At the end of every school year, I have my students create a portfolio of different types of original poetry. I’d like to think I do it in order to foster their creativity, but it’s really because I’m too lazy to grade eighty-four final exams. Either way, it’s a win/win for all of us: they get to write sonnets and pretend that they’re actually writing their first rap hit, and I get to sit back and not grade bubbled-in answer documents.
One poem they always struggle with is an elegy. An elegy is normally written about someone who has passed away, and most of my students haven’t experienced death on a personal level. So I just tell them to write about something that’s no longer in their life, a concept they grasp a little bit better.
Even though I assign these elegies to my students every year, I’ve never written one of my own. This is my first—sort of. This is my elegy to the Downtown Tavern.
Since 2004, the Downtown Tavern has called 208 North Liberty Street home. It’s the one establishment that has outlasted other businesses in the area for the last fifteen years. At the end of July, though, the Tavern (as it’s called by congregants) will no longer be there.
Of the thousands of people who have sidled up to the bar and ordered a drink, there are a thousand different stories to tell. Perspective is always unique to the individual, and the people who sat at that bar and told jokes and stories or just tried to numb themselves up enough to make it to the next day—they are what made the building holy. They are why the Tavern has survived for as long as it has. Their stories are unique, and I’m sure their stories are much better than mine. The best I can do, though, is tell my story of the Downtown Tavern and hope that I do it justice.
The first thing I would notice when arriving at the Tavern for my first visit was the old church pew sitting left of the entrance. Intended symbolism or not, that pew was a representation for what this bar was for many people: a church. Jacksonians made their pilgrimages here each evening—rain or shine—to confess, to congregate, to sing, and to escape a life that sometimes can feel a little too daunting.
The inside of the Tavern is like taking a step back in time. The high ceilings, ornate lighting, and stairway leading upstairs are reminiscent of an Old West saloon. The cigarette smoke that hangs in the air smells of familiarity, not disgust; it wraps itself around you as you walk in and leads you along the hardwood floors to the bar lit by neon signs hanging on the mirrored wall.
Across from the bar are more church pews that sit against an exposed brick wall, fronted with high top tables and chairs, my personal seat of preference. I could have one eye on the television showing whatever the big game was that night and one eye on the people I was with. I could watch the door and who was coming in or going out, and, chances are, I would recognize them. If I didn’t, the salutation would be a simple raise of the chin or nod of the head. But for those I knew, a raise of both arms or a loud “Heeeeyyyyyyy” was the standard form of greeting. There’s nothing quite like the welcoming of a friend at the neighborhood bar.
At the peak of its existence, the Tavern operated the main bar, an upstairs bar, and an outdoor bar on the patio. The patio was a perfect setting for warm summer nights, and upstairs was an oasis for people who couldn’t handle the cigarette smoke for very long.
The Tavern has served millions of drinks since 2004, but it also served our community by giving talented musicians a place to share their art. Between open mic, original music nights, songwriter nights, and, most recently, First Fridays, folks were given a regular invitation to partake in a type of communion—a giving and receiving of personal creativity. These weren’t cover songs or recitations of something we’ve all heard a thousand times; these were individual creations performed by their creators. That takes guts, and the Tavern gave them a safe community of support.
If I could name each of the musicians who I heard play here, the rest of this article would read like a biblical family lineage. Some of the artists were just passing through town on their way to something bigger and better; others were local and have now made it farther than they probably ever dreamed. And, most importantly, many of these artists I call friends.
The last First Friday event took place on July 6, but I couldn’t bring myself to go, choosing to live vicariously through social media instead. From all the videos, photos, and captions I saw, there seemed to be unadulterated joy at 208 North Liberty Street that night. The area in front of the stage was packed with folks shoulder to shoulder. The bar looked four people deep. Everyone I talked to who was there said the evening was incredible, and I know truth when I hear it.
I decided to go to the Tavern the next night, a Saturday. It was quiet. There were six people there. It was perfect.
I walked around and looked at all the original music posters that wallpaper the back section of the bar. Some of the posters were missing, gaps in an otherwise homogeneous creation, like a record skipping a few notes then continuing on its revolution. The whiskey, gin, vodka, and tequila bottles were gone, too—shelves naked of everything but a Tennessee Vols hat for modesty. The dart board was still there, though, and I watched my best friend play a game with a stranger. It was like a dream that was completely familiar and totally foreign at the same time. That seems to be the way endings are—everything known and unknown all at once.
I recently found out that this Sunday is the Tavern’s last day. I’m not sure if they will resurface at some other location, and I’m not sure what will take its place at 208 North Liberty. Time will unfold all of that at some point. That’s all for tomorrow. An elegy is about yesterday.
The last Saturday night I was there, I stood at the foot of the steps and looked up. The lighting in that bar always shone a little more romantic than reality. The door was open to the second level, and I wondered what that room looked like; I hadn’t been in it in years. I began my trek up the stairs, then stopped. There are too few open doors, and what’s behind them rarely lives up to our dreams. I left it open that night. I like to think that all of us ghosts of Tavern past are up there enjoying one continuous revelry.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.