I first fell in love with The Peacock years ago, when overhearing a group of smokers—three men who may well have fought in Vietnam and one woman of utterly indiscernible age—talking. One said: “You had a wife, Hal? I didn’t know that,” and just as Hal began the story of his failed marriage a semi-truck rumbling down 2nd street honked and the trucker waved. All four smokers raised hands in synchronized salutes and then, right then, I knew there was something special about The Peacock.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that The Peacock is special beyond ol’-timer camaraderie. Tom’s Peacock Bar and Grill is a paradox, an upstairs-downstairs dichotomy, strung between club and bar, between homeless men taking advantage of the $1.99 breakfasts; frat bros shooting Jagermeister and whitetails on Big Buck Hunter; surprisingly talented karaoke singers; scantily clad sorority girls; and country boys looking to dance with scantily clad sorority girls. The Peacock is home to both real down-and-outers and those who romanticize or emulate down-and-outers; it’s veterans and gutter-punk hipsters and alt. rock karaoke crooners and earnest young poets and artists.
I entered The Peacock one recent Thursday evening hoping that a random, objective immersion may reveal something essential of the strange, seemingly conflicting world of The ‘Cock.
7.30 pm, Thursday
Three men sit at the bar: one with an ugly sweater and a decidedly non-ironic moustache, another with neck tattoos that look as though he’d done them himself with a Bic Pen, the third with a leather jacket paired with athletic pants. The bartender pouring me a $1 PBR draught is dressed as a hippie; I’m relieved to discover it’s only because it’s “Throwback Thursday: Late Sixties.”
Besides the two bartenders, there’s only one other woman in the bar. She’s young, cute, with dyed-black hair; when we make eye contact she announces “I love how dead it is.” It is dead. There’s the crack of pool balls, the murmur of voices, the flash of digital deer fleeing through woods, and not much else.
The term “dive bar” gets bandied about by baby-faced twenty-somethings who’ve never experienced the knife-cold disappointments of life, and you’ll often hear The Peacock described as a dive. There’s a certain amount of truth to that. The Peacock’s been around since 1929: generations of beer, sweat, blood, vomit, raspy laughter, skin cells, fry grease, pool chalk, and cigarette smoke has soaked into the walls, tables, and bar like a consecrating lacquer. Some may say crust, or scum, and that’s fair. But The Peacock isn’t a true dive. It’s too nice. You don’t fear for your life. The food is cheap and greasy but edible. The bathroom too clean, the lights too bright, the karaoke too joyful, and the sheer volume of young college students overwhelms any otherwise depressing, dive-y aspects.
Nonetheless, slow evenings in a place like this cause the old scars of those disappointments to throb and burn.
Karaoke is in full swing. It’s crowded but not packed. Mostly college-age kids and one older gentleman with a braided beard who seems to be in a constant state of throwing back to the sixties. He dances frenetically: a pseudo Irish jig, a few half-splits, frequent twirling hand motions. The karaoke DJ, one Sqwigee Okie, is a rotund, animated character whose catchphrase is “awrooo.” Like most Karaoke DJs he takes a song or two for the team. This hour it’s <em>Hey Jude</em>.
When Sqwigee stops singing the downstairs walls pulse with the upstairs beats, a reminder of The Peacock Paradox. Upstairs, two couples are dancing half-heartedly to Usher’s <em>Yeah</em>.
Another couple is playing the punching bag video game. The bartender is sitting on the bar, watching one of the five televisions.
If The Peacock’s downstairs ambiance is of warm and worn wood paneling, the Top of the Cock resembles a large black basement with strobe lighting. It’s well short on charm, but charm is not the point. The point is to dance and drink and dance some more and wake up the next morning with a hangover, your ears ringing, and a stranger snoring beside you. The place is often humid with the press and grind of dancing bodies, but it’s a slow mid-term Thursday, and empty.
Back downstairs, a tall, slightly nerdy man I’d seen swigging soda through a straw is singing “Sweet Caroline.” The crowd dutifully “Ba-Ba-Baa”s on cue. The dancing guy has incorporated somersaults into his routine. I order another PBR, sit beneath a PBR mirror, and look across at a PBR neon sign. The affection for PBR has nothing to do with the overtly self-conscious display of hipster irony one would find in Portland. They honestly like PBR here. In fact, there’s none of that irony in The Peacock, whether it’s the karaoke, the evening’s theme, or the desultory dancers upstairs.
The Peacock isn’t exactly unselfconscious—it’s a successful business, after all—but it is unpretentious; any pretense slinks in with the crowd. The Peacock succeeds in straddling so many worlds because it offers itself to those who will accept it. It’s not necessarily earnest, just refreshingly direct. You know what to expect at the Top of the Cock. You know what you will get downstairs, even if you may not have envisioned old hippies somersaulting on the floor.
Joining him—a perfectly acceptable option—is up to you.
(This article first appeared in the Feb 14, 2014 issue of The Corvallis Advocate)