Dive bars are the bastions of seedy Americana. They exist amid car dealerships and discount grocery stores, across from cemeteries and public swimming pools, on the corner, next to gas stations, between high-rises, before sports arenas, in the basements of apartment buildings, beneath highway overpasses, jutting out into lakes, over rivers, off of bike paths, the side of the road, where you turn for Gammy’s house, in converted houses, in double-wides in health food store parking lots, next to a train or power plant, tucked in a strip mall amid For Rent signs, in small towns, but rarely down dirt roads. From outside, they are another statistic: closed for good, awaiting demolition. It advertises by not. Hiding in full view. The goiter is skin-colored. You might drive by the same dive bar for years, never stopping in, never thinking it quite exists, until someone calls it by name and you respond, Oh, that thing?
Maybe there’s a door in front, but don’t try it. The entrance is in back.
The Bambi. Its sign is a neon green fawn. When flashing, the fawn appears to bend down for a drink of water. Front legs splayed. The sign is Disney World surplus. I enter in back and pass the bathrooms, Does and Bucks. The main room is dark. I stop to let my eyes adjust. A plastic cactus. A blow-up palm tree. More neon beer signs. Bubbling noises from an aquarium. I’ve sunk to the bottom of the fish tank. And now imbued with gills. How we all were before our birth. We sucked in. Our mothers were liquid. Then we overheard something. Amphibious life of a tunnel. Coming from slime we are the most loved we’ll ever be. A doctor holds us up. The seaweed wrapped around snaps!
I arrive into night. Night is in itself: justice. Freedom from one’s constant pursuit of justice. The transformation must be quick. Wither or thrive. Our first success was occupying a cave. To rid from dens large mammals with sharper teeth. In a dive bar we simply keep the lights off. The animals are tricked and go to sleep. The ceiling is close, tiles painted brown. I ask about specials. The cheapest beer. There’s only Bud. I think of St. Louis where I was born. All of this alerts the bartender I’m new, except she already knew this. As soon as I stepped in. She’s never seen my face before or my shadow. The light I’ve brought inside bewilders everyone. It’s caught up in the smoke. Though no one’s lit up inside for a decade. You smell smoke from ten years ago. Also, drinkers wear it on them. Every so often rising from the bar stool, covering their whiskey with a cardboard coaster, and stepping out back.
Dive bars began for railroad workers and miners. Men who moved out West to build The Way for more to Follow. Women, imported, took beds upstairs. The West, then, was only a job. Very little handshaking. The various forts and posts erected by military—those other men in navy pants and caps. The West, then, was an argument. Dive bars were then overtaken by Cowboys, crooks, lawyers and other AA drop-outs, people who held two part-time jobs, the unemployed whose spouses had full-time work, rich women who were born poor, rich men who are going broke, bikers, hippies, Communists before they were parents, hipsters, younger brothers who’ve suffered brain damage, Shirley, Gary, etc.
The bartender is the only person here who knows that, before this moment, I’ve never existed. It’s a skill of those who prepare, their whole life, to talk, at some point, to cops. Having to describe some lunatic in bad shape who is now a suspect, wanted, although they’ve never been very wanted before though someone’s always looking for them. A dive bartender can identify something beyond description by describing its physical manifestations. Not features—brown hair, etc.—or what a person wore—suede coat, chipped cuff link. But a quality. Whatever destabilizes consistency and makes it mush.
The bartenders look like my aunts, but only how I remember my aunts to have looked when I was growing up. Feathery bangs. Triangular hairstyles. Some parts sleek, others crimped. So you love them. You want to love something here, or love something else enough to fight for it. Everyone in here appears out of necessity. The place’s signature decoration: charcoal caricatures of celebrities alongside “the regulars.” Neither whom are recognizable. Everyone’s laughing. Plain glasses are stacked behind the bar according to the severity of what it can hold. Shot. Rocks glass. Crystal towers. Futuristic India. Reflecting what little lighting exists otherwise aglow in the eyes of drinkers. Raccoons roadside in the brush. The animal is too timid. The bar is a long shelf with heads from beheaded sculptures of a pillaged dynasty. They resemble marbles. Foreheads gleaming!
A couple ‘gals’ belt out the chorus of a song playing on the jukebox. A woman laughs an obese laugh. Which sets off a man snorting. Which prompts the bartender to quip Well listen to you all. Another guy quips, Last time I play that song! It’s a game of pinball. The first sip is taken. Which is not the longest sip. That’s the sip before last, when really, there’s nothing left. The “just checking” sip. The TV is on mute. No one busies themselves unnecessarily—by checking phones or reading books. No one acts like they’re waiting for anything else to happen. It’s okay to just stare. There’s enough happening in here already to hypnotize the central nervous system. We are all here because at home it is too quiet. Here my name is hon. The ladies behind the bar androgynize you, nuzzle you against fleshy paddles. We sit and stare. Does thinking take place? The day: nonexistent.
Every time I look up there are three men staring at me from opposite sides of the room. They don’t break their stare. I don’t ingratiate myself. Though people will say, Enjoy it while you can! But who can enjoy what—to begin with—is unwanted? Just because the unwanted thing might not happen forever, but will change to some other unwanted attention. They want me to think that in the future I’ll think this unwanted thing represented something else—some sort of beauty of youth, which gets implied that I’ll mourn. To stare right through a person. Men are not adoring, they are feeling sorry for themselves. I am projected onto. The straight dudes recognize me as much as a fountain recognizes the stone being thrown at it. A universal ‘her’. I feel never born. While the universal ‘her’ reminds men of uninevitably having been born. And not because their sad story involves someone who walked out on them. Men stare deathily. It is their hurt, which others try to read as desire. The hideousness of a cord. Another drink is ordered. Short black straw. White square napkin. The dive bar isn’t about what’s already here, but what you bring on you into here.
And now one person, me, if not the whole bar, is reminded of the suffering in the world which everyday is not made right. The drinker smiles more. Beams! The dive bar is fit for a child. It’s not seedy, it’s the Mecca of civilization. A conversation happens that no one brought up. It’s easy to feel the present is a friend. Smiling champions the present moment. One wants from this place a little respect from Time. People aren’t haunted. They are hounded. One also likes to get down with their dingy side. I remember a mud fight when I was young. The slop was in my crotch. I moved with it. It worked itself farther up. I had never laughed so hard. Not just an occasion—say a downpour flooding the neighbor’s yard, after they broke ground but before the house gets built—but the dive bar is a pattern. It is not a place. It is a behavior. For example, I stare at a patch of carpeting until it begins to sparkle like static. An impermanence in parts per billion! You are at the mercy of your own epiphanies. Which brings me to mention the inevitable. Alcoholism1. Cultures and societies—not people—are alcoholics. To believe tomorrow will be no better than right now. Addiction is knowledge that one has something to return to. In 2013 Jason Molina died of organ failure in Indianapolis. In 1986 here a man died in the phone booth. His pint glass perched on a tiny shelf below the payphone. He just stopped talking in the middle of the conversation…
As for the others, the ones on the lighter side of the bar, we need a messy place that doesn’t reflect poorly on us individually, but that does, at the same time, speak openly to some sort of disorganization within ourselves. Not like the dirt piling up in one’s own house—on the pipes under the sink and on baseboards, in the backs of kitchen cabinets, beneath the fridge, around the litter box, at the base of the toilet on each side in those things that look like its ears, sticking to old magazines, under rugs, down into the drains, inside the microwave, on every slat of blind, smeared around the light switch, topping fan blades. A sick person never sees it, Marguerite Duras might tell you. We might say it feels cozy. Homey. Which is to proclaim, This I recognize! You can only say it smells like shit here because you’ve sat on a pile of your own. The olives sink to the bottom of my glass. I must be the only person! Olives in cheap beer. They are whatever globular mass is protecting some reddish center2. The middle distinguishing itself from the rest of itself. A center one feels, and feels because of. Some people feeling more themself.
1 I also thought about, well, drinking…which I’m always thinking about regardless, because my favorite people both in this life and historically tend towards it. Favorite writers and artists. I look up to them, daily, and it’s impossible for me not to consider their struggles and/or what others saw as their struggles. No one’s life should be reduced to their drinking or not drinking, and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m doing that. It’s a study of mine though. Obviously, the book I’m writing involves my father in this way…and excuse me for speaking so openly here, I hope it’s okay…but what I’ve been thinking about is how the most special people are a sort of impossibility for our very ‘reasonable’ world. That in this person is something so unique the world can’t quite accommodate, which then becomes a problem just for that individual. It seems unfair. To me it appears as a collective problem. A deaf world. – from an email to my brother-in-law, Kevin, following the death of his brother
2 I’d already tasted in my mouth a man’s eyes and, from the salt in my mouth, realized he was crying.
– Clarice Lispector