I drive around N.C. 55 west of Cary for more than an hour looking for the Little Bar. "It looks like a house," a friend of mine told me, and I wind up badly lost in a maze of shimmering housing developments, driving slow and looking for beer signs. I finally get accurate directions from a dazed teenager working the late shift at a Citgo. "That's a biker bar," he tells me. "They'll hurt you, dude."
At first glance, the bar's size seems mildly spooky. It is indeed little, a wood-paneled house 20 by 30 feet or so. Walking up to the door on a sluggish night, you get the feeling that maybe you should have called first to let them know you were coming. Inside, the bar feels like the somewhat dingy living room of a good friend who, for your benefit, purchased a pair of pool tables and a jukebox and asks only that you fork over two bucks per Budweiser in return.
I make it to the Little Bar just after 11 with dim, irrational fears that at some point in the night, I'll have my teeth poked out with a pool cue or at least be ignored into the woodwork. Two guys wearing Harley-Davidson T-shirts lean on the bar drinking beer and eating peanut butter crackers. "Hey, I'm Lisa," the bartender says, reaching across the bar and pumping my hand. "Give me an ID and I'll get you a beer."
On the other side of the room, a young couple is casually necking and shooting a leisurely game of pool. They finish up and walk over to the bar. "'Bye, y'all," says the young man. "We're going to Pure Gold [a Raleigh strip club]."
"We are not," his girlfriend says, giving him a shove. "Look, I'm comfortable with my sexuality, but that doesn't mean I've got to sit around with a bunch of guys and look at some girl with no top on."
The couple leaves, and two guys in their 20s come in, both shivering from the chill outside. They've got short, clean haircuts and eerily tidy mustaches. One of them also sports a prominent tattoo on his neck and a T-shirt bearing a bright confederate flag with the words "Hell Yes, I'm a Redneck." The man beside me stands and, shaking the newcomer's hand, peers at the tattoo creeping up from his collar. "We just had someone in here with those on both sides. I don't know if he even knew what they meant, though."
The man touches his neck. "If I get one, it's got to be something that's part of me," he says. "Something that's dear to my life." I get a look at the image, a motorcycle engine on fire, spires of inky flame stretching up toward his earlobe.
One warm Sunday afternoon, I stop by the Little Bar with the hope of photographing Harleys, which, I'm told, fill the parking lot on pleasant weekend days. "You just missed them," Lisa tells me. I get a beer anyway. On the bar's TV, Pamela Anderson and a crack team of supermodels are bullying a gang of svelte German thugs. Pamela has just hopped on a motorcycle. Scenery whizzes past her, but her hair stays oddly motionless. "Ridiculous," Lisa says. "Any woman who's ever been on a bike will tell you what it does to long hair." I ask her when she got involved with the biker scene. "Well, there's a picture of me when I was three years old trying to kick start a bike, so at least since then." She clears the empty bottles from the bar, and we talk about what it's like to ride a motorcycle and how it happens that some people come to feel so strongly for these machines.
"The love of the bike gets in your head, I guess, and in your heart," she says. "It brings you close to other bikers. When a brother or sister gets hurt riding, people come together. If you break down, people pull over and help you out. You never see that with four wheels. We're all out there eating bugs, sharing the same risks, the same love."
I try to grill Lisa about the bar's history, but she's been at the Little Bar less than a year and doesn't have much to say. "Bear's been coming here forever," she says, nodding down the bar at a stern-faced man with a corrugated brow and a graying ZZ Top beard. "You should talk to him." Bear turns at the mention of his name, but doesn't look at me or introduce himself.
The bar is almost empty and everybody seems more or less friendly. I ask if can take a few photographs. Lisa says to go ahead, so I lug the tripod in. She tries to cooperate and encourages Bear to pose. "Ain't gonna be any pictures." Bear says. I wander around the bar snapping innocuous photographs: pool tables, beer signs. "Jesus Christ," Bear says. Pamela has just squeezed herself into a lavender unitard and is stretching it to the point of violent rupture. "This crap's only on because of her, her tits, her bod. Sexist bullshit. I can't believe they let this through."
On a slow Saturday night, a young red-haired woman is shooting pool with three guys. They take turns feeding the jukebox, and the woman dances with a kind of theatricality you might not see in a bar with a healthier gender ratio. "God almighty," murmurs the man on the next bar stool. "Will you look at that."
She swings her hips in low swaths and holds her arms outstretched, crooking her finger, come-hithering to no one in particular. It's a little unclear whether any of the three guys is actually her boyfriend, but one of them, a tall blond man with clean workboots, seems to be holding her the longest and is beginning to get visibly grumpy.
Somebody keeps putting on Jackie Blue by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. My guess is it's the guy with sticky-looking hair playing air guitar and throwing a lot of pelvic motion in the redhead's direction. On the back of his strumming hand, he's got a home-rendered spider-web tattoo, which, I read somewhere, is supposed to signify some dark detail in the wearer's past. He escorts the woman to the bar, working as they walk to narrow the distance between their faces. I think about what will happen with the blond guy if they kiss. She dodges him subtly, but when they return to the pool table, the boyfriend quickly hustles her out the door. The long-haired man looks stricken, and I ask him if he wants to shoot a game of pool. "Rack 'em up," he says. He tells me he's been drinking since 7 that morning, and watching him lean on his pool cue, I believe him. He's sweating steadily, and his body twitches with the constant muscular adjustments required to keep him upright. Nevertheless, he drops seven solids before I've made a single shot. After he sinks the eight ball, he perches on the side of the table and regards me with a puzzled scowl. "Son," he says. "I believe you're trying to hustle me."
Into the second game, it becomes hard to keep him focused. Between shots, he stares through the window at the dark parking lot. "Did you see that redhead in here? Bro, she's in my brain, and I can't get her out." Grabbing his head with both hands, he hunches over and lets out a long gravelly moan. "A woman like that gets you into trouble, but I've been in trouble all my life, and please forgive me, but I gotta do my natural thing." He turns to address the bar. "Y'all," he says. "If she'd marry me, I'd give up drinking, know what I mean? Goddamn, I would."
"You're so full of shit your eyes are brown," one of his buddies says. The lovelorn man wails again and mutters something about having to be up on the side of a building at dawn. A turkey buzzard-sized hangover is circling above this man. We can all hear the beating of its wings.
Though the Little Bar staff and clientele (at least those I've met) are not rough or scary people, you get the impression that the family of regulars has seen more of life's rough side than, perhaps, the Friday night crew at Applebee's. Sitting at the bar, I've heard grisly stories of road accidents, of friends dying young, of bad betrayals. But in the same breath the people there talk earnestly about the tight fellowship between the bar's patrons and of the total absence of bar fights, the sine qua non of any media portrayal of biker culture. The bar also sponsors frequent charity events (separate fundraisers for breast cancer and leukemia this month), another blow to conventional wisdom about the biker scene.
Steve "Easy" Hamel, the Little Bar's owner, speaks plainly about how hardship in his own life has compelled him to open a bar that offers people more than beer alone. "[Years ago] I lost the bar I used to run and my house in the same fire. I went from having a house and a business to becoming homeless overnight. But people helped out. The Red Cross gave us $200 to get some clothes for the kids. We started doing benefits because it felt like it was time to start giving back."
Easy and his staff, he says, have worked hard to make the bar a place where anyone—biker or not—would feel comfortable stopping by for a drink. "We try to welcome people who are new to the area, to let them be part of this community. If it doesn't work out, if someone just wants to cause trouble, we don't beat them up and stuff them in a dumpster. We just let them know it's time to go."
It's nearly 2, and on my way out I overhear a wayward husband calling home. "Baby, please pick up the phone. Honey, if you're there—I hope you're there—please pick up. Honey, just—Oh, hey darlin'. Uh huh. No kidding. Did you pick up some of that seafood salad? Uh huh. Was it good? Baby, I gotta ask you a favor, I need a ride. You know where I am. Yeah, I'm okay, I've just been here too long."