Something's missing in America's most livable city


THE LUGGAGE WAS packed, and I was ready to call the furniture movers. The destination was to be Provo, Utah, hailed by a national magazine as the most livable city in the United States.

Clean air and water, said Money magazine. Fine schools; plenty of clean, high-tech jobs; affordable homes; little crime or other mischief; honest politicians; and decent folk for neighbors.

Just the right size, too. About 150,000, including its sister city, Orem. Which means elbow room and no more traffic jams.

And for those robust moods, nearby mountains, trout streams and forests with plenty of tasty beasties that a hunting man can bring home to the family dinner table.

What more can a person ask? So I was about to head West and leave it all behind: the crime, social strife, potholes and nerve-jangling noise of Chicago, which was rated as only a dreary 110th on the livability list. Chicago even lagged behind Oakland, Anchorage, Texarkana and Kenosha. What a humiliation.

But there was a tiny nagging in the back of my mind. Something was missing, but I wasn't sure what it was. I went back and looked at the Money magazine article again. And it came to me.

So I phoned the Provo-Orem Chamber of Commerce, a very proud office these days, and asked: "That magazine article left something out. How many taverns are there in your two wonderfully livable cities?"

"Taverns?" a pleasant young man said.

"Yes. You know, a tavern, a saloon, a place that's kind of dark and cool on even the hottest, sunniest day, where you belly up to a bar and ask for two fingers of genuine skull-popper."

"Oh, yes, taverns. Well, I believe we have one."

"Excuse me? Did you say one?"

"Yes. I think it is called LeMar's. About a block from City Hall. But it is in kind of a rundown part of town, and it is not a very nice establishment."

"Let me see if I understand you. There are 150,000 people in your two cities, but you have only one tavern? What would happen if everybody in town decided to have a snort at the same time? You can't stuff 150,000 people into one saloon. There would be bedlam, chaos, rioting and very poor service."

"Well, there's not much drinking here. Or anything like that. In fact, I haven't seen anyone smoking in a week."

He went on to describe the splendors of their Little League, tennis courts, golf courses and many movie theaters, none of which show dirty stuff.

And it all sounded fine. But only one tavern?

"Yes, just one," he said, "but drinks are served in restaurants. And there are state-operated stores that sell package liquor."

Ah, the height of sophistication: having a furtive nip out of a brown paper bag.

My wanderlust began to subside. One tavern? I know a pleasant Wisconsin town called New Munster that is only two blocks long, and it has about five taverns. You can almost fall out of one joint into another. There are those who might consider that highly livable, especially people with sore feet. But New Munster didn't even make the magazine's list.

Just to be sure that Provo-Orem's one lonely tavern was really there, I phoned it.

A lady who cooks there sounded a bit miffed that the Chamber of Commerce didn't think the bar was a very nice place.

"The only problem we have here is the police. They have nothing better to do than hide down at the corner and wait for someone to come out and get in their car so they can pull them over. They pulled my daughter over and gave her a breath test even though she never drinks. Why, we had a man leave here a little tipsy and he was going to take a cab, but they grabbed him before he could get in the cab and charged him with public intox.

"The owner has had to really fight to stay in business. He had dancers for a while. They weren't topless, but they had thong bathing suits, and they'd go around the table and collect tips. Provo City had a complete fit about it and they passed a law saying they had to stay on the stage and had to pay a $250 city fee. So we lost the dancers.

"We've had other events, too. Girls mud wrestling. They travel all over the country, but they had to wear more clothes in Utah. Had to cover up more.

"All of the police here are Mormons, you know. Most of the people are. But when we had the dancers and the mud wrestlers and hot oil wrestling, the cops would come in and watch. I asked them about it and they said: 'We put our pants on like everybody else.'

"And I've seen some of the real strict Mormons in here, too, the ones who wear the long underwear."

Long underwear?

"Yeah. It's part of their religion. You can tell they're wearing it. It hangs down longer than their pants."

After talking to her, I decided to unpack and cancel the movers. Mud wrestling, oil wrestling and guys with long underwear hanging to their shoes. It might be livable, but that's too much excitement for me.

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