My first glimpse of He's Not Here was on a faded bumper sticker posted to an office door along a dim hallway I walked past every day to my freshman Spanish class at UNC. The sticker—a simple logo of a telephone, accompanied by the slightly disjunctive phrases "He's Not Here / On the Village Green"—was striking, mostly because I had no idea what it meant. Was He on the Village Green, or wasn't He?
I catalogued the mystery along with other Chapel Hill phrases and traditions, the origins of which I didn't fully understand. But as a guest from a foreign land (Boston), I didn't feel right questioning them: Rainbow sandals, Silent Sam, sweet tea, Krispy Kreme.
After realizing He's Not Here was neither a band nor a spiritual movement but a bar, the myth didn't disappear. I couldn't find it: The address-less place was like a treehouse in someone's backyard, or more appropriately, a speakeasy. It turns out, He's Not Here was somewhere between innocence and vice, its alleyway entrance sandwiched between a frozen yogurt store and a cigarette shop.
Accounts differ on the meaning of the name, though all of the versions I heard spun a tale of people calling and asking whether someone—Michael Jordan, James Taylor—was at the bar. The answer, the story went, was always "He's Not Here." According to a Chapel Hill News interview with co-owner David Kitzmiller, neither story was true. Instead, it was a line from a bartender in an old movie.
When my 21st birthday arrived, I vowed to never return to frat parties or dance clubs, instead spending my Friday nights with the more refined crowd of bar patrons in Chapel Hill. Among the Chapel Hill bars, He's Not Here was an anomaly: half-bar, half-beer garden, a two-story building with low ceilings opening to an outdoor patio with a smattering of trees and benches, all enclosed by a tall wooden fence. Its spartan surroundings were mere backdrop to the crowds of people who wandered in and out of the bar, slouched along a ramshackle metal staircase and drank beer out of blue plastic cups the size of large yogurt containers.
When empty, the bar looked nondescript; when full, as it often was, it was buzzing.
My strongest memory of He's Not Here is of a recurring scene that became near ritual, like the closing credits to a movie: a good friend pouring the last half of his plastic cup into mine, or vice versa, and the other one feigning protest. The act (maybe it occurred 20 times or just a handful) could have happened only at He's Not Here, both because of the unnecessarily large, and cheap, amounts of beer they served, and because it was the only place where such communal consumption seemed appropriate.
He's Not Here was the anti-Top of the Hill: the classiest bar in Chapel Hill and the place to be seen at last call. The last-call ritual there was lonelier than that at Top of the Hill: lights flickering, glasses shattering on carpeted and tiled floors and eyes searching for faces in the staggering crowd who had overrun the ballroom like raiders in a palace. Unlike Top of the Hill, He's Not Here didn't feel exclusive (despite its obscure entrance and fence). Instead, it felt like the world's smallest block party—with a few harmless barricades set up only to comply with city ordinance. When the Tar Heels won, everyone in the crowd was your neighbor—an electrifying feeling that, for me, was equally depressing, because I knew the camaraderie was also fleeting.
But at least the emotion fit the setting: a bunch of people, thrown together in a fenced-in plot (which could easily have been someone's backyard) and, seeing no better option, deciding to all get along.
Matt Saldaña is a former staff writer for the Indy, where his caffeine consumption was legendary. In fact, at the Indy coffee is now known as "Saldaña," as in "Saldaña is brewing in the kitchen" or "We're out of Saldaña." Saldaña is studying law at Boston University.