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The Sensitivity Apparat

On the scourge of ‘human rights’ commissions

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Tony Tomelden never wanted to be a First Amendment crusader. A lifelong resident of Washington, D.C., he’s a working-class guy in a town that’s consumed by politics. He runs a bar called The Pug. And it’s not just any bar, it’s the best bar in the city. That may be my opinion, but Googling the place yields many reviews written by people who agree:

 • The Pug has this fantastic hole-in-the-wall-dive feeling that is rare to find in D.C. You’ll know instantly if this is the kind of bar for you. This isn’t the place for fancy drinks and dress, leave that at the door or keep on walking. Short for “pugilist,” The Pug is covered in old boxing memorabilia, making it feel like it’s got a history, some grit under the nails, and a few calluses from working hard every day. .  .  . 

• Best part is reading their entire philosophy written in chalk across the top of the bar wall: No idiots, no bombs, no shooters, no specials, no politics, relax, drink, be cool, behave. It pretty much sets the tone and provides the perfect environment for a quiet place to get a shot and a beer on a weeknight. .  .  . 

• Personality, character, soul—a bar can’t learn these things. Grit, diversity, and lovability? The Sweet Science? Even less so. And The Pug has these things deep. .  .  . 

• “Put away your credit card. We’re grown-ups here. You’ll pay when you’re ready.” That was how I was greeted when I first went into The Pug.

One could go on, though if you ask Tony about his establishment’s ambiance, he’s likely to stare at you past the brim of his trademark flatcap and make fun of you for using the word “ambiance.” Before buying the building in 2005 and opening The Pug in 2007—blame that gap on D.C.’s excessive red tape for small-business owners—he was the head bartender at Capitol Lounge for 12 years. Capitol Lounge has the distinction of being just about the closest place to the U.S. Capitol to wet your whistle. There Tony catered to an influential crowd, mostly by making a point of letting them know that the moment they entered his bar they were no longer influential. The “No Politics” sign also hung behind Tony at Capitol Lounge, and he was known for enforcing it whenever silly arguments were within earshot. 

The result is that among his clientele there’s an unusual and intense affection for Tony, which seems nearly perverse when you find yourself on the receiving end of his gruff demeanor and cutting sense of humor. Go to The Pug and you’ll encounter a lot of things—complimentary cheese balls, Natty Boh in a can, The Pogues and John Lee Hooker piping out of speakers, and a couple of different games on the scattered TVs. What you won’t find is any trace of pretension. In fact, if you go to the bar’s website and click on the link that says “specialty cocktails,” it sends you to the website for Cosmopolitan magazine. 

Authentic places are harder and harder to find in D.C., a trend that has its upsides and downsides. The Pug is located on H Street in the Northeast section of the city, a historically black neighborhood that the city is trying to revitalize. While many businesses in the area are decidedly trendy—until recently, the joint a few doors down served up a hipster one-two punch of indie rock and burlesque shows—H Street is located on the outer edge of Capitol Hill just below Trinidad, one of D.C.’s crime-ridden neighborhoods. Things are still in transition. On a busy Friday night in June, a man was stabbed on the same block as The Pug. 

For years, Tony has been doing a fine job of running a bar beloved by all walks of life in a neighborhood where an array of racial, economic, and political fault lines meet. Ironically, Tony finally brought trouble on himself by violating his own rules. Politics and specialty drinks are problematic enough on their own. When Tony combined the two, the full weight of the D.C. government came down on him and made The Pug the latest battleground in a flat-out assault on freedom of speech that’s likely also happening in a neighborhood near you. 

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