I've lived in Raleigh for 25 years now, and have never been to Sadlack's Heroes on Hillsborough Street – that was, until last Wednesday.
My impression of the place is sprinkled with drive-by memories of patrons over the years – sitting on the steps, or along the wall, or out on the patio when the weather is accommodating – some with green, some with blue, or sometimes red, hugely spiked hair – I mean like the Statue of Liberty spiked; tattered t-shirts; boots, and jeans with chains extending from belt loops to pockets – the homeless, hippies, bikers – iconoclasts. The disenfranchised.
Not a place I expect to find myself, a young urban professional, not so young any more at 48, not so urban, really, except I do live "inside the beltline" though not somewhere fabulous, but still very professional with my day job at Big Blue.
But here I am – entering the establishment nonetheless.
I walk up the deserted steps, it's too cold to be sitting outside tonight, and enter the front door. I'm not sure what I expected, but I didn't expect to be facing a U-shaped counter with barstools all around it, almost every seat taken.
Someone is right in the entrance way, and I say, "Excuse me," as I make my way by her, and toward the left where I see a door leading out to where I assume the musician I've come to see is playing.
This is the patio area, though it's nearly winter, and it's enclosed with thick, plastic make-shift walls all around it. The stage is straight ahead, situated in the back righthand corner of the room. It's not a very big stage, maybe 10 feet wide, four- or five-feet deep.
Brent is on stage, with his guitar, and about to start his next song.
Behind him are two huge flags, maybe five feet in height, three- or four-feet wide, hanging on the wall. One is black, with some kind of design on it – a small design that doesn't take up much of the black. I assume that it is some kind of biker flag, but only due to my preconceived notions about the people who patronize this place.
The second flag, surprises me – it's equally as large, and it's the gay flag. Presumably it only has sex with other flags of the same gender. But I digress.
This flag at once disarms me against this Raleigh institution that I've always assumed didn't speak directly to me.
Suddenly I'm nonplussed, though, as my eyes continue to the adjacent wall on the right, where hangs a flag that's perhaps twice the size of the two on the back wall – a huge American flag.
This is just not the kind of place in which I expect to see an American flag, especially one this big. My frown instantly turns into a smile when, while taking it in, I notice that the blue-and-white stars section is in the lower right-hand corner. It's hung on the wall like this:
After coming out on the patio, I'd taken an immediate right, where I'm standing in the back of the room, sort of behind the door, whenever it's open, and against the wall. Between me and the stage, there are three picnic tables along the right wall.
On the first table, the one right in front of me, a thick, black-bearded guy, perhaps in his early 30s, is sitting on the table. His wallet is attached to a long chain that connects to a belt loop on his blue jeans. He exudes masculinity.
There's a guy in front of him, on the seat of the table in front of him, the middle table. He has his back against the wall, his legs extended on the picnic table seat, so that his body faces sideways, while his head is turned toward the stage. He has his dog with him, on a leash.
At times these two guys talk to each other, and at one point, the one with the dog gets up presumably to use the restroom, and he hands the leash to Blackbeard. The dog begins to whimper, fairly continuously, and fairly loudly, and does the entire time his master is out of sight, while pulling on the leash in an attempt to seek him out.
In the middle of his song, Brent makes a comment about the dog singing soprano, and people in the crowd laugh.
While Master is gone, a white-haired man comes in and asks Blackbeard if the seat just vacated by the dog's owner is available. "Actually, my partner is sitting there," he replies.
The man leaves, Master returns, and a few minutes later Whitehair returns with a Styrofoam cup of water, which he offers to the dog, which has finally stopped whimpering. The tall cup is full of ice, and while Dog slurps it, the ice is clearly not working for him.
Whitehair steps into the middle of the room, pours the ice out onto the floor, presumably into a drain that I can't see, and returns with an iceless cup.
Brent is in the middle of a cool song now, and there is a young man, I'd guess in his early-to-late twenties, standing in the middle of the room, about even with the front row of picnic tables, and he is dancing to some rhythm that only he hears.
He's taking a lot of little steps, almost like he's running in place, and his arms are flailing a little bit. Brent says into the microphone in a soulful, husky-hushed, tone, "Tony, can you hear that? You feel that?"
In the next song, which was also very, very good, Tony continues his dance, and at one point augments it with kicks as high as his head in front of him. I can't tell if Tony is drunk, high, schizophrenic, autistic, or something else entirely that I haven't considered, a tortured genius, perhaps.
A few minutes later, someone comes into the room, and is trying to get around Tony to get to his seat at one of the four picnic tables along the left wall of the room. The guy stops behind Tony, though, and starts a sort of mimicking dance behind him.
I am taking this in, and trying to decide if he is honoring Tony with this, somewhat graceful aping, or if he, himself, is feeling something. He does it long enough to flow in Tony's rhythm, and then veers to the left and around him.
Brent finishes his song, and invites his brother up on the stage to sing the next song with him, during which a homeless man meanders into the patio. He is smiling big, the gaps in his teeth glaring, he is holding his fingers up in a vee, and saying, "Peace, peace."
Mid-song Brent says, "Yeah, peace, man," but in a somewhat edgy tone, trying to encourage it as a final response. I got the distinct impression he was trying to be respectful, though, as I did with his treatment of Tony.
Brent sings "With a Little Help from my Friends" with his brother, and they can't remember the order of the verses. A lady from the crowd yells out what she thinks is next, and they say, "Pay attention! That was the first verse."
They get by with a little help from the audience.
Brent starts his next song, and as he sings, a group of two or three people come out onto the patio from the restaurant area, and one guy in the group proceeds to continue their conversation loudly.
Brent finishes the song rather abruptly, and before the crowd can even start clapping, screams into the microphone to the guy talking, "Hey man! Can you stop talking so loud? I'm singing my heart out up here. If you were up here singing, I wouldn't be talking out loud like that. Have some respect." The group takes it inside.
The dog whimpers.
The homeless man says, "Peace."
My eyes take in this quiet chaos and end up on my watch, which tells me that it's time to go line-dancing now - just down the road, yet somehow, a world away from here.