The 4th of July always reminds me of a long ago trip I made to Clearwater Beach to attend the wedding of a friend. I had an extra day there alone after everyone else flew home. The moment they departed I took off in search of a better hotel because I had walked in on the night manager of my current digs watching some rather unsavory programming in the middle of the lobby while "relaxing" on the couch.
I checked into a nice hotel on the beach, then drove down the road scoping out places to eat. I knew I would know the right place when I saw it. I stopped and checked menus and ambiance at a few places, but nothing tempted me until I saw a vintage Pink Cadillac parked next to the sign: "Warm Beer, Lousy Food, Wurst Place on the Beach."
I parked and wandered in around the back to the entrance. There was another sign that said "Welcome to my home. Opens when I wake up, closes when I am ready to go to bed." The place was amazing, things hanging from the ceiling, a chair covered in bird droppings labeled "Edgar Allan Poe's Chair", tables made from surf boards and boat parts, a couple of animals wandering around. Turns out everything there was found on the beach or in the water by John, the octogenarian owner. There were more signs on the wall that said "This ain't Burger King. You'll have it our way. If you don't like it, hit the bricks."
It was about 4:00 PM and it felt a bit deserted at that hour; about 6 patrons, 2 bartenders and one ballad singer playing guitar on a small stage. All of them eyed me suspiciously when I walked through the door. I headed around the bar toward what I thought might be a hostess stand. I heard the man on stage say "Well there she goes". I hit a dead end and turned around to come back and heard "Here she comes again. Whatcha looking for honey, the bathroom?" I was indignant but determined not to let these people ruffle my feathers. "Noooo." I said. "Are you looking for a beer?" "Yes!" I stated firmly. "Well then follow the yellow brick road!" I looked down and sure enough there was a yellow brick road painted on the floor. I followed it to the bar, which was made from the hull of a boat, pulled out a stool and plopped down." People were still eyeing me the entire time and not in the most welcoming way.
The bartender came over and said "Whadya want?" I looked around and noticed everyone drinking the same thing...cans of budweiser. Not even bud light. Unsure of what else they carried and unwilling to inquire, I said "Could I get a bud?" Mocking my tone she said "Could I get an ID?" so I tossed my ID on the bar, being sure to act as irritated and cold to her as she was being to me. She checked it and was surprised. I was probably about 10 years older than she'd first figured. In a condescending tone she said "Would you like a glass?" implying surely a princess like me wouldn't drink from a can. "Nooo." I replied without adding "who drinks beer from a glass?" For the record, I never do.
Then I busied myself reading a little flyer sitting between the ashtray and candles on the bar and trying not to notice that everyone was still staring at me. The man in the next stool, probably in his late 30s, had been seriously sucking face with a barely dressed woman sitting next to him. He finally stopped and turned to me postively giggling while he spoke, "Whatcha looking for, the menu?" I said "oh, not really." He said "They ain't got a menu...all they got's ham sandwiches....But they're really good ham sandwiches."
The ballad singer, Rusty McHugh, was playing a song about a skinny woman with a big appetite with a refrain "How I wish that we'd gone dutch, I aint ever seen a bitch that could eat so much". When he took a break he came over and sat caddy-corner from me at the bar. He said "I'll bet you don't eat much." I smiled and said "You'd be surprised." and away we went into conversation. Soon another woman was sitting with me. Much to the consternation of her significant other she refused to go home, "I can't leave Hanna here alone! She needs company." John eventually came out and told me all about his place. Despite all the signs he was a very gracious host, though clearly not one that would stand for any bullshit. The group grew larger and when Rusty finished his break a few of us moved to a surfboard table in front of the stage.
The night wore on and the place became crowded. Soon I was glaring at the tourists as they walked in, and rolling my eyes at them along with the regulars that had now decided I was okay and made me their friend. Anyone that stayed long enough was eventually inducted into our little group, regardless of their origins. Rusty and the gang even invited me to hang out with them later that night in his RV, parked behind Sloppy John's, to indulge in some herbal enjoyment, an invitation I had to sadly decline. It was an evening I will never forget.
John and Rusty are both gone now, but Mahuffers is still open for business despite 35 years of local law enforcement trying to shut it down. The menu has evolved a bit and they apparently no longer serve Budweiser, but if you ever find yourself anywhere near Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, be sure to check out Sloppy John's Mahuffer. John's family still runs the place and I promise these folks will make you feel like you've just come home from a long trip.
St Petersburg Times: Bar owner John Susor leaves a combative legacy
The late Rusty McHugh singing "I ain't ever seen a bitch that could eat so much"
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