I have found the Fountain of Youth, and it’s a smoke-filled dive bar on the North Trail called Memories Lounge.
Inside, Christmas lights hang year-round. The place is fogged with tobacco. Barflies and college students get tipsy under conditioned air and blue smoke that mixes into something mean. Your eyes start stinging like soap crept into them from washing your face, but after a few drinks, you get tough to it. Until recently, the ceiling tiles were urine-colored from all the rising nicotine. There are no specialty cocktails, no copper mugs or craft beers.
It’s just past 11 p.m., and Philip Llewellyn Hall, known to everyone as “Mr. Phil,” sits in his usual chair, strategically located between the bar, pool table, jukebox and bathroom. Mr. Phil is 91 years old with white hair swept around the sides of his head.
We all want to live forever, and today billion-dollar industries promise to keep you around with antioxidants, fish oils, mindfulness seminars, de-ionized water, specialty exercises, drugs and drugs and drugs. Mr. Phil relies on none of that. Instead, he is at Memories Lounge from 10 p.m. until closing every night. “It was my New Year’s resolution to never miss a day,” he says.
Customers greet Mr. Phil as they enter Memories. Girls a quarter of his age kiss the top of his head. People challenge him to a round of pool. He’s as sharp as a tack, doesn’t wear glasses and hears you the first time you say something to him. He recites dirty limericks upon request.
There was once a man named McSweeney
Who spilled some gin on his weenie
And to be not uncouth
He added vermouth
And slipped his wife a martini.
To me, Mr. Phil appears ageless. In the near decade since I first saw him, he hasn’t changed a bit. He doesn’t have his first drink until quarter to 12. It’s VO, a Canadian whiskey, and water, and he drinks it from a straw. He has two more after the first.
“All my life I drank gin martinis, but I’m diabetic and my doctor told me whiskey was better,” he says.
Mr. Phil was born in Boston in 1925. At 17, he left to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and he’s been in Sarasota ever since. He started out as an usher, then went on to sell tickets until he finally worked in production.
The cigar he’s been chewing on for an hour is gnarled and wet and so he stubs it out and unwraps another.
“I smoke six Phillies Titan cigars a day,” he tells me. He says he picked up the habit from the general manager of the circus when he was 23 years old. “Before that I smoked cigarettes,” he says.
But then one day the manager offered him one of his cigars. “It made me sick to my stomach. I decided then that I’d learn to smoke them,” he says.
Mr. Phil first came to Memories about 15 years ago, after the Old Hickory, another bar on the North Trail, closed down.
But why here?
“It had pool tables. You could smoke. The bartenders are very nice. But it’s the people, so many young and old friends,” he says.
Mr. Phil lives in a bungalow on Old Bradenton Road that he bought in 1959 when he owned a company that sold Christmas-tree decorations to all the Publix supermarkets in the state. “I’m an atheist, but I love Christmas,” he says, smiling.
Mr. Phil is a lover of art and music. He always sings an a cappella rendition of Hava Nagila at Friday’s karaoke night.
He helped start the Asolo Opera, which later became Sarasota Opera, in 1969 and was the executive director of the Opera from 1974 to 1983. He also worked for the ballet.
He retired in 1992, the year after his wife of 42 years, Esther, died. He had one daughter, Stephanie, a former ballerina, who also passed about five years ago. He lives alone. No one has suggested Mr. Phil move to a home for senior citizens. If they did, they’d be met with a blunt, “Not interested. Memories is my home.”
But Mr. Phil is rarely alone. Some of us young customers often take him home after the bar closes. Sometimes we drink more at his place. I see photos there of Mr. Phil from more than 30 years ago. He was an old man even then. A group of Mr. Phil’s young friends takes him to Red Lobster for his birthday each year. He gets the “Seaside Sampler” each time and asks to take home extra complimentary cheddar biscuits.
Time is a snake that constricts our circle of family and friends, a centripetal force pressing us ever closer to solitude. But Mr. Phil has found a way to fight back. “Memories is the secret to a longer life,” he says. “Smoke, booze and young friends.”