The Glorious Magnetism of the Dive Bar
And why it lives in all of us.
If you spend an inordinate amount of time doing anything in life, at a certain point, you start asking yourself: why. Why do I work so hard? Why do I date trainwrecks? Why do I eat meat? Why do I seek approval? Why do I compulsively seek out my own hidden motivations? For me, I wonder, Why did I spend so many days and nights in dive bars?
That past tense hurts to type. Dive bars are an essential part of the American experience, but under pandemic guidelines, they’re not an essential business. No one can visit dives right now. Not the people who need them, not the people who love them, not the people who can’t stay out of them and can’t say why.
Since I have time on my hands, I’m giving some thought to why dive bars have always been everything I ever wanted. In this homebound era, you probably have better things to do, but if you’ve finished all the books and attempted all the recipes, let’s tumble down this rabbit hole together.
I could say that my first job was to write about dives, but that’s not entirely accurate. They did constitute an outsized chunk of output at my first paid gig, penning the “Cocktail Hour” column in the bygone Dallas alt-weekly The Met. But no one told me to write about them. They’re where I gravitated, in part because it felt editorially safe: dives made it easier to traffic in caricatures at a time when I had absolutely no idea how to describe the world as it was. I could romanticize them and no one would fact check.
Except, of course, the bars themselves. In letters to the editor, one elderly bartender took enraged exception to my description of his bar as a dive, threatening to kill me if I ever set foot in The Office again. A North Dallas establishment expressed its displeasure in stern but reasonable terms, defending its clientele as doctors, lawyers, and generally good people. When I returned to apologize for treating good people like cartoon characters, the bartender, a woman in her early 50s, alerted the whole bar: “Well, well, it’s DAVID BLEND.” It was the first time I’d been professionally recognized by name. We talked it out, played Liar’s Poker, and drank. I never entered a dive bar as an observer again.
For whatever reason, though, I kept frequenting dives. I know why I was supposed to be attracted to them: they represented a dying Americana, a chance to air-lick the salt of the earth, a Depression-era David Lynch movie, monasteries to which broken people retreated to mumble the secrets of existence, poetry slams delivered with bleary eyes and slumped shoulders, a lot of things that were occasionally true but more often than not, not.
The fascinating characters were a draw, especially once I started talking to them instead of drawing crude sketches of their lives from two tables over. But fascinating characters can be found anywhere that serves alcohol. At an alternative lounge, I befriended a sommelier who once dealt speed to iconic punk bands. At an Aussie tavern, I was introduced to a nomadic lawyer who squatted in an art collective and who’d helped write a quasi-democratic constitution for an ancient East Asian kingdom. At a Midtown Manhattan piano bar, I stooled up with the college roommate of a techno pioneer -- who’d apparently been terrified of drugs until my new friend dosed him.
And of course, dive bar patrons can be uninteresting just like anyone else. “Two Beer Bob,” a fixture at a Dallas 7 a.m. bar, was an exuberant 70-something who’d drop his pants immediately upon finishing two beers. That was it, his whole game. If there was anything deeper going on underneath, he never exposed it. The presumption that dive bar patrons must all be enigmas is a stereotype, and it’s an unfair burden to put on a man who just wants to go where everybody knows his nickname.
There was an admirable nakedness to Bob’s eccentricity that you won’t find in one of those sports bars that thinks it’s a nightclub. Most dive bar patrons aren’t crazy, but the ones who are let you know it, or at least they let me know it. Are you an ex-CIA operative who ran with Central American death squads? Are you storing boxes of evidence in your trunk -- right out there in the parking lot! -- that proves you’re innocent of the felonies they say you committed in the great state of Louisiana? Talk to me. I’ll listen.
There is freedom to be found in drinking with people who, while they might not quite understand why you’re there, don’t really care that you’re not somewhere else, being someone else, trying to become someone else altogether.
Not all of my loitering happens in dives. My favorite bar, which I’ve inexcusably neglected since moving to Brooklyn, often gets described as one, but the bartenders there would be the first to tell you that it’s not. It is a consistently great time, run by professionals who deeply love a lifestyle that can’t exist without alcohol, loud music, dim lighting, and a crowd that must be fondly screamed at when it’s time to go home.
Its geographical predecessor had been a dive, though. I was sitting at the bar at 5 p.m. when a tallish ghost from bygone days wandered in, rocking the blazer and vibes of a mid-level 1980s record exec who’d never adapted to digital but mostly maintained his cool -- except for the blood spatter under his lapel, and eyes that peered out at a different decade. After passing the guy a glass of water and a menu, the bartender went to finish first-shift tasks. Anger stumbled up through the haze -- the guy was pissed he’d been given a drink menu when he’d just wanted a drink. With unhurried theatricality, he tossed the glass at the bartender and defiantly sauntered out the door, taking the last vestiges of “dive” with him and leaving the bar to be what it’d become: the best possible version of a resurrection (in most cases, when all the risen bar has to offer is a cleaner crowd and more expensive burger, you find yourself praying that miracles could be extinguished).
My last true dive session was in San Francisco. I’d extended a one-day work trip through Saturday. After brunch with my best friend from high school, I had nothing to do but hole up somewhere. I found a Tenderloin bar open early, and settled in for eight hours.
The place welcomed me more than I probably deserved: The Korean bartender fed me persimmons. A construction worker and I bought each other drinks and shared stories of back problems, pausing our conversation only long enough for him to slur a death threat to another patron over a $400 debt. A concert promoter essentially confided his lifestyle-adjacent means of supplemental income. An older trans woman offered me pink Himalayan rock salt from a jar she carried in her bag.
It was shortly after sampling it, I realize now, that I finally figured out why I was there.
Around 7 p.m., a party of tourists had filtered in, unaware that there were still bad parts of San Francisco. Two couples in their thirties, not preppy but still out of place. They weren’t loud or explicitly condescending. They just carried on like they would in any other bar, oblivious to the scene they’d crashed.
Lack of awareness can be worse than gawking. Bars like these are endangered places, where anyone who puts in the time can still be whoever they happen to be, instead of the amorphous symptom of nuisance they might be seen as if forced to patronize supposedly finer establishments or fade into the sidewalks. Despite the neighborhood’s flickering reputation for danger, several of the world’s best cocktail bars could be found within walking distance, along with I’m sure a handful of New American taverns, gastropubs, etc. Acting as if the regulars weren’t even here felt especially insulting given that, within a year, they likely wouldn’t be.
The entire bar, myself included, stared at the couples, waiting for realization to dawn. Finally my rock salt supplier had had enough. She screamed at them to leave. The bartender told them that they’d probably better go, drinks were on the house.
Gathering their belongings, they finally took in their surroundings, collecting what details they could for the story they’d be telling for years. Their eyes swept across the lover of mountainous minerals as she stood arms folded like a guardian of the old city, the construction worker, nodding off as he attempted the same glare he’d given his debtor, the bartender (who would have been happy to serve them had loyalty not issued its demands), and… me.
I hoped they assumed I had a story, that I’d led a fascinating life. I hoped they’d be asking themselves “What the hell was that guy’s deal?” for years to come, just because I happened to be sitting there, in a dive.