“There were fewer teeth in the bartender’s mouth than there were bottles behind the bar, and that wasn’t saying much. The walls were burnt death yellow from years of cigarette smoke, the toilet was little more than a bucket with a drain, and the customers looked as ready to pull a knife as start a conversation. If the devil walked in the door he’d feel right at home, and so did I.”
Excerpt from The Dead Dame, by Mack Ralston, 1944.
There are few things more uniquely American than a dive. The Brits have their dodgy pubs, the French their filthy cafes, the Russians their vodka and sausage joints, but they are as different from a true American dive as burgundy is to bourbon.
Dives are definitely not for everyone, thank the merciful Lord. In the vast genus of bars, taverns and nightclubs, dives are a very specialized creature, suited for a select few. If you reckon you’re one of them, step inside. First off, are you sure you’re in a dive? Just because the bartender doesn’t wear a bow tie doesn’t mean you’re boozing like Bukowski. So what separates a dive from the deceivers? Glad you asked.
The Seven Essential Elements of a Dive
A dive is nothing you can conceive overnight. Believe it or not, people do try, hipster interior designers spend tens of thousands of dollars attempting to make a mere bar appear a dive, but they’re missing the point. It’s like those trust fund kids who put anarchy and punk rock stickers on the BMW their dad sent them to college with. In the end it’s still a BMW and they’re still rich swine sucking on daddy’s teat.
Conversely, some dive owners will become incensed if you call their bar a dive, the same way an aging beauty will flinch and snarl when you call them ma’am. Which is fine. They don’t have to know.
It takes years of dedicated sloth and resistance to change to make a dive. The 50’s-era Black Label neon is still on the wall not because the owner bought it in a boutique, it’s there because he’s too lazy, cheap or sentimental to replace it. The character of a dive cannot be purchased, it has to be steeped into the very structure by decades of neglect.
The bars name will reflect that sense of history. It will mostly likely ring of a previous era. It’s rarely clever, hip, whimsical or oblique, it’s most likely named for the first owner or the address. The sign outside usually leans toward retro, with the classic neon martini glass sometimes inserted into the makeup.
A dive isn’t dimly lit purely for the sake of atmosphere, it is dark because the owner is attempting to hide the vomit stains on the carpet, the botched paint job from 1979 and the worn-out, cigarette-scarred upholstery. Natural light is bad. The windows should be heavily tinted or blocked out completely. Sunshine makes things grow, and as Bukowski said, growing is for plants.
No interior designer was brought in to establish a “theme.” It took decades for the decor to properly accumulate that insane mishmash of pop culture. Five year old Xmas decorations co-exist with staff memorabilia, Polaroids of patrons long dead slowly curl next to a scrawled “86’d list”, populated with the fading names of wildcats who were probably 86’d from life a long time ago, buzzing signs advertise beers and spirits from distilleries and breweries that shut down in the seventies.
And just because lowlifes crowd the decor doesn’t mean it’s a dive. There are places on Colfax that cater to the day labor set, but are nowhere near a dive. They’re cafeterias for the poor and that’s exactly what they look like.
Don’t expect to be catered to. Bartenders that have chosen to work in a dive operate with a very simple principle: you give them money and they pour
you a good drink. Don’t expect any effuse greetings, big phony smiles or their eyes to light up when you whip out your Platinum Card. They might not take credit cards at all. These barmen and women act like real human beings who believe very strongly in the idea of mutual respect. Sure, they want your tips, but don’t expect them to grovel for them.
Drinks, Strong and Cheap
Ah yes, the pay off. The staff is possessed of the bedrock knowledge that their patrons don’t visit them to socialize or meet the gang after work, they go there to get on a fast train to dizzyland. Making money is not the top priority. If it was they’d try to cater to a more monied crowd. They pour them strong, there is no watchful manager working up databases, trying to figure out how he can give the customer less liquor for his working-class buck. They can afford to pour them strong because the overhead is low, it’s not like they’re dishing out a grand a week for advertising. They pass the savings on to you and if you think I’m lying, taste that whiskey and Coke.
Old Men Sitting At The Bar
Every dive has them. The bartender knows them by name and habit. They keep to themselves and you shouldn’t hassle them. If they want to talk to you they’ll mumble in your direction. When you walk in you may not even notice them, they have so adapted to their environment, they have become such a vital part of its make up they’re almost unrecognizable as fellow human beings. They say if you want a good meal on the road, eat where the truckers eat. If you want to find a good dive, follow the old drunks.
The Bombed Out Restroom
Hey, it’s a place to make room for the next drink, not to primp in the mirror in case the girl of your dreams walks in. If there’s a mirror at all. There’s more likely to be a fist-sized hole in the wall. As for the girl of your dreams, well, keep dreaming, kid.
Highlights and Lowlifes
If you find a bar that meets the criteria, then revel in it. Sure, there are downsides: the backed-up toilet, the lingering air of danger and the general air of depression, but there are sundry benefits as well. In a dive you can wallow in hideously cheap booze without anyone feeling the right to question your station in life. We all feel a bit cheap when the bartender in a ritzy martini joint asks what kind of vodka we’d like in our martini and we sheepishly reply, “Well is fine.” Step into a dive and let all that shame be washed away. You can order the cheapest rotgut in the house and the bartender will not smirk at you, he’ll probably think you’re tough. A real drinker. The kind of drinker that can take the good with the bad, and the bad with the bad, if you happen to order a PBR to back that rotgut up.
Another highlight is the aggressively preserved air of anonymity. If you feel a reason to drop out of society, to get away from your circle of friends, co-workers and acquaintances, the dive is the place to go. You can sit in a dark corner booth and revel in the idea that if the city’s police force threw all their resources into a massive dragnet designed to scoop you up, they probably wouldn’t come close. You’re ensconced in the perfect safehouse, just another face in the dark, safe from society’s attention.
For this reason the dive attracts a certain crowd. Look around, look at the damaged faces, the bar widows, the semi-desperate characters on the lam from crimes too petty to mention, the broken men teetering on the edge of becoming full blown winos. And, yes, even a few actual winos who gritted their teeth through a long degrading shift of day labor to rise above the alley life for a few fleeting hours and sit on a barstool and drink the dollar PBR in front of them. Bitter fruit for a day of beastly work, yes, but try to tell them the money would be better spent on a new pair of shoes and you’re most likely in for a session of screeched gibberish.
Anchored among the ever shifting ranks of transients are the regulars. Not the smug territorial types you’ll find in neighborhood joints and sports bars, these regulars won’t be waving any banners. They seem grimly resigned to their fates, like the elderly draftees called up to defend the ruins of Reich shortly after D-Day. They know this is the last stop for them, they are there because other bars won’t have them. They cling tightly to this last rung of the ladder knowing that if they fuck up one more time they have to go home and drink with themselves as company. And who the hell wants to drink alone with that bastard?
The transients and regulars don’t mix much, but they do have one thing in common: eccentricity. Not the calculated eccentricity tenured literature professors and yuppie artists attempt to conspire, but the full blown sort that screams for medication. And if they do put up a false front, it’s such a recklessly thrown together con-job that it is beautiful unto itself, bringing to mind those obvious but hugely entertaining flim-flammers who poured out of Russia after the Reds took over, claiming to be Romanoff princesses and princes.
Open your ears at a yuppie bar and try to collect one original nugget of wisdom. You’re not likely to hear a single original sentiment. It’ll probably sound like this:
“See the game the other night?”
“Yeah, that was awesome.”
“Totally. Hey, I missed Friends last night, what happened?”
“It was awesome! Monica is so entertaining! She and Chandler . . .”
And so on. Compare that drivel to a conversation I heard in a dive last week:
“I’m as hungover as Cain. Can you spring for one?
“I told you, sonuvabitch, I don’t want any part of that.”
“You’ll take it and like it. Listen, me and Jack Daniels doctored your soul all goddamn summer and this is how it is, huh?
“You remind of a pimp I knew once. All flash, no cash.”
“So, I’m a pimp now? All I do is look out for my ladyfriends. What do you call that?”
Now, that’s entertainment. On a good night you can take in huge, preposterous schemes hatched over cheap beers and shots, expeditions up the Amazon in search of piranha-protected gold, sure-fire counterfeiting scams, dubious arms deals involving surplus Russian submarines. The lower the man, the taller the tale, Voltaire noted, and in the passing of an evening gargantuan towers of imminent riches and fame can be erected, so lost in the clouds that even the builders must on occasion take a step back and gaze with awe at their insane majesty.
Posing as a willing participant is entertaining enough, but a far better trick is to introduce two hustlers and watch them go to work on each other. It may well culminate into something like this: “Okay, fine, we’ll use your extensive counterfeiting skills to raise the capital to outfit the expedition and book passage on the unmarked submarine, then we’ll drop the Uzis off in Haiti on the way to South America where we’ll use the arms deal cash to hire a guide to translate my secret map that will lead us upriver to the gold. Whew! Now let’s seal this fine compact with a shot. Do you have any money? I seem to have left my wallet in the penthouse.”
Try throwing together a scheme as perfectly ludicrous as that in a martini bar and you’re likely to get strong-armed by the bouncer before you can even mention how you plan to deal with the piranhas.
The dive is probably the most over-used type of bar you’ll find in movies, and for good reason. The constant influx of transients stirs the strange brew, there is drama, there is danger and anything can happen. It’s not where some corporate jerk stops in to celebrate his new promotion, it’s where people whom life has stripped of pretension and hope retreat to lick their wounds and make desperate decisions. There is a pervasive bunker mentality and it makes for an excellent place to emotionally regroup and glue together whatever pieces have fallen apart.
Just broke up with your girl and you’re not entirely sure why? What are you gonna do, dance away the heartbreak in some flashy disco? No. You brood in a dark place and think about what went wrong. You hunker down over well whiskies, mumbling, “She ought’na done it,” over and over and no one will give you the stinkeye. A dive is one of the few places you can drink alone and not get hassled by some sunshiner. No one will walk up to you and say, “Why the long face?” or “Why are you sitting all by yourself?” or most aggravating of all, “Come on, smile! You’ll feel a whole lot better, I promise!” In a dive it is assumed you have a reason to be sitting alone and the choice is respected. A personal problem hates a crowd. When there’s too many faces to pay attention to, you’ve got nothing left for yourself.
By the end of the night, your quiet time will give you a chance to reassemble the pieces. If not, you’ll at least be too loaded to give a damn if you finish the jigsaw puzzle or not.
At some point in their history, a dive will be invaded and sometimes held by alien invaders. The hipsters will visit it for the same reason you do, they are the cultural pilot fish and if enough of them gather, the yuppies will surely follow.
“It’s so decadent!” they’ll squeal. “Did you see the broken toilet? And look at that old guy in the corner, he looks like a character from that O’Rourke film. Just look at that wood paneling. Simply precious! If only there was some techno on the jukebox, it’d be perfect!”
On occasion an owner will take note of the additional revenue and attempt to cater to his wealthy new clientele and at that point the dive is dead until the yuppies move on to their next debauched discovery. The the dive will slide back into its real skin. Which may suck for him, but it’s great for us. It’s the absence of clientele that makes a dive strong and pure. Fill up any room with chattering mouths and the decor shifts into the background, the combined personality of the crowd takes over and it might as well be a fern bar.
A Final Word on Dive Etiquette
Don’t stand out, blend in. Don’t try to impress your wonderful personality on the place. This is not the forum to shine, it is a place to sink back into the decor.
You don’t own the joint. Don’t expect to be catered to because you’re so damn special. A true dive denizen doesn’t ask or expect much more than getting the booze he paid for. Don’t get all huffy if it takes the bartender a few minutes to look over his newspaper and see your glass is empty. Think about the last time you stood in line for fifteen minutes at a downtown bar and realize how good you got it.
Think Luddite. Leave you goddamn cell phone at home, a dive is a place to hide, not be found.
Leave the regulars alone. You can get away with a lot in a dive. Not because you’re special, but because there are so many unstable characters in and out, the bartenders have become used to it. You can get really drunk and the bartender won’t cut you off as long as you don’t hassle anyone else.
Don’t come on like Ghengis Khan. Leave your gang at home. Three is the largest group you want to bring in, any more than that and it looks like you’re trying to take over, trying to supplant your ego on the place. You’re better off going it alone. You may even learn to like yourself.
—Frank Kelly Rich