Wednesday, May 29, 2024 May 29, 2024
72° F Dallas, TX

Spill Your Troubles at the Windmill Lounge

A Girl Walks Into a Bar: Louise and Charlie divorced, but just as they would with a child, they share the bar.
photography by Joshua Martin

photography Joshua Martin
Mendacity is surely for the wicked, but it’s also best suited to the meticulous. Otherwise, inevitably, you get caught. All the lies catch up, and you’re painted into a corner, like when your fiancée shows up unexpectedly at the house you bought, where your second (unexpected) fiancée is unpacking her boxes and busily moving in. At which point you’re rechristened Voldemort. And the women will go out with their friends (me, in this case) for drinks and to tell the story of Worst Breakup Ever.

The bar that hosts such a story has certain requirements. The jukebox needs to have soul. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. Yes. Stevie Ray, Lyle Lovett, yes. The regulars—and there need to be regulars—should look more Chris Cooper than Brad Pitt. You want a booth that creaks a little and staff who’ll clear away your Kleenex and ask matter of factly if you want another drink. And you want a bartender who makes a good drink.

Louise Owens owns the Windmill Lounge—owns it jointly with her ex-husband, the excellent teller of bad jokes named Charlie Papaceno. Her blond hair is short and spiky, and her voice rasps. He’s gray and curly. She used to write about spirits for the Dallas Morning News before she got cancer, got cured, and her palate diminished. For years, she and Charlie have loved cocktails and bought up old cocktail books. Now they offer drinks like the Aviation (with crème de violette) or the Fabulous (a re-creation from a description a customer gave of a high-end hotel drink). The bar has a variety of bitters to play with.

The 49-person-occupancy bar was opened seat of the pants. No market research. No grand plans. One divorce later, they still share the bar. She opens most Wednesdays, works Thursdays and Fridays. He works the other days. They work together when needed. And they both are the kind of folks that will make you a drink to suit your mood and listen to your story. They’ll even encourage you to get up in front of everyone and tell your story. A storytelling group called Storyteller Ranch plies its art at the Windmill. Very This American Life-like, each event has a theme and people telling stories on that theme, as long as said stories are true.

The Windmill does the other kinds of things you expect it to: hosts a Tiki Night with a tiki god named Bernie, opens the joint to karaoke managed by an older DJ who’s unafraid to sing, has bar specials like $2 wells on Sundays. A straight mixed couple behind me made out the entire time we were there, and men I am assuming were gay took turns on the mike. The patrons were colorful, in that the group was made up of people of different colors. And ages, shapes, sizes—an impressive ecosystem by any standard. Sometimes there’s a card game going on, sometimes a regular brings in equipment and DJs because she just wants to. There are Christmas lights and dark green and white tile, a kitchen for grub, and a Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga machine. And the women I talked to (it’s easy to get drawn into conversation) all noted how comfortable they felt walking in alone to the bar. No muss, no fuss. There’s an art to creating a space like that.

Artists often speak about the importance of risk and of failure. At its most facile, that’s a way of saying, Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Which is an important part of living: venturing and then gaining, or not. In another sense, it’s also about merciless failure and the ensuing movement. When life fails to turn out as expected, a sense of self shatters. And there’s a moment when you look at the shards on the floor and can choose not to pick up the pieces but to build all over again, from the bottom up, picking different colors and textures than you started with. It’s fiercely internal and fiercely free, this choosing and building the self you want now, untethered to the expectation of who you imagined you’d be. And it’s also bloody hard work, best begun in a dark booth with an old friend over a cocktail that a divorced bartender (or her ex-husband) made for you.

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