Been drawn to dive bars throughout the 27 years that I’ve been legally permitted to drink, and also on a couple of occasions prior to that. In spite of a university education, and a once glittering career, the past 13 years have been spent as the custodian of one such establishment. It’s what I was born to do, and wouldn’t change that for the world.
Fell in love with this place the first time I set foot in it, which was on the 5th of January 1990. Actually that’s a lie. The first time was around the summer of ’89, most likely June near the end of the college term. A buddy, Alf, and I had skipped class to go out drinking, can’t recall the reason – we seldom needed one. We’d gone from bar to bar and all I remember is eating a pretty awful fish supper, wondering whether the girl with the big glasses who served it was the same girl I had the hots for when we were kids back in ’79, and then sitting at the far end of this long dark barroom, surrounded by a jungle mural featuring a sabre tooth tiger.
The real first time was the second visit, because that’s when I became conscious of the actual location. The previous occasion only coming to mind in hindsight. Surely there couldn’t be more than one establishment in the city with such a quirky piece of art adorning it’s wall? So yeah, it was the 5th January 1990, the end of the holidays and my cousin and his folks had come over to visit us. I was a geeky 19 year old college student who’d recently purchased his first black leather ‘bike’ jacket and decided to become a rocker, and ultimately a biker. Cousin Al, despite being 9 months younger, had obtained his own jacket a few months previously. He could also play guitar. We both still lived at home with our parents, and in my case a younger sister, who by all accounts was probably more socially advanced than either of us.
Any such visit up until this juncture would have consisted of sitting up late, begging tins of beer and playing 8-bit video games. The computer was already undergoing the lengthy process of loading up some blocky masterpiece from cassette, but Al had other, better, ideas. The first was that we should hit the town. Although I’d been hitting the town regularly, for over a year, it had never occurred to me that it might be possible do so during a family visit. Our folks didn’t seem to mind, given that throughout adolescence we’d spent such gatherings ensconced in each others bedrooms, so we might as well be elsewhere. We were after all, two partially grown men. Al’s other idea though, was way more intriguing. He’d been dabbling in something he called “blow”, and suggested that I try it too.
At this point it’s necessary to apologise for a quirk of the local vernacular. In default Western slang, the term “blow” typically refers to cocaine. In our isolated little piece of civilisation back in 1990, it meant cannabis resin. This mislabelling situation wasn’t resolved until the dawn of the 21st Century, which has resulted in a persistent communication issue out on the street, with everyone over 30 inadvertently asking for coke, when they really want hash.
To my credit, taking the plunge into drugs culture did require some convincing. School had spent half an hour out of every week extolling the virtue of condoms, and cautioning that injecting cannabis, even once, would inexorably lead to an incurable addiction and the associated lifetime of squalor. The injecting part was the most off-putting, and I expressed strong reservations about sticking a needle in my arm. Also there was AIDS to consider. Al deftly ran me through the basic mechanics of blow preparation and usage, leaving me in no doubt that the Social Education teacher had been utterly full of shit. I would however require a crash course in smoking, or at least the inhaling part of it. There was only one stumbling block: Al wasn’t packing any drugs, but he did know where we could find some. Art students were having a party in Elmbank, and everyone was meeting up in town. We borrowed my father’s car, and headed in.
Events now took a pivotal turn. Our ticket into the art students party was the handsome and seemingly more worldly Harris, but Harris couldn’t meet at the usual hook up because someone there wanted to beat the crap out of him, something to do with a girl. Instead we were going to rendezvous at this other, allegedly ‘rock’ bar that half of us had never heard of, which was located on the quayside.
It was dark outside, then the double doors parted to reveal two options: public bar to the right, or cocktail bar straight ahead up a short narrow corridor. Both signs were badly painted on, and the faux stained glass on the door of the public bar featured pirates on a desert island, burying an overflowing chest of treasure. We headed for the cocktail bar, in single file. Another door opened, and almost impossibly, it was even darker inside that it was outside, and a hell of a lot smokier. It was at that moment I sensed destiny clanging into place with the seemingly symbolic closing of that door behind me.
We came out in a long narrow room, with a relatively low ceiling. There were coloured lights everywhere that it wasn’t pitch black. Behind us was the public bar, and it now transpired that this shared the exact same room, just accessed by the other set of doors. It soon became apparent why this was. At our end of the room were a mix of hairy bikers, and kids like me wearing bike jackets and jeans, with the odd smattering of bullet belts, metal tour tees, lumberjack shirts, and assorted army surplus gear. At the other end of the room were older people, ranging from thirty to eighty, some of whom appeared to be sailors of disparate ethnic origin, and the sort of women one saw depicted inhabiting the whorehouse of a 1960s Western. At least that’s how it seemed. Whatever, there were at least a hundred people present, and they were clearly having for the most part a fairly uninhibited time. Down at the public bar end, a full figured woman of around forty, had mounted the knee of a man in sailors uniform, with a flash of torn fishnet tights and a garter belt, as she threw her head back laughing. For some reason that image remains burned on my brain. Embarrassed, my attention quickly turned back to the rockier section, and the space in general.
The place was oddly shaped, with the layout resembling a series of crooked rectangles joined together, with a few meaningless walls and random bits of seating scattered around here and there. It was like three different buildings had tectonically converged to form a single room. More conventionally a long bar ran down one side illuminated by coloured fairground lightbulbs. A series of low booths done over in lizard green Naugahide with semi-matching puke green Formica tables, were staggered up the uneven walls of the opposite side. The music was loud and there was a tiny but packed dance floor, about 10 feet square and clad in scarred white plastic, up at the far end. Another bar, disused but presumably the vaunted cocktail bar, was somewhat bizarrely located behind the dance floor. There was an old 36″ rear projection TV with a huge 4:3 aspect screen and a faux wood veneer cabinet stashed up there; it wasn’t on. Two other TVs flickered from elsewhere in the room, the one at our end sat atop a stack of Holsten Pils crates on the bar counter, and showed MTV, except with no connection to the music playing. Cher was gyrating on the deck of an aircraft carrier to the strains of Deep Purple. The public bar TV was showing sports highlights, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention. We went to sit down, right at the back next to the disused cocktail bar and perilously close to the dance floor. That’s when I clocked the sabre tooth tiger striding menacingly across the wall, but it took longer for that penny to drop because everything about the experience seemed like a very vivid yet hazy dream.
I was entirely too much in awe of the surroundings to drink anything. It was like simultaneously being immersed in the bar from every road movie ever made. Had an orang-utan sat down next to me and started sipping a beer, then that would not have seemed altogether surprising. Right turn Clyde!
The die were cast. One day, perhaps within the next 15 years, I would own this bar. It would come to pass…
The intensity of the visit was so overwhelming, that I was relieved when we headed off for the art student’s party. There was no ‘blow’ to be had as it turned out, and my exposure was put on hold till another party the following week.
In the meantime, the bar began to haunt my dreams, and has continued to do so ever since.