In Underrated, we review the ordinary rituals we build around food. Next up: people-watching at a dive bar.
My memories of late nights at the dive bar imprint on my mind like dreams. Their logic seems otherworldly: A man stands in a corner with a giant white-and-yellow boa constrictor around his neck as people flock around the snake. After the tear gas clears from a protest, young women spray paint the outline of their bodies onto a wall in homage to the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s album The Battle of Los Angeles. An old man sits at the bar for hours of repeated pours of bourbon, apparently unaware or unconcerned that he’s still wearing his bicycle helmet. A famous character actor walks in, surveys the dance floor with a scowl, and turns to leave while I blink and wonder, Could that really be him?
A dive bar late at night sets a certain kind of scene, one that is dreamlike and absurd, both clouded and heightened by the effects of alcohol consumption. At a dive bar, you never want to be the subject of someone else’s memory; you don’t want to be the main character—the one making a scene or talking the loudest. The best thing to do is people-watch while nursing your favorite drink, observing, objective, not drunk but not sober. In an ideal world, the ice in your plastic cup of whiskey soda won’t quickly melt; it will keep the drink cool while you absorb your surroundings.
My own special talent at dive bars has always been getting strangers to tell me their life story. Something about my presence and perhaps my rapport with the bartender seems to promote openness; my mother and sister have the same talent (or burden, untrained as we all are as therapists). I’ve advised women to dump boyfriends; I’ve watched others cry over unreturned text messages, a dead phone, past assault. I keep my own stories close to the vest because, as a writer, I prefer to observe, but I am always open to an argument about contentious political issues. I’m lucky that it’s never gotten too intense.
I live in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is a city of dive bars—at some, you can order a martini or cosmo without worrying about the freshness of ingredients, at others you should just order that whiskey soda in a plastic cup (it’ll probably be Dewar’s, and the pour might be extremely heavy). Some of these bars have murals on the walls or TVs playing music videos, others have neither and are covered in graffiti. Still more will be located in a secret spot right by the ocean, open only one night per week. Usually you can’t get food at these places, and if you can, it’s a frozen empanadilla that’s quickly heated in a toaster oven.
The most famous of these local bars is El Batey, which has been open for over 50 years and maintains its punk essence despite the neighborhood’s endless gentrification and appeals to tourists. The walls are scribbled over with the names of people who have visited for years and lined with photos of past patrons who have passed away. The bar has a feeling of grime thanks to the Sharpie-covered walls, and the service is no-nonsense. But when you become a resident of an area, you feel a sense of homeyness in its dives, and for me, that’s in El Batey, which I frequented even before I officially moved into town. It was the last bar I drank in with my brother before he passed, giving the place sentimental value for my whole family.