The Roman Room: Favorite Watering Hole of My Youth
Fifty-six years ago, New Year’s Eve 1963, I was slogging through six or eight inches of wet snow toward an evening at my favorite watering hole, the Roman Room. A junior at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, I was trying life as a normal student having been kicked off the UT football team after making a 0.0 grade point average during the past spring quarter and miscellaneous other shenanigans. I’d planned to travel to my hometown of Tullahoma (TN) for a New Year’s Eve celebration with my old pals there, but the snowstorm scotched that plan, and the accumulation became so deep I couldn’t even get to a local party in west Knoxville.
So I walked through the snowfall from my campus apartment to the Roman Room, which was hopping with customers other than the regulars I’d come to expect. You see, before completion of the interstate system, U.S. Highway 70 was one of the main east-west routes and ran from Arizona to the Atlantic shores of North Carolina. And this roadway ran right through campus on Cumberland Avenue, on which the Roman Room was located. Since the snow and ice had rendered travel almost impossible, frustrated long-distance travelers were pulling to the curb and walking into the nearest dining and/or drinking establishment, among them the Roman Room.
As usual George Captain, the proprietor, was tending bar, and Ralph was on his perch at the end stool. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was on TV, and Woody Allen was the featured guest. Johnny invited Woody to ask his girlfriend, Louise Lasser, to join them. When Lasser arrived on stage, Johnny asked the couple how long they’d been dating, and Lasser replied, “A year going on four.” “Is it serious?” Johnny queried. “It’s not only serious, it’s grim,” said Allen.
As the evening went on, I downed five or six beers and made a bit of small talk with some of the stranded travelers. Then, as the clock struck midnight and the ball dropped at Times Square, I let out a little celebratory yelp, drained the dregs of my last beer, and walked home alone to my tiny apartment.
The Roman Room became a center of my social life while I was a UT student and once again after I moved back to Knoxville in the Seventies. Without fail George, the barkeep, would ask the perennial question whenever I entered the dimly-lit tavern: “Tall Bud, Mr. Bruce?” to which the answer each time was, “Yep, tall Bud, George.” After flag football and volleyball games or practices, the entire team would repair to the back booths of the Roman Room to celebrate (or drown our sorrow). On Fridays after our weekly handball matches on the UT courts, my brother Art, brother-in-law (at the time) Harry, and pal Bobby would drink a few rounds there, the losers of the match buying the first pitcher of beer. And in the days before cell phones, if I wanted to find one of my pals, I’d start my search with George Captain.
Ah, the Roman Room where the graffiti in the men’s rest room never changed:
“Don’t buy this gum. It tastes like rubber.” (Written next to the condom machine)
“Bruce Taylor, Fist Fucking Fool”
“Nubbin Woods, Top Stud” (which was typically modified to read “Nubbin Woods, Doped Stupid”)
The Roman Room, where George placed my UT Vol photo on the wall behind the bar along with photos of Johnny Majors, Doug Atkins, and other standout players from the Fifties and Sixties. The Roman Room, the sanctuary where I was always able to obtain a plentiful supply of my drug of choice, the safe haven where the beer always flowed no matter my state of intoxication, the home base where George never considered calling the cops no matter how rowdy I got. More out of concern for my well-being than anything else, however, George would very infrequently say “I think it’s time for you to go home now, Mr. Bruce.”
Unfortunately, when I went bankrupt in 1984, the Roman Room was left holding the bag for a $500 tab that I’d run up. Subsequently, George took my photo down from behind the bar, and he was not amused in the least by my friends’ jokes about putting a beer on Bruce Mulkey’s tab. A few years ago, in my efforts to atone for some of my more egregious youthful behavior, I contacted George about that outstanding debt, and pleased to hear from me, he suggested I make a donation to a charity in the amount I originally owed, which I did.
The Roman Room closed in 1998.