These places are great not only as neighborhood meeting places, but also because they're tiny embassies for whichever country the proprietor hails from. O'Keeffe's on Fifth Avenue near Turk is no exception. It's as Irish as Kate O'Mulligan's oatcakes, with just about every square inch of wall space taken up with something from the Emerald Isle flags, pro-IRA newspaper clippings urging England out of Ireland, pictures of people in fuzzy sweaters. There is also a JFK commemorative glass on display, and a painting of him, and a JFK bust. The jukebox is jammed with Irish music and classic rock. And most importantly, the bartendress has an accent thicker than the sediment at the bottom of a vat of Guinness. Her name is Annie, and, along with her now deceased partner Tim, she opened up this place in 1973 and continues to run it to this day.
When I walked in, all eyes turned to me for two reasons: First, I was a newbie, not from 'round those parts. Second, I had a vagina. Everyone else there except for Annie was a dude, and for a split second I wondered if this was a male-only establishment that actually barred the fairer sex. The wave of testosterone was that palpable. Nonetheless, I did my best to wade through it, and made my way to a barstool. Soon after I found another reason to love this place. All beer costs $3, and all liquor costs $4, no matter how high it sits on the shelf. Wow. (My only quibble is that the choices for beer run from Miller to Coors. But I'm a beer snob.)
Annie greeted me warmly and asked about the weather outside, and I quickly felt like a regular, at least to her. Some guys were at the end of the bar playing cards, and a cabal of gin-blossomed cronies sat to my right. They all regarded me with a cool distance, as if I were the new kid, a "non-combative enemy occupier" who had come to frolic on their playground. I was pretty sure I could whip out my bag of candy and win them all over soon enough.
Eventually, a young guy came and sat next to me. "I know her," he said, pointing across my face and toward the game on the TV set. He was referring to a blond USC cheerleader. For some reason this woman intrigued me, as only Southern California college cheerleaders of great beauty can. I got to talking to the young guy. He was an insurance underwriter for one of the biggest companies in the world by day, and by night he liked to come to O'Keeffe's and unwind. "I love this place," he said. "I love dive bars, and this is the best one in the city." He added that his co-workers think he's crazy for hanging out in places like this.
"Jeez," I chuckled, "what are they, a bunch of Republicans?"
He paused in such a way that led me to believe that I had just put my foot in my mouth.
"I'm actually a Republican," he said with some trepidation, unaware that I would actually find this really cool. I am fascinated with people whose opinions differ from their surroundings, yet they persevere. He says he has been verbally attacked for admitting his party affiliation; that otherwise nice people have gotten up and walked away from him mid-sentence. When he had a "W" sticker on his car, the door was kicked in, the vehicle was spit on, and "FUCK YOU" was written in the dust on his window. He went to school deep in the trenches, in the East Bay, where he was the president of his school's Republican chapter.
"Isn't it kind of cool, though?" I asked. "Don't you sort of like being different?" I know that for myself, sharing the same political view as everyone else is comforting yet sort of boring. A sly grin crossed his face.
"Yeah," he said with slow satisfaction, finishing off his beer. I liked this guy. I liked him enough to foolishly engage him in political discussion. I must say I got where he was coming from. We talked about the war, for example, and I tried to make it clear that both sides agree on the fact that democracy in the Middle East would be a good thing. That both sides agree that Islamic fundamentalism is dangerous. That both sides agree that Saddam Hussein was a douche bag.
Where we differed was in how to handle it. Neo-conservatives like him have a utopian idea of fighting the good fight in an old-fashioned war where the "true" side will win out. He noted that Vietnam would've worked if we had given the cause more resources. He also thinks that history will view George W. Bush differently in 50 years. He will be like Lincoln; misunderstood and reviled in his own time, but loved in the long run for being a champion of freedom.
I looked around at all the IRA propaganda in the place. One thing the conservatives just don't get, either with Vietnam or Iraq, is that people do not like to be invaded and occupied. They will fight longer, harder, and with wanton disregard for their own lives when you impose your values on their country. Wars like that are rarely winnable.
"I don't think I'm going to look so good in your story," the Republican said wearily. He was used to being berated by the left. "But please know that no one in this place agrees with me. I am the only one who hangs out here who is a Republican." This was sort of sweet. He was sacrificing himself for the good of the bar. I assured him that I would give him the respect that was his due. I love a fish out of water. I love someone who goes against the grain. I love the underdog.
That's what being a liberal is all about.
O'KEEFFE'S. 598 Fifth Ave. 751-1449.