The Almighty seldom manifests Itself in an electric beer sign, but the Almighty seldom manifests at all, in these bitter times.
Yesterday, however, at the Ben Bow, also known as Ellen's Irish Pub, at 1636 Connecticut Avenue, the miraculous seemed merely appropriate, especially in an ancient ENJOY LIFE sign of spurious wiring, and especially after a victory toast or two. Despite the best efforts of the landlord, which is the American Psychiatric Association, the Ben Bow had saved itself from replacement by an office building. It was given a 180-day stay of demolition, pending a final hearing by housing authorities.
"We won, love," owner Ellen Donlan chortled to the regulars as they filed in expecting the worst (which is how they often file in) - expecting to see the APA's wrecking ball tearing through booths which might, like Dracula, molder to dust should they ever see daylight; through the paintings by local artists (plus a Matisse print) and the photographs of Gandhi and Bobby Kennedy: and worst of all, through the smell, the great warm mothering funk of a million spilled beers and muddy boots and bathless despairs through the years.
"It's a smell like . . . like gardenias at your first prom, you never forget it," mused Margaret Collins. "Am I a regular? That's my bowling trophy over there on the back bar."
Yes: "We got 180 days, love, we'll be here for St. Patrick's day," Ellen kept announcing, as if such a span of time were commensurate with eternity.
The ostensible deliverer was The Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital, which late yesterday morning gave the Ben Bow a reprieve from replacement by the pshchiatrists' office building, and no small thanks to Ellen who did herself up fancy for the hearing: makeup and crisp, new Galway-red hairdo.
"I just went up very gently to the two commissioners and I gave them the petition from 2,000 of our neighbors, and I said 'THIS! is what our neighbors think of us," said Ellen, her eyes flashing sly triumph.
Such excitement: three television stations and newspaper coming around Thursday for the demonstration, when the regulars massed with signs like DRINKS NOT SHRINKS and marched down to the APA headquarters, squinting at the light of day.
"Six months," Ellen laughed."That'll drive them NUTS"
The irony of being replaced by a building full of mental illness specialists was not lost on the regulars, expect, of course, for the ones who weren't there - absent friends such as Will Blackburn, the self-proclaimed "Son of Communism" who in 1942, if is said, pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals and now is up in Princeton, romantically chasing after "that princess," Ellen said, meaning Svetlana Stalin. (Blackburn always comes back from these sojourns with a matchbox stuffed with the clippings about his arrests. And undimmed hopes for marrying Svetlana.)
And sad to say, there are those who won't return, such as Leo, who once sang grand opera, it was said, and died a few years ago after drinking - somewhere else - what one Ben Bow haunter yesterday described as "the very best paint thinner."
These and more - such as PH, down in Florida, and her daughter, who got married - were remembered in the four of triumph. Painter Lucy Clark, who once lived upstairs, came all the way from Union Dale Pa. to attend the hearing. Ex-barmaid Mara Leiba didn't get to the hearing, but she showed her heart was in the right place by loudly publishing what seemed a personal martyrdom over the closing of Schwartz's lunch counter, up the street.
David Rowley, who is 55, and remembers a tavern being here all his life, even pitched in behind the bar, and proposed anew to Ellen: "I fell in love with this old gal years ago, but she won't marry me till my wife dies."
The Ben Bow, it seems, elicits the same sort of emotions you find after a mention of, say, the Library of Congress or Glacier National Park: You're not that likely to visit it, given the general average, but you like to know it's there as (the Ben Bow has been, under present management, for 16 years).
"It's a working man's bar, the only one in Washington," said Ellen, as she has said countless times before from her perch by the front door. (Even a gunman couldn't move her, once - he had to open the cash register himself.)
"How 'bout when you're unemployed?" asked a man at the bar. "You allowed to come in then?"
"Yes, indeed, yes, indeed," said Ellen, counting the take from the night before, and frowning with worry that they'd had to close the place during the hearing: "We've never been closed before."
Was it that, or just the astonishment of triumph which sent the otherwise always dependable Marletta to the hospital with nosebleed? She was accompanied by Russell Brewster Roberts, rumored for years to be a part owner, but in any case a fixture who returned from the doctor's to sit in a back booth repeating: "We're open, forever!"
Reached in his office one psychiatrist said, after winning a promise that his name would not be published: "The Ben Bow is home base to a lot of people."
Similarly architect Richard Ridley, a demolition foe put a fine point on it when he said "You can't build in this kind of patina, that's the glory of this architecture."
And then someone announced. "The sign!"
He pointed to nine dingy plastic boxes hanging over the back bar. Once, when we were all much younger, the sign had lit up to spell: ENJOY LIFE. But time and the vagaries of the lightbulbs had incurred a swelling darkness.
(Just the lightbulbs, Father Duffy?)
"Last week, that sign read NO LIFE! And now all the letters are lit up!" he shouted.
Did he think that perhaps an agency of, oh, divine origin might be held accountable?
He shrugged with a meditative severity usually reserved for questions such as the propriety of drinking before 10 o'clock in the morning.
"It says ENJOY LIFE, now, it's all lit up," he said.
Naturally, everyone in the bar, on this spirit-charged occasion, paid him absolutely no attention whatever, no-doubt mulling the fact that the Ben Bow is sufficient miracle unto itself.