Last call: As Irma howls toward Bradenton, bar serves pickled eggs and beer

Barbara Metzger’s grandmother used to tell her that because Manatee County was sacred Indian burial land, it was protected from evil spirits and hurricanes.

For five generations, Metzger’s family — part Scottish and part Seminole Indian — lived among the open fields of strawberries and tomatoes, believing that the burial grounds kept the storms at bay.

Over the years, the open fields have given way to shopping malls and gated communities. But whether by Indian lore or by luck, Bradenton, Sarasota and Tampa Bay have not had a direct hit by a hurricane for a century.

“The hurricanes always swing all around us, but have never hit us,’’ said Metzger, who was serving cold mugs of Budweiser and $1.25 cherry jello shots at the Drift In, a smoky watering hole on Cortez Road about five miles from the crystal beaches of Anna Maria Island.

Metzger, the 54-year-old manager, said The Drift, is always open — seven days a week, even on holidays. It has closed only once: in 2004 the power went out for two days after Bradenton dodged Hurricane Charley, which struck Punta Gorda to the south.

The Drift In was about the only place open this Saturday night in Bradenton, where every store, restaurant and convenience market was boarded up and closed — supermarkets to doughnut shops to beer joints up and down Florida’s Gulf Coast.

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The Drift In didn’t let the imminent arrival of Irma close the bar — at least not on Saturday night.

Julie K. Brown Miami Herald Staff

“We don’t close for anything, but we are closing for this one,” Metzger said. Sunday, the Drift In was closing for a hurricane for the first time in more than 20 years, she said. Above her head was a smorgasbord hanging from the ceiling: bags of potato chips and Fritos, with pickled eggs and sausage in jars by the cash register. It smelled like sweat and Marlboros, the kind of place where you can smoke without ever touching a cigarette to your lips.

“It’s like a really bad Norman Rockwell painting,” said Gregory McIntosh, who lived here three decades ago, but recently moved back from Houston. He clearly means this in sentimental, good way.

“If you come in here and think you’re not doing well, you will be doing well by the time you leave,” he explains. “There’s a lot worse places to live.”

Bradenton is a suburban, yet blue-collar city, with a small-town feel, nestled between two glossier and well-heeled cities: Sarasota to the south and Tampa to the north.

McIntosh is a cabinet-maker/artist. He has 300 charcoal drawings on his computer pad, which he hopes to publish in a book some day. A graduate of Northeastern, he planned to become an architect but quickly realized he could earn more money building custom cabinetry for wealthy doctors and lawyers.

“I worked for two architects who were always scrimping and saving. His wife was catching eels for dinner. I realized I was making one-and-a-half times what they were earning by making cabinets.”

He’s done well for himself, but still prefers Bradenton, which is sometimes referred to as “Bradentucky.”

“That’s because they consider us rednecks,” said Metzger. “I am a true Southern gal,” she says proudly.

Jim Barachman visits the Drift In every day, downing a pitcher of Budweiser and then heading home. He’s been here only five months, and still weeps when people ask him why he moved here. Yes, he hated the cold in Michigan, but he also lost his dog a few months back.

He finds a kinship with the people who live on this side of the tracks, he said.

“This place is down to earth. These are the workers who install your air conditioning, the people who fix your car and change your oil at Jiffy Lube,’’ said Barackman, 68, who retired after working in logistics for the U.S. Army for 41 years.

He now plans to ride out the storm in his condo.

“It’s going to be really scary but also the most fascinating, exhilarating experience of my life. It will be my first and last hurricane.”

The front doors were wide open to the quiet of the desolate highway, as light gusts swept across the wooden tables. Revelers wailed in unison to the jukebox, to songs like “Red Solo Cup,” and bands like Led Zeppelin.

“Every rose has its thorn, every light has its dawn …” sang Bret Michaels, lead singer of Poison.

Barak Pozas has his doubts about a new dawn. The former sheriff deputy’s words are funereal.

The hurricane is crawling up the Gulf Coast, and he fears that this time, Bradenton’s Indian myths won’t be able to spare them.

“These people are all going to die,” he says, swigging what he claims is only his third Miller Lite.

“Until today, I’ve gone four years, one month and seven days sober,” he said.

One day earlier, he finally bought his dream house, a 5,000-square-foot three-bedroom rancher. He has been to Bradenton more than a dozen times and finally planned to move here from Boston.

It’s going to be really scary but also the most fascinating, exhilarating experience of my life. It will be my first and last hurricane.

Jim Barachman, at the Drift In

“I spent 37 years looking at the bottom of a bottle searching for answers, then I spent four years not looking at the bottom of a bottle and still not finding the answers, so I figure it’s time.”

A barmaid was collecting dollars for bar poker, and he played a couple of hands with no luck. He asked for a piece of paper and wrote down some thoughts:

“The valley of shadows is dealing life to these people one Budweiser at a time. As long as the ole music and beer flow, tomorrow is a lifetime away,” he wrote.

On the other side of the bar, Metzger was stacking more jello shots.

She wasn’t worried. She didn’t even board up her house.

“I didn’t want to board it up because if I lose electricity, I don’t want to suffocate and die.”