A talk with the man, the myth and the legend
By James V. Horrigan
If the clichéd definition of a neighborhood bar is a place “where everybody knows your name,” perhaps a downtown dive bar is best described as one where “nobody’s quite sure what your real name is.”
If so, Mathew’s Pub on Free Street fits more comfortably in the latter, since few drinkers on either side of the copper-topped bar know the true identity of its most recognizable regular. The cops, it seems, are similarly confused.
His name is Robert J. Briere, but the 47-year-old, mullet-sporting, gold chain–wearing Massachusetts native is renowned as “The International Player of the World,” a moniker he trademarked.
The Bollard recently caught up with The Player on the sidewalk in front of Mathew’s as he enjoyed a butt beneath the faded blue sign that declares the place “Portland’s Oldest Pub, since 1872.”
There’s no denying the dank, dingy watering hole – where a PBR pounder goes for two bucks and a pint of Shipyard Export costs a dollar more – has been operating in its dreary brick building for many years. But a review of dozens of old Portland city directories indicates its claim to fame is not so much rooted in history as in the decision of a previous owner to mount a sign over the door declaring it so.
It’s been known as Mathew’s only since 2003; from 1994 to 2000, the bar was called Pop’s, an abbreviation of the boast on its sign. The latest owner changed the name, but saw no reason to remove the placard with the putative pedigree.
In the decades prior to its incarnation as Pop’s, the place was known by many names, including DeNan’s, the Hourglass, Cap’s, the Forum, Pete Reali’s Café and the Hollywood Café.
On a wall inside hangs a framed photograph of the Hollywood Café, dated 1940. While the “Stop Hitler” and “Victory Quart” posters on the front of the establishment don’t belie it, the 1940 city directory lists 133 Free Street as “vacant.”
As far as The Bollard can determine, although 133 Free Street dates to the early 19th century, it didn’t become a pouring establishment until 1941, when Spring Street resident Peter Hollywood opened the Free Street Café.
She isn’t listed in any of the city directories, but The Player said his late mother, Alice Ainslee Briere, “used to own this place, years ago.” When asked what the bar was called then, he takes a step back. “When she owned it, it was my great-grandfather’s place. There’s pictures on the wall inside.”
But The Player isn’t referring to Peter Hollywood, who he describes as “my grandfather’s uncle, actually.” Huh?
Anyway, as a kid, Briere said he “used to come here all the time.” Proof, he contends, is out front, where a mural depicting four pub windows shows patrons young and old enjoying themselves in a manner reminiscent of the vignettes that opened each episode of Cheers.
Briere jerks his chin toward one of the faux windows that depicts a chubby-cheeked kid eating a hot dog while an older man looks down on him with a friendly smile. “That’s me,” he says, meaning the kid. “That man right there used to own a gas station down on Congress Street; it was a real old station, Phillips 66.” Asked his name, The Player scratches his head. “Peter Jacobson, I think.”
When he returned to Portland after several years’ absence, The Player found his image painted on the front of the bar now called Mathew’s. “I went, ‘Holy fuck, my picture’s up there… Holy shit, that’s me!'” He showed the new owner a photograph of himself as a kid. “He was like, ‘You gotta be shitting me.'”
In addition to portraying scenes from long ago, the mural also advertises beers that haven’t been sold inside for many years, like Ruppert, McSorley’s, Rheingold and Schaefer. The Player admits to having quaffed the latter two in his youth, but like the taste he once had for the hard stuff, those days are in the past.
The only thing he drinks now is Busch, “with ice, on draft. Half a glass of Busch, half a glass of ice.” He licks his upper lip and nods. “Draft beer,” he says, “that’s what I drink. You don’t get as drunk. It’s like drinking an O’Doul’s.”
How often can you find The International Player of the World at Mathew’s, nursing his Busch on the rocks? “I’m here all the time,” he admits. For the past few months he’s lived in one of the apartments above the bar.
The Player’s not unfamiliar with the local constabulary, with whom he had a recent run-in. “I got busted for operating under suspension,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the Christ are you talking about? It can’t be me; I just got back [in town].'” The cop however, was unbelieving. “He’s like, ‘Prove it to me.’ And I’m like, ‘Get the fuck outta here. It wasn’t me.'”
Regardless, his signature 1988 Lincoln Continental – painted silver and gold with red letters announcing it belongs to “The International Player of the World” – was impounded, and The Player has given up hope of getting it back.
But that wasn’t The Player’s only encounter with mistaken identity. “I seen this big guy that looked like me,” he says, “and I almost got arrested for this guy. I almost got arrested by the Portland cops. They thought I was him.”
He points to the painting of the hot dog–eating kid. “They threw me right up against here,” he says of Portland’s finest. “‘What’s your name?'” the officer demanded. “‘You got any ID?'” When The Player produced his identification, he said the cop replied, “‘Holy shit! You’re the real Robert J. Briere?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, why? What’s the problem?’ He goes, ‘I got a guy that looks like you and he’s in trouble.'”
Being mistaken for his miscreant doppelganger was unfortunate, but Briere shudders to consider the same thing happening in reverse: the bad guy being mistaken for him. “That’s why I got it trademarked,” he says.
The Player withdraws a worn piece of paper from his wallet. It’s covered with numbers that prove his identity – his Social Security number, date of birth, driver’s license number, license plate number, etc. “That is the trademark number,” he says, pointing to a five-digit figure.
“I do music. I do everything. I got a band,” he says, stamping out his butt. “It’s in New York. It’s called The International Player of the World Band.” The Bollardhas been unable to find any evidence of this group’s existence. The Player says he has recordings, but they’re locked in storage.
And with that, The International Player of the World heads back inside Mathew’s for another Busch on ice.