When the tall blonde walked into The Avenue carrying a bouquet of roses and a big black bag, The Temptations were on the jukebox.
She handed a pale pink rose to the bartender, a tall brunette with dreadlocks who made a sweeping romantic gesture and bowed. The rest she put in a pint glass filled with water and smiled fleetingly at the man across the bar trying to catch her eye.
It was not the kind of smile meant to encourage a second try.
He slid off his barstool and the song switched to "No One Like You" by the Scorpions.
"You're being a polka-dotted (expletive)," someone bellowed at the other end of the bar.
This is The Avenue, a microcosm of Oakland's Temescal District.
A constant stream of people parade across the threadbare garnet-colored carpet in search of stiff drinks and companionship. The early crew — noon until about 8 p.m. — dress in bluejeans and baseball caps. T-shirts come in two styles — Raiders or Harley Davidson — and fit snugly over swollen stomachs. They wear tennis shoes or work boots.
The swing shift — 8 p.m. until closing — favors a similar wardrobe, except many patrons are thin enough to squeeze into skinny jeans and favor thick-rimmed retro glasses. Girls also arrive in tight jeans or breezy dresses that end above the knee.
People also have been known to show up in protective armor, reindeer antlers and pajamas. One night, a tall man in Levis, cowboy boots and a Stetson strode inside at the same time Chuck Berry launched into the first refrain of "You Never Can Tell."
He scanned the rectangular room — the bar rimmed in red vinyl, the pool table, the fireplace lounge in the back — and retreated.
Most people stay much longer.
Some of them have been regulars since the bar at 4822 Telegraph Ave. was called Connolley's. Perhaps a few remember the bar as the Bird Kage.
"It's always comfortable. It's more of a personal place," Curtis Lee Howard said in a voice made hoarse by 18 years of bartending.
He and Davey Herrick opened The Avenue in June 2007.
That's about when I stumbled in for the first time, although the name didn't ring a bell when I looked up the address a few weeks ago.
"Ohhh, "... I know this place," I told my boyfriend as we pulled up to the curb. "I'll tell you about it later."
In fact, the first time I set foot inside I was nursing a broken heart. A friend of mine had just ended her marriage, and she said The Avenue was the place to find "hot single men." It was about 6 p.m. and we ordered White Russians. We left alone, weaving our way through smokers on Telegraph Avenue.
Howard opened Shooter's Tavern in San Leandro in November. "I'm a bar person. Not a club person. Not a theme-bar person," he said.
He dropped out of art school after he began bartending. "That handful of cash. "... It's an addicting job," he said.
He eventually talked his way into a job at King's X, where he worked for about 14 years before the sports bar became a tiki bar.
At 39, Howard still looks like a teenager in a torn "High on Fun" T-shirt, Dickies work pants and Vans skate shoes. He wears a black short-brimmed hat studded with metal over his shaggy blonde hair.
The first album he bought with his own money, Black Sabbath's "Black Sabbath," hangs on the wall amid snowboards, electric guitars, sports jerseys, his father's boxing gloves and his mother's paintings.
"I tried to put my personality on the walls," Howard said.
His first drink — and first hangover — came from the liquor cabinets of his and a friend's parents. They combined everything they could get their hands on in a pickle jar. He was 13. "I didn't drink again until I was 17," he said.
He has been bartending long enough to have witnessed the names change on drinks and see new ones materialize.
"Brian," he yells to the bartender.
"Hey. What's that called when you drop a Jäger in a Red Bull?"
"Jägerbomb," the bartender yells back.
"You get behind a bar," Howard said, turning back to face me, "and you'd be surprised what people consider tasty."
Just then a small woman in a very small white dress made her way to the bathroom.
"I can shoot 1,000 rounds in a day," someone boasted.
Rarely has Howard ever kicked anyone out. But a few times he had to cut people off when they've had one too many. "That's always fun to have that guy yelling at you," he said.
"Bartenders are the king of the party," he added. "You have to have fun. But you have to be responsible."