February 16, 1999: Fat Tuesday. This afternoon, downtown in the Gaslamp, aren’t letting on that they spent the workday at work. They hustle across Fourth Avenue and yell excitedly at friends as police construct roadblocks and shut down the streets to automobiles. No one is running wild yet, but a tension charges the atmosphere. Tight groups of locals and tourists speed-walk like fans looking for their seats during the crescendo of the national anthem. For sure, piety didn’t lure any of these people downtown, but the opportunity to make merry and get drunk with the blessing of the Catholic church – that’s too good to miss.
Over the last few days however, I’ve learned to distrust anything so obviously communal: the sociable streets on this Mardi Gras are not my milieu. I mutter a curse as I shove past the tight T-shirt crowd lining up at the Hard Rock. I make my way up to E Street and follow the quick dogleg into the Star Bar.
At first sight, the Star Bar seems tailor-made for an indulgent holiday. The main bar stretches a good 30 yards to the back of the room; a smaller bar stands on the opposite side, absorbing overflow customers. Gaudy Christmas lights hang around the room and hundreds of bottles of booze form their own twinkling constellations behind the long bar.
The Star Bar is an industrial drink house, a real bucket shop. It displays a huge variety of alcohol – big enough, it seems, to satisfy even the most ostentatious drink order. (A bird-watcher friend of mine told me once that spotting the first 7000 of the same 9000 species is fairly easy; the remaining 2000, however, will test your patience. If rare varieties of alcohol are your compulsion, I recommend a trek to the Star Bar.) For the benefit of the half-dozen or so Asian bartendresses, someone has written with a black marker, and in bold figures, the price of each bottle across its label. A Myer’s and grapefruit costs 50 cents more than a Scotch and soda, but beer is your best bet. A hand-written note behind the bar spells it out in plain English: “.75 Coors draft daytime, $1.00 Coors draft night time.”
About 20 people sit at the bar. Though the Star Bar can service large crowds, and this Fat Tuesday the place shows the signs of a dive. All but 2 people came to the bar alone. The customers sit one stool apart from each other and swizzle stick their drinks. Except for a young couple sitting at a table, no one talks. The room’s size amplifies the solitude of its customers, making them appear even smaller than they feel. The Star Bar is a ringer, a powerhouse dive equipped with mammoth size but only one pool table. This place means business and operates with assembly-line efficiency.
Zach Good, an authority on San Diego dive bars, has a favorite story about the Star Bar. “I was there once with s few friends,” he explains, “and one of the girls we were with put money in the jukebox. The wrong songs played. She asked the cocktail waitress what was going on, and she said in a thick Asian accent, ‘Oh, it’s just the Stah Bah. Everything old. Everything broken. You know, Stah Bah.’”
I take a seat one stool removed from a Mexican man in his 30s. The waitresses conduct their business with a good-spirited pluck that contrasts with the mood of their customers: they tease and giggle and trade idiomatic barbs. The man next to me orders another Scotch and water. “Okay, another,” the waitress says, then, “You got scratch again. You girlfriend scratch you again?” “Yuh,” he nods. “You so sweet,” she says, and leans over the bar to kiss his wound.
Dive bars are a fad these days. Low-life lassitude, the down-and-out attitude, these poses attract hip drinkers in their 20s and 30s from Portland, Maine, to San Diego. Admittedly, a majority of people drinking in dive bars before noon aren’t feigning alcoholism, but their sensibilities, their diction, their style, all have become fashionable during the past several years. The 1987 movie Barfly, written by Charles Bukowski, certainly influenced the trend, but the excesses of the era kept the movie’s style from becoming anything larger than an underground vogue. The ‘80s didn’t like its immoderation quite so dreary; the decade preferred the drama of clubs, stadium concerts, and keg parties to the monotony of the dive. Though these larger venues remain popular, younger crowds have since infiltrated the darkest recesses of the dingiest bars.
Just as underground film has breached mainstream culture, so have dive bars, which companies and industries now commodify in television commercials, books and websites. Miller carries two of its products, Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite, on the backs of ad campaigns styled to capitalize on blue-collar drinking habits. SPIN magazine, meanwhile, publishes a book, SPIN Underground USA,and calls itself a “”guide to cheap eats and dive bars,” among other things Day as a spin-off from its Life Is Harsh print advertisements. The site includes Sauza’s Definitive Guide to Dive Bars, which reviews seedy bars in major cities. Despite the corporate role in the current fetish for dive bars, their popularity comes from some legitimate attractions. Just what constitutes a dive changes from place to place – from city to country, for example — and between the classes and so is open to debate. Several key attributes, however, re not negotiable. First, a dive is cheap. A beer for a buck, let’s say, during happy hour. Second, a dive opens as early as regional laws permit — that’s 6:00 a.m. in San Diego. And third, no matter how you dress – man or woman, like a dandy to the teeth or a beggar on the skids – no one in a dive gives a shit.
Which is not to say that dives aren’t sociable places. Customers in a dive bar could drink for cheper out of a brown bag, so even the most laconic hangdogs have come for some sort of intercourse. Bars, of course, are unique spaces: the private citizens who own them (and are legally responsible for them) invite the public to gather on their property and approach as closely as possible the limits that the law and the moral majority have placed on drinkers. Whether it be in the form of condolence or confrontation, even dives offer social and political engagement.