I’ve always had a fascination with dive bars. They’re cozy, tucked away establishments. A totem of neighborhood culture, where the staff appreciate you for tipping well and the walls are festooned with artifacts revering heroes – alive and departed. A place where friendships congregate to recall the past week, or stressed individuals can unclench their psyche, to exhale – if only for a couple of hours. In a dive bar, folks can enjoy a drink or two while listening to their favorite songs or the wisdom of a barstool shaman. And the smell? Sweet and sticky, hoppy and sweaty, the residue of humanity in serenity or passion. A dive bar is the temple of our vices.
During the past month and a half, I’ve traveled from Emmitsburg, Maryland to Columbus, Ohio. I’ve attended lectures by emergency management experts and I’ve had a pit bull terrier vomit on me while I drove through a thunderstorm. Yet despite the ups and downs of those past weeks, I found time to experience different dive bars. So with my last blog post occurring in April, I felt these tales were long overdue for sharing. With each bar, I had learned a bit more about life and myself.
One of my closest friends in the world is an anthropologist. Whenever we meet for our biannual dinners, he tells me about his travels to Africa, the Caribbean, or Europe. I’m intrigued by his fieldwork, his reverence toward the cultures he studies, and his commitment to retrieving empirical data.
With this blog entry, I wanted to mirror my friend’s approach. For every tavern I visited, I arrived with respect and curiosity. And in each bar, I met an eclectic assortment of people. I talked with bartenders who were as disciplined as Jesuits about their profession and customers who were territorial about their drinking holes. In each experience, I was grateful for what I encountered and I’m only more than happy to share this with you.
The Ott House Pub
Based in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Ott House Pub is a bar awash in history. The National Fire Academy, operated and governed by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), is a 15-minutes walk away. So the bar itself has patches, helmets, and memorabilia from different fire departments from across the United States. In addition to relatively inexpensive drinks, my friends and I challenged ourselves with some eclectic drinking glass sculptures. Great pool table and the ladies busted out some hardcore moves, during hip-hop dance night.
First off, I love Wonderland Ballroom. Second, it’s best enjoyed when living two or three blocks away. Situated in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Wonderland reminds me of an anthropomorphized circulatory system. The dance floor, at full capacity, ebbs and flows like blood, with each man and woman like a life-sized cell gliding past each other in the dark steamy room, reverberating with the DJ’s beats – a heart pulsing with sound.
What’s equally enthralling about Wonderland is the fact that it has these quirky characters that appear from time to time. A six-and-a-half-foot-tall woman, an attractive amazon, saw me leaning against the way. She grasped my collar, drew me in close, and whispered. “You really need to dance because you’re not having enough fun.”
Twist my arm, why don’t you. A couple of hours later, she and her boyfriend are passing me by. She saw me enjoying the music and dancing. I thanked her for encouraging me and the amazon kissed me on the cheek. Cute sentiment.
The other person I noticed was this middle-aged magician. Guy was probably late 50s, black hair and mustached; kinda has an Eastern European look about him, with a dash of Johnny Cash. He always wore a dark suit and tie; I’ve seen him before. It’s 2:30AM, the bar’s about to close soon. Young customers surround the magician; he rolls up his sleeves. He takes a straw, and then two more, attaching them all into this long tubular wand.
A young woman’s about to take a photo with her smart phone. Without speaking a word, he admonishes her with a single wagged finger. With the same finger, he points at the opposite side of the 21 inches of compound straw and slowly the opposite tip moves. It rises. It bends. Once. Twice. And forms a triangle of straw that the magician fastens at the tips and places on the bar countertop. I’m a fairly attentive guy. I saw no fishing line; I saw no translucent fibers. Yeah, there was a “trick,” but I sure as hell don’t know how it occurred. And the magician dressed in the dark suit drank his cocktail and the girls in their 20s took selfies next to the triangular straws.
Some Random H Street Bar
Okay, so I actually felt horrible about forgetting the name of this bar. I do believe that it’s located on H Street, NE in Washington, D.C., somewhere between 11th and 13th streets, NE. I was having drinks with a friend of mine; we have these seasonal bar crawls with a fair amount of existential conversations about our destiny and life choices, etc. Anyhow, my friend, who’s heterosexual, caught the attention of a young deaf gay man.
The kid was probably in his early 20s. He could read lips, yet even better he could read text messages. So we communicated via smart phones for the next couple of hours. Although the guy was told that my friend and I preferred women, he still felt inclined to buy us drinks. I didn’t mind, as long as we were open about our preferences. My friend, perhaps fascinated with either conversing with a deaf person – or a gay person – responded to the guy’s questions in a fairly upbeat manner. Ultimately, the guy was disappointed that neither of us was in the mood to share numbers. Hell, I can relate to my earlier years of rejection with certain girls. These moments build fortitude, and I’m sure if that kid kept aiming for the bleachers, then he’ll meet the right person someday.
Oh, and the most unique beverage I had at the bar was a frozen cocktail called “The Awesomeness.” … It wasn’t.
My Peace Corps buddy Brian and his fiancée Stacy came into town in May and one of the bars he wanted us to visit was the Russia House, a cocktail lounge/restaurant just north of DuPont Circle, in Washington, D.C. I’m a huge fan of this establishment. The staff look as if they’re straight out of Central Casting for some Jason Bourne film: the waitresses are Russian and petite, while the male staff are solid and strong as fuck. I’ve never seen a fight at the Russian House, but I’m sure if it ever did occur it wouldn’t last long.
Two words: vodka and caviar, (well I guess that’s three). I’ve known Brian for 20 years. We’ve drank everything together: from Chokachou millet beer in Benin, to … um, vodka in a Russian bar. It’s the company we keep that makes an evening exceptional, not so much the quality of the beverages we drink. That said, I’m very fond of the vodka sampler.
Brewing beer is as much a science as it is an art form, and I’ve known a handful of amateur brewers in my time. Hell, I even tried crafting a couple of batches with my friend Jeff. I would give our two attempts a 7 out of 10: not terrible, but definitely not good. That said, my college buddy Doug has taken to heart the chemistry of making beer.
Usually, I’ll go for the Indian Pale Ales (IPA), with an Alcohol By Volume (ABV) at 7% or more. I don’t like drinking a lot of beer, so whatever I do consume, I want it to efficiently “get the job done.” Doug, on the other hand, will brew a stout beer with a hint of chocolate or some other variation of dark, heavy beers. He’ll also select beers based on the richness of flavor, and not because of its alcohol content; he would be completely fine drinking a 4.2% beer if it were flavorful enough and had a fascinating backstory.
So this brings me to Bier Baron, on 22nd Street, NW near DuPont Circle. Doug and I’ll go there and he’ll “talk shop” with the staff. He’s like a sommelier for beer, or I guess that would be a “certified beer cicerone,” without exactly being certified. So as I’m drinking some beer I randomly selected out of their menu, the bartender is giving Doug the newest scoop on some obscure beer that Beer Baron just ordered for their supply fridge. Doug will ask for a couple of bottles, we’ll sample, and discuss. If anything, these visits have become an education for me. Doug’s a talented guy, and it’s a treat learning from anyone who does anything with passion, whether it’s music, writing, or appreciating well-brewed beer.
The final “dive bar” of this posting isn’t technically a dive bar. It’s the home of a friend, in this case Doug. He was taking care of his son and asked if I wanted to pick up a bottle of bourbon left as a token of appreciation by a tourist who lived in his family’s apartment while Doug, his wife, and son where vacationing in Chicago. The bourbon brand was Basil Hayden’s. It was nice; I’d give it a 7.9 out of 10. I typically enjoy Knob Creek, Bulleit Bourbon, or Maker’s Mark.
While I sipped a bit of bourbon, Doug broke out a bottle of Flor de Caña, a premium Nicaraguan rum. He had a couple of stalks of Malagasy vanilla, infusing the bottle for the past few months, giving the rum a spicy flavor. My conversations with Doug are always understated: we discuss life, careers, current events, etc. Rarely intense, almost always chill. Our personalities are different; our demeanors are different. Yet we’ve synced over the lasts 25+ years. That kinda defines most of my older friendships. And this thought presented an epiphany to me: a “dive bar” can be any place. In the city, in the desert, or in the South Pacific, as long as you have booze, engaging discourse, and (at best) a friend to share those moments.