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The High Tide time capsule 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2009
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As you get older, some wise old sayings start to make sense. Such as "Youth is wasted on the young." Or "You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps." Or "Let a ho be a ho."

Once you gain a purer understanding of life, you can appreciate the wisdom of some adages while challenging others. For example, "A friend in need is a friend indeed" makes zero sense. It should read, "When in need, find true friends, indeed!" Also, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Anyone who has dealt with gut-wrenching heartache knows that it would've been far better to have become a nun while you still had time.

Other important realizations materialize as you mature as well. For example, places I once adored for their kitsch value, like dive bars, have now become essential time capsules representing a lost world. Sitting at a neighborhood bar run by elderly people who have worked there for more than 30 years is the equivalent of holding a Dodo Appreciation Night, with the last dodo on Earth in attendance. (At such an event, the dodo would be wearing a little fez and have cake frosting on his beak. He'd laugh, we'd laugh; speeches would be given about how he would never be forgotten. A gentle roasting of the guest — not literally — would round out the night. But in the end, everyone in the room would have the same bittersweet feeling: that our honoree's time was almost up.)

Yes, that is how I feel when I sit on a stool at a San Francisco dive bar.

If you're looking for some of the last red-hot Frisco drinking establishments indigenous to Northern California, I suggest scouting the Tenderloin and Excelsior neighborhoods. I've been to the same ancient Tenderloin enclave, the High Tide, three times in the last month. The bar doesn't seem to attract the hipsters. In fact, the last time I went there, I was the only customer for an entire hour. I had a conversation with the middle-aged bartenderess, who had a heavy Asian accent, for about 15 minutes, on and off. I can honestly say that neither of us seemed to understand what the other was saying at all. But you know what? It didn't matter. I was talking to her about the rising cost of liquor distribution agencies in San Francisco, and she was probably talking to me about her son's inoperable clubfoot. In these situations you just smile and nod and keep talking, and so we did.

In order to be a true dive, you have to fit the basic criteria — which, of course, the High Tide does. First, the walls must display bad art made before the 1990s. Yes, I realize that this is a rather large pool to choose from, but I can't leave out '80s pastel poster art (printed with innocuous themes, such as the word "Bread" alongside an airbrushed painting of a stylized baguette basket). The High Tide is hard-core, though. It has what appears to be a 1960s painting of a topless woman hanging smack dab in the middle of the bar, right over the bartenders.

The second thing a dive needs is a certain smell — of years and years of vomit, artfully covered by cherry-smelling disinfectant. This odor should intensify the closer you get to the bathrooms. Good old dives are generally pretty clean, but it's a superficial clean, and age-old gunk should be caked into the corners. The floor should have a permanent stickiness in places. It is these layers of grime, lovingly wiped and rewiped by tired, overworked barkeeps moving at half-capacity, that give a dive its telltale scent. Let's put it this way: The High Tide is a very enjoyable place to drink, but if I dropped a Beer Nut on the floor, I would not pick it up and continue eating it.

The third most important thing a good dive needs is a language and/or culture barrier. The High Tide definitely has both for me, but by "culture barrier" I mean that even a bar run by native San Franciscans can be an unknown planet if the proprietors are old enough. If the owners grew up during the Depression, chances are most of their patrons come from a completely different world. I was in luck, because my servers at the High Tide were both from another country and seemingly born during the Boxer Rebellion.

By 6 p.m., I'd been at the High Tide for almost an hour and I was still the only person in the place. There was no music playing, which I was actually thankful for, because the last time I was there a guy dressed like Junior Soprano was having an ABBA party with some of his ladies. I didn't want anything to tarnish my image of that night.

The bartenderess pointed at my glass and asked whether I wanted another drink. I declined, though I felt guilty for not giving the place more money. That leads to the fourth criteria for a dive: You have to wonder how it survives. The usual assumptions are that the bar has been there so long the owners also own the building, or they have landlords who are clueless about how much they should be asking for rent. Perhaps so many dives disappear when leases become unaffordable. Or they fold when the owner dies — and since he or she was the only employee, so dies the business.

Like I said, going out to these places is like seeing the last World War I veteran slowly gliding past, propped up in a convertible at a hometown July 4 parade. He can barely raise his hand to wave, but his suit still fits him perfectly. You hope to see him again next year. But you never know.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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