Jeff Everett took a farewell swallow from his Busweiser, and a last nerve-steadying puff on his Camel Light. Then he pushed his stick smoothly into the cue ball. It clicked into the eight-ball, which fell into the side pocket, which won Everett yet another "cool one" courtesy of his opponent and buddy, Doughnut.
Doughnut has been losing Budweisers to Everett for the last seven years -- or about as long as it has taken Doughnut's roundish bald spot to develop, and his inevitable nickname along with it. But coming in second at eight-ball is no real heartbreak for Doughnut, and winning free "brews" isn't the point for Everett. They play because they love the place where they're playing: an unpretentious bar in downtown Wheaton called Leonard's.
Everett's loyalty to Leonard's is especially remarkable since he lives in Mount Airy, a 40-minute drive during which he passes at least 50 bars that serve the same Bud, Schlitz and Michelob.
But only at Leonard's can Everett find the guys with whom he plays softball, and with whom he used to share cigarettes in the boys' bathroom at Wheaton High School. Only at Leonard's can he reminisce about the time the guys evicted an unruly Harley-davidson driver by the scruff of the neck. Only at Leonard's can they all recall the dates and lovers they met -- or tried to meet -- and the time one of Everett's pals met a girl over by the cigarette machine who ended up his wife.
"I can come in here most any night and find the same guys," explained Everett, a 24-year-old carpetlayer in denim overalls, as he watched Doughnut rack up the balls for the next game. "If I came in here without a dollar, anybody here would buy me a beer. I'd pay 'em Friday. They know I would. Leonard's is just flat-out that kind of place."
There's a widespread impression that neighborhood bars exist only in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Archie Bunker reruns -- not in the suburbs of comfortable Washington, and certainly not in dignified, stylish Montgomery County.
But Leonard's is the sort of place where an under-the-influence regular crashed his car out in front one recent Friday night and another regular not only grabbed his keys and parked his car, but made sure he was safely asleep in the back seat, then came back for him at 7 the next morning. Leonard's is the sort of place many think died with the 1950s, but that still thrives in the '80s.
At Leonard's, private silence is the norm. Men stare into beer glasses, nurse cigarettes, finger the change the bartender has left in front of them. When there is noise, it comes in patterns -- the crack of pool balls being broken, followed by the pop of a Blue Ribbon being opened, followed by the electronic ditty a pinball machine plays when someone deposits a quarter. Conversations are muted, bursts of laughter rare.
Beer, at 85 cents a stein and $1 a can or bottle, is 99 percent of the alcohol sold at Leonard's (wine is available, but ignored). The jukebox blares mostly country tunes, with titles like "Coca Cola Cowboy." The walls are dark-stained wood, nicked from generations of chairs being backed into them.
On the bar sits a jar of sausages dunked in pickle brine and a jar of hard-boiled eggs. On the cigarette machine sits a packet of fliers advertising a school in Delaware where you can learn to drive a tractor-trailer ("Our Graduates Go places"). Over the door hangs a sign that means business: "Anyone bringing in or taking out any open containers will be barred."
Under a Schmidt's of Philadelphia lamp, and beside a Schlitz clock, young men in work boots and Red Man tobacco caps feed quarters into quivering beeping pinball machines named for Spiderman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Young women in vinyl jackets and jeans sit in clumps of four at aging wooden tables, alternately complaining about their children and their mothers. All the while, Bruno, the owner's dachshund, naps on a bar stool.
The Leonard's crowd is almost entirely lower-middle-class whites -- mechanics, truck drivers, waitresses, clerks at Montgomery Ward. Their talk is of parking spaces and potholes, of vacations in Daytona that probably will never happen and gambling forays to Atlantic City that probably will.
Only in the men's room, where four condom dispensers are mounted on the wall, is there a hint of politics. The largest, highest bit of graffiti reads: "Kill Iran's Ass."
This is a place that does not pretend to be more than it is: A nononsense watering hole for a loyal army of perhaps 300 regulars, most of whom live less than a mile away, or used to.
Leonard's was opened about 30 years ago by Leonard Brigham, who still tends bar every afternoon and returns at 1 a.m. to sweepup. It is located in a plain, one-story storefront on a back street, Price Avenue, a block and a half from the bustling intersection of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard, in the middle of a rather forlorn collection of car radiator repair shops and office supply stores. To one flank is a dry cleaners, to the other a dentist's office. The across-the-street neighbor is a carwash.
Four other bars can be found within two blocks of the place, and nearby are the Wheaton headquarters of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where beer has been known to flow on occasion. But Leonard's is as popular as any of them and more popular as any of them and more popular than most, grossing an average of $700 a day, and nearly double that on summer Saturdays, according to nightside bartender Paul Jones.
The place might do even more business if it weren't for the trend that Leonard Brigham has noticed in recent years. "Anymore, people that come in here are sippers and tasters," he says. "Used to be they'd throw'em right down."
However, the social and linguisitic patterns at Leonard's are unchanged. The staff knows so many of the customers -- and the customers know so many of each other -- that normal question-and-answer dialogue does not exist there.
For example, one rainy Wednesday night, Peepers got it into his mind to say hello to his friend, Chop-Chop. But he didn't shake Chop-Chop's hand, or wave, or utter the word "Hello." He walked up to Chop-Chop, put his hands on his hips and said: "Go to hell, Chop-Chop."
Chop-Chop replied: "Already there."
When 70-year-old William Eugene Hall greets a stranger, he always says: "Well, I been do'ed, screwed and tatooed -- I'm glad to meet you."
Regulars at Leonard's don't say: "I'd like another beer, please." They say what tile mason George Adams says: "Give me another glass of water, will you?" Nor does a regular ask another if he'd like to play a game of pool. Like Wheaton High senior Doug Simpson, he asks: "Want to run one?"
Even asking for change of a dollar takes on nuances. The unwritten rule among Leonard's regulars is to stand to the pinball machine side of the bar if all you want is four quarters, and to the pay phone side if you want one of the quarters broken into dimes and nickels.
Yet there is nothing subtle about some of the language and behavior at Leonard's.
It is not unusual for a regular named James the Biker to circle tables where women are sitting, chanting: "Who's ready? Who's ready?" He isn't talking about beer. And the nozzle of the electric hand-dryer beside the men's room sink has been urinated into so many times that management no longer considers it worth fixing.
According to Wild Man, a Leonard's regular who does body work at nearby Hill and Sanders Ford, such behavior is really harmless, and keeping it within the four walls of Leonard's is what keeps it harmless.
"It's like they say, man: This place keeps you off the streets," Wild Man said. "Think of what some of these guys would be doing if they were on the outside, man. Sitting here keeps the trouble here. We can handle anything that happens here."
Indeed, at Leonard's, the beefiest of the loyal customers sometimes jump in -- without having to be asked -- to break up fights. "Don't let these guys with long hair fool you," confides bartender Jones, who drives an ice cream truck during the day in the summer. "They're OK. They keep the peace. It's the ones with the weird looks in their eye you gotta worry about."
One such customer is The Man in the Orioles Cap. Last month, for six straight days, he arrived at about 2 p.m. He always sat on the first stool to the left of the bar. He always drank two steins of Budweiser in about six and a half minutes before leaving with a wave, always over his left shoulder. He never said a word.
"A real fruitcake," said Jones, in what stands unchallenged as the ultimate Leonard's insult.
The unchallenged chief observer of the Leonard's scene is a 62-year-old retired Wheaton auto parts dealer named Ted Lemley. Lemley always sits in the second stool to the right of the bar, always drinks Budweiser, greets everyone, knows everyone. But he makes a special point to watch out for the safety of the female customers.
"See," said Lemley, "these young ladies who dome in here need some protection. They need a cooler old head to take care of them. These young guys in here just want one thing from them." Then he smiles and winks. "I wouldn't mind some of the same thing myself."
Lemley is a Leonard's every-nighter -- usually from shortly after dinner until closing time. A Wheaton native, and Purple Heart-winning Navy veteran of World War II, Lemley seldom ventured out at night until a year ago, when his wife died. Since then, Leonard's has been "like home."
"To be truthful with you, I don't even keep the place clean anymore," said Lemley, of his home in Kensington. "Me and the dogs have meals together, but that's about it. Every time I look at a wall there, I see her, to be truthful with you.
"I'd be lonley and depressed, almost defeated, without this place."
Metaphors of defeat are common around Leonard's just the same.
One Tuesday, the previous day's Bowie Race Course program was lying in the gutter by the front door. A horse in the fourth race called Cool Miss was circled. A quick check of the sports page revealed that Cool Miss had just missed -- by 15 lengths.
The one piece of spontaneous art in Leonard's is a sketch of a human hand on the blackboard that overlooks the pool table. The middle finger is raised. "Lot of unhappy people in this place, man," explains Wild Man.
Peepers isn't one of them. With a pin on his cap that reads "Marshal Mellow" and hair he says he hasn't cut in a year, Peepers is a Leonard's legend as a pool libitzer. Get caught without a clear shot at the eight-ball, and Peepers will roar: "Whatcha goona do now, suckerrrrr?"
Nor is 19-year-old Nolan Blasby down in the dumps very much. He doesn't even drink. "I come here for the pool, for the competition," says Glasby at Leonard's, like his father before him, and who started coming to Leonard's, like Jeff Everett, while he was still at Wheaton High.
For a 26-year-old woman named Leona, Leonard's has been a touchstone, in good times and bad.
"I first heard about his place because my parents came here. Then, when I was at Northwood [High School], it was the only place my friends came," she says, sipping one of the two Budweisers she drinks every weekday afternoon one her way to pick up Tony, her fiance, at work.
"Then it got to be discos and clubs. But nobody I know can go out and spend a couple of hundred dollars a night on discos. So I came back.
"Then I was lonely for male companionship, so I started coming every night. I felt safe here. I felt if somebody tried to pick me up and I said no, there'd be somebody nearby who'd say, 'Hey, the lady said no.'"
A year ago, she met Tony -- at Leonard's. While things haven't been entirely perfect ("I wanted to get married on Valentine's Day, but my divorce didn't come through in time"), Leona has always had friends at Leonard's to sustain her.
"You can come in alone and eventually, somebody'll show up from the neighborhood," she said. "This is the neighborhood bar."