He’s Not Here.
Three words – one blunt, cryptic statement.
Since its earliest and most sacred documented usage (outside the empty tomb of the resurrected Christ, no less!) the phrase “He’s not here” has been uttered mostly in casual and obscure contexts. But to the cultivated students and residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “He’s not here” carries more merit and spirit(s) than anywhere else in the world.
In fact, it is the rather enigmatic name of a legendary homegrown bar in the heart of Tarheel town – quite possibly the best old-style dive east of Texas. Recently, the New York Times even gave the establishment’s history a nod. Indeed, He’s Not’s venerability is hard to question, with a 40-year-old legacy of good times, good tunes, and gargantuan blue goblets of – what else? – beer.
“We have an icon for everything that makes UNC great,” business major Ben Leone drawls. “MJ, basketball…Mia Hamm, soccer…James K. Polk and Walker Percy show smarts… Well, He’s Not sums up how we party.”
Visit the enchanting college town for a weekend, and you are 99% guaranteed to see at least one of three things: a famous Carolina blue sky; a beaten and belligerent Dookie or two stumbling back to Durham around 3 a.m.; or a faded avocado-colored bumper sticker displaying a primitive telephone logo, adjacent to the mysterious words He’s Not Here / On the Village Green.
An unacquainted visitor or callow out-of-state freshman might scratch her head in puzzlement at repeated sightings or casual mentions of the mysterious He’s Not, desperate to know its origins and who on earth He is, yet too craven to ask around.
By eventually unearthing the identity of He’s Not Here (HNH) as the name of a beloved bar somewhere in the area, the Chapel Hill newbie is still not yet fully out of the dark; she has merely unshackled the gate to a larger mission: finding it.
A casual midday walk down Franklin Street provides easy visual access of impossible-to-miss joints like the famously looming Top of the Hill bar, the notoriously risqué Players nightclub, and the ironically rowdy Library. Yet detection of the elusive HNH bar is nearly impossible from the eyes of an unenlightened passerby… unless she happens to be strolling by I Love NY Pizza near midnight on a Friday and witnesses an unusual procession of tipsy locals down a nondescript alleyway between the Yogurt Pump and the FedEx building.
If the intrigued pedestrian cares to squint past the squirming crowd of figures down the grungy passageway, she will see an ivory, weed-adorned brick wall that borders it until eventually seceding from it. Here at the wall’s furthest limit is a familiar three-word phrase painted in shoddy evergreen lettering above the colossal stencil of a human hand – pointing omnisciently towards the bar’s incognito entrance.
As is typical on weekends, a boisterous muddle of noise resonates from within the He’s Not grounds. Amidst the discord, three sounds are recognizable: first, a shrill, garbled chatter indicative of a pack of morphine-addled hyenas (or in this case, cackling sorority girls); next, a virile pounding of boulder-sized fists against a splintery wooden table occupied by a huddle of beer-thirsty UNC linebackers; and lastly, the distinct gentle twang of a banjo complimenting the rich, raspy croons of a local folk singer.
The bar’s spacious open-air courtyard is teeming with an eclectic array of guests, 90 percent of whom are sipping from periwinkle plastic cups the size of fat cartons of ice cream. About every two minutes, another distracted undergrad trips over the bulging roots of the majestic courtyard’s central magnolia tree, with which every HNH regular maintains a love-hate relationship. There’s a constant ebb and flow of people wandering in and out of He’s Not’s two-story indoor tavern. By 1:30 a.m., the place is shoulder-to-shoulder; even its precarious steel staircases are buckling.
So what’s the timeless bait that has lured in the patrons for decades?
Summarized in three words (with unabashed alliterative cuteness): cups, company, and karaoke.
When asked what makes He’s Not Here so illustrious, UNC junior and HNH regular Maggie Zebrine doesn’t hesitate.
“These bad boys!” she howls, slouched at the bar, a mammoth tub of brew in each hand. “Four bucks for one of these… ‘nuff said.”
“Blue cups,” as they are modestly labelled, are an icon of their own, stowing a whopping 33 oz. of domestic beer in a single plastic cup – roughly three beers in one – for $4 or $5, depending on the night. Where else can you spend less than ten bucks and still stagger home with a modicum of dignity?
But what ultimately sets apart these behemoth beer basins lies beyond the rickety fenced-in confines of He’s Not.
Zebrine says it best: “Blue cups are a way of life.”
Hesitant to purchase your second of the night? Justify drinking more by considering it another neat souvenir to take home. For the Chapel Hill visitor, that familiar faded cup in the kitchen cabinet revives beautiful memories (or lack thereof) for years to come. For the He’s Not regular and struggling college student over twenty-one, it’s an essential household item: nail polish bin, flower holder, dog bowl, etc. Not only is it versatile and durable, but it solves one of life’s longest standing dilemmas… no need to restock your cereal ever again; finally there’s a bowl big enough! And indeed, He’s Not is the economically sound choice for those loan-hindered students unwilling to spend a day’s pay on a petite vodka cranberry from Top of the Hill.
Lastly, for the older He’s Not veterans, like UNC Class of ’74 alum Harry Bryant, blue cups are a precious talisman of the past.
“Holding the same cup I held thirty somethin’ years ago is an incredible feelin’… really takes you back.”
It is faithful customers like Bryant that make the bar’s nightly population so eclectic. There’s a special mirth and camaraderie about the He’s Not atmosphere that is reminiscent of a backyard family reunion. Patrons of all ages pack the peeling picnic tables to mingle with friends and strangers alike, to discuss everything from sports to healthcare; to vent about yesterday’s failed math exam (or for older folks, yesterday’s high cholesterol count); or to skip the mindless gab entirely and instigate a chugging contest.
“I don’t think we have a ‘crowd’; we cater to everybody – there’s no one not welcome at He’s Not,” says General Manager Fleming Fuller.
Unlike most Chapel Hill bars that target a certain age, race, or social class, He’s Not has made inclusivity cool. Logan Corey, a previous undergrad, now UNC Medical School student, says there’s no graduating from the HNH scene.
“I was there every weekend, and I’ll still get a Blue Cup every now and then… maybe do some karaoke… it just doesn’t get old.”
Karaoke Sundays. Yet another enduring He’s Not tradition.
For those bold few revelers who give Monday the finger for the sake of a good Sunday night, He’s Not is a must. Nothing like some good old fashioned karaoke – intimate, sweaty, and atrociously off-key.
The rare unexpected performances are the most epic… one particularly popular legend includes a history professor, one too many blue cups, and Bruce Springsteen’s wonderfully cheesy “Born in the USA.” Every year, some brave basketball players will take the mike for a wonderful chorus or two (JLo or Mariah Carey are preferred).
The customs and traditions of this humble beer joint are endless, but few know when or how it was conceived.
He’s Not was founded by buddies Michael Troy and David Kitzmiller in 1972, both recently divorced and looking for a fun business project to distract from the woes of the legal process.
The location choice was an odd one – what is now a half-bar-half-beer garden hideaway was once a multi-business building, with Great American Hotdog down below and a topless bar rumored to be on the top floor.
The HNH forefathers envisioned an unpretentious, undecorated, unrefined dive where T-shirts are welcomed, spilled beer is expected, neon-lit Yuengling signs line the wood-paneled interior, and Samuel Adams grins from a hand-painted mural outside.
“It’s always been a casual, nondescript kind of place… a backyard feel… that’s how it’s always been and always will be,” Fuller says.
Now, for the name – an endlessly controversial, fabled, and debated subject in Chapel Hill.
The most common tales:
A) Michael Jordan used to bartend when he was around – it was his favorite bar, and eager fans would constantly call looking for him, only to hear the repeated response, “He’s not here.”
B) Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor was a regular and signed for the National Football League at a specific table, thus reeling in excited phone calls to the bar similar to Jordan’s, with the same three-word answer.
C) James Taylor was an avid He’s Not fan and played there regularly… essentially honing his talent for his future career. The same phone-call scenario applies.
The truth, according to Fuller:
Troy and Kitzmiller originally decided on a rather nondescript name, the Carolina Keg. The replacement of this moniker happened naturally. Essentially living at the bar during its construction, the two friends were blissfully avoiding the legal frenzy that is divorce. Their ex-wives and lawyers called the place to no end, demanding to speak to “Mike” and “Dave” and always received the same humorous reply – “He’s not here.” It became such a habitual, ongoing joke that employees would answer the phone with the iconic phrase even when not knowing who the caller was. Consequently, confused vendors assumed the statement was the bar’s name, and from there, it stuck.
However, each of the three fables previously mentioned contain hints of validity.
A) No, Michael Jordan was never a bartender, nor a known regular. However, he did enjoy a blue cup every now and then in his college days and even beyond. He stopped by in 2004 and again in 2007.
B) Lawrence Taylor did indeed sign his contract at a He’s Not table!
C) Yes, it’s confirmed that James Taylor played a few Wednesdays at He’s Not when he was virtually unknown in the early seventies. Fun fact: his father was once the Dean of the Medical School at UNC.
Although the factual background of the revered name is readily accessible, the light-hearted disputes and creative myths will continue for as long as He’s Not stands… which Fleming Fuller estimates will be a resounding “forever.”
“I like to think I’ll take my kids here one day and say, you know, this is where Daddy wasted three years of his life…and not one regret.”
A UNC graduate himself, Fuller says what makes Carolina great is its rich history and continued reverence of traditions… the same reasons, he says, he feels honored to go to work every day.
Step foot in He’s Not Here, and you’ve entered a historic landmark unlike any other. They don’t serve beer at the Jefferson Memorial.