In every city and town across America, from the most shiny and teeming metropolis to the one-road “blink and you’ll miss it” pass-through town, there are local pubs — dive bars — just waiting to be found. As sure as there is a family-owned auto shop and a gas station wherever you go, you’ll likely find a humble watering hole there also. These public houses might be right off the main road, or behind an abandoned airport, or on the outskirts of a bustling downtown. No matter. What links them all together is not so much where they are, but the purpose they serve. They are the places where the locals go to leave work, stress, family, and all other annoyances behind. Checked at the door, those burdens are ignored until the tab is paid and the patron is back at their car in the gravel lot.
You might go years driving by such a dive bar until one night, for one reason or another, you find yourself walking through that solid paneled door, into the dim light of the beer-soaked oasis. Maybe you’re with some work friends and someone suggested it as a lark. Maybe you’re meeting an old friend who used to go there with you before age tempered such impulses in both of you. Maybe you’re meeting someone there because it’s out of the way, and quiet. Your reasons for going don’t really matter.
What matters is you ended up there, with the other would-be degenerates, furtive and about-to-be lovers, hard-working servers, young men and women not yet tied down by family; and the old men retired from jobs and looking to sit and drink somewhere they won’t be bothered. Maybe there’s a server named Hope or some such, whose boyfriend is the bar’s pool table champion, and who just wants a reliable job to save some money for a new place. Maybe two old men play darts in the corner, not saying a word to each other. Maybe someone is swiping their card and programming the jukebox to play a new version of an old country song.
This is not Hemingway’s Dingo American Bar and Restaurant in Paris, as you’re not likely to find any literary giants hanging around in here. Could be an aspiring poet or songwriter, though, sipping a beer and wondering if he’ll make it big. Maybe a toiling scribbler, anxious to make her way in the news business, if she can just catch that break. Surely there are a couple of hangdog drinkers, planted at the bar like stunted trees on the bank of a dried-up creek. As Eric Church sung about them, they’re looking to “drink away this crazy world” and each is seeking nothing more than a bartender to “pour some whiskey on this drowning man.”
The dive bar is more The Double Deuce in “Road House” than it is the bar in “John Wick’s” Intercontinental Hotel. Except here you’re not needing Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott to sweep into town to clean it up, because it lacks that sinister element. At worst, it pulses a current of decided cynicism and weariness. At best, it’s a warm embrace from a slightly off-kilter relative.
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This would’ve been called a saloon a century and a half ago. Then it would have had some ladies looking to make a man forget for a few minutes — and for a few dollars. Now, it’s all pool tables, juke boxes, rounded high-top tables, bar and stools, and a small dance floor. There is also likely persisting the faint haze of 20 years of cigarette smoke, since banned, but sometimes still allowed if the bartender feels generous.
This is more Moe’s Tavern than Cheers. You can order a fancy drink, sure, but you might get some side-eye and a comment as Hope does her best to make you a passable gin and tonic (as soon as she finds some tonic).
It could very well be Billy Joel’s bar in “Piano Man,” with its regular crowd shuffling in, there to wash away regrets and to simply feel alright. Or Jason Isbell’s Mustang Lounge in “Cumberland Gap,” where “if you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.”
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No matter where it is, one thing is true: it’s a magical place where, for a time, you and the bartender, the boy or girl on the stool next to you, the silent dart throwers and the pool players, are all linked together in that space and time like a chemical reaction in a laboratory test tube. Whatever brought you all together on that night, in that place, will probably stay one of the universe’s mysteries. Your job is to just enjoy it, soak it in, and play the part of a catalyst in the solution. Take the short time you are all in that place to appreciate stepping out of life’s swift current for a brief moment. Sip your beer slowly, put a song on the jukebox, hold your girl’s hand, ask the bartender about her life, and leave the rest of yours outside in the gravel lot for a few minutes.
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