BAR EXAM: Everybody Comes to Atomic’s

Some days, only a tough bar and some hard liquor will do

Lissa Townsend Rodgers

It's something like Monday night No. 30,000 at Atomic Liquors, but this is the first time they've had Jagermeister. Fremont Street is an ebb and flow of men worn out from a day of working or not working, couples who could be prostitute and customer or pimp and ho or simply trashy, tourists who've drifted from the herd, and locals seeking inexpensive cocktails and unobtrusive company. While the latter make up the bulk of the Atomic's clientele, there's no demographic that doesn't "ring bell for entry" here eventually.

Despite the evening hour, my eyes still need to adjust to the dim atmosphere; most of the light comes from beer-sponsored neon, muted TVs and spillover from the vintage signage outside. It's a classic barroom: burgundy linoleum, wood-grain paneling, ancient pool tables, rows of bottles of the "package store" variety, where they have Kamchatka vodka in four sizes but no Absolut. The bartender looks up from putting extra bottles into a shopping cart and grins over his carefully trimmed mustache. "Haven't seen you here for awhile." Awhile? I haven't been here in four months, enough time for some Vegas bars to be born, struggle and die, but that's nothing for a joint that's been open nearly 60 years.

The Atomic's sole concession to the modern age—aside from finally stocking the Jager—is a change in operating hours. After the bar became a focus for gangbangers and drug dealers, they began closing at 10 p.m. The Atomic has always had an easygoing attitude as to whatever its patrons might do or be, but it's also a safe haven in a sketchy neighborhood, and rather like Rick's Café Americaine or a demilitarized zone, you don't bring your trouble in with you.

The bartender pulls a Budweiser out of a vintage Coca-Cola cooler and buzzes in two guys in full punk-rock overkill, one in torn leather, the other with a mohawk spiked 12 inches above his scalp. The latter bounces up and down on his feet and inquires, "What's the cheapest whiskey you got? I want the kind in the plastic bottle." Willie Nelson croons "Let It Be Me" and Torn Leather turns his Exploited back patch away from us, announcing, "Whoever played this—thank you!" as the bartender points out the pros and cons of the $11 variety to his friend. A silver-haired woman, one of the owners, sits in the corner sipping white wine and wonders, "What is that on his head?" A guy in a rumpled suit a few stools down tries to explain, but soon realizes he himself doesn't know what he's talking about and lapses back into silence.

Indeed, most of the Atomic's customers drink alone. Sure, there is a couple in matching leather jackets picking at the video poker, and a middle-aged man slipping an arm around his tank-topped lady friend as she orders her peppermint schnapps on the rocks, but most choose to take their poison solo. Sure, sometimes people will move to adjacent stools for a few minutes to speculate on the whereabouts of a mutual acquaintance ("Haven't seen her in here for awhile." "Well, hopefully, that means things are going good."), boast of their days in the service ("See this hat? See what this hat says? U.S.S. New Jersey!"), or commiserate on playing drums in golden-era New York City (Mid-'90s girly punk on the Lower East Side for me, late-'50s cool jazz in Greenwich Village for my plaid-shirted and gray-bearded comrade), but they always separate and sink back into their own thoughts after a few tips of the glass.

Twenty minutes until closing and Natalie Cole on the jukebox gives way to the Offspring on rock radio. The bartender grins up at the speakers. "I love that lyric: ‘The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care.'" He twirls a bottle so the Sharpie markings indicating cost-per-shot face the back. "I never knew I cared so much."

"Hmm. I know a guy whose car I oughta spray-paint that shit across." I take a swallow of my third greyhound. "A mere key-ing would not convey the depth nor the breadth of my emotion." The bartender nods and moves off to the other end of the bar with his towel. I'm not the first woman to mutter idle threats in here. Today.

Lissa Townsend Rodgers learned to make a martini at age 6. E-mail her at
[email protected].

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