Ode to dive bars

That’s the dream of the dive. A person can be anyone, can bask in the glow of falsely jovial Christmas lights and the regard of fellow barflies.

“A bet’s a bet.”

I’m not the first person who’s rationalized some crazy behavior with that comment. But it’s the beginning and the end of one of my favorite dive-bar stories. People who have been drinking with me—and there are a lot of them in this community—have probably heard it. You see, I wasn’t always the mild-mannered newspaper editor who writes whimsical columns about gardening, children and daylight saving time.

I used to be the guy who answered the question, “What’s your favorite sport?” with the words, “Bar fights.” And I wasn’t even kidding.

But that has little to do with the story I referred to a moment ago. The story is loosely titled, “The Night Heather Scratched on the Eight Ball,” as in, “Did I ever tell you about the night Heather scratched on the eight ball?” It was an oral-sex wager with a stranger, a particularly unattractive stranger whose boyfriend left her at the little bar in Verdi rather than deal with the pool player with the ax-murderer eyes and the wager his fiancé made.

But as I said, I don’t plan on telling that story. I just mention it in passing to establish my bona fides with regard to my intimate knowledge of dive bars. I was a bartender in some of Reno’s diviest bars back in the early ’80s. I’ll bet some people recall the 715 Club next door to Del Mar Station. I’d already been fired for a peculiar lack of moral turpitude when the bar was closed because police disapproved of its customers’ penchant for selling stolen merchandise. I think that was the first place anyone ever showed me a gun with an implicit suggestion that it might be used to ruin my day. Actually, now that I think of it, it was the second. But it wasn’t the last.

I love these places. I love the smoke that floats in the air like the clouds in Japanese paintings. I love the smell of stale beer. I love the dirtyleg and hardlegs and the guy who sits slumped at the end of the bar, nursing a draft beer with the concentration of a Boris Spassky as the world passes by the window that faces his back. I love the feeling of imminent danger when a couple of guys, who came in the best of buddies, raise their voices and push their stools away from the bar, suddenly mortal enemies. What is it? A misremembered shared memory? A woman? It’s almost always a woman. Or is it a sports thing? And will there be blood?

At bars like the 715, bartenders had no backup, no bouncers—just our own handy skills, the bravado of other patrons and the fact that the pugilists were drunk and the ginslingers were not. (Yeah, right.)

I, as another world-class drunk said in a life long passed, love the friends I have gathered in this thin route. And I will always be the guy sober enough to raise my glass high and proclaim, “Drinks. … Drinks for all my friends.”

I was drinking rye whiskey the night Heather scratched on the eight ball. I hesitate to tell you the exact nature of the wager with this rhinoceros of a woman—I’d hate to undermine the esteem with which I’m held in this community. Suffice it to say, I’m glad I came out ahead. But I was a fool. I can admit that now. I let Black Velvet and a congenial atmosphere cloud my judgment.

That bar, like all the best dives, had a certain timeless quality. Perhaps the windows were thoughtfully painted over so that warriors ending all-night parties would get the surprise of the sunlight, cringing like vampires against eye-searing incandescence. I remember my friend Carmen and I had gone to visit our friend Michael, who turned out not to be at court. Heather looked like a bleached-blonde Jabba the Hutt, only with fewer of those sharp teeth. She’d been running the pool table for several hours, careening around it like a Ziploc baggy half-filled with cottage cheese and mayonnaise shaken by a rabid rat. Still, she dropped every ball with Charles Whitman’s sober surety. Click. Click. Game. Click. Click. Game.

I finally snapped my quarter onto the table just to stop her overloud nasal cackling. I’m no pool shark. I only played when I was drunk, and I was never any good. But that’s the dream of the dive. A person can be anyone, can bask in the glow of falsely jovial Christmas lights and the regard of fellow barflies. She called the wager. I don’t know what she saw in me, but she must have known immediately she wanted me to go down.

Like any drunken hero, I accepted.

She broke. Solids. In a matter of seconds, she ran the table. She’d drop the ball, and there would be the roll as it made its way down hidden rails on the interior of the table. I could hear every inch of the trip because the bar had gone silent, every eye intent on my ass-kicking, sympathetically dreading the inevitable outcome. I don’t exactly remember when her Jack Sprat left the bar, but I do remember the finality of the door slam. Heather must have shot me a so-what-his-loss glance before pirouetting around the table in her strained-to-the-seams dingy pink sweats to her next straight-in shot. Her winter boots may as well have been ballet slippers.

Honestly, it’s a story best left unsaid—it’s unfit for public consumption. Really, this is supposedly an ode to those gritty bars where people will let a man drink in peace, until they don’t. Those places with the large gaps on their call liquor shelves where the bartenders look at you funny when you ask for a drink that requires more than two ingredients and you name them both. And don’t even bother to ask for a chilled glass with your Diet Bud—he’ll just scratch his simian head and maybe ask if you know just exactly where you are.

I didn’t know where I was when Heather made her crucial error. What condemned watches the executioner? In a humane society, the damned are given a hood. There was just a double click, a sudden gasp from the crowd and the long roll of a ball. Only, I realized when I unclenched my eyes, it was the cue ball that had gone in. The eight ball rolled to a stop and then sat like a blood diamond inches away from the corner pocket.

I remember Carmen looking at me in fear and awe. Glancing back at the routed Heather in disgust. “You gonna do it, Bri?”

What was I supposed to do? Was I half a man who’d either welsh or refuse his winnings for a wager duly accepted before witnesses in a dive bar of fine repute?

“Sorry, Carmie, but a bet’s a bet.”