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Neighborhood Bars Are Proof of AA's Power to Reform : Lifestyle: Like the people now walking through their doors, two Orange County watering holes have given up liquor.

December 26, 1993|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In its comfortable spot next to Sharky's Tattoos on Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach, the place looks just like any other beach-town bar. The weathered sign reads "Thursday's, Where Happy Hour Never Ends."

Like the other watering holes that line the shore, from King Neptune's Landing to Turc's lounge, Thursday's still draws a loyal crowd. But the beer stopped flowing 11 years ago, and the stiffest drink served is a cup of black coffee.

"Hi, I'm John, and I'm an alcoholic. . . ."

The conversion of bar to meeting hall for Alcoholics Anonymous occurred in the spring of 1982, after Thursday's owner and bartender died. Left to the owner's daughter, the dusty one-room building remained vacant for several years but was reopened by a Sunset Beach couple who wanted more AA meetings nearby.

"We were looking for places, and we thought of Thursday's because it was just sitting there," said Debbie, who along with then-boyfriend Eric put together the first AA meeting there.

Sunset Beach isn't the only part of Orange County that has an AA meeting hall with a liquored past. The Rice Paddy in Garden Grove underwent an attitude adjustment in 1982 similar to Thursday's--with a twist. It started sobriety groups on one side of the neighborhood lounge during business hours while the barmaid served drinks on the other.

"We have quite a few people here who used to come in when it was a bar," said Shirley, who works at the Garden Grove Alano Club--the Rice Paddy's new name.

As at the TV bar Cheers, everyone knows your name inside both of these erstwhile beer joints, and their transformations have made a difference for a lot of recovering alcoholics.

There are about 800 locations in Orange County for members of Alcoholics Anonymous to gather, most of them in such places as churches, hospitals and community clubhouses. Although the actual number is uncertain, some of the AA old-timers say there are quite a few reformed bars that now hold AA meetings throughout the United States.

"I know there are a whole bunch of them, because when the wife and I go on trips, we've been to some that had to be bars in the past," said Gary, who has been sober for 22 years. "It's just hard to remember exactly where they were. . . . All these places start to look the same after a while."

Bob used to get "liquored up" at Thursday's, and he recalls it as "just another beer bar on the beach" with more than its share of biker brawls.

"There was a pool table, a long bar, not so many windows, and it was dark," he said. "But sometimes, listening to people in there now, it can be even darker."

Like many seated in the rows of unmatched chairs, the 47-year-old father of two relates stories about drinking like stale jokes. For after 11 years of AA meetings, the tales of booze and woe tend to lose their shock value.

"It's been a long time, but when I slithered into that place, I wasn't alone," Bob said one night outside Thursday's. "A bunch of these people are like me, they're lonely . . . feel like a raisin in a bowl full of rice. Now I know there are people like me--other raisins in the bowl."

There are 37 group meetings held weekly at Thursday's, and about 1,000 people enter through the back door--a few of whom, like Bob, used to toss down brews at the place in the old days.

The Garden Grove Alano Club offers 42 meetings a week, consisting of women's groups, all-male meetings, 12-step study sessions and discussions. Some of the gatherings in the large building have as many as 150 people, with the average draw being about 45 to 50.

Like most of the people who come into both places, Thursday's and the Garden Grove Alano Club found the road to sobriety wasn't an easy one.

"There were holes everywhere," Eric remembered about Thursday's. "The dirt was 3 inches deep, and there was no electricity. . . . It took some work."

Debbie, who married--and later divorced--Eric, said she clearly remembers the day they opened the back door of Thursday's.

"When I saw the inside of the place, I was shocked," she said. "They had used it for storage, and there was junk everywhere."

Most of the contents were either donated or came from the couple, Debbie said. The late owner's daughter agreed to let Debbie and Eric hold meetings there for the small cost of utilities, she added.

"We used to have 'bring-your-own-beach-chair' meetings, and we didn't even have a coffee pot . . . as sort of a 'for fun and for free' kind of thing," Debbie said.

Debbie said she and Eric lost control of Thursday's about 10 years ago because of some in-house politics. She now provides day care in her Huntington Beach home and still attends local AA meetings.

"I learned a lot of life's lessons," she said, adding that her belief in a higher power has been reinforced by a number of wonderful things--including the birth of a son--that have happened since she and Eric volunteered to transform the old bar.

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