Let me tell you what you won’t find at the Original Pinkie Masters in Savannah: trendy cocktails. A credit card machine. (Apple Pay? Don’t make me snort into my gin. It’s cash only, baby.) People scrolling through their phones (I foolishly checked mine early on, and a ruddy, seafaring type roared, “Hey, Red! Put down your gadget and meet your neighbors! Pretend it’s the nineties!”). You won’t find a marketing campaign or a social media strategy. You won’t find a TV playing, unless the World Series is on; during the 2016 election campaign, the bar banned the TV altogether. In other words, Pinkie’s is stuck in its ways, and its ways are pretty damn appealing.
“It’s an old man’s bar,” says Matt Garappolo, its co-owner alongside Mike Warren. Savannah author Harrison Scott Key, who introduced me to Pinkie’s, says that in his town, Pinkie’s “has the ugliest people of all the bars, which I find comforting. It’s a rare pleasure not to be the ugliest person in a bar.” The superlative that comes to my mind isn’t old-man-iest, or ugliest, but awesomeist. Drinking three-dollar PBRs nestled in coozies they’ve brought from home, many with old dogs curled beside their barstools, the regulars seem, well, enviable. “These people are my family,” says Kathy, a former Milwaukee cop who retired in Savannah after numerous visits, which always centered around Pinkie’s. “This place is my home.” She says it with the fervor of someone who almost lost that home, which happened back in 2016.
But first, the genesis. Depending on whom you ask, the story goes something like this: A son of Greek immigrants, Luis Christopher Masterpolis, better known as Pinkie Masters, opened his corner bar, called Pinkie Master’s Lounge, in the early 1950s. Although the decor was humble, with just sixteen stools snugged to the horseshoe bar and a scattering of booths, its prime location downtown drew notable visitors, including a state senator from Plains, Georgia. Jimmy Carter would later credit Pinkie for helping get him elected both governor and president (Pinkie made small wooden campaign signs to hang from customers’ car bumpers). The two remained close, and after Pinkie died, in 1977, Carter was in town for Savannah’s famed St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The president ducked into Pinkie’s, clambered up on the bar, and delivered an impromptu elegy for his old pal.
But without Pinkie, the bar changed hands a few times and then began a slow slide. By 2015, “it smelled like pee,” Kathy says; “the bar top was duct-taped.” It closed the next year after lawsuits and a bankruptcy, which led to a messy dispute between the owner of the building and the bar’s then owner, who vowed to open up his own Pinkie’s elsewhere. He took almost everything, including the brass bar plaque commemorating where Carter had stood, and planned to remove the awnings and the famous Pabst Blue Ribbon light box outside the door, but the court prevented him, unsure of their legal owner.
Meanwhile, Garappolo and Warren, regulars who had purchased the bar with dreams of bringing it back to its former glory, now owned a scraped-clean shell.
If the court was unclear on the rightful owner, the people’s court was not. Garappolo says that he and Warren were waiting on their lawyer’s green light to rechristen the bar as the Original Pinkie Masters when a regular popped her head in. “My dad stole this off the wall in 1982,” she said, handing over a tin beer advertisement. Other regulars contributed framed photos. Pinkie’s nephew drank incognito in the bar for an afternoon, approved of the new incarnation, and donated Pinkie’s prizefighting memorabilia. When the rival Pinkie’s went out of business, locals picked through its garbage and returned the decor to the walls at the original site. Garappolo got his hands on the Carter plaque—he’s maddeningly vague about how—and reinstalled it. Carter sent the bar a thank-you note.
Today the owners celebrate the locals who made, then remade, Pinkie’s. The Original Pinkie Masters now holds potlucks on Thanksgiving and Christmas (Garappolo and Warren make the turkey, regulars bring sides, Kathy brings the bourbon balls). There are occasional charity projects, such as the calendar created at the behest of a longtime customer working with a group that supports the blind. The calendar, which sold out almost immediately, features nearly naked regulars, such as seventy-six-year-old George Helmken, Mr. December, reclining in a chair with a Christmas present strategically placed on his lap. Helmken also has the honor of being featured on one of Pinkie’s St. Patrick’s Day T-shirts. If you want to nab one, you’d best arrive by the 7:00 a.m. opening, as Pinkie’s borders the parade route. One year, when a TV crew filmed the early morning excitement at Pinkie’s, one of its charismatic bartenders was caught on camera doing Irish Car Bombs with customers. When the news aired, Warren says, “I was like, ‘I’m gonna fire him!’”
“Did you?” I ask.
Warren sighs and shakes his head, smiling.
I’m glad he didn’t. I want to think of the barman doing shots with the regulars in the background of my life, my mostly sober life where I rarely drink shots, and never at 7:00 a.m. I want to know that I could leap off a plane in Savannah and taxi to Pinkie’s and buy a cold PBR for three dollars, if I’d remembered to bring cash money, that is, and that I’d have plenty of people to talk to, as long as I didn’t act the fool by picking up my cell phone, and that, for a few hours at least, I could pretend to be one of that vaunted crew, the regulars, those originals at the Original Pinkie Masters.