When people say that the old dive bars in the city are disappearing, they're half-right. It's not so much that they are going away (they drop off the map with as much regularity as any bars in this town), but that the grizzled, senile, superannuated, fossilized, time-worn hobgoblins who run the places are either selling 'em or being buried. Bobby's Owl Tree is a perfect example; it was once run by a man who loved that particular species of bird and adorned his entire joint with them. He was also a class-A asshole to a lot of people — the ultimate hoary grouch behind the counter. Then he died, and his son took over and destroyed everything that was ever cool about the place. It still sits on the corner of Post and Taylor, with the same name, but it ain't the same bar. So dives live on, but the people who made them what they are? A dying breed.
I've been asked by a New York company to update a guide to San Francisco's dive bars that came out about seven years ago. The first thing that came to my mind was how in the hell I would define "dive bar" in this city. The word is so misused. The Phone Booth is technically not a dive bar to me, but the former author of the guidebook chose it. Any place that's full of hipsters can't really be a dive, surely? However, if those are my criteria, then I might as well give up, because any hole in the wall will be frequented by hipsters here — it's what they do. It's like going to Thrift Town and hoping to find that Munsters lunchbox. Armies of cool people hop into their vans and troll neighborhoods for bars that haven't been taken over by other cool people yet.
Clearly, I had some thinking to do. I chose to begin my journey at a place that usually makes anyone's list of top dive bars: the Ha-Ra on Geary at Larkin. It has a couple of things going for it in the dive category. First, there's the sign, which is old-school neon. Only the "RA" is lit up, the "HA" long since burnt out — a metaphor, methinks, for its lost heyday. Second, it's in the Tenderloin, which means if you get up to put something on the jukebox, you'd better take all of your valuables with you, including your beer. Third, there are regulars who are more than 60 years old. But the fourth and final thing that really makes this place a dive is Carl, the stodgy barkeep. At least, that's how he has been described by most people who have Yelped this place and in the original dive bar guidebook. "Don't expect to have a reason to leave a tip, as Carl will more than likely ridicule your drink order and 86 anything questionable from the jukebox," one wrote. "But he's also seen it all over the years, so you're just another shrub he's got to prune a few times before he's gonna let you plant roots around one of his barstools." Suffice it to say, I could not wait to meet Carl.
I made the somewhat treacherous trip through the 'Loin to get there, latching on to a group of Danish tourists in hopes that any mugger would go for one of the weak ones instead of me. I made it safely and let my eyes adjust to the light. There it was, the Ha-Ra, in all its understated glory. One long bar, tables with chairs, a pool table, and a jukebox. Black-and-white photos of the original owner's old boxing days were the only decoration. There was no one behind the bar. The place held a table of guys playing poker, and me. "He'll be back," one of them said over his shoulder.
I looked at my seating options, remembering what the guidebook had said about taking a stool at the bar. I had not yet had my bush trimmed by Carl ... dare I try to sit there? I was in midthought when an old guy shuffled in the front door, his nose like W.C. Fields'. "Hi there!" he said with a friendly wave. He went behind the bar and asked what he could get for me. He couldn't have been more friendly. Shoot, I thought; it must be Carl's night off.
He got me my drink and I asked him if Carl still worked there. "Yep," he said. "That would be me." Wow! He could see my surprise, and I told him that I had expected someone meaner. "You've been reading those online things, huh?" he asked, lurching off down the bar. So, Carl seemed pretty all right so far. But the thing about crotchety bartenders is that they usually have a hair-trigger response to whatever they perceive as bullshit. Which is just about everything.
The bar was silent, save for a TV set on low volume hanging from the ceiling behind me. I wanted to check out the jukebox, but I was wary of the guidebook's warning that Carl might ridicule my selection. I decided on Roy Orbison, the Righteous Brothers, and Dr. Hook. Surely they were safe bets. I returned to my stool and crossed my fingers. The strains of "Ebb Tide" began to play, and Carl approached me with a sour look. "It's time to turn off this bullshit," he said gruffly. My heart started to quicken. Then he pulled out the TV remote and shut off the set. He was talking about the television! He then scooted over to the jukebox and turned the volume up. "Is this the Righteous Brothers?" he asked in a plucky tone.
Just then my friend arrived and ordered a martini. I must say that he got not only the best martini he has ever had, but also the best martini he has ever had for $3.50. Carl even put the shaker on the bar, which held an entire second drink. "You are fantastic," I told him. "I don't see why people have said that you need to be feared."
"The only people who need to worry are folks from the Marina or SOMA," he said. Rad. He went over to the cash register and rustled around with some papers. He pulled out the original dive bar guide I had used for my info on him, opened it to the Ha-Ra page, and showed me all the people who had signed it. It was his yearbook, of sorts, and he was proud to be mentioned.
"This calls for my special two," my friend said, and took out a two-dollar bill he had been saving for just such a memorable occasion. He added it to our tip pile. When Carl saw it, his eyes lit up. He held it up to the light, beaming. "The signing of the Declaration of Independence is depicted!" I exclaimed, as if this were Antiques Roadshow.
"Nice," said Carl. Nice, indeed.
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