News From the Front

Back in the day, the lifecycle of a typical dive was this: An optimist opens a bar without corporate or chain support. It’s flashy and new, with a wild mid-century sign on the front. It’s built for the ages, as an earl would build a castle for his descendants, a legacy business meant to be passed down to progeny. The optimist has a grand idea about what a bar should be, and his creation is almost always considered pretty high-class by the drinkers of the day. The optimists with a modicum of business sense soar, those lacking that quality crash and burn in the first couple years, usually surrendering their crumpled wings to other optimists who think they can do better. This is the Butterfly Stage.

After flying high for several decades or more, the momentum peters out and the bar settles into the routine of a productive mine. Inertia sets in, as does a corps of regulars. The bar isn’t trendy or new; it’s venerable, it has character. This is the Cocoon Stage.

Over time, the bar is passed from the original owner to someone else, usually a surviving spouse or other family member, and it continues drifting diveward. They’re making money, so why fix it? They’re not exactly mining a rich vein, but the ore still yields enough gold to make it worthwhile. Bartenders, once young and fresh-faced, slowly turn dour and cantankerous. The regulars age and dig in, gaining a powerful sense of belonging and dominion. Neither feel the need to cater to every fool who thinks they can stroll in and start ordering people around.

Holiday decorations are left up to gather dust, because why take them down when you have to put them right back up in 11 months? Sentimental ephemera attaches and spreads like slow-moving vines. Then, and it happens slowly, then suddenly, the bar starts getting called a “dive.” First by people who don’t know what a dive is, then, as the self-fulfilling prophecy takes hold, by people who do know what a dive is and prefer to drink in them. At this point the owner, rarely the original captain, will rage against this grave insult, explaining how it’s just a comfortable “neighborhood watering hole,” how the riffraff are zealously repelled, except for the regular riffraff, and anyhow, the riffraff add character to the place. But the fact of the matter is the bar has entered the Caterpillar Stage. The gaudy butterfly has finally metamorphosed into a rugged and excellent worm. A proper dive.

But here’s the rub: The first phase of this glorious cycle—an optimist giving physical form to a grand idea—has all but vanished. New bars are rarely ships built by dreamers to navigate the ages, but rather as short-to-mid-term investments slapped together by businessmen who are thinking in terms of cash flow and fast returns. They are built to ride whatever trend is current, then sold to another investor two or ten years down the line who jumps on whatever the new trend is. As soon as things start getting noir and august, the bars are sold and transformed into some plastic new thing. They never gather the necessary momentum to make the full journey to true dive status. The butterflies get squashed the moment their wings fall off. And if this trend continues, soon enough the only dive bars around will be moths; that is, dressed-down butterflies charging $15 a drink.

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