(apologies to Hemingway)
At lunch today, I talked to a man at Ocean Eddie’s about our preference for pubs that are dives. The tide came in beneath the floor boards and we sat at separate tables with patio umbrellas on the deck . He drank a draft and some of the head dripped over the side of his glass and onto the table.
He told me about his favorite dive, outside Danville, Virginia. Then he asked about mine.
“No contest. The Shack.”
There was a bar in the woods on the Gulf of Finland just outside St. Petersburg, Russia, I frequented in the late night early morning hours back in the nineties, but it burned down. It was a small place to drink and sing Gypsy songs and meet people you’d never want mad at you. The windows barely kept out the weather, including a storm blowing off the Baltic one night. It was well after midnight and we ordered a bottle of Georgian Merlot and several plates of shashleek, a Russian shishkabob dish the owner grilled on a hibachi in the sand out back. A gypsy band I knew showed up, including a guitar player and a violin player and a woman singer I had never met. Hours passed as we sang and drank; I milked one glass of Merlot for hours while others indulged with more energy. There were four of us from America, three musicians, a waitress, the owner and his cat, and one other customer, Alexi, and we sang and drank while some storm from the west intensified.
I tried explain to the man at Ocean Eddie’s what it was like. I watched a surfer wipe out, took a sip of my beer, and described that night:
“This duck blind of a building sat among birch trees, but that simply made me more aware of the weather, wondering when one might topple through the roof. It was exhilarating, an adrenaline rush that had nothing to do with the wine; it was just being there . It felt dangerous, subversive, but it was just a bar in the woods. Being in Russia just a few years after the coup helped mystify the atmosphere.”
I told him how the band took a break and came to our table and we spoke in broken Russian and English about the storm and how we hoped it wasn’t high tide soon since the water was just a hundred feet away, maybe less. Then the other customer, Alexi, the two hundred eighty pound drunk Russian who hated Americans, started to yell at me like he did the first time I ever met him, the first time I walked in the place a few years earlier. It was as if he never moved. He had mostly kept to himself on my previous visits to the Shack, sometimes talking to me, mostly not, but this night something got under his skin and he yelled at me like he did that first time, “I hate Fucking Americans.” He startled me but he had a drink in front of him and the woman from the gypsy band was sitting with him and told him to quiet down and he did.
But his eyes all night seemed deep and vacant as he kept looking through the window at the storm, and once in awhile when he noticed me watching him he would lean forward and say, “I hate fucking Americans!” But then a sound like the sky opening slammed on the walls and ceiling, and we all ducked, we cringed, and I thought for sure one of the birch trees cracked and was going to kill us all. I went down on the floor with my friends and the gypsy band and Alexi cursed and fell against the back of his booth. He suddenly looked so small, and the thunderclap crashed on us again, this time blowing open the swinging window near Alexi as rain and wind sheered a path across the booth to the other wall. Dima put his violin under his coat and our shasleek flew off the table onto the floor. The shack cat went for it but the wind and rain chased him back under the bar and into his bed.
“I would have gotten the hell out of there. The trees would have scared the crap out of me.”
“I know, right?! but leaving in the dark in the storm in the woods is the only thing that scared me more than being there.” We both drank our beers.
Another flash of light lit up the shack and Alexi was trying to hide under his booth but he was too big, and I watched him, and he looked out the window for some time until the weather calmed, then he looked at me, and with a nod he said, “Horosho. Horosho” which means, “okay. It’s okay.” He looked at me as if to ask me to come sit with him but he didn’t know how. Instead he closed the window and latched it. He nodded to me, “Horosho. Edeesuda.” It’s okay, come here. A few of us gathered and sat at his table, and Dima took out his violin. Alexi smiled at me, looked at the closed window with a stoic face, then turned and smiled again. He looked at the waitress and said “pivo,” beer, and he motioned to us all so she brought us all beer. When she returned she told us she didn’t know what Alexi would do if something happened to the Shack; she had no idea what he would do, that he practically lived there. I asked Alexi if he lived nearby but Alexi just nodded at me and said, “I hate fucking Americans,” and we laughed and toasted each other.
Dima played, then Sasha joined and then the singer, and the beer tasted good. Alexi sat quietly the rest of the night. The storm passed and the sky quieted down.
At Ocean Eddie’s we sat on the pier in the August heat. “Then it burned down. Dima wrote me and told me it burned to the ground and everyone was pretty sure local businessmen who owned a hotel not far did it, but they could never prove it.”
“Places disappear, man. The place in Danville closed up years ago. Hard finding a new one.”
Unfortunately, the distinguishing feature of a “dive” is that it is about to burn down, be condemned, fall apart, or otherwise render itself uninhabitable. I love those places, right before the fall. It is important, then, not to become too attached.
I thought of the places I frequented that have closed. The Shack, Rasputin’s on the other side of that city, the Blue Door Blues and Jazz Club in Prague (where the door was brown and they didn’t play either blues or jazz), the old Jewish Mother right here at the beach, and I just read that Sea Gull Pier on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is closing as well, talk about a dive. But the Shack wins for losing. It was both literally and figuratively on the edge of everything. It was the stereotype of some Soviet-era bar in the middle of nowhere, and I always half expected Rasputin himself to wander in. It burned, though, like most of the traditions and purity of Russia. It seems the city is built on ashes.
He drank more of his beer and then asked, “So where are you going to go after this place is gone?”
“Well, luckily I have other places I like.” I sat quietly for a few minutes and thought of some: Big Sams at the Inlet is a shack, for sure; There’s the Golden Tiger in Prague which I love; Maria’s Pub in Santiago is my new favorite, the Burton in Allegany. Things burn or get torn down or simply fall apart. It’d be nice if these places were always there for us when we return to them; or for people like Alexi who never leave. I go because I meet the people that way, real ones, with personalities and a severe lack of pretense. Mi Casa Cafe in St Augustine, Yorktown Pub. Some lady’s garage just west of Portomarin, Spain.
“Well I need to find a place. A shame really. I was just getting used to it here.”
He could tell from my face I had no idea what he was talking about.
“I’m guessing you didn’t hear. It was in the papers and the old man in the bait shack told me a few weeks ago. They’re closing it up, tearing it down and rebuilding some steel pier, gift shop, amusement, hotel complex. This is Ocean Eddie’s last season.”
He left and I sat and watched lone surfers working the small waves.
Well, this place doesn’t have what it takes to be a shack anyway. Maybe thirty years ago when it was falling apart, but after it was cleaned up and painted, not so much. Ironically it came into its own just in time to tear it down.
No, a dirty, dark shack has to be open late, at least until three. It needs old floor boards and low lighting, it most certainly needs low lighting though bright lights is all one can find these days. It is best if the vast majority of clientele do not speak English and look as if they escaped a gulag. These are the people to talk to. This is where to find honesty.
A dirty, dark shack doesn’t serve drinks with umbrellas and it doesn’t own a blender. Even electricity should be a last resort except for keeping the beer cold. It should serve only a few food items and those should be grilled. A pet is helpful. And just for atmosphere and to pay homage to Hemingway who understood sometimes a person needs a place to go late to sit alone and have a drink, a dirty dark shack should have an old man in the corner; someone who looks like he still has the dust from the road. He should look like he is always just a few hours from where he wants to be. And he should be wearing flip flops. He most definitely should be wearing flip flops.