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.
From the beginning, bars have been one of this country’s most popular venues for disruptive socialization. Though even temperance reformers as long ago as 1820 considered colonial regulations of public drinking to be severe, the fact remains, according to David Conroy, a scholar of liquor history, that “the tavern was the most numerous institution in colonial New England.” Conroy explains: “In taverns men did not ordinarily sit according to their place in the local social hierarchy or merely listen to sermons and exhortations. Here there was at least the possibility for greater assertion in posture and conversation. And in drink men might abandon the constraints that governed interaction in most public situations and thus make taverns a fertile breeding ground for new possibilities in social and political relationships…The tavern (was) a public stage upon which men, and sometimes women, spoke and acted in ways that … challenged the authority of the social superiors…”
One of this country’s preeminent social scientists, Clifford Geertz, explains how drinking and tavern behavior came to be subversive, even seditious. Geertz posits that drinking customs contribute to social mobility, that communal relaxation and intoxication grease the mechanisms of horizontal and vertical interaction and power sharing. David Conroy discusses this thesis in the context of 17th-century America: according to Puritan leaders, the English drinking customs brought to this country “no longer integrated society in a manner considered beneficial. In other words, the ‘functional’ value of these customs and habits had come to be considered ‘dysfunctional’ as new value systems were articulated, sanctioned by religious creed, and promoted.” Nevertheless, the wheels were rolling. Taverns continued to increase in number, and today we live in an intemperate society.
Colonial New England equivocated over the question of alcohol. On the one hand, colonial lawmakers placed strict censures on drinking to make its problems appear removed from their communities. They sold liquor only to nonresidents and strangers in the hope that locals would drink at home; in addition, they permitted new inns and taverns only on major roads in the hope that travelers rather than locals would access them. On the other hand, places with names like the Lamb, the Liberty Tree, and the Eastern Stage House played significant roles in the lore of Colonial New England. Because inns were crucial to travelers stranded by unpredictable stage schedules and so forth, law required that they provide lodging, food and drink to anyone at anytime, including Sundays. Even a Puritan minister, after all, might have desired a hot toddy after a long winter day on the road from Andover to Boston.
It didn’t take long for the patterns of bar behavior which we have grown accustomed to emerge. David Conroy tells the story of an early bar brawl: “In April 1721, blows were struck in Richard Hall’s tavern just across the street from the Town House in Boston. The incident involved two prominent gentlemen. Elisha Cooke Jr. Boston selectman and representative said or did something that provoked John Yearmans, a supporter and associate of royal governor Samuel Shute, to strike him… Christopher Taylor became outraged that his hero Cooke, the leader of the opposition to the royal establishment in Boston, had been assaulted. ‘Damned Yearmans,’ Taylor cried, ‘why don’t he come out to me. I wish I could see the dog come out — God I would have some of his blood.’” The story is less interesting for the fight — to be expected between a royalist and a revolutionary in colonial Boston — than for Taylor’s reaction, which strikes us today as predictable, if not inevitable. The important lesson concealed in our history of public drinking may seem obvious, but it deserves to be repeated, especially to those who do not drink in bars: the social alliances to be found in bars, not the liquor, attract customers. The booze merely lubricates social intercourse, whether friendly or adversarial.
The current fondness among our upper classes for dives, I believe is but a part of the larger vogue for retrograde styles and behavior in both entertainment and advertising. Think, for example, of the current craze for swing dancing or of how California’s anti-smoking laws have given those bars that disregard them the appeal of a Harlem speakeasy. These trends belong to the larger social phenomenon called nostalgie de la bouse, meaning, literally “nostalgia for the mud,” a motif best described by Tom Wolfe in 1970 in his biting essay “Radical Chic.” Wolfe’s essay parodies the radical postures assumed by New York’s elite in their support for the Black Panthers, a sometimes criminal and often anti-Semitic organization.
On January 4, 1970, the Jewish maestro Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, staged a party in their 13-room Park Avenue apartment to raise money for the Black Panther Defense Fund. With his usual baroque stylizations and caustic wit, Wolfe reported on the soiree in his essay, which first appeared in New York magazine and then in his book, Radical Chic Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. The phrase nostalgie de la boue was first used by Emile Augier (1820-1889) in his 1855 play La Mariage d’ Olympe. In his satirical dramas, Augier, a moralizing Social Realist, poked fun and Paris’s rich, and especially at the corrupting consequences of the struggle for wealth. “Radical chic” is Wolfe’s updated term for the nostalgie de la boue, or the liberal’s romanticization of the gutter and downtrodden “primitives,” that Wolfe identified in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wolfe could not resist the contrary image of insurgent, side-burned Black Panthers edging toward canapes and “Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi,” all of which were “offered to them an gadrooned silver platters by (white) maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons.”
Wolfe employs pop psychology and amateur Marxist economics to explain the attitudes and peculiar behavior of the “limousine liberals” he observed at the Bernstein’s apartment: “Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated ‘middle class.’ They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes, and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders…During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-Frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and Jose Torres…” According to Alicia Ostriker in her Partisan Review critique of Wolfe’s essay, William Blake perforated this flimsy ideology in the 18th Century: “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor, / And mercy no more could be, / If all were as happy as we.”
A certain brand of nostalgie de la boue afflicts those of us who like to hang out in dive bars. The economic impetuses that Wolfe found in radical chic may not be as bald today, but the dive can serve up some refreshing mud. The typical visitor to Sauza’s website, who then heads out to the Anti Club in Los Angeles or the 500 Club in San Francisco, makes the mistake of looking for something that you cannot observe but can only feel – that is, dejection, despair, the blues, whatever you want to call it. The low life, in the end, must be lived, not observed. However, spending enough time in the dregs of a real bucket-of-blood bar can make one feel like shit, and though the feeling may be an emotional style more than a psychological condition, it provides one antidote to the ‘90s’ obnoxious fascination with technology, with success, and with futures, both the millennial and the Wall Street kinds. Nostalgie de la boue, no matter the manifestation, has always been a benign form of subversion cloaked by the accouterments of style. Steve Buscemi’s 1996 movie, Trees Lounge, captures what the dive bar contributes to current nostalgia. The movie is mostly autobiographical; it shows what Buscemi’s life would have been — desolate, mainly – had he not left his Long Island home and made a living in film. At the same time, Buscemi looks at his home and its more pathetic citizens with a genuine yearning – isn’t it easier, finally, to dream dreams that won’t come true?
Buscemi’s film coincided with the growth in dive culture, and its style (it’s a stark film, and its cars are old, its failures elliptical) describes why the retrograde qualities of dive bars appeal to my generation, people between the ages of 25 and 35. A dive cannot transport us to a yesterday that we never witnessed – that is, a time when the country was controlled that much less by rapid-fire media and cheap postmodern ironies – but it can give us a stool beside a 50-year-old, or a 70-year-old, who wants the same thing we do, which is to freeze time, for a moment at least.
San Diego seems a good place to observe dive culture. To the outsider, anyway, the sun promises to set the city’s low life in sharp relief. The moments in Barfly that I feel the most sympathy for Mickey Rourke’s drunk Henry Chinaski are when he scampers along Los Angeles’s sidewalks in the middle of the day, shielding his hungover eyes from the brilliant sun that must drill pain right through them into the center of his dehydrated head. A dive is never darker than when the late-morning sun shines outside its door.
Three websites in the region take on the subject. Sidewalk San Diego posts a page that reviews the city’s “best and absolute worst dive bars”; a woman who calls herself Kerri runs the Long Beach Alcoholics Subculture, a rambling, virtual bar-hopping excursion; and local website developer Zach Good investigates San Diego’s underbelly at his San Diego Dive Bars. All of these sights make a good case for the health of dive culture in Southern California, but they don’t present a common definition of that culture. All agree that dives are cheap and informal, but while Kerri appreciates their “cozy atmosphere,” Jamie Reno, a Sidewalk contributor, defines a dive as “the place where nobody knows your name… where they’ll cut your tie in half with scissors, then buy you a beer.” Good has his own perspective: “a dive is a cheap, disreputable saloon… It has to be cheap, if not in the prices of the drinks, then at least in the clientele.”
A dive bar, to my mind, cannot have a theme, it cannot be a rock bar, a sports bar, or a beach bar. Dives have no intentional distinguishing characteristics; they go, rather, for anonymity, functionality, and efficiency. If you walk into a dive bar with a friend, for example, and order two bottles of Bud and the barkeep tells you to order a pitcher instead because it’s more beer for less money, then you’re most likely in a dive. At the same time, in San Diego, anyway, many dives service their particular neighborhoods, sometimes their particular blocks, which gives the bars regional flavors that work against anonymity. Or, this may be the case during the day, but not at night, when younger, roaming crowd may come in. So that is the San Diego dive? Does it, in fact, exist, or has the current dive trend in the city erased the category altogether? Zach Good, for example, expressed on several occasions a reluctance to tell me what was his favorite dive because he feared it would popularize the bar and thus diminish its attractiveness.
2103 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
The Live Wire is not a dive bar, but its owner, Sam Chammas, knows a great deal about local bars. Young, hip musicians hang out at the Live Wire, a small, square bar in North Park on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Alabama Street. The Live Wire is not quite a club, but it has live bands on the occasional Saturday night and has become a baby brother to the Casbah, against whom it plays a friendly game of softball on Sunday’s at Robb Field in Ocean Beach. The building, however, was once a dive, according to Chammas, before he and his partner Joe Austin opened the Live Wire in 1992.
Chammas is energetic, garrulous, and proud of his bar, though he never denies that he’s a businessman. “I’m a native San Diegan,” Chammas tells me, “born and raised in North Park, and for better or worse, I’ve lived all my 33 years next to the same Jack In The Box. The family business was always restaurants; my dad had one downtown called Sam’s Original Café. He made a name for himself back in the days when a mom-and-pop place could hang on down there. He’s from Lebanon; his name was Sam too. He had that traditional, you know ‘I want something better for my son,’ so he didn’t pass much knowledge down to me. I did the little chores until I was 18, then I went to San Diego State and got into bands and college radio. I graduated and started working for a medical company that made tubing for coronary catheters, and I was three years into that, about 26. Anyway,” Chammas continues, “my father passed away, and one of the things I was responsible for were all his little projects. He was the landlord for this property; he collected rent from the bar here called the Eagle. All through the ‘80s this was the dive of gay dives. Even my gay friends were like, ‘Oh boy, that place?’
“So, I gave it all to Antoine, my dad’s partner and friend to deal with. The people at the Eagle wanted a new lease and stuff, and there was a disagreement, so they ended up leaving. But leaving wasn’t just walking away: they took everything, they stripped everything. They took the toilets. And, they took the beer and wine license. (This place has always been a beer and wine bar, ever since the ‘50s, when it was called the Old Timer.) Antoine could not get anyone to take it without a license. It’s not the money – to get a beer and wine license is, like $600 – it’s the approval. They just don’t want neighborhood bars; they’ll put up with the number there re, but they don’t want more. So Antoine says to me, ‘Sammy, you’re young, go get the license and then we’ll lease it out.’ During the process, I went on a road trip to Austin, to the South by Southwest music festival. Often when you leave your town, when you’re far from it, you’re able to see your role more. ‘What do I want to do?’ I asked myself.”
Chammas’s experience opening the Live Wire speaks to the desires of a number of young drinkers in San Diego. Tired of the club pickup scene so prevalent in the city, Chammas wanted an unpretentious place where he and his friends could drink beer without being distracted by posing and crass expressions of sexual desire. “People were going to the Alibi by default,” he says, “and all I wanted was a place where you could get good beers, imports, and hear a good jukebox and play a game of pool. So I put the word out among friends. A good friend from college (Joe Austin) had been out of town for five years and had some restaurant experience but wanted to return to be a schoolteacher. Well, we called it the Live Wire, because when we were DJs, the station was called KCR, the Live Wire.”
The sign sitting on the roof reds “Live Wire: cold beer, warm friends.” The bar is simple and mostly unadorned, except for a collage of photographs of friends behind the bar. Small candles sitting in handmade metal holders provide the only illumination in the dark, blood-colored interior and lend the place a cabalistic atmosphere. A poem scrawled on a napkin, signed simply by “Chuck,” is the centerpiece of the bar shrine and expresses the baser desires that can be worked in a neighborhood bar: “Are you gonna eat that/ Are you gonna eat that/ Are you gonna eat that/ I’ll eat that.”
Chammas explains the provenance of the sculptural bike rack sitting out front: “A regular customer, Andy, asked me, ‘Hey man, when are you gonna get a bike rack out front?’ ‘When you make one,’ I said. So next thing I know, he’s here with a jackhammer tearing up the sidewalk and he welded this bronze bike rack. Now, neighborhood kids come by and play on it after school. We had friends do the interior metalwork, table bases, and air conditioning. The bar stools came from a steak house in La Mesa – and they stank at first, oh man.”
Chammas appreciates dive bars and takes an interest in the question of definition, though he admits the Live Wire is something different: “A real dive has to be torn and frayed; it doesn’t have to stink, but you know. From the minute we opened we got a clubgoing, musician crowd, but over the years that’s gone from maybe 90 percent of what the Live Wire was about to… well, that’s the core crowd, but it’s not what we’re about. Initially, we opened at 8:00 p.m. because we didn’t want the 6:00 a.m. crowd, but then we opened for happy hour and got a neighborhood crowd, people from up the street. I would say 35 percent are people 40 and up. The stereotype is still as an indie-rock bar, but it’s broadened over the years…My goal has been to chip away at what people think we are, to be one of those magical kinds of bars where you see different kinds of people. I dig the people. The old people and the young>”
Owning a rundown neighborhood bar, Chammas admits, can be a trial: “The biggest drags are not drunks or fighting, because you have control over that. You don’t have to serve to the point where you have a problem… The drag is a Saturday night when the toilet overflows – this place is old. Also, we had a mystery stink. The bar just stank. We cleaned out all the pipes and (then) got a great mopping solution. Plumbing, that’s the worst.”
Chammas believes that San Diego neighborhood bars face particular challenges. “In San Francisco, bar culture has always been much cooler – not cooler in an arrogant kind of way, but cooler in a laid-back kind of way. Whereas, in San Diego, because of the tourists and the beaches, there are more bars that cater to picking up; it’s the number-one priority. There’s not so much relaxing and doing your own thing. Here though, at the Live Wire, they come to get away from that boss or that shitty roommate. If they meet somebody, the wow, great. Also, I think there’s more pride in San Francisco neighborhood bars. But I’ve seen a revival here in the value of neighborhood bars. I’ve seen people leave downtown and open smaller, local places. The one thing I’ve always loved about the bar-owning side of bars is how timeless they can be. If you keep it comfortable, people will always come in and do what they wnt within the limits of the law… that’s timeless. That’s what I want.”
3537 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Timelessness, or that stop-time quality of the best dives, distinguishes Nunu’s, one of San Diego’s favorite neighborhood bars. Nunu’s, on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, has no windows’ like the best bucket shops, it keeps you focused on what’s inside. The room is a collage both in terms of its diverse clientele and its materials, which include deep=red Naugahyde booths, duct-taped floor mats, a plushly carpeted north wall faced by a mirrored south wall, and, the coup de grace, a hostess – of all ironies — in a slinky red dress. Before 10:00 p.m. the place is empty, just me, my friend Dan, a few slouched intemperates, and the barkeep, who is cordial enough but clearly possessed of a trigger finger. A bartender’s guide, several tattered almanacs, and a Guinness Book of World Records, in place undoubtedly to settle disputes, sit behind the bar, next to the cash register.
Nunu’s deadpan owner, Jim Sisk, explains the name of the bar to me: “Well, ‘Nunu’ means Grandpa, you know, Nunu and Nana, in Italian. When the owner before me got this place 20 years ago, he just had a grandson, a first-born grandson, so he called it Nunu’s. Either that, or he had to make something with the letters that were left behind from the old place, Buono’s.” Sisk is leathered and sturdy, though a little tipsy today maybe, but his warmth sneaks up on you. “I’ve had the bar 7 years, but I’ve been here 17; I worked for the previous owners for 10 years. On the front it says ‘Heather Sisk,’ that’s my daughter. She gets a kick out of it. It says it on the matches too.”
Though you wouldn’t know it if you came in at night, Nunu’s is a fisherman’s bar. The previous owner, Tony Ferrari, was a fisherman. “We open at six o’ clock in the morning,” Sisk tells me, hiding his pride. “All the old fishermen from Point Loma come in and have their coffee and donuts, and then they start drinking their brandy in their coffee, and they all light their cigars, and by eleven or twelve noon, they go home. It’s like a cartoon; there’s hollering, ‘You never caught as many fish on your best day as I ever did.’ You know, they’re all retired; they got their money stuffed in a coffee can. They just come here to chew the fat and look over the racing form, read the sports page. The guys who still go out (and fish) they come here, to the Lamplighter, and to the Waterfront, that’s about it. Even some of the guys who own boats, they’ll sit here on a cell phone and do business. There’s more business done right here than in the high-rises downtown.”
But Nunu’s is not an exclusive club; not everyone in the bar is a retired fisherman, most of whom leave in the late morning anyway. Nunu’s is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of San Diego bars – a blue-collar saloon by day and a trendy watering hole by night, a concoction of improbable stereotypes. Sisk, however, enjoys the split personality and prefers to consider its complimentary features: “Yeah, I’ve noticed for a while the young, hip crowd. What it is, all the theater people, from the Old Globe, from Sledgehammer, they all come here. They throw their parties here. I get whatever they need for their parties, and if they throw their parties somewhere else, I might cut all the fruit for their cocktails. That started with the stagehands, they started coming here years ago after striking their sets at night. They said they liked it quiet, and I said, ‘Well if you don’t start bringing in more people it’s gonna close down,’ and they said, ‘Okay, well, we’ll bring everyone down.’ This is not a gay place, but a lot of gay people do come in here, because of the theater. But we have a great clientele with this theater crowd: they never argue, they never fight, they never raise their voices, it’s always ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ they’re all gentlemen and ladies. And all the girls are tall. I mean, I can’t believe how tall they are. I call them the clientele from heaven. It’s a great mix.”
When John Goodman, who turned in the performance of his career as the temperamental Vietnam vet in The Big Lebowski, was in San Diego to play Falstaff in Henry IV at the Old Globe Theatre, he would hang out at Nunu’s. A close friend of mine, an actress named Lina, attended the master of fine arts (MFA) program in dramatic arts at the University of San Diego and acted in plays at the Old Globe. Lina wrote to me what attracted Goodman and other actors to Nunu’s: “It was one of the places John could go and not be asked for his autograph. Before Henry IV… the MFA students didn’t go there much. When he started going, we would go along, bonding in the way theater companies do, and then after the show, it just sort of stuck. Cheap drinks, and later, their flagrant disregard of the smoking ban were big draws. But so was the jukebox, the blonde waitress, who would be as drunk as you were by the end of the evening, the fact that you could reach up and unscrew the lightbulb at your table to improve the atmosphere, the fact that no matter how often you came and how many drinks you bought, at exactly five minutes to two, whether you were drinking or not, the bartender would bark at you to GET OUT! Disgruntled alcoholics, actors just about to attain nirvana, and dates just about to come to fruition, would all have to wait, till the next night. It was also a place to go to touch base with other theater folks, to discuss shows, etc. And though there is no barrier between booths, the loudness of the music, the haze of smoke which clings to everything seemed to afford privacy and possibility.
“Before, it was the fact that it was pretty empty and we could fill it. It got too crowded in the last few years… I don’t know when or why the other theater folk from downtown would venture up, folks from the Sledgehammer and the Fritz…Students and actors from La Jolla and the younger crowd from Coronado would flock on certain magic-filled nights, I guess to get a little dirtied up with us Hillcrest folks. I like to think that we made it the place to be that summer, but we might have just ridden a wave. We brought all the stars of the various shows we did to Nunu’s and they liked it. They felt it was a place they could remain anonymous if they wanted, or get noticed if they wanted. David Lansbury, Bob Foxworth, Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie); Emily Bergl (in the new Carrie movie), and others.”
At first, Jim Sisk seems an unlikely host to the stars. When I ask him what are the pleasures of owning a neighborhood bar, his answer makes the question sound absurd. “Oh, I like people. I like people. I just like to talk to people and hear stories. I mean, I live here, and I just want to soak it all up, all their stories. You know, we get some old-timers in here: we hear war stories, tuna-fishing stories, every kind of story you’ve ever heard you’ll hear in here. There’s this old guy, 70, 75 maybe, he was a rodeo clown, and I heard some stories there. He saved cowboys’ lives by jumping in a barrel. I mean, really.”
The heady John Goodman summer may be a memory at Nunu’s, but Sisk plans on keeping the place a low-profile refuge or all kinds of San Diegans for years to come. “What else would I do?” he asks. “It beats digging ditches. It does. I know, I’ve tried it. The nice thing about this place? This place provides a living for a few people, it does. You pay your bills, you pay your taxes, you get your permits. That’s all it takes. We pay for the location, but I don’t mind a bit. It’s a great town. Shoot, whenever I get depressed, I just look at all the tourists who saved all their money just to come here. That makes me smile. And the carpet on the wall? That stays, I don’t care what anybody says.”
As much character as the Live Wire and Nunu’s have, as much as they reveal about San Diego’s drinking habits and bar behavior, neither provides a clear picture of the city’s guts. The Live Wire is too urban and Nunu’s simplicities are too well known for either to be a true dive, where anonymity and the low-life are less contrived. San Diego, however, does not wear its underbelly on its sleeve. To someone accustomed to the evident bleakness of northeastern cities like New Haven, Worcester, and Providence, where I grew up, San Diego seems to have no dark corners. The city’s foreign qualities, its frontier attitude and post-modern architecture, for instance, strike many tourists as novelties. When revealed, San Diego’s familiar – or American – aspects surprise dazed visitors like me. But finding them is difficult. To locate authenticity in my search, I needed an expert witness. I needed Zach Good, San Diego’s modern-day Asmodeus.
Asmodeus is a mischievous, diminutive demon who first appeared in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which dates to the 2nd or 1st Century B.C. In the story, Tobit’s relative Sarah prays for death because she has been married seven times and each of her husbands has been killed by the jealous Asmodeus, who often figures as a spirit of matrimonial discord. Asmodeus reappeared in the 17th Century, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but achieved fame only after the publication in 1707 of Alain Rene Lesage’s Le Duble Boiteux, or The Devil upon Two Sticks, which refers to the lame imp’s crutches.
Lesage calls the devil Asmodeo and transforms his literary function, making him less an evil player than a neutral guide to the underworld. In the book, the young scholar Don Cleofas, running from thugs hired by his mistress to extort him, takes shelter in an abandoned apartment in Madrid. A bodiless voice surprises him, claims to be “the most active and indefatigable devil in Hell,” and explains that a necromancer has imprisoned him in a glass bottle. Asmodeo beseeches Cleofas to break the bottle, a deed for which he will repay him by revenging his faithless mistress, and, more importantly, giving him a tour of Madrid’s underbelly. By lifting the rooftops of the city, Asmodeo exposes Cleofas to various tableaux of human folly and vice, he reminds the scholar that “there is not person in all that crowd who had not better be fast asleep than employed as you see him.”
Hans Bergmann, a scholar of American literature, explains Asmodeus’s emergence in antebellum fiction: He “limped on his crutches across the roofs of Madrid to uncover the secrets of society dinner parties sexual dalliance, betrayals, people starving in the gutter. Asmodeus had the panoramic knowledge of the whole that allowed him to show the hidden truths; he was the panoramic devil who showed people what they should not have longed so much to know. Lesage’s book and character were revived in France in the 19th Century, and American journalism and popular fiction imitate the revival.” New York authors like Walt Whitman, in a collection of essays from 1855 called “New York Dissected,” and George G. Foster in his 1848 essays “New York in Slices,” led their readers down the city’s seedier streets and thus assumed the personality of Asmodeus.
Ferdinand Longchamp’s 1868 book Asmodeus in New York epitomizes this fashionable literary motif and addresses the difficulties faced by those who travel to unfamiliar cities and attempt to learn something of their social customs. Longchamps, and Englishman, explains, “With whatever energy he has been endowed, no man finds it easy to acquire wealth or achieve success in a foreign land. Everything is against him. He struggles among men whose traditions, habits, and laws are unknown to him. He feels his way in the dark and often stumbles into pitfalls.” The city’s “institutions… remain a dead letter for want of opportunity to see them in operation, as the most ingenuous commentaries leave too often in unprejudiced minds false or exaggerated notions.” Having arrived in New York, the author frets about how to “detect the weak points of those among whom I was destined to live,” when Asmodeus knocks on his door. Asmodeus proceeds to guide Longchamps through New York’s underworld, concentrating especially upon the saloons, where “frequenters enjoy some of the one hundred and fifty beverages in vogue in the States.” “Drinkers here,” Longchamps writes, “instead of enjoying themselves under shady trees, are crowded in dingy, badly ventilated basements…” Asmodeus explains to the dismayed author: “Bloody scenes are not uncommon in concert-saloons after these drinking revels have reached their height. Jealousy is quick to fly to the brain of a drunken man; and most frequenters… carry a couple of revolvers in their pockets… The amount of corruption and misery (the saloons) entail on the community is truly appalling… The least disreputable of those resorts are schools for licentiousness; the others, nurseries of crime. In the latter, waiter-girls are prostitutes, connected with professional thieves and assassins; and woe betide the stranger who falls into the snares of those dangerous thieves! More than one has found his grave in the Hudson, dragged there in the darkness of the night, after being drugged by poisonous liquors and robbed of his valuables!”
In Zach Good, I found San Diego’s Asmodeus. Zach’s website, San Diego Dive Bars, is the best guide to local grogshops. The preface to the site explains that a good dive is like a “secret spot in surfing. To the purist dive bar hunters who love the thrill of discovery, I apologize for sharing some of these hideaways. To those new to the genre, here’s a basic roadmap, but please tread lightly. Many of the places listed here are neighborhood bars where people go to get away from the bullshit in their lives…”
Unlike Asmodeus, Zach is guarded and private, though he shares with most incarnations of the little devil n impartiality, a lack of prejudice regarding his subject. Longchamp’s guide, for instance, says of New York’s haunts, “Come along, then with me, I will show them as naked as was the Truth when emerging from the well. I care little whether I am pointed out as a good or bad spirit; I shall be satisfied if I succeed in amusing.” Zach is truly of the live-and-let-live ilk; he does not judge the people he finds in San Diego’s dives, whether they’re drunks or not. But neither does he remove himself from a bar’s diversions. Though Zach’s not “on two sticks,” he’s good with a pool cue; I saw him hold a table in Club Bom Bay, a seedy lesbian club, for two hours, shaming, among others, a grumpy woman who brought her own stick and wore a purple satin glove.
Zach is 26 and grew up in San Diego, though he went UC Santa Cruz, where he and his friends got into dive bars. “Santa Cruz,” he explains, “isn’t really known for its huge dance clubs and pickup bars, so we went to San Francisco to experience the bright-lights, big-city nightlife. Somehow we grew sick of the drive and started finding little neighborhood bars in Santa Cruz and Capitola and found that it doesn’t take pounding music and pickup lines to go out with your friends and have a good time. Drinking, not caring about how you look or that other people around you are thinking.
“Two of the best places we frequented were little dive bars. Paul’s and the Jury Room. Paul’s is right on the outskirts of town, just before you hit the artichoke and pumpkin fields. Most of the regulars were truck drivers, and we just pounded beer and played pool with some of the grungiest people I’d ever smelled… The Jury Room (named as such because it’s right across the street from the County Courthouse) introduced us to a different type of dive bar, the old people bar. These patrons had come here for years, never went anywhere else unless their kids were in town.
“Coming back to San Diego after college,” he remembers, “I realized that going out downtown, dancing, martinis, all had their place, but most of the time, I just like a good bourbon or MGD and a couple of friends around to bullshit with. I started the website around two years ago, just something to waste time with during a period of my life when I was on unemployment and doing a lot of ‘research’ on the topic. I originally envisioned a site where owners would pay to advertise, then I spoke with a few and realized that most of them just didn’t care about getting any extra business. Some didn’t even want any outsiders to know about their place.”
Zach isn’t too concerned about what distinguishes a dive bar from other kinds of bars. “Just don’t ask if they have Pete’s Stupid Summer Pear Ale or Klaus Brachengruber Stout on tap,” he warns, “or they’ll tap your face. Really hard. In places like the Hong Kong Club on Broadway (and) C.J.’s on Washington.” We agree that dives don’t show sports V – those are sports bars, and though they can be squalid, televising sports gives them a utility that disqualifies them from dive status. (The Piccadilly Club, for instance, in the Pickwick Hotel, on the corner of Broadway and Front Street, is a dive.) At 3:00 p.m., Sal the barkeep services about six people at the bar. Everyone takes his beer big here – Foster’s oil cans and wide-mouth bottles of Bud. Two TVs duel it out, one above either corner of the bar, but neither shows sports. One’s set on American Movie Classics and shows a black-and-white movie about Lincoln (it’s President’s Day) and then The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. The other television’s tuned into a Chuck Norris marathon. First there’s a movie that has Norris as a mountain man who breaks up some hijinks with a black bear, and then Sidekicks, which stars Norris “as himself” and wherein he eliminates 100 black-hooded ninjas in the opening sequence. All the patrons watch the movies in obedient silence, although the sound is turned down on both sets so as not to interfere with the jukebox, which blasts “Message in a Bottle.” With its deep bass and clean treble — The Piccadilly’s box sounds better than most. The drunk patrons like it and move on their stools to the music, but they never stop watching the movies. The silence of the televisions gives an obtuseness to the films’ narratives, which suits an afternoon drunk.
According to Zach, “The hip dive is experiencing an explosion in San Diego. Dives have always been meeting grounds for intelligentsia, freaks, mods, punks, anyone who laments the fact that Star 100.7 plays ‘alternative’ music. A lot of the dives here have catered to these groups or even been bought by them. The Live Wire, for example. They’re still dives, though they attract more of a distinguished crowd of people. The neighborhood dive,” by contrast, “is the place that’s always been around… (where) you run into your high school teachers throwing up in the back parking lot; the mom of one of your friends from elementary school works there. These are the best dives around.”
1808 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
I meet Zach on Valentine’s Day, and before long he leads me to Bar Dynamite on West Washington. People choose to come to Bar Dynamite, they don’t stumble upon it during a night of barhopping. The building adjoins a liquor-store parking lot across the street from a gas station; it’s an unlikely destination. Half a dozen people sit at the dimly lit bar, and frankly, the place looks closed. The back half is not illuminated at all, except for the flickering lights of a pinball machine and a jukebox. Stacked cases of beer form a fortress around the pinball game, giving the place the appearance of a storeroom. The bar is meagerly stocked; it sells only the staples – Smirnoff, Bacardi, Jack Daniel’s Budweiser. Sapporo represents the imports. The one luxury the bar lavishes on its patrons is its ice cubes. They are the flying-saucer kind that sit perfectly in the mouth: the flat bottom on the tongue, the dome docked in the roof of the mouth. Scotch and water eddying around it.
The pool is free, as it is every Sunday, but ashtrays cost a quarter. The barkeep and owner, Miyoko Hon, a 50-or 60-year-old Asian woman, submit no rationale for the idiosyncratic tariff, but it can’t be a matter of jurisprudence. She chain-smokes all night, and when she’s not mixing Zach a Bean and water, she’s pumping coins in the video poker. More likely, it’s just plain extortion. The place sure needs the money. Hon has not spent a cent decorating the bar. Every ornament in Bar Dynamite is promotional: Coors Light posters, 7UP clocks, and NFL knickknacks, though clearly no one comes here to watch sports. Tonight, Jaws is on TV, and the sound is turned down even though the jukebox isn’t on. We all stop in the middle of our pool games to watch the climactic scene when the briny Captain Quint (played by Robert Shaw) slides down the deck of the sinking ship into the gaping maw of the monster, and then Roy Scheider, driven by pure anger, loses all of his fear, gathers his wits, and disintegrates the shark with a bullet to the scuba tank stuck in his teeth. “Wow,” someone says. We trade the usual horror stories about how the movie “really fucked us up” when we were kids, and then an older man sitting alone says, “Ah, it’s crap. It’s all made up. The guy who wrote that, he lives in Jersey.” This surprises me, because I happen to know that Peter Benchley does live in New Jersey, but also that there have been several documented shark attacks of Garden State beaches.
The scene at Bar Dynamite begins to break up when a drunk woman in her 30s splits off from her group and heads for the door. “Where you going?” a friend yells after her. “You know,” she mumbles back. “To see the boardwalk freaks in PB.”
Before we leave, I ask the barkeep about a small plaque bonded on the left corner of the bar. It reads “Ralph’s Corner.”
“Who’s Ralph?” I ask.
“That’s his corner” is her oblique response.
“Is he coming tonight?”
“He come here all the time.”
“He no feel good.”
222 W. Washington Street, Hillcrest
CJ’s, up the hill on West Washington, has even less architectural character than Bar Dynamite. The bar is a box, a double-wide trailer, basically, parked on a double-wide road. The building is independent, circumscribed by asphalt, a nation unto itself. On a Saturday night, never more than eight people occupy the small room at one time. The bar’s few extravagances include an electronic dartboard, cozy high stools with armrests, and hot dogs. At his website, Zach describes CJ’s as a place that “switches between a nasty, scary, smelly bar and a chichi coffee shop punks go to get bloody marys at midnight. Definitely a cool place to get in a fight: it has those swinging saloon-style doors.” Also, a piano takes up about a quarter of CJ’s floor space; a circle of stools surround the instrument. I ask the bartendress about the piano:
“We don’t have a cabaret license, so if you know how to play, go for it. But we don’t entertain.” Her short answer belies her geniality. She keeps the big, cold pitchers of Bud coming, filling each one of our frosted mugs to the brim.
Scolari’s Office, on 30th Street and University in North Park, is another favorite San Diego dive. The bar used to be called the Office, and when the current owner, George Scolari, bought the place he changed the name. The bar’s napkins are emblazoned with a buxom, leggy secretary answering the phone; the clock on the wall behind her reads five o’ clock. “You know, it’s nice,” the female barkeep says, “When your wife asks, you can say you’re going to the office.”
“Ain’t that right,” someone says, and everybody laughs.
The customers at Scolari’s Office are racially mixed, and their apparel range from coat and tie to tattered jeans and rock-concert T-shirts. Most of their car keys have been confiscated and hang on hooks behind the bar. Though Scolari’s has dartboards and serves up free pool on Sunday’s and during happy hour, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., nobody plays. Instead, everyone sits at the bar one stool apart and lets the liquor talk. They struggle together to remember the lyrics to the Jim Croce song: “Don’t spit into the wind/ Don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger/ Don’t mess around with Jim” is the consensus.
Somebody has a plan and wonders out loud how much golf caddies make. The replies” “Ten percent of the winnings,” “Five dollars a day,” “Fifty dollars a day,” “Nothing.”
Zach and I agree to meet on the night of President’s Day in El Cajon, to lift the rooftops in East County. After Bourbon and waters at Kozak’s on West Main Street – which integrates the aesthetics of a Holiday Inn lobby and a dentist’s office – we head down the street, past Jack In The Box, to the Carousel. The building housing the Carousel has been around since the 1920s. Bright murals of prancing carousel horses decorate the façade. We meet a woman standing out front smoking a cigarette who turns out to be Kathy, the barkeep. She’s wary of our project. “I’ve been a bartender for 15 years, Norman is the best owner I’ve ever worked for. Zero tolerance for drugs. Zero tolerance for fighting. This is not a dive. Not at all. This is a fun bar.”
We follow Kathy inside and the second we cross the threshold she turns on her heels: “IDs please.” Later, 50-year-old man with a gray beard walks in, and to console us, she cards him, much to his bewilderment. A thin crow mingles in the bar, some play video poker, others sit quietly watching Stephen King’s Storm of the Century on TV. Despite its grand façade, the carousel is a plain bar, a little bigger, perhaps, than most, but indistinguishable in the end from any saloon in any city. Zach and I are tired; our late night in Club Bom Bay has sapped him of his Asmodean glint.
We agree to hit one more bar tonight, On The Rocks, which is just down Main Street. On entering, we discover that it is aptly named. A single couple performs a sloppy dance in front of the jukebox, and they don’t flinch when we walk in. James, the young man behind the bar, comes at us aggressively, demanding our identification, our new faces upset him, and at the very least, he will learn our ages. He mixes our drinks begrudgingly. Zach, his girlfriend, and I make small talk. Five minutes later, James is humbled. He gives each of us a gift as a peace offering – strong kamikazes.
Behind the bar a sign advertises bar “phone service”; “Just Left .50; Haven’t Seen Him .75; Not Here .1.50; Never Heard Of Him 2.00; Misc. Lies 3.00.” Mounted of the wall, a closed-circuit TV spies on an empty parking lot, catching obscure shadows and passing headlights. Another sign pronounces the bar axiom: “Everyone here brings happiness, some by coming in, others by leaving.” I begin to sense that my search for human absurdity and vice in San Diego’s underbelly might itself be a folly, a flight of fancy born of fantastic literary motifs.
The historians say that the transformations and dislocations of early industrialization and the bottom-line capitalism that it bred in the 1830s destroyed the communal context for drinking. According to the bourgeoisie and their elite masters, the rituals and social ceremonies of public drinking threatened the efficiency that our economy had learned to value above all else. Public drinking, as a result became a working-class vice. Ever since, attitudes toward tavern culture, and dive culture in particular, have been framed by nostalgia.
Leftist scholars find in dives and neighborhood bars traces of the preindustrial society that they never tire of reminding us was corrupted by commercialism and Wall Street’s go-ahead spirit. For ‘60s rebels, these politics took the form of radical chic, a sort of modish sympathy, but one that was backed at least by money and occasionally by deed. Today, nostalgie de la boue is less political and more stylized; a fashionable and novel way for those of us who missed out on the ‘60s to get back to lost forms of information exchange, mainly talking and listening, often to people who seem to belong to another era.
That the “mud” has been incorporated by companies like Sauza – which speaks more to the appetites of commercialism than those of barroom drunks – is discouraging, but it does not mean that these nostalgias are all pretense. In Bar Dynamite, for instance, patrons really do seek a reprieve from the city; Jaws reminded us that night of our simpler childhood fears, while the plain, unadorned interior offered refuge from the blur of urban streets. In his 1968 autobiographical novel, A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley describes a nostalgia that differs from the type Wolfe would define two years later. Exley explains why he chose to haunt a certain bar in his native Upstate New York: “I tried a number of places in Watertown before settling on The Parrot, though it was not exactly the cathedral I would have wished for, it was – like certain old limestone churches scattered throughout the north country – not without its quaint charms. It was ideally isolated on a hill above the city; sitting at the bar I was seldom aware of the city’s presence, and when I was, I could think of it as a nostalgic place beneath me, a place with elm trees and church towers and bone-clean streets; sitting at the bar, the city could be thought of as a place remembered, and remembered as if from a great distance. This distance was important to me… A dim-lighted haven for inarticulate young men and women who arrived in the late hours of the evening and, throwing themselves together in mock couplings, struggled energetically about the dance floor to the plaintive, standard tunes rendered by a local trio, a piano, a drum, a first rate horn. The Parrot was not a place where I feared encountering any of my ‘friends’… They took me for what I was, a youngish old teacher from Glacial Falls, one who drank too much and was a little fetched on the subject of the Giants; but they seemed to like me and didn’t appear to begrudge me that I was without the desire to achieve the Black River Valley Club.”
2044 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
In Exley’s formulation, the quality of a bar depends on the quality of the escape it provides from the city and its more bogus social customs. If this is so, then the Waterfront is San Diego’s prize bar. The Waterfront arranges for both a spatial and a temporal distance from the city outside its doors on Kettner Boulevard: sitting at the bar, a patron literally turns his back on Midtown and faces an old panoramic photograph of the San Diego waterfront, which is just one picture of many in the bar that take customers back in time. The walls in the bar’s back rooms are covered with black and white photographs of tuna boats and their crews, some dating to the 1930s. Nancy Nichols, the owner of the Waterfront, explains that the bar is so popular because it functions as a mix between a community center and a historical society with a liquor license: “I’ve been here since about 1973. It’s always been the Waterfront, and the reason it’s called that is because once upon a time the bar was on the waterfront; now they’ve filled it in with landfill. I’m always told it was the first liquor license in San Diego after Prohibition, and I’m not real sure, but it might be the oldest bar in California. Supposedly, Wyatt Earp’s been in here, and he died before Prohibition, so go figure!
“All the old fishermen came in here, some of the people I met when I first came here had come in with their fathers. In fact, my bookkeeper’s partner used to come in here when he was a little boy and sell his newspapers to all the fishermen, who came in to play their games and drink their beers. That’s the wonderful thing about the Waterfront – it’s not the kind of place where jus lawyers go; it’s a conglomeration of all different types of people and everyone blends in together. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, you could sit next to a judge having a hamburger. Everybody is welcome here. Also, the atmosphere is built-in; when you walk in, you can feel it. People bring many of the pictures to me, then someone else comes in and says, ‘Oh look, that’s my grandfather.’”
People crowded into the Waterfront on the Friday night that Clinton was acquitted in his Senate trial, just three days before President’s Day. Though there was barely room to move in the bar, no one headed to the back rooms. People bandied about legalisms and political philosophy, but no one really cared one way or the other. For a while, the center of attention was a man showing off his new digital camera and going on incoherently about rattlesnake handling and Chinese New Year. The Rockabillies squeezed into a corner of the crowded front room and people danced terribly and without shame to standard rock: the lead guitarist sat on a stool at a table, barely distinguishable from the patrons. A sharp-looking couple ordered red wine and watched without flinching as the barkeep, John, nursed the last drops of Gallo from a carton’s silver bladder.
Max Miller, probably drank at the Waterfront, but not until after 1933, when he published his best-selling book I Cover the Waterfront, the same year Prohibition was repealed. Miller’s book is less a novel than an extended report on the Italian and Portuguese fishermen who lived and worked on San Diego’s waterfront. The author, who published the book when he was 28, worked as the waterfront reporter for the San Diego Sun. Miller most likely knew the ancestors of many of the men and women in the bar this Friday night.. The fishermen in his book hunt for tuna and sardines and dodge storms, flying hooks, and each other’s tempestuous moods. His description of their dangerous labor puts the need for a refuge like the Waterfront in perspective: “These tuna they catch down south are big fellows,” Miller writes, “weighing up into the hundreds of pounds. Three men work together in hoisting each fish aboard. They have to work fast, for the school is all around them and biting as rapidly as the hooks drop back into the water… A lot of work is connected with catching a hundred tons… With so many fishing teams working at once with a school, the hooks are flying everywhere and some of the men become badly cut up. They sometimes have their eyes put out, and now, many of the men wear heavy masks of wire over their faces… A friend of mine once was knocked out by a flying squid. He was a young fellow, an Italian. He was a chummer. This meant he had to stand on the edge of the bait tank and throw out live sardines to start the tuna biting. Once the tuna start biting, nothing will stop them… Yet flying squids re not feared by the fishermen as much as chabasco (storms). For they also strike without notice and they throw their seas just every which way.”
I Cover the Waterfront’s tableaux are similar to those in the later Cannery Row, though Miller’s characters display less dysfunction than Steinbeck’s. Miller came to the San Diego waterfront possessed of his own brand of nostalgie de la boue. After graduating from college, he took the reporting job because he believed it would give him characters for a great story — a novel. Sitting in the Waterfront that Friday night, watching people dance, listening for drunken aphorisms, I thought of Miller. The characters he sought for his book eluded him. “Nobody was definitely good, nobody was definitely bad,” he writes. “The more I knew of them the less positive I became of which stand to take… At any rate the original characters I selected for my book never did show up. I have yet to see them… I can wait no longer; I am getting too old (28!), so must go ahead with what I already have on hand… My topics would have to be of swordfishing, or of lobstering, or of hunting sardines in the dark of the moon, or of fleet gunnery practice, or of cotton shipments. The predicament has passes beyond my control. I am one of those creatures who remain permanent, who stay in one place, that successful men on returning home may see for the happiness of comparison. I am of the damned and the lost, and yet I do know more than when I first came here, a graduate of the liberal arts.”
Miller’s melancholy rhetoric is, of course, a literary conceit, for he had found his characters; that’s why he wrote his book. “Our harbor here has Chris Loch,” Miller writes, for example. “A salvager, perhaps, is the technical title for him. Yet somehow the title does not fit… His beard is cement gray, coming to a brusque point, the beard of a duelist… He works bareheaded. A hat makes him feel cramped, he says, and grouchy and indoors. He was one of the first of the waterfront veterans I saw on arriving at the waterfront. There is a character, I thought, who will make a feature story someday. I must keep him in mind. I kept him in mind. This was six years ago… He seems to hold the solution to so much. The disease of ambition has passed him by.”
After prowling San Diego’s dive bars, I recognized his dilemma. Like the salvager Chris Loch, the characters in San Diego’s humble bars, the Jim Sisks and the Zach Goods, for instance, have no ambition; they don’t go to bars to be dramatic. The patrons of Bar Dynamite and CJ’s and Scolari’s Office, for example, go to these bars for another reasons. They go to avoid the city’s spectacles, to slow down the city’s days and nights, to stop time and drink up nostalgia — in other words, to enjoy things that live only in their collective memory.