I like me some dive bars. Like strip clubs and hockey locker rooms, they satisfy my craving for social adventure. I like summoning up the courage to go into a new place with seemingly rough people, and then trying to kick back like I belong.
But, being not actually very bold, I treat dive bars like when, as a kid, you’d try to get close enough to a grand adventure to be excited—without actually being so close as to be in real danger.
Most of the time, this works out pretty well. Locker rooms are my home away from home; the Hi-Way’s pretty well old hat for us now; all the local strip joints have served their purpose insofar as letting me feel brave, rebellious and seasoned—well, “seasoned” is probably not a word I want to be using there…ew—without involving any of the things you’d see in an anti-strip-club PSA: muggings, drug addiction, human trafficking, etc.
(Hah, I was just reminded of this after-school special from, like, second grade, where this old witch in the park scared all the children, until one brave family took her in and gave her a bath, and then she was a nice, pretty lady. Like, “See, she’s not a witch! She just needs better grooming habits!”)
(I don’t know why it never occurred to me how weird it is to just up and decide to bathe a stranger.)
In fact, we’ve had such luck exploring disreputable haunts that we sometimes forget that, well, witches do exist. And we probably ought not fuck with them.
Which brings us to the Dolphin Lounge.
The Dolphin Lounge is a windowless, flesh-colored, standalone bomb shelter of a building on Bradenton’s Ninth Street, a busy, pedestrian-heavy two-lane road banked by a tangle of power lines, tiendas, used car lots and abandoned buildings. We’d long had it on our list as a potential neighborhood watering hole, since it’s only 10 blocks or so from the baseball field. So one night after a game, we had the gumption to stroll on over and give it a whirl.
I had pretty well crossed over the “adventure” line and was easing my way into terror-tinged social anxiety, but CCB is an intimidating enough figure to ward off most troubles. I figured.
The one big room is about the size of a small house, with dim lighting, a couple of pool tables, a shuffleboard table, some random columns joined by “bars” with stools on either side. The actual bar is a massive double-horseshoe that takes up most of the long wall.
When we came in, the bar—big though it is—was mostly full, and there was a big, happy, rowdy group of middle-age people next to it playing pool. They immediately involved us in their loud conversation—saying hi, making bawdy jokes, demonstrating how someone had just poured a beer on someone else—as we waited to get the bartender’s attention. Friendly people, didn’t seem to give a damn about a couple of young punks like us in there—seemed like a good deal. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said to CCB as I sipped my JACK and coke.
CCB relayed to me the bartender’s message, that they do tend to get bikers in there, but “You show them respect and they’ll respect you.” Uh…huh. Well, that’s a step beyond the Hi-Way and its no-gang-colors policy. Exciting.
One drink and we’d settled in on one of the supplemental “bars,” watching SportsCenter on an old 12-inch TV. Then I decided to go get the next round.
The part of the bar nearest to us was still a few people deep with the pool crowd, but I spot an opening in one of the “armpits” of the bar, in between the two horseshoes.
As I wait, of course, of course the guy sitting nearest to me—by himself, of course—strikes up a slurry conversation. “Hey, is that big guy you come in with your man?” OK, scary question, but this guy was probably about my size, mid-40s, beady eyes and a boyish face that, sometime in the last decade or so, had turned into a droopy mean mug. In the Lifetime movie “Hannah Wallace: A Dangerous Dive,” this guy will be played by Chris Cooper.
“Uh, big guy?” I ask.
“Yeah, the really big tall guy you come in with.”
“Um, well, the guy I came in with is right over there.” I wave at CCB (make sure he’s made eye contact).
“Naw, that ain’t him,” Scary Guy says. Pause. “You wanna go home and have sex?”
Shudder. Barf. Shudder.
“Uh, no, see, ‘cause that guy over there? He’s my man.”
“Oh, OK,” he says, like I’d reported on the weather. “You a cop?”
Oh dear god, I think, these are not good things he’s assuming about me.
“Nope,” I say, in panic, trying to be a sunshiny princess.
“Oh. You look like a cop.”
“Oh, no, sir,” I say all cheerful, “Nope, just…gettin’ a drink. For me. And my man.”
“Don’t call me sir,” he growls.
“Sorry!” I’m talking an octave higher than normal and smiling like a beauty pageant toddler. It’s that stupid “girls need to be super-nice to scary mean men” social construct. I make a mental note to go straight home and read The Gift of Fear.
“You sure you’re not a cop?” he presses on.
“No, sir, not a cop.” I now realize it’s better he’s alone than convincing a group of people that I’m a cop.
“Don’t. Call me sir.”
He’s quiet for a few moments, then starts in on a story, his eyes fixed forward on nothing in particular. “I used to live in Fayetteville…”
“Oh! Yeah! In North Carolina! I know Fayetteville. Were you in the military?”
“Yeah.” He is totally uninterested in my recognition. “I had this buddy up there. This buddy of mine, he used to call all black people n*****s.”
Um…OK? At this point, I’ve got my drinks, but I can’t figure out how to dip out on the story.
“This buddy, his dad was real sick. And I was the only one who would go see him.” He looks at me. He’s getting intense here—louder, and his voice wavering like he’s near tears. “I was the ONLY ONE who would go see him. He was stuck in bed. He couldn’t walk. His face was all swollen up, his eyes were swollen, and they oozed and he couldn’t see. He was all swollen.”
“My god,” I say. “What happened to him?”
Flipped switch: pissed. “He was in fucking Vietnam. So you leave me the fuck alone!”
“OK, sir!” I chirp, turn on my heel and sprint-walk away.
And that is why I never again want to go into any place scarier than Chili’s.