Amid continuous change and the resultant future shock, many people need a sanctuary to remind them of the constancy of life. For some it's an ancient oak tree or a historic site. But for quite a few Madisonians, it's the 602 Club, a hideaway that time forgot, located at the corner of Frances Street and University Avenue.
The unchanging nature of the 602 struck me as I pored over a thick album of 20-year-old photos of the tavern, its patrons and employees. Staring at the large mirror behind the bar, and then at the photo of a slim, hirsute young bartender with my face, showed me just what two decades can do to a person. But the photos also revealed that the passage of time has done almost nothing to the 602 Club. The bar's bilious paint job and antique flowered metal ceiling stained yellow from years of smoking are the same as in the mid 1960s. And as numerous 602 veterans can attest, time has also failed to change the tavern's unique ambience over the last 20 years.
The most prominent aspect of the 602's ambience is the near-total absence of electronic noise. There's no jukebox, no talking or exploding electronic games, and the TV is usually silent. The 602 is a bar for people who like to talk and listen to other people talk.
And talk do they do. On a warm night, the chatter issuing out the 602's front door can be heard over traffic on University Avenue. The conversational cornucopia at the 602 holds an almost infinite variety of raps; one can hear crackpot schemes and theories aplenty, lies in equal abundance, artistic arguments, political arguments, antiestablishment screeds, drunken barings of the soul and all varieties of learned bullshit. But you'll rarely hear singles-bar platitudes or much of Wisconsin's traditional Brewerbabble and Packerspeak.
The varied verbosity is a function of the tavern's highly diverse clientele. A 1959 Harper's pictured the 602 as a hangout for grad students. A 1978 New Yorker short story written by a former patron characterized 602 drinkers as "losers" and "people who say they're big artists, and they never do anything." In a mid-'70s epic poem honoring the retirement of longtime bartender Mitch Rohr, Madison "poet laureate" John Tuschen identified 16 different types of 602 habitues, including "movie makers, judges, priests, saints, thieves, card players and bill forgetters." All of these can still be found in the 602, along with boisterous art professors, ambitious psychopaths, straitlaced academics, lefties, minorities and foreigners.
At the 602, tolerance is the dominant attitude. Over 20 years ago the bar was that very unique establishment: a genuine gay bar, at least in the front half of the building. The rest of the place was occupied by "straights," but friction between the two crowds never appeared. At the same time, when 99% of Madison bartenders were white males, the 602 had a black woman behind the bar. In fact, the place is so tolerant it's blasé. I once saw a man dressed as Big Bird kicked out of the 602 for causing a ruckus six months before Halloween. Hostile drunks and obnoxious football weekenders receive little more than an occasional raised eyebrow from the bartenders and customers.
Reigning over this often chaotic scene is Dudley Howe, who bought "The House of Sparkling Glasses" at 602 University Ave. in 1951. After changing the name and getting rid of the jukebox, Dudley decided he liked what he had and left the rest of it alone. Thus, 602 customers can still use an ancient buzzer system to summon a bartender to individual tables and booths. I've never seen a buzzer system for table service in operation in any other Wisconsin bar.
Today, Dudley still spends the daytime and early evening hours at his tavern, and most of the time he's playing euchre or cribbage at the center table, just like he did 20 years ago. And while he's mellowed some over the years, he still takes inordinate pride in his extensive collection of unutterably corny puns.
So, if you'd like to escape the rigors of a busy world for an afternoon or two, stop by the 602 and introduce yourself to Dudley Howe. Lose a few card games to him and chuckle over those outrageous puns you haven't heard since junior high. We've all got to get on with our lives, but it's nice to have a place to go where time is in no particular hurry to march on.