Paul Pot

Viva la Divebar!

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In 2018 I started my series of dive bar drawings, a vanishing part of the American landscape. The original drawing was for the cover of a poetry chapbook by William Taylor that was printed by Pedestrian Press. It was suggested that, for the cover, I draw the interior of Jonell's Coctail Lounge, named after the corner of Jones and Ellis where it sits in San Francisco's Tenderloin area. I asked permission of the bartender and she said, "Sure." As she walked away she said (over her shoulder),"But no people." So that was it. There would be no people in my series of drawings. Each afternoon spent sketching in a bar was enjoyable and different depending on the character of the place. Now with this pandemic, it is almost as if the drawings are saying, "The only thing missing is you." I also decided that if there was a television in my drawing of a bar I would give it a white screen as an homage to a series of photographs of empty movie theaters by Hiroshige Sugimoto, one of my favorite photographers, where the movie screens glowed white with the lack of something projected on them. I hope to continue this series in better times. But I worry for the bars' survival. Many of these cozy dives were endangered before the pandemic hit.

Jonell's Cocktail Lounge, corner of Jones and Ellis, San Francisco

Named after the corner it sits on in the Tenderloin, with the streets full of drug dealers and people sleeping one the sidewalk, is this dark oasis with a great horseshoe bar. While I was there the bar was filled with a small group: a old woman downing tequila after tequila (she bought me drink), trying to remember old pop hits and singing them badly, a couple of drunk guys who looked like they were out of a comic book, their normal appearing business-type-guy-looking-like-he-was-playing-hooky friend, a guy saying he was gonna go after the next person who messed with his car with a baseball bat, and a woman in the corner playing game after game on the electronic machine. The drunk guy started cussing and the bartender said that she would not tolerate that language in the bar. He then got into an argument with the older woman and the bartender said she was sick of his shit and to get the fuck out. The business like type guy looked at me and said, “This place is just like Cheers!”

Hara Club, Geary Street, San Francisco

I was really excited about drawing this place. It gets its name from Hank and Ralph who opened the bar in 1947. I was looking forward to the colorful owner and/or the beautiful women who sometimes worked the bar. A Yelp review read like this, “It smells, it's all run down, and Old Man behind the bar just might really go off the deep end one day and take us all out with the gun I imagine he has stowed behind the bar.” Well this is one of those places in transition. There is a new owner and it looks like the dive part is on the way out. A new Yelp review reads, "No more Old Men, 2018. Beautifully redone with clean & modern toilets! Love it! Love it! Love it! Cold BEER." Framed on the wall is the handgun the new owner found in back of the cash register. It wasn't anybody's imagination.

Geary Club, Geary Street, San Francisco

You can easily miss this place on the north side of Geary near Hyde. It has a four inch sign above the door that just says, “BAR.” There is tree planted by the street that blocks the view from the cars. I walked by it twice while looking for it. When you step into the bar your are easily charmed by it’s cozy feel. It’s run by June who is 83 who closes the bar four nights a week at 2 am. The other two bartenders I met were both women. Cash only and they don’t make bloody marys. It draws a crowd of nice regulars and the occasional odd ball from neighboring areas. I met one of the latter when I was there.. He told me a story about when he was in the pen, his brother asked if he could take out his wife. He said fine. The brother then asked if he could borrow his motorcycle. That was ok, too. When he got out they took out a restraining order on him. That was ok. He understood. But he was angry about the bike.

Aunt Charlie's Lounge, Turk Street, San Francisco

This is that last, of many, gay dive bars in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, it’s a nice friendly place for a drink on a hot summer day. The bartenders make you feel right at home. The crowd in the afternoon is older, quieter, and welcoming and the night crowd is younger. This is something that all dive bars have in common. The drag queen shows on Friday and Saturday nights do give it a tad of a difference. The SF Chronicle said it best,“. ...both the brassy shows and the quiet daytime communion preserve Aunt Charlie’s original spirit as a place of refuge, for this older daytime crowd as well as the younger generation that comes at night to rave." There’s a guy cooking steaks on a sidewalk grill a few steps away. I didn’t ask if you could bring them in so I don't know about that. But it was tempting.

Missouri Lounge, San Pablo Ave, Berkeley CA

The Missouri Lounge opened in 1952. The original owner, who ran it until around 2000, named it after the battleship where Japan signed the surrender ending WWII. She was a little crabby. It’s a lone survivor of the many dive bars that used to line San Pablo Avenue and its environs in Berkeley: The Tunnel Inn, the Bay Bridge Inn, Dew Drop Inn, the Blind Lemon, Mike and Mary’s, the W&S Club, Sam’s (see Sam’s) and that place where Lanesplitter is now. When I moved to Berkeley in 1975, I didn’t want to go into it. There were some serious drinkers among its small clientele. The new owner turned the running of the bar to a younger crowd who have made it popular but it still maintains that divvy character with the same décor, many of the original fixtures, and pictures. I run an open mic there.

Stassi's 4th Ward Tavern, Marysville CA

Stassi’s has a long history. It’s name comes from a time before there were addresses when it was known as the" tavern in the fourth ward". It’s right next to the railroad tracks and every time a train goes by they spin the wheel. If your chair has the number that comes up, you get a free drink. The bar is in transition. They’ve added a bunch of taps and a patio with horseshoes that which is popular with the younger folks, but on a weekend day it maintains it’s divier roots with the neighborhood crowd. I met a nice woman who introduced me to Marysville’s Santa Claus (and Mrs. C) as well as a Clamper. The order of E. Clampus Vitus is a fraternal organizition of drunks and partiers that goes back to the gold rush days and is dedicated to the preservation of the heritage of the American West.. When he turned to say, “Hello,” you could almost see the level of alcohol in his system like a horizontal, liquid line across the center of his eyes.

Field and Stream, Marysville CA

The bar is right nextdoor to the Sutter County Probation office. I entered this bar to the strong smell of bathroom disinfectant as a result of something that had occurred the night before. There were three young women (one talking about her baby) and two older men buying them drinks. I heard one say, “I never turn down a free drink.” I talked to her as I was drawing and told her of my dive bar project. She said, “This isn’t a dive bar. For that you need to go to Grumpy’s in Linda. Yeah, sure. This bar has a signature drink: the syringe shot (pictured on the table) that you squirt into your mouth. The one I tried came recommended by the young woman. It was called the Audacious MF and it was equal parts of gin, vodka, and rum dyed bright blue.

Sam's 58 Club (closed 1998), Berkeley CA

In 1947, Sam bought the family store and built a bar next to the Heinz factory naming it the 58th variety to Heinz's 57.. It was a fixture as blue collar hangout in industrial Berkeley. Sam would play the bottles with spoons to the jukebox. When I started going there the jukebox was full of singles (old blues, rock’n'roll, Sinatra, etc) from the personal collection of a Fantasy Studios employee. Sam had sayings like, “B Boop”, "shithouse mouse” (he loved Mickey Mouse), and "He’s tapioca". It was a place of friends and you were welcome no matter who or what you were. Though the sign said “Absolutely no checks cashed” they cashed them all the time. You could get take out drinks in “go" cups until some fool got caught driving with one and told the cops where he got it. You can read more about Sam's at “Quirky Berkeley" on the web. I miss the place. When my daughter was two days old, the first place she went to wasn’t home, it was Sam's. After a dry nine months my wife plopped her right down on the bar and said to bartender Bruno, “I need a drink!”

2101 Club, MacArthur Blvd, Oakland CA

This bar turned out to be less of a dive and more of a great neighborhood watering hole. No pretentious fancy drinks, just the basics in the world of call and well drinks. A few nice beers on tap. The crowd was a big group of friendly folks having drinks on a Saturday afternoon. A guy had a box of cakes that he regularly picked up from Taste Of Denmark bakery for the other people in the bar. "You know, that red velvet cake you got me last week was just delicious." I had a few beers and nice conversations while drew my picture. I could have stayed hours longer.

Smitty's, Grand Ave, Oakland CA

This bar is everything that a dive bar should be. Dark. Cash only. No draft beer. Pool table. These simple basics are in store for the regulars or those who don’t know what they have walked into. It's been that way for what seems like forever. The room with the pool table is brightly lit and there is no wall between it and the bar yet somehow, the bright light doesn’t cross the invisible barrier between it and the bar. I’ve been told that the new owner has no plans to change that. Keep the faith.

Geo Kaye, Broadway, Oakland CA

“Man Found in Water in San Francisco Was Bartender at Geo. Kayes” read the story headline in 2013. David Biddle was co-owner of the bar and, after his death, many came to the bar to remember and honor him. His name comes up always. Why? It’s because he was special and Geo. Kayes is a special place. It carries on a great tradition that makes a great bar. As they say on their shirt, “This isn’t a dive bar, it’s a neighborhood joint.” That couldn’t be more true. It is a place of friends, both old and new. It is straightforward without any trace of shi-shi to be seen. I’m sure this place has seen many changes since it opened in 1934. I can only speak to the 1990’s when it was a night hangout for punk rockers. As the afternoon crowd of old guard drinkers slowly transitioned into the punkers, the two groups would mix and converse. They were all friends. All were welcomed and still are.

The Alley, Grand Ave, Oakland CA

“Featuring Rod Dibble at the Piano Bar”, the sign outside proclaimed in tribute to the late Rod Dibble who for decades held court every night accompanying patrons (both amateur and professional)as they sat around the piano singing popular songs from supplied songbooks. He was a one-man Oakland institution who passed away in 2017. Perhaps they didn’t have the heart to take the sign down. But the tradition carried on with new players in this bar designed to look like a shack in an alley, decorated with photos, and festooned with thousands of business cards from the legion of patrons who graced the room. A favorite of locals, a must-see on your Oakland tour, and the home of one fine burger.