Sam is still a legend at the Train Stop Pub. In the 1980s, people crowded into the square, brick bar in Foster, east of Maineville, just to watch him drink beer and smoke cigarettes. "His favorites were Jack and Coke and Marlboro Reds," says Train Stop owner McKinley Harris.

Sam was no ordinary barfly. He was a real beer monkey. A 140-pound chimpanzee, to be precise. Nobody who warmed a bar stool at the Train Stop enjoyed a cigarette and a cold brew more than he did.

"Oh, yeah, it's true," says bartender Theresa Duron. "He would show you he wanted a smoke like this," she says, making a reverse peace sign against her lips. "And he showed you he wanted a drink like this," she says, bending her elbow with an imaginary can of beer.

Harris, who took over six years ago, grew up with Sam around. His father Kenneth Harris, owner of the Train Stop for 48 years, won Sam from a carnival in a Loveland poker game. "He would clean his own cage if you gave him a broom and a dustpan," McKinley says.

He says Sam also would light his own smokes. "But if you gave him a lighter, he wouldn't give it back."


Time to Pet the Monkey

Train Stop regulars Carl Berte and Carl Estes remember Sam the Smoking Monkey fondly. "When we were getting to the end of the workday, we'd say, 'Time to go pet the monkey.' And that's what we'd do," Estes recalls. "We'd come here and have a drink with Sam."

Berte nods, "Everybody loved the monkey."

Behind the bar, McKinley grabs a book of photographs by the famous ape-ologist Jane Goodall. Sam gets star treatment in a two-page spread, shown smoking in his cage.

Then, in 1987, the Humane Society filed suit in Warren County and took custody of Sam, alleging that his "lifestyle" of smoking and drinking was mistreatment. A jury found Kenneth Harris not guilty.

"Free Sam," the signs said along the roads near the Train Stop. Then, "Welcome Home Sam."

But he wasn't home for long. "The township tore down his cage," say McKinley. "It turned out the cage was half on our land and half on the township property, so they just took it down."

Monkey Trial, Part II

At last report, he says, Sam was retired in Florida, living in a habitat with another monkey. He probably got out of town just in time. Ohio would never let him make a monkey out of our state tobacco police.

But, oh man, what fun it would have been to find out if Ohio's smoking ban applies to apes. It could have been The Monkey Trial, Part II. Do animal rights include smoking and drinking? Would circus monkeys testify that cigarettes and beer beat being pelted with peanuts? Would a jury of Sam's peers decide that a bar on Saturday night is closer to a jungle than the monkey house at a zoo?

The Train Stop, sandwiched between the Little Miami Bike Trail and the river at the east end Maineville Road, used to be a hotel back when Foster was a town, not a memory. It has local history on tap. How many places can claim a smoking monkey? But until I heard about it from a friend, it was not even on my list.

That's the list I made this summer of all the odd and sketchy little bars I've seen that are catnip to the imagination. You know the kind: You drive by and think "Hmmm, what's on the other side of those dark windows?" Are they hiding the world's greatest burger "” or some crazy, Ripley's Museum story like Sam?

They're taverns, pubs, bars, saloons and watering holes with names that make you grin. Average Joe's Bar & Grille. Dirty Jack's. Bar Humbug. Sleepy Hollow. The Dog Haus. The Hoosegow.

So this summer I made a list. Near my Loveland neighborhood I found Hangovers, Shady O'Grady's, Critters, Cindy's, the Remington Tavern, Ethel's (Since 1949) and the Train Stop. And I've been checking them off. There are hundreds of these places, all over our region. But most people I know would rather go to a Steelers game in a Carson Palmer jersey.

On Spike TV's "Bar Rescue" ("Kitchen Nightmares" with cocktails), bar doctor Jon Taffer insists there's a science to saving sick saloons. Bars usually die because they scare the chablis out of women, he says. And without women, bars are as fun as flat beer. Taffer blames dirty restrooms, roaches and rats (including the two-legged kind) and the motorcycle quota.

"Why would an owner let motorcycles line up outside the bar?" he asks in one episode. "If you want women to come to a bar, you better not do that. Period."

It's a pity. Because usually, once you step inside, you find out that the big bad bikers are just guys from those Avodart commercials, about as threatening as the regulars at Floyd's Barbershop in Mayberry.

Or not. Now and then the atmosphere can be a little bit "Spaghetti Western."

At one country bar, my wife and I stepped out of a bright summer day into a cool, barn-like cavern as dark as a root cellar. The conversation stopped. I began to wonder if it was a moment of silence for the dear departed fools who had stepped through that door uninvited before us.

We stood framed against the doorway, blinking, while everyone at the bar stared. Not in a friendly way.

I thought, "What was I thinking?" And of course, I blamed Dagwood's.

Ever since I discovered the burgers at Dagwood's, next door to the campus of Michigan State University, I have postulated that the quality of a burger is inversely related to the amount a bar spends on interior design. For 25 years, the entire remodeling budget at Dagwood's was a roll of duct-tape, used to patch occasional eruptions in the torn vinyl booths. Needless to say, the burgers were supernatural.

On my last visit, they had new booths. And the burgers had slipped a notch. I rest my case.

So of course, the first thing I asked the bartender at "Unfriendly Tavern" was, "Do you serve food?" He gave me a look as if I had just asked if he was wearing a girdle.

"No," he replied. We finished our beers and left. As we drove away, I wondered: Was it my yellow shorts, Hawaiian shirt and topsiders? Should I try again in overalls and scuffed farm boots? The bartender had answered that, too. No.

The reason for the "High Noon" vibe was as plain as the blue haze swirling through shafts of sunlight. It was the cigarettes, tapped gently on empty beer cans, all along the bar. In Ohio these days, where there's smoke, there's fear.

They were worried that someone would rat them out to the Ohio Tobacco Gestapo.

Most little bars are as friendly as a Kiwanis Club picnic. But some that are not may have a reason. Even without the heavy fines for ashtray possession, they are already paying a price to defy Ohio's smoking ban. They are outlaws.

You don't have to be a smoker to recognize a stupid law. Once again, the government has restricted our liberties to a trickle because we can no longer be trusted to control the free flow of our freedom.

Sam is not the only vanishing species of wild life. Smoking didn't hurt the monkey. It was bureaucracy that killed the fun.