Living in a rural area where crowds are few and life’s pace is slower has its advantages. It’s the lifestyle I prefer, but there are tradeoffs. When you tire of listening to the corn grow or watching paint dry, finding entertainment options can be a challenge. Another sacrifice that comes with the territory is the sparse choice of upscale dining options although we have our fair share of nearby fast food and chain restaurants. They give you a break from the kitchen, but often leave you wondering why you left home in the first place. And, wherever one lives, it takes effort to break out of the ruts that develop so easily in our routines. Many of us live with a lather, rinse, repeat mentality. Entertainment. Food. New Experiences. Those are the sirens that summon me from the secluded area I call home. They are worthy goals, but they aren’t always easy to come by in this neck of the woods.
With those goals in mind, a friend and I who meet regularly for lunch decided to venture off our well-worn path. We agreed to stay away from places we had been before. We would avoid chains. In no time, it became obvious that the next several months would be spent sampling the menus at the various dive bars in town. For those who wonder what that term means and to make sure we are all on the same page, dive bars are defined this way: “A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” This is not an insulting definition, although it may be difficult to find glowing Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews in their near future. But there is more: “The term can describe anything from a comfortable-but-basic neighborhood pub to the nastiest swill-slinging hole.”[i] To be clear, my friend and I have succeeded in visiting the well-worn, but to date have avoided any swill-slinging! The worst that can be said is that the smell of stale smoke follows us around for the next few hours.
Simply making the decision to sample dive bars seemed like crossing a line or taking a dare. I was raised with a clear picture of places I should and should not frequent. In the Bible belt south, staying away from establishments where booze was the primary beverage was drilled into young peoples’ minds. Adults didn’t necessarily follow their own advice, but that was the party line. Alcohol and carousing were apparently all that were necessary to grease the slippery slope toward the dark side from which all needed redemption. Religion can spend way too much time separating holy places from secular ones, then directing its own participants to play inside the approved areas. It’s a point of view that fails to realize an omnipresent God can’t be contained to designated areas. The fact is we may well find the Divine in the very places we have admonished others to avoid (though I confess I still prefer to think God isn’t into swill-slinging!). In my formative years, dive bars were places that if you dared to go at all, you hoped no one saw you there for fear that it may tarnish your reputation. Maturity, retirement, not to mention a revised theology can erase those types of concerns. So, across that line we stepped.
Frankly, it has been a positive experience for several reasons. For starters, it is too easy to visit the same handful of eateries when there are lots of local establishments that could use a little support. I remember a local smorgasbord where people would stand in line for hours during its heyday while two blocks down the street immediate seating was available at a locally-owned gourmet restaurant. The latter lived a short life due to lack of business for reasons I never understood. Second, we’ve had some decent local, Midwestern food in these joints. Granted, some of it is nothing to write home about. To date only one has made the cut in my Search for Cheeseburger Excellence, but I’ve had some pretty good breaded tenderloin sandwiches and a surprisingly good Reuben. Most of the cheeseburgers only earn a ribbon if we’re playing by the “everyone gets a ribbon for participating” rules. (I’ve never been a fan of those!) Happily, none of them have made me ill. Thirdly, I have met really welcoming servers who, while perhaps surprised by our presence, made us feel right at home just the same. My friend and I were able to enjoy just what we were looking for – a comfortable space, usually with minimal noise and distraction, where we could relax into the kind of rejuvenating conversation that is good for the soul.
I will admit that from time to time as I stepped over the threshold, I wondered if I was making a questionable choice. Why? Well, you might have made a questionable choice when:
- You reach to take off your sunglasses only to discover you aren’t wearing any. It is apparent that lighting was an afterthought when many of these establishments were designed. I’m often wary of businesses that board up their windows to prevent outsiders for peering in, as is sometimes the case with these bars. Many of these places opted for, shall we say, a dim ambiance—a combination of darkness, neon product signs, and maybe a few Christmas lights for good measure. On the one hand, in a dimly lit room it matters less if you’re a smart dresser. My retirement T-shirt looks almost as good as my friend’s business casual office threads! On the other hand, it can be difficult to get a clear view of your lunch when it arrives. In some cases, either of those could be for the best.
- You go to an establishment that purports to serve meals, look around the room and realize your table is the only one eating food. Maybe that is to be expected, but it could be a clue to lower your expectations with regard to the tastiness of the meal you’re ordering. The cuisine is not the main attraction here. That is not always the case, but the odds are favorable!
- You look overhead and discover ceiling tiles have been sold as advertising space. One key to effective advertising is for your material to appear where people are likely to look—billboards on roadsides, signs in the stadium outfield, and apparently backsides of sweatpants. I’ve pondered who the intended audience is for a ceiling panel in a bar. The only thing I can figure is that the advertiser wants to be the first thing a passed out patron sees when their eyes open! Maybe I just don’t understand? Perhaps that is more for the evening crowd than the lunch crowd? But, a business needs to generate revenue where it can, I suppose.
- When the server tells you they have sold out of their lunch special, but they’ve just opened and you’re the first to order that day. Was the special so tasty the staff gobbled it up prior to opening, or was it poor planning? Or maybe there was never any special to begin with, but who would notice because no one actually orders food here until we stumble in? Don’t dangle a low price in front of me and set off my taste buds only to tell me I can’t have it!
- When the server doesn’t know what kind of chips they sell, and then can’t find where they are located. The next five minutes are spent searching while mumbling about the last shift moving things without telling her. It was sort of entertaining, but I pass no judgment because I know I’ve had days like that; probably you have as well.
- When everyone at the bar turns to stare when you walk in because, well, it’s obvious you’re not one of the regulars. I thought that only happened when visiting a new church! I guess I need to get out more. It does suggest that a sense of familiarity or perhaps even community develops in these places, even if in a Dr. Seuss sneetch kind of way. However well-worn the place may be, its tracks have been ground out by those who experience a sense of belonging there. Sort of like the Cheers sitcom theme – sometimes you want to go to a place where everybody knows your name. Whether to sit and sulk or chat up the joint, it’s a place to come as you are and know that that is good enough.
- When the server seems confused that you ordered a non-alcoholic beverage with your meal but maintains a smile anyway. If they’ve worked there for any length of time, they’ve seen it all. What’s one more oddball?
When I remember the visits to these various locales, my mental juke box obliges by calling up Little Richard singing about the Dew Drop Inn. I never saw anyone dancing the Funky Chicken, Charleston, or the Boogie Woogie, but a lot of folks were spending time with “their mighty fine friends.” For a lower-octane tune than Little Richard’s, Bill Mallonee’s version reminds us it’s not all fun and games:
“At the dew drop inn every one’s yer friend
and everybody’s got a story unsung
Sam’s tending bar
brother, he’ seen it all
seen the good die young.”
The search for entertainment, new experiences, and food, are worthy goals, especially when undertaken with mighty fine friends. But life is not always light-hearted. We need spaces where we can sit with unsung stories until they are ready to be heard. We can all use a place where, when we’re ready to sing them, there is someone willing to listen, however off key we may be. How better to pass that time than with those we consider to be mighty fine friends. Particularly once we know that wherever the joint may be we can expect God to be present any old place where two or three gather together.
Whatever questionable moments I may have had during these dive bar adventures, it was good to get out of the usual routine and see parts of town not on my ordinary route. You know you have survived a questionable choice when, as you exit, they assure you on the way out that you’re welcome to come back any time. That may well be the badge of honor. To enter a place as a stranger and leave with a standing invitation to return anytime is time well spent. Maybe these weren’t such questionable choices after all!
[i] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Dive%20bar (Accessed 8/29/2020).