Gut Instinct: Laverne and Surly

“Now listen here,” says the lady in pink, eyes bouncing like lottery balls. “That’s Laverne. Don’t kill her.”

I sip my Corona and carefully select my nouns and verbs. “We’re not going to kill her,” I say, pointing to a leafy, globe-size plant topping the rickety table. My drinking companions nod vigorously. We are many things—drunks, emotional cripples, Midwesterners—but not murderers.

“I named that plant after my mom,” she says, her pony-tailed head bobbing like an oil well.

“My mom also named a plant after her mom,” I say. My inquisitor looks pleased. I continue, “The Grandma Alice. My parents have had her for decades.”

“Is it still alive?” she asks. Translation: Are you a homicidal maniac?

“Still blooming,” I say, owing more to my dad’s green thumb than my black, wizened digit.

She smiles, satisfied. “I’m Devondra, the daytime bartender.” She extends her festive fingernails. “Welcome to the Stop Inn.”

This 34-year-old dive (432 Nostrand Ave. betw. Madison St. & Putnam Ave., B’klyn) blends into Bed-Stuy’s low-slung landscape like gum on a sidewalk. There’s no awning. Dim lights. The only identifying characteristic is a hand-painted red stop sign. I’ve pedaled past frequently, watching folks drink, converse and—

“Can I help you?” asked a fedora-topped gent one eve.

“No, no,” I mumbled, a shamefaced Peeping Tom. I biked away with haste, my tail or something floppier tucked between my legs.

But tonight, curiosity has finally sent several cohorts and I across the buzzer-entry threshold. We nod to seasoned, middle-aged drinkers—“Mmmhmm,” says one—and peruse the booze. Dusty champagne bottles sit beside a fridge filled with Corona, Guinness, Heineken and Bud. The floral-shirted bartender drums her long, brown fingers. Behind her awaits a sturdy baseball bat.

“What’s your specialty?” I inquire.

“Beer and liquor,” comes the answer. I deserved that.

We order a domestic-beer trio: $10. Not bad. Even better, the bartender pops our bottle tops and wipes the mouths with white napkins, then tucked inside like a Molotov cocktail.

“Enjoy, sweeties,” she says, passing us bottles like they’re brown-bagged school lunches. Lord, mom-aged bartenders are the best.

We escort our beers to a deep booth, near the window, when Devondra shuffles over. “I’m not going to lie,” she says, wrapping up her Laverne lecture, “but I’ve had a bit to drink. I’m not crazy; I just talk a lot. You tell me when I should go.”

“Stay, stay,” I say. Alcohol enhances any story. She leans over our table. We lean forward.

“You really got to pluck out Laverne’s dead leaves,” she says. “It’s a lot of work.” Well, alcohol enhances almost any conversation. Nonetheless, Devondra is a good-natured blowhard with an easy laugh. Her motor-mouth discourse eventually winds from horticulture to love (“Treat your women right!”) to speakeasies.

“Nostrand Avenue was once lined with after-hours clubs,” she says, her eyes misting over with early-morning reminiscences. “But they’re all gone. We almost were too, after a fire a couple years ago”—that explains the fresh paint, the unscuffed tables—“but we survived. We’re licensed. We can sell beer and liquor, but no mixers.”

“Why no mixers?” I ask.

“You know what?”

“Uh...”

“Today I won $7 in scratch-off tickets. And I want to buy you all a drink.”

Really? Typically, no one wants to—or should—buy me another drink. She purchases beers and a plastic cup brimming with ice and Jack.

“Can you handle that?” she asks, appraising my straw arms and chunky specs.

“Please,” I say. I swig whiskey like water, which is my eyes’ response. She nods, pleased. A soul song comes alive, something bass-heavy and sensual, and Devondra sashays to her barstool.

We drink our freebies, our smiles unaided by booze. Many moons have passed since I’ve visited such a welcoming watering hole. Stop Inn belongs to a dwindling breed: It’s a neighborhood bar built on bonhomie, not the bottom line. Sure, there’s danger (no baseball bat to my forehead, please) and kooks, but I’ll take eccentricities and inexpensive drinks over another TV-packed tavern or techno-pumping cocktail lounge.

“Where are you going?” Devondra asks, as we bus our empty bottles. Home. Sleep.

“You’re not leaving before I kiss everyone,” she says, puckering up.

I point to my lips. She nods. Does this constitute cheating?

“No,” she says, chiding me. “I’m not that kind of woman.” 

One by one she smooches our cheeks, her lips leaving their pink mark. “I’ll see you soon,” she says. “And when you come back, don’t kill Laverne!”