Diving OKC

(Editor’s Note- this is the first in a series of articles about and reviews of local dive bars)


I’ve always loved a good dive bar, and when I say dive bar, I’m not talking about your local sports hangout or the upscale gathering spot on “Cheers.” I’m talking about a down and dirty place that smells of decades of filterless cigarettes and full-fat beer. It is a place that may have been trendy for about five minutes back when red velvet wallpaper and blue lights were, unbelievably, the rage, but nowadays, it’s one of those places that most people walking or driving by don’t even notice, and even if they did, they’d be too afraid to check out the treasure inside.


A good dive bar is not a tidy place. There is ancient graffiti on every bathroom surface that no one has ever even bothered to clean or paint over, and floors are scattered with cigarette butts (smoked all the way down to the nub) with pink lipstick on the ends. In order to hide the punch holes in the plaster from many a late-night drunken brawl, the walls are covered with either bad student art (always for sale, rarely ever bought) or those promotional beer posters with melon-chested women in red bikinis ready to bed the next available man thanks to the intoxicating effects of Miller Genuine Draft.




There might be a pool table or two, or even a dartboard if you’re lucky, but there is always, without fail, a jukebox filled with great tunes you can drink, and I mean REALLY drink, to. It will contain old favorites like “American Pie,” country I-lost-my-man/woman songs of heartache, blues tunes about never being able to get anywhere in life, and some good, rowdy, dancing-on-the-bar songs to get everyone’s spirits up. Yes, I’d say that the jukebox is the most important ingredient of a good bar … until we start talking about the bartender.


The bartender at a good dive is a haggard character out of a Hemingway novel with more lifetimes of stories to tell than you can ever imagine but, enigmatically, he or she never divulges a word of those long-ago adventures and heartbreaks. With a cigarette constantly perched precariously in his or her mouth and a drink kept somewhat secretly out of sight, your friendly, neighborhood dive bartender has a knack for keeping the conversation lively (and the drinks flowing) with a well-placed political joke here or a bit of bar gossip (always in abundance) there.


The best I ever saw do this was the appropriately named Mimi, a 40ish (but looked 60ish) dame with a perpetual dark tan (even in December), brown doe eyes framed by deep wrinkles that had no doubt been earned the hard way, and long, often red hair that betrayed her fiery and sometimes truly terrifying temper. She was the madame of the place and had the deep, raspy voice of a man’s due to years of smoking and way too many late nights. And oh boy, could she cut an unruly patron down to size with her biting sarcasm then the next second follow it up with a sweet wink and a smile to show that all was (maybe) just in jest. It was smart to remain on Mimi’s good side because she was quite a generous pourer and passed out at least one free beer (the best gift of all) to every regular on a given night.


As with all dive bartenders, Mimi never mixed fruity frou-frou drinks or poured a glass of wine; instead, she passed out a lot of beer and “real man,” straight-up drinks. (Anyone ordering a margarita or martini at a dive bar will incur the shunning of all regulars and get a perpetual smirk from the bartender.) In fact, drinks at a dive bar are probably the same price as they were the day the red velvet wallpaper was installed. There are no $5 beers or $8 cocktails here; take along a $20 and some change, and you’ll be drinking all night at a dive bar and may even be able to splurge on a round or two for your newfound buddies, the regulars.


The regulars – they are what gives a dive its character, makes it home. They spend as much awake time – and, yes, a lot of pass out time – there as possible; they are there when the doors open in the morning and have to be kicked out when the bartender locks up at night. In the meantime, they smoke and drink their way through the evening while arguing over just about anything – politics, sports, who among them the beer model in the promotional poster would care to bed first. They are an eclectic group: slumming professionals who escape from work every chance they get for a cold beer; artists and musicians who try to wrangle free drinks in exchange for art to display on the walls or for a “free concert” on a beat up acoustic guitar; poor college students who can’t afford to buy beer anywhere else; and semi-homeless (or even full-fledged homeless) wanderers who have no family and no place else to go.


Regulars are people like Virgil, a wiry hippie of a man in his 70’s with shoulder-length gray hair, bushy whiskers, and a penchant for faded denim. When I met him, he looked like he belonged in a commune, and he lived like it, too. He wasn’t famous for being concerned about such routine matters as daily baths, so ole Virge could end up smelling pretty ripe at times; whew, could that long hair of his get stringy and stenchy. But, like his ancient namesake, Virgil always had a good (and sometimes even coherent) story to tell and grew infamous for his method of obtaining free beer. He’d sidle up to some unsuspecting newcomer at the bar and regale his poor victim with one rambling story after another until, out of complete aural exhaustion, the patron would buy Virgil a cold one just to shut him up for a few seconds. He managed to drink free almost every time I saw him in action, and since he was pretty much homeless and never had much money, that was good.


Another of my favorite regulars was Willie Nelson – no, not THAT one. Our Willie Nelson was even older than Virgil and shuffled around in arthritic, slow motion steps wherever he went. Being a lifelong musician who played with the likes of Bob Wills way back when, Willie spent most of his life in smoky dive bars playing his twangy guitar, enjoying a good brawl now and then, and especially romancing women (and marrying and divorcing a few of them). Even at his advanced age, Willie was quite the ladies man and would, in his endearingly shy way, flirt with every sweet, young thing he met. Luckily, I was one of those young things, so I got to hear some wild stories of his days on the road back before the invention of interstates or big convention halls. After one such story, Willie very shyly pulled a cassette tape from the pocket of his used flannel shirt and gently placed in it my hand. On it was one of his recording sessions with Wills, and, even though it is barely audible, I still pull it out on occasion and pop it into my very old and very well used cassette player for a listen and to remember him.


Then there was Rod, an unhappily married, somewhat drab accountant by day who left his tame world behind the moment the clock struck 5:00 and he was free. He’d enter the bar, shoulders hunched over from a day of being beaten down by “the man” (and very likely his wife) and get a tall, cold one from Mimi before making a b-line for the jukebox to play anything with a steady beat. With the first notes blaring out of the long-ago blown out speakers, the heaviness of Rod and his sad world immediately lifted to be magically replaced by a friendly and light-on-his-feet disco dancing maniac. Boy, could he move and groove and even spin like a top! Once Rod claimed his corner of the bar by the jukebox, he would lure the ladies one by one to his little, three-foot-square, up-tempo oasis and dance with a heartfelt joy that seemed impossible in the moments before he put an entire roll of quarters into the machine.


And, there was the early 20’s heartbreaker who looked just like a young Elvis … and I mean JUST like him … and who, perhaps not surprisingly, never failed to go home at the end of the night alone; the very drunk hippie woman who seemed perpetually planted on the barstool closest to the bathroom and who once gave my friend and me incredibly detailed instructions on how to “deep throat” a guy (I plead the 5th on whether or not I ever took her advice); the stocky English rugby players with incomprehensible, crazy lilting Northern accents who never failed to engage in some kind of brawl by the end of the evening; the waitresses from the fondue place two doors down who would pop in for a lightning quick beer in mid-service then, with heavy sighs, dart back to their unsuspecting tables.


Alas, the little neighborhood hovel that we called home was located in an increasingly trendy area and got gobbled up and turned into a somewhat classy wine bistro. Mimi moved across town to work at another tavern, Young Elvis and the rugby players left for better romancing and brawling grounds. Willie, Rod, and Virgil scattered to other dives in the area, I’m sure, and I went on a dive bar hiatus when I got married and started a family.


A few years post-bistro, I found myself driving around my old stomping grounds one fall night. I stopped my car in the quiet street in front of my old hangout to look in the window at all of the shimmery people gathered by Rod’s jukebox. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a man came into view walking toward the bistro. It was Virgil. Like me, he stopped to look in the window, and I could tell that he was tempted to go in and work his magic to get a free drink. He stood there for a good few minutes, the perpetual outsider looking in. Then, perhaps realizing that he would never fit in there, that his home was gone, he turned and slowly walked off into the dark.

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