The Roxburian recently wrote about the importance of supporting local businesses and that intention, coupled with curiosity and the need for adventure, found me, a woman old enough to be someone's grandma, throwing dollar bills at gyrating female tuckus and drinking more than is salubrious at Aga's Highland Tap in Dudley Square.A small, innocuous, rectangular-shaped building on the corner of Eliot and Washington Streets, Aga's was "Established Since 1947" according to its sign. A few years ago, Aga's painted "Bikini Bar" in massive lettering on the side of the building facing Melnea Cass, piqueing the sensibilities of neighborhood watchdogs (and no doubt soon-to-be-across-the-street neighbor HBI, Inc). The lettering was removed.
My original plan had been to check out the "Bikini Bar" with a visibly pregnant friend (bars serve soft drinks, too) who was also in need of adventure but she found her adventure abroad before we got the chance. Finally, one night last October, my friend D and I enjoyed cultural attractions at both ends of Boston: a Martin McDonough play at the Charlestown Working Theatre followed by drinks and, um, dancing at Aga's.
Like The Roxburian, I'd been, at first, a little intimidated and frightened by the prospect of Aga's. I imagined a dark, dingy place, the air fogged blue with dense smoke from cigarettes of all types and levels of legality, and heavily tattooed (ha! like that means anything anymore!) glowering ganstas with their guns resting on the bar by their beers; vicious drug dealers doing lines off the bellies of their women; one-eyed pirates with knives between their teeth and assault rifles on their backs and ...well, you get the picture. But the more I really thought about it, the more I realized that some of Boston's very best bars over the years were "dives", places that may have appeared to be scary but that were in reality great spots to hang out. The Blue Sands, the Rat, and others, the memories of which have been smothered by copious consumption of their wares, are some that spring to mind. Anyway, how bad could Aga's be, really?
One clue that assumptions and reality are often divergent was that, walking past the bar on warm evenings, the bouncer was sometimes sitting on a stool just outside the door reading a book. I'm not a fan of stereotypes (except, it seems, about grandmothers) but I've worked in bars and in most cases it was rare that any of the doormen would read anything more than a newspaper when things were quiet. Turns out that Nathan, the book-reading bouncer, is a really nice guy - former Marine currently apprenticed to become an electrician and working nights to make a little extra dough. Good-bye, one-eyed pirates with knives.
So on the night of the big adventure, we travel from the dark humor of McDonough, to the deadly quiet of Dudley (the safest place in Boston after sundown because no one is there). Nathan greets us at the door and requests a five dollar cover charge. The bar is against the wall on the right as you enter and to the left there are a couple of chairs and tables and then a small dance floor. There are two male customers, the bartender, two women who turn out to be the dancers, Nathan, and D and me. And that's it. All night, and it’s a Saturday, people come and go but D and I are the only ones there for longer than 20 minutes and at no time in the evening are there ever more than five customers, total, in the bar.
At one point, there’s a latino guy with his buddy and girlfriend. Later in the night, a distinguished looking black man in a velvet jacket with a massive cross hanging around his neck rushes past Nathan and through the door leaving a trail of scent in his wake. Alice refuses to serve him and prods Nathan to get “The Reverend” out of the bar. A white guy who looks like an undercover cop comes in for a few minutes and chats with Alice at the end of the bar. She tells me that he’s a “friend of the bar” around the same time she’s telling me that the City doesn’t like Aga’s. A couple of single black guys come and go. Most of the night it is just D and me with the dancers, the bartender, the bouncer. Good-bye, vicious drug-dealers.
The dancers are Visa and Trina, both youngish, one black, one white and they take turns moving on the dance platform in bikinis. During breaks between sets, they throw on tee shirts and shorts. Their dancing is uninspired. Trina appears bored, almost sullen, and stares at herself in the mirror behind the bar as she moves as if she is dancing for herself - or to avoid thinking about the eyes on her. Occasionally, when there are male customers in the bar, she will “accidentally” pop a nipple from her bikini top. The red, glassy squint of Visa’s eyes hint that she’s got a good buzz on. Her dancing is more of a get down on all fours, thrusting, humping, and grinding her fifi in your direction kind of thing. I am happier talking to them than seeing them dance and in my mortification for both of them, I shower them with dollar bills – ones, fives, even tens. It becomes a very expensive night - atypical in my dive experience. D and I buy them one drink each (they warn us that Alice will get mad if they have more) and chat with them, between their dances, about work, life, dreams and goals. Trina says that she manages a store during the day. Visa, when asked if she had so much money she could do whatever she wants, says she would have a butt augmentation. Goodbye, assault weapons.
The women’s dance sets and breaks are managed by owner and bartender, Alice, a post middle-aged woman whose Greek immigrant father-in-law was the original Aga, whose daughter does the books and whose son sometimes help out with the business. She lets Trina or Visa know that a break is over and it’s time to dance again. The raunchiest hip-hop music booms from loud speakers and petite Alice, gray hair peaking out from beneath her hat, knows all the words and sings along (imagine your grandmother mouthing, "you a fine muthafucka wontcha back that ass up") while mixing drinks, and keeping track of dances and breaks and money coming in, mostly from D and I who over-order and over-tip Alice (even though she’s over-charging us) because we think she’s so cute and funny and atypical and the place is so diverting. Goodbye, glowering ganstas.
When we first arrive and are getting to know Trina, and Visa, and Alice, and Nate, D says, “We have to make a documentary about this place.” I am thinking the same thing. Over the course of the night, (after several beers, then Jack and cokes, then shots of whatever) occasionally, while D is talking to Trina or Visa and I am talking to Alice or Nate, D will lean over and say in my ear, “we are sooo lucky”. Not because we are drunk at an off-the-beaten-track bar but because we do not have to dance there - we have educations and economic resources and people who care about us and would help us out before we would have to dance at Aga’s. Still, we are determined, before the hangovers set in, that we will frequent Aga’s, that we will become regulars there; we will make a documentary about the place and its history; we will support Alice and Nate and Trina and Visa in the only way that we can – by putting dollars in their pockets - or bikinis. Beyond that, whether they use those dollars to buy butt augmentations or get tattoos or earn a plumber’s license is not really up to us or within our control.
Fear of the unknown alchemised into melancholy and what we had hoped would be an adventure became more of the same, all over again: ordinary people trying to get by in the only ways they know how. Walking home and the next day and even now all I can think is it would be great to find a way to turn Aga's, which is really a cute little building in a great location, from a 'bikini bar' to a burgers n beer joint or even better - a Wally's II. Keep Nathan on the door. Alice can still pour and sing all the lyrics to every filthy gansta rap song you've ever heard, and Trina and Visa can waitress. The Aga's team would make more money and the neighborhood would gain a local business that just about everyone would be eager to support.