VIVIAN (an old-school barmaid)

Copy of playland

The Playland Cafe in Boston’s Combat Zone (closed now, but formerly just known as “Playland.”)

This post will be a quiet one . . . no bells and whistles, no big bang at the end.

Today we’ll look at a simple, thoughtful moment — and the lasting image of a veteran bartender doing something beyond what her job called for . . .

(I heard this story about The Playland Cafe second-hand from our good friend, Carrie.)

Carrie was in Johnny D’s last weekend and she was telling a group of us about an experience she’d had just after her college days.

We’ve known Carrie and her husband Joel for 15 years or more, back when they were both at MIT and first dating.  Carrie and Joel would show up at the club several times a week and the two of them were among our absolute favorite customers.

Joel helped me with my fraternity alumni website (Beta Phi Epsilon) ten years ago, and he helped me set up this blog.

They’re married now with two children, but neither of them has really changed.  (Except for Carrie’s fantastic new hair style — it rocks, Carrie!)

Anyway, Carrie was talking about when she used to bop around, looking for new things to do, new places to experience life.  One of her favorite choices was to head with her friends to an old piano bar in Boston’s Combat Zone (a two-block area where all the strip clubs were located.)

The Playland Cafe had a really seedy bar downstairs, but on the street level there was a somewhat-less-seedy lounge that was popular with local workers — bartenders, wait staff, dancers, and hookers taking a break from their street trade.  (Carrie described the upstairs as “overly fabulous” . . . but just to give you some idea, the joint was decorated with year-round Christmas lights.)

“Playland was turning into a transvestite hang-out,” Carrie explained, “Of course there was the gay bar below . . . but they had this wonderful piano bar upstairs and everyone would sing along.”

Apparently the old man tinkling the keys upstairs played every show tune in the book.  His music inspired loud, off-key sing-along chorusing and occasionally even drew a quiet tear from the motley crew huddled at the bar.

“You would look down the bar and most of the customers were old, kind of broken-down transvestites,” Carrie said.  “Tons of make-up, lots of gaudy jewelry and ill-fitting dresses that sparkled.”

“More than one of them would have their heads on the bar as the night went on.”

Carrie told about the night she took Joel to Playland with her, and how he embarrassed her by singing louder than anyone.  “I couldn’t get him to leave,” she laughed now, “We were there for over three hours, and Joel knew the words to every single song.”

One particular night, Carrie had stopped at Playland with some of her girl friends.

“Vivian was the bartender,” Carrie recalled, “I don’t think I was ever at that bar when Vivian wasn’t working.”

“She was an older woman, and so prim and proper looking.  Her hair was pulled back and her make-up was always perfect.  Her clothes were maybe a little out of date, but they were always pressed without the slightlest wrinkle . . . and she’d always wear these white blouses with a high white collar behind her neck.”

(Photo by Roswell Angier, Boston Pheonix.)

(Photo of the Combat Zone by Roswell Angier, Boston Phoenix.)

That particular night, Carrie’s friends happened to leave one by one until she found herself sitting at the bar alone.  Now she was surrounded by transvestites, tired-looking hookers and strippers, and a seedy collection of Combat Zone clientele.

“Vivian made sure I didn’t feel alone,” Carrie continued.  “She came over and talked with me every chance she got.  She was so charming and friendly in a polite sort of way . . . and then she became more open and confiding, like we’d known each other for years.  It was as though it was just her and I, and all the others around us were outsiders.”

(As Carrie continued with the story, I was liking Vivian more and more . . . it might be old-school, but as a bartender she had unfailing instincts.)

When Carrie was leaving, Vivian cautioned her to be careful on the street.  The Combat Zone was a tough area.  Aside from the hookers and drug dealers there were these shady, sometimes foul-smelling men lurking in every doorway and alley.

Copy of Copy of CombatZoneStreet

(A typical Combat Zone street at night.)

“You be careful,” Vivian told her.

Carrie drinks mostly club soda, so she wasn’t the least bit buzzed, but  it had to be intimidating to step out outside.

It was a dark street with unswept sidewalks and pools of water.  There were small clumps of debris that you carefully walked around.

And those dark figures lurked in the shadows.

Carrie tried to walk at a normal pace, not wanting to draw attention to herself . . . but as a young, college-aged girl she was clearly out of her element.

She heard a noise behind her!

At first she didn’t want to turn around.  What was that?

A few more steps, and she did turn around to see what might have just happened behind her back.  It sounded like the loud creaking of a door.

Carrie looked over her shoulder . . .  looked back down the street to the entrance of Playland . . . and she saw Vivian.

Vivian was standing there, leaning her head and shoulders around the half-open door.

She was just standing there, leaning around the side of the door, looking down to where Carrie now stood looking back at her.

She’d come out to watch Carrie walk down the street . . . to make sure that she made it safely to the end of the Combat Zone.

I had this wonderful image . . . the old woman bartender, with her unchanging prim look, that white collar . . . eyes darting protectively as her young customer navigated the short, dangerous walk away from her bar.

Carrie looked at her for a moment, and then gave a short wave, as if saying both, “See you next time,” and “Thanks for watching out for me.”

The Combat Zone is long gone now, and Playland along with it.  But as Carrie told this story I was thinking, “Damn, I wish I’d known Vivian.”  They really don’t make them like her anymore . . . and it’s a shame.

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31 Responses to VIVIAN (an old-school barmaid)

  1. Carrie Gwynn says:

    Mike, you are a wonderful writer. You really captured that scene perfectly. As I read it the memories all came back alive. Vivian really was special (I say “was” because she was old when I knew her which was a good 20 years ago) but who knows. Thanks for making my Playland memory come alive again!

  2. MikeQ says:

    Carrie: Thank you for a wonderful story, Carrie! I’m really glad I lucked out … happened to be there as you began talking about Playland. It’s immediately become one of my favorite bar stories … thanks for letting me retell it here.

  3. Cheryl D. says:

    Loved this vignette! Beautiful work Mike.

  4. MikeQ says:

    Cheryl D: Thanks Cheryl … but the credit for this one goes to Carrie … she gave me the story on a silver platter. I just scrawled down a note or two afterwards so I wouldn’t forget details. Hey, haven’t seen you at the club in quite a while … the glass of Merlot on the house is still waiting for you. 🙂 (Just checked your My Lush Life photostream … looks like a great New Year’s … did you hit New Orleans this year?)

  5. Llylak says:

    A perfectly lovely tale, this is one of your best.

  6. Colleen says:

    I can’t help but wonder if Vivian’s actions were “old school” or simply her natural character. I believe it was her core fabric that dictated her conduct, not a sign of the times. Even in these times of turmoil, “good people” continue to show decency and concern for their fellow man.

  7. JT says:

    Mike, you are a male version of Vivian without the pressed white shirt, Great story, you are correct there are not many people around like Viv anymore. I have a few stories about the zone I’ll tell you sometime…not as good as this one, though. JT

  8. MikeQ says:

    Llylak: I knew this was your kind of post, Lly. 🙂

    Colleen: I guess when I say “old school”, Colleen, I’m thinking about the level of experience as well as someone’s good heart. Someone who’s been bartending forever is more likely to think of these things … (“Hey, she’s a young girl, and this is a rough area, so maybe I’ll make sure she’s OK.”) They’re more likely to have a set of codes … a sense of “this is the way things are done” … not necessarily because they’re better people, but because they’ve had longer to live and learn, and understand what to do in certain situations. The only thing … not everyone who’s done this job forever has managed to keep the good heart Vivian had. Her actions required both that she knew what she should do, and that she actually made the effort to do it, not just say “Why bother.” I really would have liked to have met her.

    JT: I’m sure you have MORE than a few good stories about the zone, JT. 🙂 See you in a few at the Jam.

  9. Mandy says:

    Hi Mike, I’ve been a bit absent from blogging since I picked up this gig to open a new restaurant. 15 hour days, moving, etc. After we open I hope to get some semblance of a life back. I used my newer site as a link, I’ll be writing there again in a couple weeks, and I’d love to have you stop by. There are a lot of fun blogging peeps that hang out on that page.
    Love this story- I’ve always felt like restaurant people, those who have made it their career, are very protective of others. At least that’s been my experience.

  10. MikeQ says:

    Mandy: Great to hear from you! I’ve bookmarked your new site and added it to my blogroll. Time for bed now (a long, but good night at work) … but I’ll be spending a lot of time over there as soon as the weekend ends. Looks like you’ve got another winner, Mandy.

  11. Linda W. says:

    Great story about Vivian. And that’s how I felt about the three guys – Mike, John and Eric – if we were leaving Johnny D’s very late at night. You all made sure we were OK to drive and/or Eric or John would insist on walking us to the car to make sure we were OK. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact we had been drinking. No, not at all. 😛

    Good writing, Mike, and good story, Carrie.

  12. David says:

    Love this place i miss it,it was fun back then.Bobby,Jeanette,etc…Love to hear from the old gang if theres any.

    • hap says:

      David I certainly remember Playland as I was a regular there for over two decades. I am sure we know each other. I have a lot of pictures I took there. So many hilarious stories and events, as you said, Bobby, Jeanette and Jimmie, and the fantastic alley out back. Gosh, Black Ralph, Buzzy, what fun memories. Hope you check back to this thread.

    • Richard says:

      I worked at Playland from 1978 to 1983 as a bartender. I left to go work at Haymarket until 1988 and then Napoleon’s.

      I really miss Playland. It was the best time of my life.

      • Henry says:

        Richard, hap, Doreen, I wanted to reach out and see if you would be willing to chat about Playland for a research paper I’m writing about the establishment and the neighborhood. Feel free to email me at if you are interested in talking about your experience and the bar. Thank you very much.

  13. nobody says:

    Love this.

  14. Mark Cripps says:

    An evening spent with Old Ray sitting at the piano knocking out a dozen choruses of Hot Nuts, the laughter growing louder with each verse was one of the joys of Backstreet Boston. I miss you Ray, you were a funny bastard.

  15. Matti Kniva Spencer says:

    Does anyone remember William…African American singer…who sang upstairs…usually accompanied by Ray…the pianist? I had gotten to know him quite well…would love to know his full name and whether he’s still alive. Please let me know. He lived somewhere in the South End. Will include my e-mail in case anyone knows. Thanks…in advance.

  16. Matti Kniva Spencer says:

    Playland was my all time favorite gay bar. I used to go there every weekend. I met so many fine men…enjoyed Jeannette and Ray…also William…who sang with Ray often. I loved the photos hung up year round. I wish they would bring this bar back…however…I know that’s impossible. My memories of Playland will always be tops!!!

    • joseph palombi says:

      Matti, I am so pleased to have found this blog. Although I did not really belong at Playland, I would visit it somewhat often and have wanted to belong. I miss this type of refuge from the normal universe.

  17. Matti Kniva Spencer says:

    Playland…Jeannette…Ray…William…I miss y’all so much!!!

  18. joseph palombi says:

    I am (was) a nice boy from New Hampshire. One of my mentors brought me to Playland shortly after having arrived in Boston and although I had always felt an outsider, I LOVED the bar! What I saw there was naked honesty. The regulars knew that they were a breed apart and revelled in it. I shall always be grateful to them for making me feel so welcome.

  19. Doreen says:

    Hello! All my brother Bobby was a bartender there for many years. It’s great to see the name Bobby Glad he’s remembered. Ty from his Sister Doreen

  20. Doreen says:

    Hi my brother Bobby was a bartender there for many yrs. Came across this story and happy to see Bobby remembered.

  21. David says:

    Great place. So sad there isnt anything left. I was 16 and didnt feel afraid

  22. Matti Kniva Spencer says:

    Anyone who knows what happened to William ( Bill ) the singer who accompanied Ray on piano…please get in touch with me. He was such a good friend. I lost contact with him through the years…would love to reconnect….thanks!

  23. Jeff says:

    Reading your story brought back so many of my own memories of growing up in the 70s. It was a different time to say the least for a queer in the suburbs. Thank God there was another kid in my neighborhood that was also gay. I remember the day he got his license to drive. We couldn’t wait to sneak into Boston where we knew there had to be other gay people! What an experience finding all the gay bars each with their own clique and all the other places around the city where you could be yourself. One memory is how after we parked I wound go to The Ramrod on Carver St. and my friend would go to Together on Boylston then meet up after and stop at Playland on our way out of the city. Memories flooded back with the exact way you describe the bartender. I never felt more safe and better about being gay than when she was there serving drinks and always had encouraging words. It felt like what home should have been!
    I miss all the places I grew up in Sporters , Together, Herbies Ramrod, Skippers, the list goes on and on .
    So thanks for your story!

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