Requiem for a second living room

Requiem for a second living room

An economic casualty of the pandemic, Arkham was a dive bar where drinks were cheap, everyone was welcome, and one could meet new friends — maybe even a spouse

BRATTLEBORO — Arkham, a fictional town in Massachusetts, first emerged in horror stories written by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s and '30s about dark and terrifying forces. It also was used as the name of an equally fictional asylum in the Batman saga.

Until this week, it was also the name of a Harmony Place dive bar. Owner Alan Blackwell is cleaning it out now and will hand over the keys to his landlord on Friday.

For Blackwell, the economics were simply unworkable.

Arkham had been shuttered for a while because of the COVID-19 virus, but only this month it became clear to Blackwell that there would be no viable path forward.

Given that Arkham's appeal, and its finances, depended on large crowds, friendly service, and inexpensive drinks, Blackwell said that state-imposed social distancing restrictions would made it impossible for Arkham to survive.

“With my reduced occupancy, I was only allowed under 10 people in the business at a time, and all my tables had to be at least 10 feet apart from each other, in a tiny little bar with less than 1,000 square feet,” Blackwell said.

“Basically, I was left in a position of not being able to pay any bills by having customers walk through the door,” he said. “And not being allowed to have our counter service was really the clincher.”

* * *

The concept of a dive bar is interesting. If you are there, no one in the place has any right to judge you, since they are there, too. You really never know whom you might meet or what new story you might hear.

If the place is well run, you know that no matter how rough it may seem, it is really a gentle and safe place, where one can throw off the shackles of the day and be oneself.

One of the realities of American society is that it is essentially segregated across all sorts of markers of identity, and efforts toward diversity and inclusion in things like nonprofit boards, political organizations, and business organizations, however successful, don't do anything much at helping us all to learn to get along in just ordinary, social ways.

Arkham was a place where that could happen.

* * *

As Arkham shuts for good, a number of local residents will lose what has for some of them been a second living room.

Blackwell's announcement of its closure on its Facebook page made clear how many people will miss the place, with hundreds of responses, more than 150 comments, and 83 shares of the post.

“I can't even fathom how it must have felt to do this after so many years,” wrote one person in a comment on Facebook, calling the place a “home away from home” that customers could love and watch grow before their eyes.

The customer called Blackwell “a great man and friend to the outsiders, the freaks, the loners, the nerds, the metal heads, the air hockey guys.”

“When I was new to Brattleboro, Arkham was the place I could go to make new friends,” wrote another poster. “Whether it was playing air hockey, downing picklebacks, or watching a cheesy movie, it always felt like a home away from home.”

While it was just a dive bar, with eccentric ornamentation and a dim mood, an air hockey table, a good jukebox, and fair prices on drinks, it also was a place where people who might not otherwise have met got to know one another.

It is remarkable how many people have cited Arkham as the place where they met someone who became their soulmate or spouse.

“So much love and laughter were had in that magnificent space you created, Alan,” wrote another poster. “[My husband] and I are forever in debt to you for playing matchmaker four hot summers ago.”

Several other posters wrote of meeting their soulmates there, and many just talked about how they found a community of kindred souls in an environment where no one was judged for who they are, where the light was dim, and - rough as the place could seem - where you knew you were always safe.

It was a place where you could have someone to talk to if you needed that, or you could have someone to play air hockey with if you wanted to work off some steam.

“You created a space that was a sanctuary for me in a dark time of my life - it wasn't about alcohol, it was about companionship, and air hockey, and being able to play our favorite songs, and for me it was like a stay against despair in that time,” wrote another poster. “What will Brattleboro be without Arkham?”

That writer was me.

* * *

Arkham genuinely was a commons, a place where anyone could come, and if you weren't racist or homophobic or disposed to create trouble, you could get along pretty well in there.

As it closes, Brattleboro will lose one of its most diverse and multicultural venues, a place featured last fall in a VPR news segment, one of a series profiling Black entrepreneurs in the state.

The report described the town as a place where LGBTQ+ folks and people of color would be welcome, a demographic that the town's recent marketing campaign, LOVE Brattleboro VT, had focused on before the coronavirus struck.

Blackwell, 38, is a graduate of SUNY Purchase with a degree in art, and he attended one of the elite private schools in Manhattan, Horace Mann, before that. The space he created with Arkham reflected an eclectic - and sometimes eccentric - sensibility, along with a deep-hearted sense of the possibilities that exist when people from different walks of life and backgrounds get together.

“I'm a Black man who has had to deal with racism and systematic racism and all kinds of bias,” Blackwell told me, “and my entire life, I have had no patience for any kind of bigotry or racism.”

“The entire purpose of the place was so that someone could walk in through the door, no matter who they are or how they identify - anyone could walk in here and be comfortable,” he said.

“I was really glad that this could be a place of comfort for people and that they felt like they could truly be themselves, a place where people could meet [others] who might never meet normally on a daily basis and have a conversation with a fellow human and not need to have all of the preconceived notions that exist in the outside world.”

Arkham was not an easy place to manage, and it was the sort of bar where regulars knew the bouncers and knew when to talk to them about someone who might cause trouble. And because Blackwell is Black and the bar was a genuinely integrated space, there sometimes were flare-ups.

Blackwell reflected on “some of the moments where people would come in and seem balanced and comfortable, and then after a few minutes the switch would flip and they would be aggressive or rude, or racist or misogynist,” said Blackwell.

“There's no place for that in society, there's no place for that in our world - life is short and we need to be looking out for each other,” he said.

And there was no place for that in Arkham.

“It was really fucking hard at times,” he conceded.

* * *

There was a period in my own life when Arkham was a second living room for me, too.

I would walk downtown to meet some guys I played air hockey with, and I got pretty good at it, since I was a strong pitcher in high school and a lot of the muscle networks and thinking involved are the same.

I was never quite good enough to vanquish one companion, for whom I served as one of the best men at his wedding. But I was good enough to hold my own with another guy who was the best man at my own wedding - to a woman I met at Arkham in the most uncharacteristic fashion, since she doesn't drink. She was just hanging out with some friends for an evening.

I haven't been to Arkham for years now. I retired from air hockey when I realized it was messing with my hip from old baseball wounds.

But it still is an odd sort of sacred space for me, when I remember a few April evenings more than four years ago.

* * *

Blackwell isn't sure what he will do next. COVID-19 has made any sort of business planning difficult, because of the uncertainty involved.

That uncertainty includes racism, of course. He acknowledges that as a tall Black man, racism is woven into his life.

“I'm very aware of those moments where people will cross to the other side of the street when they see me - it's just a reality of life,” Blackwell said. “As a Black man in America, that is just something I never have been able to get away from, and as a Black man in Vermont, I have absolutely had to experience the more subtle forms of racism that I think folks who don't directly experience it are not aware of.”

Both a barkeep and an artist, Blackwell curated a space where Batman's cape had an easy home, and where people could see friends and find some comfort in the sense of community.

It is hard not to wonder what space or place in Brattleboro will provide again the same kind of quirky intersectionality, the same chance to meet people one might never meet.

Blackwell's plans might be in the air, but he does know one thing: that he will stay in Brattleboro. This is home for him.

“I mean, my roots are planted here, and I love this town,” he said. “I love my community, and deeply love the community I have been able to get to know, and that is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

“What we made together over just a handful of years is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Blackwell. “I'm going to cherish the memories that I have.”

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