition in honor of the departed. But eventually, someone makes a deal and moves on. And the place is never the same again. Once a dive bar dies, it never comes back.


[The Terminal doorway: open or closed?]

PS. You can purchase the Noteworthy Dive Bars of Outer Northeast booklet in the new store!

PPS. Check out Chris Strouth,'s great 2013 City Pages essay on The Terminal's music scene:
The hipster movement has taken a lot of the ol- time bars and made them if not posh, a comfortable mix of the old and new. For example, the 1029 Bar whose ceiling is literally covered in brassieres, and walls with shot up police car doors (rumored to have been done by Country kitchener Toby Keith). Yet there you can get the best lobster roll this side of Maine. Anyhow, the part of town where my mom didn't like me hanging out has become a foodie paradise that's written about in pull-out sections of newspapers.

The saying goes, evolve or die, and that seems to be the way of most of the bars in Nordeast. This is what makes the Terminal Bar weirdly special: It has done neither. The interior is much the same as I remember it from when I went in as a dare in college. I imagine it's much the same as it was in 1964, when the current owners, the Flemings, took over from the previous owner who happened to be the parents. They had owned it since 1935. Prior to that it was -- you guessed it -- a bar.

For about four years I shared a wall with the Terminal Bar. The shop that I owned with my wife was next door, and my studio above it, which later became my home as well. The Terminal is a dedicated music venue. They have a band playing almost every night. Cover bands, original bands, good ones, bad ones, really really bad ones, metal ones, even hip-hop ones. It is sort of hilarious watching someone go on stage and talk about what a player he is while drinking a 3 dollar Mich Golden.

The booking and the bartending are all handled by Flem. He's a former Marine, owner, bartender, and just all-around good guy. He also has been sober since 1968, which given that he is behind the bar six days a week, eight hours a day is saying quite a bit. Flem is in his 70s, yet spry as a 60-year-old.

While most bars have a strong curative sense, trying to get a specific vibe or groove that sets them apart from the rest, the Terminal tends to roll with anyone that gets butts in the seats, and in doing so is sort of the ultimate bar of the proletariat. Anyone can play.

Read the rest, a lovely piece of dive bar writing.


2 comments:

Alex said...

"This isn't a faux dive, it's a real dive!"

Apparently there are a lot of fools in Portland because there are lots of intentional dives in that town. The difference is always palpable.

RIP Flem, you're jumping out of that great helicopter in the sky now.

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