Citizen Staff Writer
Folks can live days without food and water, but some would surely perish without the dive bar.
Take a man known as O.D., for instance. He’s more of a fixture at the Shelter Cocktail Lounge, perhaps, than the zany swag lamps, tiger-striped walls or the nostalgic lit-up poster of JFK.
“I’m just a peaceful ex-hippie,” he said, leaning back on a red, vinyl stool at the groovy bar at 4155 E. Grant Road. “I come here for the ambiance.”
O.D., by the way, stands for Old Dog, Overdrawn or even Overdose, he said, whatever you wish.
This laid-back attitude is part of what makes a dive bar so attractive, even to those like myself who don’t drink.
My assignment this week was to gather information on a number of dives in Tucson, and bet your last beer money, Tucson has a number of them.
We could say Tucson has more dive bars than churches or schools, but that’s not true. The dives, however, are probably better attended.
We could also say dive bars are safer than churches or schools, but I don’t think that’s true, either.
Sure, you don’t usually hear about a disgruntled dive bar dropout returning with an automatic, but the joints do have their mayhem.
In finding out which dives serve dripping chicken wings and which have a bra collection dangling from the ceiling, I became fascinated with Tucson’s dives.
Then again, I also think living in a New York City subway tunnel is cool.
Dive bars are wholly intriguing in a risky kind of way – not unlike sticking your hand in a dark hole in the ground and hoping it doesn’t get chewed off.
They also create a microcosmic community, which is how they began in London’s 19th century. Legend has it a bunch of rebellious youth created dives as an alternative to the hoity-toity clubs of the day.
Legend also has it the name came about because the establishments were often below street level, and you could “dive” in for a drink.
This underground haven, even at ground level in Tucson, feels like a secret society.
Unlike societies where you have to slaughter a goat for initiation, your acceptance at a dive bar is pretty much assured, especially if you buy a round of drinks.
But getting drunk was not the reason most people gave for hanging out at dives. Mind you, many said this while sipping a cocktail or chugging a beer.
“We’re a family,” said “Big Mama” at The Chatterbox, 1601 S. Alvernon Way. “We look out for each other.”
She said this with arms wrapped around “Little Sister” (who happens to be bigger than Big Mama), and a third lady known as “Singing Diva.”
Being whomever you want to be is as easy as buying a scotch in a dive bar.
Bartender Brandy Wood has more than 100 costumes, from Tinkerbell to Wilma Flintstone. She wears one to work every Tuesday at Palo Verde Bar & Grill, 5801 S. Palo Verde Road.
Bartender Andy Ward – “Ward as in mental,” he said – sports a baseball cap with metal horns for his job at The Bambi, 5050 E. Speedway Blvd.
Dim lights help fuel the facades, as do daily drink specials.
In addition to the unique characters who pepper the dives, a dive bar would not be complete without the stereotypes.
You need the morose lady at the edge of the bar, nursing a drink and looking like the world just bashed her in the head. A young woman with face piercings at The Greens Bar & Grill, 1301 S. Alvernon Way, said she sometimes volunteers for that position after enough drinks.
You also need the guy who thinks he’s Cassanova. The version at Palo Verde Bar & Grill began his pickup by trying to be suave, then ended by complaining about his wife.
Finally, there’s the dude who wants to start a fight. One of them hovered about the jukebox at Midtown Bar & Grill, 4915 E. Speedway Blvd. The 5-foot man stood with his pool cue at the ready, eager to bash anyone who dared put on something weird like Led Zeppelin.
Maybe we should send him to church or school. Perhaps he could learn something.
Ryn Gargulinski is an artist, poet and Tucson Citizen reporter who hopes her next assignment includes dog parks and thrift shops.