Los Angeles, CA
Sanctuary. That's the best way to describe a comforting dive bar.
I'm not talking about a local neighborhood bar, like Cheers, in which everyone knows your name. I like the kind of dive bar in which no one knows my name and I can walk in off the street and disappear for a few hours, as the bar provides a sanctuary for me and my thoughts.
Then again, I walked into a New Orleans dive bar with AlCantHang, and the barkeep shrieked, "Al!" as soon as she saw him.
I spent my fair share of time in dive bars all across America. Dive bars are my favorite kind of bars. I never liked those cool, hip bars. In college, everyone went to the same fucking meat-market bar on Thursday nights, but I opted for a quieter and more laid back dive. That was twenty years ago, when I was in peak drinking shape and could polish off a 24-pack of Schaefer in a few hours. Nowadays, it would take me a week to drink that much beer.
I'm a dive bar guy. I'm now in my 40s and I don't wait in lines with velvet ropes in order to get a drink. Worst thing I hated about Las Vegas. The fucking club scene. It might have been more my speed in my early 20s if I was jacked up on ecstasy, but I don't imbibe much these days, so when I do choose to get liquored up the last thing I'm going to do is wait in line to get in the bar, then wait another fifteen minutes at the bar to get a drink. Or worse, they fall prey to the biggest sucker bet in Vegas outside of blackjack insurance... bottle service... in which schmucks pay an redonkulously overcharged price for a bottle of vodka, just so they can feel like they're somebody. Yeah, you're somebody all right... a fucking moronic mook who is pathetically trying to buy coolness, so they're willing to dish out mega bucks on inflated liquor prices. Hey, but that's why club owners in Vegas are rolling in dough. There's no shortage of brainwashed, desperate wannabes in search of "cool." Unfortunately the only validation they get is a fat SUCKER label stamped on their forehead and a juicy credit card bill.
I hate clubs because of all the anxiety involved. The guy with the clipboard is a judgmental asswipe. The waitresses are snooty. The bouncers are itching to pound someone's head in. Clubs and hip bars are crowded with annoying vapid wankers and chicks more interested in posting selfies than carrying on a semi-legitimate conversation. Plus the DJ is too cool for your tastes and thinks he's Skillrex.
But let's face it... I'm at the right age in which it is socially acceptable to be drinking in old man's bars. It's a little pathetic if I'm hopelessly trying to get into swanky clubs with ropes, or worse, being that middle-aged guy trying to bribe a thick-necked bouncer in hopes he'll let me cut the line for a Benjamin.
I had a bartending stint at an old man's bar. Didn't work there very long. Tips were terrible. Stories were better than average. But these were grizzled alkies with perpetually bloodshot eyes that waited outside for the bar to open every morning. The atmosphere in old man bars was sullen and pathetic. Petty arguments about sports and politics that went no where. But that's what those guys wanted. They were drowning in their own melancholy and afflicted with the disease. They were all waiting to die, so all they wanted was to nurse their drinks and be shielded from the slings and arrows of the outside world. The same world that was happy to keep those sad fuckers hidden away from productive members of society.
Don't get an old man's bar confused with a dive bar. Sometimes they are one in the same. In most urban settings, the old guys drink there during the day and then stagger off when happy hour ends, when the bar becomes a haven for average working folks looking for a low key place to drink. But the problem with some dive bars is that they often get filled hipsters looking to be hip, or party people purposefully slumming. Old guys have a very low tolerance for hipsters. Then again, so does everyone.
A good dive bar attracts the wide spectrum of people, so on any given night you'll have that silent old drunk slumped in the corner, and a couple of sorority chicks doing shots, a poet trying to read a book, banksters in pinstripes (rushing off to the john to do rails), a potential Rhodes scholar or the junkie with the leather jacket that played in that so-called legendary punk band.
A good dive bar is the kind of place you can do blow in the bathroom and its totally cool. An awesome dive bar will let you do it on the bar. My favorite dives are the places where you can fire up a joint in the alley, so long as you invite the bartender.
The bartender at a good dive bar is sort of a cross between a rock star and a prison guard. They are grossly outnumbers by the inmates, but they hold the extreme authority so you never want to fuck with a bartender otherwise you'll never get a drink. The most power I ever felt as an adult happened when I was tending bar and I got to shun a potential customer by making them wait forever before I took their order. It's even a bigger fuck you if there's three people in the bar.
We spent the majority of last weekend in the same dive bar on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter. AlCantHang picked it out. It was in his DNA. It was nestled next to something called The Dungeon, which is exactly what you think it is. Cross between an S&M club and the type of bar that blasts heavy metal so loud that your ears will bleed after five minutes.
At the dive, we befriended one of the locals that we dubbed Will the Thrill. I couldn't tell if he was a pool hustler who was having an off night, or just an average player who thought he was a hustler. One thing is for certain, you never want to play pool against a guy who brought his own stick. A serious hustler doesn't want anyone to know they're good so they play with house sticks, which Will the Thrill was doing.
At one point he tapped me as his partner to play a match against two locals. One kid looked like a meth dealer and the other looked like he lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They all knew each other, which made me a little leery. I spotted myself as the sucker. But Will the Thrill wanted to use me as bait. I was clearly off my game. I haven't played bar pool in a very long time. For one, I never hang out in bars anymore, and haven't been inside a pool hall in years. In our 20s, Senor and I used to go out and shoot pool all the time in NYC. We'd hit up the dive bar circuit in the East Village, and when he wanted to cruise for hot Korean girls, we'd migrate to midtown. NYC pool halls gave non-drinkers a chance to socialize without having to be inside a bar.
In New Orleans, I played the roll as the bad pool player perfectly. It was a performance worthy of an Oscar nod. I didn't even have to try to be bad. I was bad. I think they call that method acting, right?
The dive bar had a pool table with two crooked sticks and a piece of chalk on its last licks. The worn table only cost 50 cents which was a throw back to my college days. Shit there was one hipster bar in San Francisco where pool cost $2 a game, so you better win your games otherwise it was going to be an expensive night out.
But I wasn't that bad all weekend. At one point Iggy and I held the table for over ninety minutes before we lost to Otis and his brother in a rematch game. Then again, we weren't really paying attention much so the games dragged on and on. It was one of those types of games when no one was shooting for a few minutes and you had to walk across the bar and say, "I think you're up.... but I forget if we're low or high."
No wonder Will the Thrill wanted to use one of us as bait to hustle the other locals.
Besides a pool table, the most important element to any bar is the jukebox. The pool table lures in the degenerate gamblers, but the jukebox is how you woo women. Well, that and some roofies and tequila.
At one point, an incredulous Iggy lectured the tandem of AlCantHang and Bad Blood on their affinity for heavy metal. I had a heavy metal phase when I was a kid, but these days it's nowhere close to my favorite genre. I could tolerate a few songs, especially because I dug the one Tool song that they played, but the bartender turned it down a few notches. You could also sense the few other customers in the bar weren't keen on the thrashing. Iggy lost his cool after one song.
"What up with this crap?" snarled Iggy. "If you want to listen to death metal, go next door!"
The Dungeon next door had a jukebox filled with heavy metal. When I walked in the previous night with Al and Dave, I was bombarded with Iron Maiden. It felt like 7th grade all over again. The Dungeon's jukebox also had Steel Panther, a heavy metal cover band that played weekly gigs in Vegas and LA. They had an original tune called Asian Hooker. Al and Dave put it on, but we had to wait an hour before their songs came up in the queue. By then I was nearly deaf. After seeing almost a thousand loud concerts since I was a teenager, my hearing is not the best anymore. After the Dungeon, I felt like I had blown out my ear drums.
Back at the dive bar, while Iggy was lecturing Al and Bad Blood, I jokingly rallied the troops and told everyone to throw a few bucks into the Jukebox to make sure we didn't have to suffer another wave of heavy metal from the headbangers in the bar. But I offered up my own expertise on selecting the proper Jukebox songs.
"You're essentially taking on the roll as DJ for a few minutes, which means you have a responsibility to entertain the bar, keep the ladies swaying, but most importantly, you have to keep the bartender happy. You can't shove your music down people's throats. In most bars, the bartender has the volume controls. In some bars, the bartender has supreme veto power. Nothing sucks more than dumping a few bucks into a jukebox and then getting cockblocked because the bartender has an issue with whatever song you picked."
If you pay for three songs (it was three songs for a buck), the rule I adhere to is this: one for the bar, one for you, and one deep cut to make the bar go "Wow! Haven't heard this in a while!" The softball pick is the easiest. The one for you is touchy because you want to pick something that you love, but you also want something that you think everyone else will dig. And the deep cut is problematic if the jukebox has a limited selection. But if you can find the right combination, then there's nothing like jubilant bar patrons singing along to something you put on. I even put on some Sublime to keep my brother interested.
The dive bar's jukebox was filled with standard classic rock, lots of grunge, and more heavy metal than the average bar should have. They also had some bizarre and weird stuff like industrial music from Germany and the Hinterlands. But it lacked contemporary music (I don't think I saw anything older than Pearl Jam) and didn't have anything that the ladies would love like Motown, disco, and other dance-inducing songs.
Old man bars are rarely happy, but dive bars are different. Depends on the ebbs and flows of the clientele and what gets played on the jukebox. A cozy dive might emit good vibes, but it's really a place to hide out for a few hours.
Most bars are depressing because of its clientele or what they are trying to achieve.You can drink at home and its much cheaper. You can drink on the street if you do not have a home, which is also cheaper than a bar. But you go to a bar to be social, but if you go to an old man's bar or a dive bar, you are passive-aggressively looking to be social. We're all lonely. Some of us life-long addicts would rather succumb to addiction in the privacy of your own home, which is why there's millions of Americans every night hopped up on pills and getting sloshed on their couches. For the adventurous lonely souls, dive bars gives them a chance to potentially interact with other lonely souls, who want to hide out but not banish themselves into complete seclusion.
Some bars are technicolor. Most dive bars are black and white. Like stepping back into an old photograph leaping back into the past. Bending time. Sometimes its sepia. Sometimes its blue. Or green-tinged. A proper dive bar has no proper distinction. Perspective is "as is" while living precisely in the moment.
Dive bars are supposed to be a place where kindred spirits gather. Sort of the opposite of a family gathering. Because family holidays have a certain amount of animosity and hatred involved. You usually do not go to places where you're not wanted. You tend to avoid people who hate your guts. Which is why high school is so painful and why holiday gatherings are so stressful because you're forced to interact with people who hate your guts and they do a bad job trying to shine it on for the holidays.
Balance is the key. If a dive becomes too popular then it gets gentrified with hipsters and then it loses its laid back appeal. If it gets too dismal and dark, then it becomes an utter shit hole of misery. The entire point of a dive bar is to find momentary solace from the rigors of life and escape the other shit holes you're stuck in whether its home, work, or school. You don't trade one shit hole for another. You just want a place where you can be yourself and truly relax.
As I started drinking less and less (and more and more at home), I discovered that I missed out on dive bars, which were an oasis from the barren grind of everyday life. Amsterdam had a heady alternative with hash bars and coffeeshops, which certainly appealed to me much more than a regular bar. San Francisco had a few dives in my hood in LoPac, but it was always crowded with hipsters slumming it.
But in New Orleans, Al found the right dive. Which is why we spend more time there than any other place. It was centrally located. A few blocks from where we were all staying. It had a pizza join half a block away and a Lucky Dog cart in front. It was right off Bourbon Street so we could see the lewd behavior of shitfaced tourists like the one 20-something guy who was fingering a cougar right in front of the bar, or the barbacks from a popular bar across the street who wandered over to roll joints in front of the dive bar.
The dive even had bathrooms behind hidden bookcases,
so if you went in for the first time, you'd have no idea where you
should do your business. Even those secret doors did not have locks,
which provided some sense of security of you were dropping a deuce or
trying to do a few lines.
The only thing the dive did not have was its own breathalyzer. Luckily one was located across the street inside the Tropical Isle. I somehow got the task of setting the lines of our friends BAC. It was not an exact science. I'd quiz them on what they had drank that day, but more importantly, what did they consume in the previous hour. It was a simple over/under. You'd be shocked to see what some of the crew blew. AlCantHang's BAC was so high one time I had no idea how he was standing, let alone breathing. Then again, that's why he's AlCantHang.
A perfect dive bar never changes. It's a sanctuary for your battered soul.