Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

American Dive Bars

(Nick Oxford/Reuters)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

I spent the afternoon after my citizenship ceremony in a dive bar in Florida. It was the perfectly American way to top off a perfectly American day.

The dive bar is to the United States what the pub is to England; an unassuming and uncomplicated coat stand on which the country’s cultural touchstones can be hung and enjoyed. To look at the wall in any good dive bar is to find the detritus of a happy nation: discarded license plates and road signs of a still-yearned-for era; faded baseball cards of sentimental import to the owner; advertisements for gasoline and automobiles and soft drinks and fast food; war or police memorabilia the regulars’ fathers would have recognized; political paraphernalia from long-dead candidates of varied repute; invitations to concerts and meetings both local and remote. America’s dive bars represent living scrapbooks for a country that never was and always will be.

The older word for dive bar was “saloon,” and while the entertainment on offer has changed a little — the detuned piano in the corner has become a slightly subpar speaker system, and the bar fights have (mostly) been replaced by NASCAR, boxing, and football — the basic idea has not. Which is to say that a well-run dive bar serves as a self-conscious rejection of the Fun Police and their ever-expanding strictures. My local bar sells beers for two dollars; has secured a special dispensation to allow smoking; plays its music marginally too loud to permit easy conversation; boasts a set of floors and walls that would prompt any self-respecting blacklight operator to quit in disgust; and has a sufficient inventory of liquor to keep Oliver Reed happy for a month. Hanging above the bar is an impressive array of grenades, bayonets, and vintage firearms that may or may not have been decommissioned. What more could a boy want?

The rules that do exist are enforced voluntarily, as a matter of tradition. The beer on offer is extremely cold and bad to middling in quality, and should not be discussed in any detail; the wine comes in just two colors — red and white; and the “cocktail menu” can be assumed to contain only those that one could reasonably expect to get on an airplane. Trash talk about sports, politics, and much else besides is allowed — even encouraged — but at no point are the participants permitted to leave the realm of mockery and to become genuinely upset with one another. The pool table and the arcade games are strictly first-come-first-serve, but on the understanding that the very moment their custodians wonder whether they stayed a little too long, they hand them over without being asked. Any music that would seem out of mood in a 1976 Ford Mustang is not to be played, except as an ironic joke.

Thus can one spend a contented hour, or two — or five — blessedly unaware of what is happening outside the walls, unencumbered by the latest fads, and free from being asked to make any more complicated decision than “Another round, bud? The same?”

This article appears as “Dive Bars” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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