It has been so many years that I almost forgot the fearful feeling of driving through the darkened city at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. I knew the special conditions that prevailed, realizing that most of the drivers had just finished a night of drinking. Sober drivers are far outnumbered at that time.
I consider myself fortunate to have survived those trips home without a serious accident. I tried to be extra cautious, but the odds were against me since there is a higher percentage of drunks on the road during those pre-dawn hours than at any other time. Now I usually get to bed early. What was I doing driving around at that hour?
I had an excuse. I spent some time occasionally working the late shift, finishing at 2:30 in the morning. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to go home immediately and try to sleep after just finishing work, so most of the regulars adjourned to the Town Tavern, which was just a few doors away. I think the bars were supposed to close at 3:30 a.m. in those days but the bartender turned the lights out, with only the glow of neon beer signs illuminating the room. The patrons sat in semi-darkness, three or four opened beer bottles aligned in front of each of them, awaiting attention. I socialized briefly while having just one. Then I went home.
I mention that bit of personal history in the wake of the recent vote of the Erie County Legislature in favor of retaining the 4 a.m. bar closing time rather than moving it to 2 a.m. (the closing time in Monroe County). The result was no surprise. Rather, it was a forgone conclusion. The decision came a week after a lengthy public hearing; a distinguished array of spokesmen for various community groups testified. The sizable majority favored the earlier closing.
“Nothing good happens between 2 and 4 a.m.,” was the slogan they stressed.
Their message generally emphasized the benefits without any potential loss of bar profits. The hearing was a farcical charade. Its purpose was merely to create an event that would enable the legislators to later shrug and claim they listened to the testimony and then decided. Those decisions were likely made even before the hearing was even scheduled.
The vote was a real triumph for the saloonkeepers. Some restaurants with bars close much earlier than the established closing, but they have major dining revenue. Most of the places that are best described as taverns or pubs remain open as late as can be justified by their patronage.
Late bar closing hours were an important element of Buffalo’s personality when it was a major manufacturing center. Taverns were operating near factories. Lackawanna was a good example. Shift workers from the plants would punch out and head directly for a nearby bar at the end of work. That would be the approach in neighborhoods surrounded by the railroad belt line, which traversed the prime industrial areas.
The factories bred taverns that opened early and stayed open late. That was the situation throughout the city wherever manufacturing was prominent. Those days are over. Plants have closed as have many of the saloons that catered to their workers. Some of those neighborhood places still exist, struggling to develop a regular clientele.
There has always been an intimate kinship between politicians and bar owners. Candidates held pre-election rallies in the taverns and some tavern-owners were elected to local offices. Yes, conditions are far different today, but it still would be a perilous drive home at 4 a.m.
Be careful out there.
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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