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Dive Bar Time Bandits 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2009

In case you didn't know, it is possible to travel into the future. All you need are twin babies and a vessel that can go faster than the speed of light (easy-peasy!). You shoot one of the kids into space and then bring her back; when she returns home, her brother will have aged, but not the baby astronaut, who will have seemingly been transported into the "future."

But everyone knows that going forward in time would be lame, perhaps even dangerous. (Though the argument could be made that it is better than Botox for keeping you looking young while everyone else gets older.) For my money, though, the real fun is in the past. And this, gentle reader, is why I love dive bars — they allow you to enter a completely different environment, a bit like stepping into a time capsule.

Now, the bar I went to last week isn't technically a dive, but it's often given that status because it has an eclectic clientele, tons of knickknacks everywhere, a certain lived-in odor, and middle-aged lesbians. Real dives are in the Excelsior or the 'Loin, have bartenders in their 70s, and look like they have long since been boarded up on the outside. (If you don't feel the slightest trepidation walking into a place, it's not a dive in my book.) But, in the interest of chivalry, I am willing to extend the tag to the Wild Side West in Bernal Heights.

I've been writing a bars column for a few years now, and when people find that out, they either ask me to recommend a bar, or tell me about one I should go to. The Wild Side West falls into the latter category. This joint has a loyal following, and not just among gay women (who, in a town that is dominated by gay male culture, really need to stick together). It also plays host to older men, rockers, bookish sorts, and yuppies who fancy themselves "edgy."

I've been to the Wild Side a few times, and went back by myself last week to try to strike up a random conversation between the Wolfmother and AC/DC crescendos (this place is a bit loud at times). The bar is bigger than it looks, probably because there is so much stuff in it. Regulars are quick to spread rumors that Janis Joplin hung out there back in the day. The bartenders are tattooed (but Jesus, who isn't?) and fastidious. My bartender was okay, but she was too busy for chitchat. I parked myself betwixt an older guy and his date and two hipster dudes with mustaches.

I think the name of the place reminds me of jumping dimensions, summoning memories of the old TV show The Wild Wild West, in which the characters could travel through time. I also recently finished watching the British TV show Life on Mars, about a cop who gets kicked back to 1973.

Every time I watch people getting thrown into the past, I always think they're getting things all wrong. Take Life on Mars. Here is this guy, thrown into England amid the birth of heavy metal and punk, and he doesn't even try to find one single band playing live. There's even a scene where he sees a record store, stops cold in front of it, and gets an enlightened look on his face. I figured, aha! He gets it; he needs to go and find Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead and do crank with him. But nooo — he just figures out a clue to his case from looking at the store's sound system. Boo.

But back to bars, and how they transport us to days of yore. Because they do. On this evening at the Wild Side, I was indeed transported through time, depending on what the folks around me were talking about. The older man was telling his date about a trip he'd taken this summer (the past), the hipsters were talking about how much their roommate sucked (the present), and the bartender was talking about next week's schedule with her co-worker (the future).

It occurred to me that we go to bars not only for a drink, but also to enter different portals. Each place has its own personality and decor. Bars are like Disney attractions for grown-ups. Some are like the Haunted House ride, some are the Pirates of the Caribbean, and some are the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse.

If the Wild Side West were a ride, it would be set in Frontierland. An animatronic Janis Joplin would greet you in your boat at the entrance, while you moved through a kaleidoscopic tunnel and finally emerged in a kitschy grotto with more animatronic figures. These would include Bessie Smith, Gertrude Stein, and Marjorie Main, all famous dead lesbians. Bessie would raise and lower a stein to her lips, Gertrude would be hunched over the bar writing, and Marjorie would be cleaning tables in her Ma Kettle outfit. Unfortunately, Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" would be playing, because the people who create these rides really don't know shit about what the kids listen to. Also, it's a cheaper song to license than "Radar Love." A creepy older man would jump out from behind a post and offer to buy you a drink, but a robotic Ruth Buzzi type would whop him over the head with her purse and he'd sink back down into the floor.

"You want another?" the bartender asked, interrupting my reverie. I recognized her as being from the band Fabulous Disaster, which reminded me of the old days when I worked at the now-defunct Covered Wagon. I still had an inch left in my glass, and planned on nursing it, so I declined a refill.

It's nice to be able to escape into a bar, but it's also nice to return to the real world at some point. Of course, some people never want to leave, and they are a bar's bread and butter. I'm someone who likes the best of both worlds — a little time in a new environment, and then back to the familiar. I put a tip on the bar and left, re-entering my own private present tense.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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