As I embark on this, my third year of Bouncer, it seems appropriate to define my terms. Specifically, a phrase that is thrown around way too much: Dive Bar. Everyone has a different idea of what a dive bar is. For me, I am guilty of referring to places as dives that probably aren't really dives. For example, if a place has a "theme," like the Owl Tree or Trader Sam's, I think that automatically negates its dive status, no matter how much of a coot the bartender is, or how musty the joint smells, or how lame the jukebox is. Many people simply refer to any old school SF bar as a dive if it doesn't have "Lounge" in the title or serve sake margaritas with cucumbers floating in them.
So let's set it straight, once and for all: Just what is a San Francisco dive bar? First, it should be marginally filthy; you should have to think twice before diving into that crock pot of BBQ cocktail weenies. (Feel the fear and do it anyway, I say!) Second, it should be owner operated, with maybe one other regular employee who has been there for years. Third, it should have a minimal sense of style and be utilitarian — existing solely as a dipso delivery dock for drunks. This means no fancy tables or chairs or well-placed mood lighting.
OK, so I've just described 60 percent of SF's bars. For me, what really separates the dive from the plain ol' watering hole is decadence. Decadence is a corrosive decline brought on by pleasure. It is the sundae before the stomachache. It is the orgasm before the outbreak. It is a foreboding sense of things falling apart, yet in that you pleasantly cling to a life raft. It is the Tempest on Natoma.
The Tempest is indeed a back-alley bar, smack in the middle of a tiny side street at the top of SOMA that looks like the kind of avenue on which one would find Jack the Ripper bent over an eviscerated Whitechapel whore. Or maybe the kind of place you'd find a Mrs. Fields cookies. Whatev.
Inside, the place is expansive, with high ceilings, fluorescent lighting, community rec room furniture, and other basics like a jukebox, pool table, and arcade games. If you had to pick a theme for the place — and remember, if it has a theme, its not really a dive, because it is trying too hard — the theme would be Kansas, as the owner, Eric, is from there and follows its sports teams religiously. Sports is such a staple of all bars that I can't really call it a theme, and so the Tempest passes.
Where this place really shines is indeed the bartender. He is a great guy, just the sort to make you feel welcome and to start up a friendly chat. To be a real dive, you must either have a total asshole back there, or a gem. No middle ground.
I ordered a Jameson and waited for my friend who works at the Chron. This is the place to go if you want to chat up a reporter or better yet eavesdrop in on their conversations. This is where the decadence of the Tempest comes in. During the last round of layoffs, several Chron employees would white knuckle their way through the day, face a reprieve or a pink slip, and then retire to the Tempest to sort it all out. The irony, of course, is that Shakespeare's play of the same name is about a shipwreck brought on by a storm. The Tempest was the life raft they were clinging to every day after 5 o'clock.
The other decadent bunch of people who hang out at the Tempest are the bike messengers. Face it, they are perpetually on the verge of being hit by a Muni bus. Every day they take their lives into their own hands. Then there are just the plain old alcoholics, decadence personified.
My Chron friend was late. As often as I sit alone in bars, I never quite feel OK about it and always have to look like I am doing something. Eric the bartender was talking to some guys about sports so I couldn't talk Wichita with him.
I felt a twinge of sadness. I have been feeling sad lately, lonely. Decadence is avoidance, and I have spent years being decadent in many different ways. What you are left with in the end is, well, the end. For me I'm trying to figure out what's next. I can't help but feel that there is a storm coming.
My friend, who finally walked in, was glowing. He had just come back from a great story, felt comfortable in his employment (he obviously survived the newsroom cuts earlier in the year), and was about to leave on a honeymoon. We gave each other a big hug and I tried to buck up.
Eric saw the name on my credit card and asked me if I knew some other guy named so-and-so St. Clair, a sports legend. (I think we both know the answer to that, gentle reader: nope.) We laughed and talked about the guy, who sounded like a real character. We talked about the Midwest, and weather, and all that stuff that people from the middle of the country end up gravitating to. I felt a nice ease wash over me. Eric's optimism and friendliness was a nice gift. Eric was a gem. This is why I keep going out, why I never get bored of meeting people in bars, the little connections like this. My loneliness lifted.
I love my friend, too, and I suddenly felt very blessed. I took a deep breath and thought that maybe things were gonna be OK. Then I proceeded to give him shit. I guess I was feeling better.
"So," I said to my pal, who had just embarked on what is perhaps the most decadent of journeys, marriage, "she preggars yet?"