Antonio’s Nut House didn’t used to be the only dive bar in Palo Alto. There was Pudley’s. The Stanford Pub. The Old Pro. I mean, the old Old Pro.
A bar by the name The Old Pro currently does exist in downtown Palo Alto on Ramona Street, but anyone Generation X or older calls that place the New Pro.
The real Old Pro sat on an undeveloped industrial lot on the southeast corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino.
It was a proper dive. In all the right ways.
The front room was framed by a long bar adorned with a just handful of unpretentious beer taps. And that’s pretty much it. There were maybe 10 barstools, a pair of pool tables and a jukebox in the corner.
The back was a warehouse with a high semicircular corrugated tin roof where there was “pop-a-shot”, a pinball machine, and the beloved long and narrow wooden shuffle-board table.
Starting in the late 80s, from about the time we were old enough to get away with plausible fake IDs until I was about 25, my friends and I spent a number of hours at The Pro that Malcolm Gladwell could be proud of.
At the end of the 80s, Palo Alto was nearing but not yet in it’s full gentrification phase. Silicon Valley hadn’t yet gone douchey, and the scene at The Pro was a friendly co-mingling of students and locals, both drawn by the allure of $4.25 pitchers of industrial draft beer.
If it was payday, you might get Henry Weinhards or splurge for a 55 cent handful of hot cashews from the perplexing hot cashew dispenser that sat mostly ignored at the lonely end of the bar. I frankly don’t recall anyone besides Fink ever springing for a handful of warm nuts.
There was no parking aside from maybe 3 spots on El Camino right in front of the front door where northbound cars would whiz by — crossing Page Mill at 45 mph running yellows to avoid the otherwise painfully long light.
We preferred to park in the dark recesses of the Page Mill movie theater parking lot across the way. We’d wriggle through the hedges and then Frogger our way across the six lanes to the bar’s entrance. The discreet parking spot doubled as the ideal place to regroup at the end of the night, before deciding who would drive and which Jack in the Box we’d hit on the way home.
The center of the action at the Pro were the pair of pool tables, running parallel to the bar along the El Camino side of the windowless front room. Table rules were in play. Winners stayed on the table and controlled the break. Any challengers would put their name on the chalkboard, or tuck quarters along the rail depending on how busy things were. As one game would finish, the challenger would slide a quarter into the slot and slam the lever home, releasing the balls with great fanfare, and get to work racking.
The pool tables were like the town commons. The turf was anyone’s to claim. If you got a hot hand and a little lucky, you could even hold the table for a couple of hours. But, eventually, everyone goes down.
The crowd was generally quite eclectic. There were bikers. There were Deadheads. There were yuppies. There were grad students. Some bankers came by after work. Softball teams came for pitchers after their games. There were people with tattoos before people had tattoos.
While the clientele generally got on well, there could be clashes and drama at the pool table. One night as our friend Shill held the table, he ended up in a testy defensive struggle with a dude with a gym membership and anger management problem. Our friend, through a ridiculous and questionable set of maneuvers forced his opponent to scratch and lose the game. We cheered on his “Shilling blockade” — much to our delight and his opponent’s chagrin carefully staying one wise-crack away from getting one of our skull’s cracked.
My peak of spending time at The Pro was right when my friends had very recently graduated from college and we’d just moved into shared houses with our first full-time jobs and more reliable pay-checks.
No cell phones, we’d call each other up on our land-lines and try to rally a plan. I remember getting a call from Paul or Sam one night who excitedly reported “We have a plan!”
“We going to meet up at The Pro.”
That’s the plan?!?
That’s more like the antithesis of having a plan. Going to The Pro was the “anti-plan”.
By the way you’d hear me talk about it, you’d figure The Pro wasn’t much in the way of meeting girls department. And, you’d be right. Except when you weren’t.
Certain weeknights drew in the Stanford undergrads, as at one point in the early 90s, the rigour on carding had somehow subsided and for a hot minute, and The Pro became known as an easy place to get in for the under 21 crowd.
That was how we met Matt the swimmer from Texas. And, the alluring women’s field hockey team.
These were the years when my New Year’s resolution was “to be more proactive about meeting interesting women.” I say years because it needed renewing on back-to-back years circa 1992.
One night I found myself in a particularly riveting conversation with a senior, intrigued by her chosen field of Russian studies. Not brave enough to make a move in real time, I went back at exactly the same time, same night the following week, and ran into the same crowd, But, she was not there. I cornered Matt, and coaxed out of him her last name with a flimsy ruse about thinking I knew her sister, and what was her last name? Critical detail procured, I promptly headed home, located her digits upon flipping through the student phone book, and plotted my next move.
Even though we were also recent grads, and generally liked to mix it up with the college crowd, sometimes we went native — griping when The Pro would be ambushed by an unexpected decent of university revelers. This usually happened during reunion weekends, football home games or graduation.
In June of 1991, we were executing the anti-plan, minding our own business, when the place went from quiet to completely overtaken in under 45 minutes. It turned out it was graduation weekend, but we didn’t know.
Lurking at the long end of the bar, Fink and I awaited our turn on the pool table, glum that our turn looked to be at least an hour away. I noticed a fresh-faced kid with a Duke hat on, looking out of place, bored, and nursing a Bud light.
Instantly I recognized Billy McCaffrey, who had only one month before led my Duke Blue Devils to our first ever NCAA men’s basketball championship.
Legend! This was the year when Laettner ripped the heart out of every Kentucky Wildcat fan. Ever. I’m looking at you, Ashley Judd. Mind you, this was before casual fans had decided to routinely cheer against Duke.
Billy was our sophomore shooting guard, starting aside the legendary Bobby Hurley. Billy was that year’s unheralded second-leading scorer — even outscoring future NBA star Grant Hill. Just weeks before, Billy, at 19 years old, had been on every television set in the country, leading the conquer of the impossibly mighty UNLV in the Final Four. A real-live David (v. Goliath) in our midst!
Less than ten weeks later, on this particular night at The Pro, Billy was being completely ignored by the pack, the overlooked little brother of future NFL star Ed McCaffrey. Billy was in town with family for his older brother’s college graduation.
As soon as I saw him, the high fives began to fly.
Seeing me and Billy delight in awkward hand gestures in celebrating Duke’s big win and first ever NCAA championship, Fink, whose UCLA Bruins bonked out prematurely in the first round, was feeling a little butt-hurt about the whole thing.
“Nice hat”, Fink starts in, in his trademark provocative needling kind of way, guessing he had things figured out in recognizing Billy’s embroidered lid. Fink starts talking shit. Bill factually points out that Fink backed the wrong team. Fink waves him off, dismissive to this cherub-faced fan, unaware his target was in fact personally responsible for Duke cutting down the nets in the first place.
I offer Bill a quick aside, a knowing congratulations and appreciation from a resolutely grateful alum, without letting on any real recognition to Fink.
Then, I come up with an idea.
“Hey, how about we settle this for once and for all, and you guys play ‘pop-a-shot’ for a beer.” Billy, under-aged, unable to buy himself a beer, and an 83.2% free-throw shooter readily agrees. Fink, no stranger to the pop-a-shot himself, over-confident and 3 beers in, also is game.
I volunteer Fink to shoot first.
Fink, no slouch himself as a former 8th grade B-team starting point guard himself, drops a solid score, draining almost three quarters of his shots with a this-aint-my-first-rodeo kind of pace, and looks a bit pleased with himself.
I eagerly sponsor Billy, pumping my quarters into the machine. Billy proceeds to rapid-fire swish one ball after the next, Fink’s smug glee inversely fading with my delight.
As Fink heads to the bar to square up, Bill and I exchange many more high-fives. Only later would I reveal to Fink the buzz-saw he inadvertently walked right into.
In college we played a lot of cards, and in the year after graduation, bunking in Palo Alto, I was feeling the itch to get a low-stakes poker game going amongst some guys. One night I hosted a group at the house I shared with four others in Barron Park, having cleaned out the garage to make a workable card-playing area, and solid access to the beer fridge where I kept my home-brewing supplies and latest product.
The problem was, despite the fact no one actually liked them, we would smoke Swisher Sweets as part of the poker playing experience. It sort of seemed compulsory.
In college, I remember renting a motel room for $19 outside of Durham city limits. The motel whose most most prominent value proposition was free HBO.
We rented the room for that month’s Tyson fight, which was otherwise inaccessible on campus. While we stayed in the room for 3 or 4 hours smoking cigars, I missed the majority of the fight when thought I’d outsmarted my friends by using the toilet immediately after the opening bell.
It was over in a shake. The fight itself lasted 45 seconds with Iron Mike banging some poor sap’s brain against the inside of his skull.
I can remember to this day how nasty that particular room became, thick with sweet cheap cigar smoke. So when I volunteered to host poker in the house I shared with my brother, Charlie, Kathy, Helmüt and a few stray pets, I should have known it wasn’t my most popular idea yet.
The cards were a hit, and everyone wanted to play again. But, my roommates were having none of it. We had two choices. Find a place where we could smoke cigars, or stop playing cards.
Then, someone said, why don’t we play at The Pro? Genius.
So, one sleepy weeknight we sheepishly arrive at The Pro with our poker chips, cards and accessories in hand. And Swisher Sweets hidden in the depths of our pockets. The ubiquitous and Forrest Gump-like Dave Brown (he was my little league coach and threw a mean knuckle ball) was working a solo-shift that night, and I hesitantly asked: “Um, would it be ok.. if we, um play poker back there, and smoke cigars?”
“I don’t care WHAT the fuck you do back there.”
The Old Pro was a place, while intimidating to enter, was ultimately somewhere where anyone could feel at home.
It was the jukebox that held the room together.
The jukebox was a classic. Tiny 45 records played mechanically. Songs selected with push buttons. Classic rock accented by a menu of eclectic gems. Big hits on Side A and something much more obscure on Side B.
The price was something impossibly seductive like 3 songs for a quarter and 15 for a dollar. Most of the time, there were free credits leftover from an earlier patron. There was hardly a time when the jukebox wasn’t playing.
Like the pool table, the jukebox was open season and fair game for anyone with a pocket full of quarters. But unlike the pool table, there was no way of knowing when your turn was up. Then again, it didn’t matter, because eventually, the sound track blended into itself.
To this day, the opening notes of Oye Como Va or Patsy Klein’s Crazy zooms me instantly to a general time and a specific place. It’s where we learned to love the Allmans. And CCR. And discovered how everyone loves the Stones. How the right song can lift up an entire room.
Where everyone played their song. And where your song become theirs, and theirs became yours.
A jukebox that brought disparate individuals together into a tribe.