Night falls on San Francisco’s bustling North Beach district as tourists, flesh peddlers and hipsters troll the sidewalks beneath an ashen sky.
I maneuver past a throng of fashion-conscious twenty-somethings — all perfect hair and manicures — as they jockey for position in a velvet-roped line. I head south down a narrow meandering corridor, beyond the shimmering neon veneer of Broadway into the heart of Chinatown, past shuttered fish markets, junk shops and darkened alleyways. Steam rises from the empty streets, and for a moment I’ve stepped back in time to the untamed days of a bygone era. Two blocks down, tucked away from the arched rooftops and beneath a Chinese-style lantern, I arrive at Li Po’s, a quintessential dive bar. Inside, three old Asian men play mahjong in a red Naugahyde booth near the back of the room, eyes down-turned, as hand-rolled cigarettes dangle from cracking lips, quietly defiant in the face of a state-wide smoking ban. Yellowing wallpaper curls at the seams, and a dusty tabletop Ms. Pacman game sits idle in a darkened corner, a hand-written “out of order” sign taped over its coin slot. Burned-out Christmas lights hang from the ceiling (it’s September), and a stream of easy listening classics pours from the jukebox, offering a healthy dose of Leo Sayer, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bread’s “Baby I’m-A Want You” in a seemingly endless loop. Between drink orders, the bartender watches John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder on a small, flickering black and white TV with tin-foiled rabbit ears.
And did I mention, the place is packed?
Groups of scruffy, jeans and t-shirt clad 30-somethings sip on Pampero between knocking back Budweisers, their swizzle stick legs jack-knifed over Naugahyde barstools. Coifed banking district refugees in designer suits mingle with crusty old-timers, swapping investment tips for nuggets of life wisdom worth their weight in gold.
This scene plays itself out nightly in gritty, no frills, busted pinball, sticky-floored bars across the country, from L.A. to Boston and all points in between. I began to notice this trend around 1995, as our national economy was growing at a record pace, fueled by a booming tech market and an unnerving sense of optimism. “When they file the IPO, we’ll all get rich”became the mantra of an overachieving generation. So why, then, is this renegade menagerie of highly paid young professionals rejecting slick and trendy nightspots in favor of neighborhood dives?
The Dive: The Great Equalizer
“This is a world where everybody’s gotta be something — A dentist, fighter pilot, narc, janitor, preacher, all that. Sometimes I get tired thinking of all the things I don’t wanna do. All the things I don’t wanna be.”
—Charles Bukowski, Barfly
Unlike the well-lit, glossy sheen of TV’s Cheers, where “everybody knows your name,” the dive allows its working-class patrons to bask in anonymity. In his book, The View From Nowhere, Jim Atkinson refers to the dive as a Bar Bar, or “the only place left on earth where you can go and be nowhere.” Writer Ron Donoho discusses a stateside watering hole where the majority of late-night patrons are made up of weary restaurant staffers: “Tivoli offers a blue-collar respite from hours of fulfilling the wants and needs of hungry, impatient turistas.” Similarly, and proving that the dive is indeed a global institution, the Old Sailor Bar in Amsterdam’s red light district is a well-known haven for off-duty prostitutes looking to toss back a few Amstels after a long shift.
The dive bar offers a safe, comfortable environment for people to escape the pressures and drudgery of their working lives — a reminder that, according to Hunter S. Thompson, “the tyranny of the rat race is not yet final.” And whether you’re a drifter, plumber, lap-dancer or lawyer, the only thing you’ll be judged on in the dive is the quality of your jukebox selections and the ability to pay your tab. In his book The View from Nowhere, Jim Atkinson says the dive offers a kind of transcendent egalitarianism where, “Inhabitants don’t care what you look like, and certainly don’t care if you’ve screwed up just about everything you’ve ever laid your hands on.”
While this egalitarian attitude is certainly appealing to the down-and-out denizens who populate skid row watering holes, it is also a refreshing change of pace for affluent, educated professionals who are expected to compete and succeed in every aspect of their lives. In the dive, there are no expectations of its patrons, which is a blessing for workaholic go-getters and overachieving corporate climbers.
“Murio’s is the one place I don’t have to impress anybody. I love it here because nobody cares what you do for a living. And you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.”
— Eric Fischer, 36 year-old video engineer
In addition to being a place where you don’t have to “be something,” as Bukowski suggests, or “be someone you’re not,” as the bar patron agrees, the dive itself is a kind of blank canvas, giving you the freedom to decide what you want it to mean. This is what semioticians call an “empty signifier,” a word whose meaning is so open you can project anything onto it you wish. The dive, therefore, allows the patron to assume any number of guises: Hipster, historian, rebellious orthodontist or anonymous drunk.
“In taverns, men did not ordinarily sit according to their place in the local social hierarchy…. Here there was at least the possibility for greater assertion in posture and conversation.”
— David Conroy, a liquor historian
In the earliest days of our nation, bars were the great equalizers, where peasants and noblemen could exchange ideas free from the traditional barriers of class or social standing. Even today, this is a hallmark of the dive, as J.R. Moehringer describes in The Tender Bar: “Standing in the middle of the barroom you could watch men and women from all strata of society educating and abusing one another. You could hear the poorest man in town discussing market volatility with the president of the New York stock exchange.”
The Dive: Birthplace of the Counterculture?
In colonial American dives, says Conroy, men and women could voice anti-authoritarian ideas and behave in unconventional ways. These taverns were the first public places where it was socially acceptable to question the authority of the government, the existing social structure, and the rigid moral code of the period. You might say it was the birthplace of the counterculture movement.
By the mid 1800’s, rowdy saloons, gambling houses and gin joints were called “dives” (or “dens,” “holes” and “dumps”) because they were often situated below street level in the basements of run-down houses in working class neighborhoods. Once patrons climbed those stairs down into the darkness, they could leave the conformist respectability of “above ground” values behind.
For the better part of two hundred years, dive bars have provided refuge to rebels, misfits and mavericks fleeing from the conformist ideals of the “respectable citizen.” Even today, the dive romanticizes a rebel culture of the “loner.” These rugged individualists were often heavy drinkers and troublemakers. From the Hell-raising saloon culture of the 1800s, to the Beats of the 1950s and the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the dive bar welcomed outlaws of all sorts, including drunks, addicts, and anyone looking to disassociate him/herself from traditional societal expectations. The dive offered sanctuary, both literally and figuratively: It was a place where people could hide from the wife, the boss, or the law while escaping the expectations of a polite society.
Booze and Books: A Literary Connection
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly how the dive bar became a beacon of authenticity in an overly conformist world, but a great deal is owed to the literary community who championed the boozy culture. During the 1920s and 30s, celebrated writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were legendary for their drinking prowess, and their gin-soaked exploits translated to the printed page. Try to imagine one of Jay Gatsby’s fantastic East Egg soirees where the champagne does not flow, or a Paris in The Sun Also Rises that isn’t drenched in Vermouth. In the article For Whom the Booze Tolls, Mario Pesta recalls meeting Hemingway at a Key West dive in the late 1950’s and challenging the venerable writer to a drinking duel. They agreed to chug rum by the pint until only one man remained standing, and Pesta thought he had a chance – he was younger, stronger, and he knew his way around a bottle. What he didn’t know is that Hemingway had a deep, unquenchable thirst for rum, dating back to his expat days in pre-revolutionary Cuba. “The old man beat me fair and square,” says Pesta. “I got into the ring with the champ and he floored me.” When the Beats and counterculturalists came along, writers like Kerouac, Burroughs and Bukowsi romanticized a working class, skid row version of the bottle culture and lived out the colorful stories they wrote. Bukowski mirrored his flop-house experiences in Tales of Ordinary Madness, while Hunter S. Thompson parlayed his days as a bowling writer in Puerto Pico into The Rum Diaries.
What’s more, these writers understood that the alcohol made them better writers. In South of No North when Bukowski is asked if he always writes when he’s drunk, he replies, “Shit, yes. Sober, I’m just a shipping clerk, and not a very good one at that.”
The connection between drunkenness and literary output suggests the alcohol itself is the engine behind the creation of literature and great barroom tales. Unlike traditional inspiration, this liquid muse is perpetually on call, easily summoned by uttering the following incantation: “Pampero tall and neat. Leave the bottle.” As one contributor to Modern Drunkard Magazine says, “A hangover may last one day, but a great drinking story lasts forever.”
The New Divers: Bourgeois Bohemians
“I know I have no right to complain. I know this neighborhood is gentrifying, and I am part of the problem, not part of the solution. I know that no matter where I move to get away from yuppies and hipsters, I will never be able to escape them, because I will be there.”
In this age of gentrification, where everything old is torn down and built anew, where entire neighborhoods are razed to make way for upscale co-ops and condo lofts, the dive bar remains a static piece of history in an ever-changing world. In his article In Praise of Seedy, Michael Serazio describes most modern structures as having, “no soul in them, no community feeling.” He adds, “It’s very unsettling. You need architecture that your grandfather once had dinner at. It’s important not to have everything torn down. It’s important to the human spirit.” The dive bar, then, remains a vital connection to the past.
Before the hard-drinking, fast-living Beats hit the scene in the 1950’s, the Transcendentalists had been waging a quiet war against technology and the accumulation of wealth. Writers like Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott believed that machines and money prevented people from having the life experiences that really matter. Americans, they concluded, were able to calculate and measure, “but often did not take the time to sense and feel.” (David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise). As technology loomed before us in the 1980’s and became part of our daily lives in the 1990’s (laptop computers, cell phones, Palm Pilots), it can be argued that these innovations further isolated humans from one another. People telecommuted, visited chat rooms and engaged in cyber sex – all one step removed from a legitimate human experience. “I work from home, so I don’t get the human interaction of working in an office,” says Chris Tokunaga, a freelance graphic designer. “I get my social fix at Murio’s, because I know everybody in the place, and the bartender has my Pampero and Coke waiting when he sees me come through the door.” For many, the dive, with its homey décor and community roots, offers an authentic, human experience difficult to find in today’s technology-dependent world.
“I made practice runs down to skid row to get ready for my future. I needed an isolated place to hide. Skid row was disgusting. But the life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death.”
—Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
We live in a culture of success, where health and beauty are prized above all else. Legions of white-collar professionals hit the gym before work, get Botox treatments at lunch, and participate in 12-step programs at night. The body and the mind must be fit, the bank account swollen, and the eyes wrinkle-free. The dive bar, on the other hand, eschews this self-help, fitness-fetishized culture that strives for physical and emotional perfection. Instead, the dive encourages eccentricity, acting out, and self-destructive indulgence, which makes sense when you consider its heroes (the crazy old man, the drunk, the belligerent brawling writer). In the dive, therapy is not an option, alcoholism is not a disease, and the only exercise one needs is a leisurely stroll to the commode.
The popularity of dive bars can be viewed as a reaction to a slick, over-processed world of homogeneous strip malls and faceless warehouse super stores. People are longing for something beyond big corporation cookie-cutter establishments, and the dive serves this up in spades. It goes back to authenticity – the gritty, unpolished nature of the dive offers a rare excursion to a place weathered by the touch of human experience. People flock to these bars because they are a dirty mess, and they revel in their imperfections. Some of the best dives can be found in industrial areas, near docks, factories, or any place that employs working class toughs. After laboring for long hours, these blue-collar men are looking to relax their aching bodies and numb the pain with a stiff drink, or seven. Perhaps it is this connection with working class culture, now viewed as authentic, which accounts for the popularity of dive bars among “the elite.” Yuppies and white-collar workers may wile their days in tidy, sanitized cubicles, but a trip to the neighborhood dive can serve up a mighty refreshing glass of mud.
In his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, political journalist David Brooks describes the new establishment as, “highly educated people who’ve got one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success.” These bourgeois bohemians or Bobos, according to Brooks, have successfully combined the countercultural sixties and the achieving 80’s into one social ethos. Even Wall Street tapped into this in the mid-1990’s, when The Gap used Jack Kerouac in advertisements (“Kerouac wore khakis”), and Nike co-opted counterculture heroes William S. Burroughs and Dennis Hopper. But this has created something of a dilemma for the Bobo. Though they admire art and intellectual pursuits, they find themselves living in a bizarro world where creativity and commerce meet. By nature, they are anti-establishmentarian, yet they have become the establishment.
How, then, do Bourgeois Bohemians demonstrate to themselves that while climbing the social ladder they have not become all the things they hold in contempt? How do they convince the world they haven’t completely sold out their ideals? They reconnect with the bohemian half of their Bobo selves. They call on the free spirits of Bukowksi and Burroughs for inspiration. They admonish the culture of newness, surrounding themselves with rootsy artifacts (see the roughly hewn Tibetan rug woven from obscure mountain grasses), distressed furniture and vintage clothing. “We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence,” says Brooks, adding, “In our efforts to climb upwards, we have left something important behind.” Something they can certainly find in a dive.
The fascination with dive bars has been around for at least ten years, and their popularity doesn’t appear to be fading. And while there are a number of plausible theories to explain the phenomenon ranging from Bar Bars to Bobos, they all work their way back to the same conclusion: authenticity. People, especially those under the age of 40, are looking for an authentic experience in an over-marketed, over-stimulated, over-slick, and gentrified world. They yearn for something alive and vital that exists only in the darkened corners of our collective memory, whose ghosts can be found perched on Naugahyde barstools, throwing back shots of nostalgia with a Pampero chaser.