I HAVE A DRINKING GIRL’S SIXTH SENSE. I can’t predict imminent danger or thunderstorms but I can always find a dive bar. I feel most at home on four pegs stuck to a dirty floor.
We’re talking about places where they sell erotic kits in the bathroom quarter machine. Places where you can smoke, tolerate the smoke, or see yourself out. Where pickled eggs and a shot called “ass-juice” beckon from behind the bar–a bar framed in shotgun shells, Christmas lights, or ancient lingerie.
More often than not I find myself far from home and when I walk into some shithole bar with a chorus line of unsavory looking characters bellied up, I feel relief. From there forward I can pretty much determine where I should sleep, who it should be with and where to eat pancakes afterwards. Dive bars, like the people who patronize them, wear hard luck proudly: broken windows or black eyes, rotted wood paneling or oxygen tanks, rose tit tattoos or the jellyfish guts of a disabled smoke detector. Buck knives in sheaths and baseball bats behind the bar.
There is no such thing as a mixologist in a dive bar. There are barkeeps. Keepers of a tradition of simplicity. They might raise an eyebrow at drinks that require more than two ingredients but never at the person who orders whiskey for breakfast. The bent neon sign and missing/misspelled letters on the marquee are not ironic. There’s a TV above the bar, but the game ain’t on. Amputee porn and the odd Patton biography maybe. There are no windows but you don’t miss the daylight
At the Chart Room on Chartres Street in New Orleans in the middle of the afternoon, carrying the whiplash of bad news on my face the bartender pours me a salty dog and insists it’s on the house. When I try and tip her she points to the jukebox and tells me to play it instead. The man next to me in a leather suit and a voice like gravel is telling me his favorite song, and the bartender has given me directions to the best place in town to buy old cowboy boots. It’s the kind of tenderness that can only be paid by strangers in the middle of the afternoon for no good reason.
Just outside of Boulder, CO sits The Rocky Flats Lounge. There are weeds curling by the front door and a concrete patio with rusted license plates framing the Flatirons out back. In the dim light of the wood paneled and Green Bay exalting interior, Jim sees my ID on the bar and asks me about living in Key West. He’s got a heavy skull ring and a dark walnut cane. His face is engraved with age but if you look close you can see the ghost of handsome in it.
“I was there for a few weeks with the Air Force in ’62,” he says, breathing out a half a lung full of menthol.
“Stationed at Boca Chica?”
“Nah,” he says through a narrowed eye, “Flying recon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
He says it as casually as ash falls off a cigarette. “We didn’t know it then but the Soviet submarine we were aiming at was carrying a nuclear torpedo see? We were waiting for the command to engage just waiting, could have blown up the whole goddamn hemisphere, but they told us to pull back.”
“Wow. I don’t think I ever needed a drink as bad as you must have after that.”
“Sweetheart, I hope you never do.”
Coincidentally, Ron is again sitting on the brink of something nuclear. Rocky Flats, for which the bar is named, was a nuclear weapons production facility that sat across the street for 40 years. The bar popped up to offer plant workers a little reprieve but has managed to stay operable longer than its nuclear namesake. I once saw a kilted bartender proudly produce a Geiger counter and enthusiastically proclaim to everyone present that the bar was certifiably radioactive. Imminent danger aside the owners of the bar found a way to capitalize with t-shirts featuring the poetic slogan ‘get nuclear wasted’. You can’t keep a good bar down.
A few states south I found a man who lived through a different kind of Cuban crisis. “I did a little time in Club Fed,” he says, his leathery but elegant hands folded on the bar. “Fed? I ask, like prison?”
“Yeah things got a little crazy on the way back from Cuba, I was smuggling cigars and refugees, the cops showed up and that was that. Name on the boat we were using was Not Right Now.” He smiles at the irony, his Cheshire mustache curving up. “They charged me with defrauding the United States Government while on the high seas.”
He orders another rum because that’s what you do when you’re a pirate in spirit and on criminal record. This pirate is Floyd; he practices scrimshaw on sailfish bills and made me a belt out of leather scraps and buffalo nickels. On his right hand is wrapped a silver and agate ring from the Spanish colonial period he happened to find while snorkeling in the Marquesas. He lives on a sailboat called the Rapscallion and I can say unequivocally we couldn’t have met at Applebee’s. It had to be the Green Parrot with it’s wartime parachute hung up like a circus big top, the awnings slanted and the interior dark enough to ensure that it always feels like 6pm even when its not.
And then there’s my favorite Pennsylvania dive, washed in nicotine and motorcycle patches, a place that serves the best cheeseburger in the world. It’s run by a former social worker and a pack of feral cats, and if you take them as the sum of their parts they have ¾ of a full coat and one good eye.
Marty is ringleader. He wears white sneakers and never remembers anyone’s name. If you stop to listen he will tell you with wet eyed pride how his sons are a pair of elevens on a one to ten scale and that his wife’s ass in its past life as a cheerleader was the finest thing god ever thought to make. He’s a collector of taxidermy and foreign currency.
The lack of pretense in a dive bar provides the context for guts spilling and blood letting, both literal and figurative. No one talks scars and divorce, broken hearts and estranged children at beer gardens or throwback prohibition era cocktail bars that serve egg yolk drinks and bitters made from the sweat of Norwegian virgins. Or maybe they do, in fairness I wouldn’t know because I wouldn’t be there to hear it. I’ll be down the road, in the place without windows that could sooner give you hepatitis than a passing health code score, smelling like smoke, playing country songs older than I am, drinking whiskey and listening.