Woodlawn Lake, through its ups and downs, has been a bellwether for the state of the neighborhood. A posh advertisement in the San Antonio Light from 1928 bills Woodlawn District as “the arc of opportunity,” where early morning horseback rides and socialite barge parties were daily affairs. Contrast that with the recurring Letters to the SA Light editor in the ’80s regarding the trashed and debilitated waterway, where violent or just plain drunken acts had vanquished the health-centric vibe.
As a newcomer to the neighborhood, I want to belong here. I spend evenings watching the sun go down over the water. I admire the graffiti and ride my bike down the fabulously wide bike lane home again. I had always noticed the Pretty Nice Saloon across the street, and I was intrigued by the massive number of cars that would pile up, into that bike lane, every night of the week.
Snacks, beer, and billiards are the saloon’s calling cards, with a sprinkle of gambling video games, darts, and an internet jukebox thrown in for fun. A variety of 24 oz. beers are available for $3 a pop, served with a very local vibe. Mary, the owner, has been running the Pretty Nice Saloon for the past 23 years, along with her two grown kids.
Evidence of the female touch is noticeable throughout: hand sanitizer alongside the hot sauces, and a collection of empowering bumper stickers (“Marriage is the main cause of divorce”and “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere,” stand out). This is not the kind of bar where women would feel intimidated to go, even by themselves. The place caters almost strictly to the surrounding neighborhood, and allegiances between regulars are bond.
I took my dad over to watch the Spurs game one night and we sat belly to the bar, eating spicy peanuts and drinking tall boys. The billiards tables were silent as we all rooted for our team, our city. The man next to us at the bar shared not only his insights on Darwinism but also some dried shrimp (he had scored the last bag). We left feeling like we had discovered something.
When I returned to the Pretty Nice Saloon later that week, with three friends in tow, we discovered something else — some unpleasant truths about ourselves. When we arrived, we grabbed beers and sat down next to the jukebox. We began chatting with Rae, a regular, who filled us in on the history of the bar and the Woodlawn district, then personally ushered me around the bar, rolling out introductions and generally making merry.
I guess it was at this point my female companion and I, tipsy and stupid and feeling perhaps too comfortable, started riffing about the best and worst bathrooms in the city. She had her Flip cam and we went to the bathroom together, filming, and joking around about the state of the … very historic restroom.
From over the stall door, we heard a woman say, and I paraphrase: If you think the bathroom’s dirty, go back to the North Side! At this point, we were still laughing. We both live within walking distance of the establishment so we brushed off the comment. But when we opened the stall door I saw that she had brought Mary, the owner, into the bathroom.
Clearly offended, the patron told Mary what she had heard and then another regular and Mary’s son piled on, waving hands and talking about Northsiders this and that. Despite our apologies, we were then told, very emotionally, to leave. I guess you could say we were stunned. Were some bathroom remarks about a leaning toilet worthy of ejection? After I disclosed that I was trying to review the place for the Current, the owner’s son’s tone softened and we were allowed to return to our table.
We tried to talk about something else but our minds were still on the unexpected incident. Where did we go wrong? Everything had been going so well.
But over the course of the night and the next day, the realization that I am an outsider truly, began to settle in. Not only an outsider, but an asshole. Who were we to criticize the, albeit unsightly, bathroom? Who were we, in general? We had managed to offend everyone in the place with our unthinking remarks.
The whole incident made me realize that while San Antonio has great collective pride among our citizens, we have a long way to go in terms of understanding one another. The city remains segregated in a way that makes what happened to us a rarity. People from different sides of town don’t often have the opportunity to speak candidly in mixed company.
What happened hurt, but I’m glad that we got some sensitivity training. And the hero of this story, Mary, managed even in the heat of the fight to stay neutral and lighthearted, even as her establishment was being dissed. For our sake, I hope we´re welcome back. And I encourage everyone reading this to allow themselves to venture into unknown territory you might learn something about yourself; for better or worse.