My favorite bar — and a man named Hector
Those of us who are old enough to remember “Cheers” know the importance of going somewhere where everybody knows your name.
For me, that place was the Sidelines Sports Bar in Arcata. It was my homeaway-from-home for a few years in the 1980s, when I was the sports editor of the Eureka Times-Standard.
The place had it all: cheap beer, fantastic popcorn, a friendly staff, great jukebox, big-screen TVs (hey, it was the 1980s) and maybe best of all, Hector.
Hector was about a dozen years older than me and his lot in life, shall we say, left him with limited employment opportunities. But he did his job well, and people at the Sidelines generally kept a close, loving eye on him throughout his 35-year employment run.
As a result, whenever the bar was sold, Hector was always “grandfathered” into the deal. In other words, either Hector kept his job, or there was no sale.
Hector did everything from making the popcorn to wheeling out the empty beer kegs. He saw a lot in that often-rowdy bar, a place that attracted a typical Humboldt County mix of locals and college students. On any given night, there might be a fight or two. Or, a 60-person-long dance line of overserved patrons doing a Rockettesstyle high-kick in unison to the strains of “New York, New York” at 1:59 a.m. as the staff, and police, waited impatiently for the revelers to vacate the premises.
Regardless of the ruckus, Hector somehow always seemed to stay above it all. He’d sit stoically on his stool by the popcorn machine, often with a bemused look on his face. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to.
In fact, during all of my visits to that place, I heard Hector speak only once.
Went like this: Hector had attempted to pick up a notquite-empty pitcher of beer — an oft-repeated habit of his through the years — and the customer took exception.
“Hector,” the man bellowed, good-naturedly, “if you ever try to take my beer again, I’m going to have to kick your rear end.”
Hector turned, sniffed, glared back at the guy and yelled — I kid you not — “Pack a lunch!”
(In other words, “If you want to fight me, you’d better pack a lunch, because it’s going to be an all-day job.”)
After a moment of stunned silence, the place erupted in laughter. Immediately, “Pack a lunch!” became another of those wonderful oft-repeated quotes that always seem to echo off the walls of a place where everybody knows your name.
I bring these things up today because on a recent visit to Humboldt County, I stopped by the Arcata Plaza to visit my old haunt.
Imagine my shock to see that the Sidelines is no longer a bar. Instead, it’s been converted into a thrift store.
That’s right, a thrift store.
There was a stack of books blocking the entrance to the old, hideoussmelling bathroom. Dinnerware and glasses where the jukebox used to be. All sorts of items stacked all along the bar — and lord, how I wanted to warn the employees about some of the things I’d seen happen at certain parts of that bar.
Worst of all, there was a stack of old clothes in the exact spot where the popcorn machine used to stand. That was Hector’s baby. Nobody made better popcorn than Hector, and now it was gone too.
Naturally, I wondered whatever became of Hector. I half-expected to see him still working in that building, helping to sort through the donations or something.
Then I did some online research and discovered that he’d passed away in 2018.
That made me sad. I would have loved to have seen him and said “hello” one more time, just as I’d already done a handful of times since moving away at the end of 1989.
But, in best Sidelines fashion, there was one final Hector-related surprise in store for me.
Reading Hector’s obituary, I was stunned to discover that his final resting place was beside his mother, at a cemetery less than 2 miles from my home.
So, with so many memories swelling up in my mind and probably escaping a bit through my eyes, I decided to pay him a visit, and thank him for making such great popcorn and being a huge part of my much-younger life.
I went to his grave on a nice Saturday afternoon. I sat there recounting dozens of episodes from a time in my life when I made plenty of bad decisions, but built a boatload of memories. I couldn’t think of a better place to do it, because Hector, perhaps more than any other person, had been a (mostly) silent witness to so many of those adventures.
I ended up sitting there for quite a while. Good thing I’d packed a lunch.