I have a friend who dances burlesque, a frequent performer at the Clocktower in downtown Denver. “Why don’t you try the dive bars?” I once asked him when he was between gigs, but he doesn’t want to. I felt so disappointed when he told me that, it got me thinking why I like dive bars so much.
The last time I went to a show at a dive was somewhere on S. Broadway in Denver, near Herman’s Hideaway. I went alone in my sparkly black sweater and thought I looked pretty cool. Yvie Oddly was the MC, who would later go on to win Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 11. That night they were serving vodka tonics in 16-ounce glasses, for $7. It was unreal.
But even copious amounts of vodka tonic and famous drag queens do not explain the feeling I have for dive bars. They’re so much fun, so slightly dangerous and completely innocuous. You can be anonymous, have no opinions about anything, be invisible and conspicuous at the same time. Everybody’s a nobody. Nobody’s anybody.
I once saw Yvie Oddly perform in a quasi-dump somewhere in RiNo, dressed in a full wedding gown and veil, pouring hot salsa down her throat and the front of her gown. Despite the extraordinary performance, I hate a bar that’s in-between a nice bar and a dive — with no real lowdown appeal and no niceties like tufted leather banquettes or an oak bar, like the Pony Up in Denver, or the Corner Bar in Boulder. So I’m not talking about your regular bar bar.
I like to say I grew up in a dive bar. It was a place on the east side of Milwaukee near campus, called Axel’s. Not literally, but it’s where I learned a lot after class at UWM. Catching up after 12 years of Catholic education. Axel’s was a variation on a type of Milwaukee bar – neighborhood bars in the downstairs of a house where the owners live upstairs from the bar.
There used to be dozens of them, sprinkled around neighborhoods from one end of the Milwaukee to the other. I had a friend who sincerely tried to visit all the good ones. He would curate visits for the rest of us. A bar called The Perch, where ancients danced to a polka band with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Bars with the ceiling covered in old rubbers. Bars where transvestite prostitutes hung out. Bars where a fight might break out at any moment. A bar named Valents where the AMC workers crowded in under florescent lights on their break. A Bar called Charlie’s Chapel where no one broke the silence. A sweet place on the North side that offered us fried chicken from an after-hours party. We’d stand in the door getting a feel for the place, until the bartenders shouted at us to close the door. And cruise the neighborhoods looking for any place that still had their lights on after 2:00 bar time. Some say a great bar is a bar that’s been in the same family for three generations, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in one, as those are hard to come by.
A literary crowd hung out at Axel’s, drinking heavily, so it was a family-run bar, but not your ordinary neighborhood bar, not by a long shot. UW profs and ex-profs held court there, drinking each other under the table on weeknights and hitting on the young students. I went there nightly for a while, sleezing my way through UWM in a beery haze, with plenty of Xanax and cigarettes. Sixty cent tap beer is goat’s milk to me. But even that does not explain the attraction. If not the drunkenness, if not the people, if not the atmosphere, then what is the allure?
I feel it must be ancestral memory. Somewhere in my murky past lives an alcoholic poet with roots in the Irish countryside. It must be. Or even nearer to home, my mother’s mother ran a bar and restaurant in rural Wisconsin. No doubt quite the wet spot for the local Irish bachelor farmers is southwestern Wisconsin. At least that’s as my family lore has it.