Illustration by Molly Oleson
The best thing about a dive bar is that it can accommodate your whole range of emotions. High-end cocktail bars implicitly ask you to pretend that you are a high-end customer: Your ups should be Rabelaisian, and your downs Shakespearian, and your life should read like a poem to the person sitting next to you.
And don’t get me wrong, I love that. I want more people to be more like that more of the time. But we can’t all be like that all of the time, and when we’re not, dive bars are there for us, saying “come as you are.”
I was looking for a dive the other week because my life was not poetry, it was an expletive.
So I went to Gestalt, on 16th between Guerrero and Valencia. It’s a long room, dark and divey, with four screens (one especially big). You’ll hear punk music and have your choice of six different pinball machines – pinball being one of those nodes where dive and hipster sensibilities overlap. The fast-paced thrum of the music and the joyous clack clack of the pinball machines gave the room an ongoing charge, a low-level electricity that makes you feel like something is always just on the verge of happening. That’s a really good feeling for a bar.
There are no menus, everything is posted on the walls. The food options are trolling you: Your choices are Frito pie, sausages, meatball sub, and German pretzels. It’s a list that spells out “fuck you” no matter how you re-arrange the letters. But the beer menu is obviously the work of someone who cares: A big board posted on the wall opposite the bar divides the selection into drafts and bottles. Each entry lists the beer’s name, style, size, ABV, and price. This is a very good system.
I sat at the bar and ordered a Leffe blond and a meatball sub, because, goddamn it, tonight I’m looking for comfort, and those fit. The bartender, a wee slip of a woman named (I think) KJ, corrected my pronunciation of the beer, (my e wasn’t hard enough) and went out of her way to pop open the bottle and make a beautifully perfect pour into the glass. Despite my bad mood, and having been shown up, I was impressed. There was a good crowd here and she’s the only employee I could see, doing all the work, but she seemed preternaturally calm. That is hard to pull off in a dive — but she’s got this.
To my right: a woman on her phone (sigh) who occasionally talked about sailing with a guy on a laptop (sigh sigh). To my left was a guy in a dark maroon-colored hoodie who looked deeply depressed, and was also on his phone (sigh sigh sigh).
My sandwich came. It was utterly ordinary. I’ve already forgotten how I would describe it, other than, “it was $8.”
As I ate, I realized that the bartender was now in the DJ booth, which apparently she was also responsible for, along with everything else. Goddamn it, how did she make this look so easy?
I was trying to figure out a way to connect with the potentially depressed guy on my left when suddenly the woman to my right – Masha – was surrounded by a swarm of people all talking to her at once about sailing. Literally, everyone else sitting at the bar, except for the depressed guy in the hoodie, was suddenly pressing around her, telling her about boats and showing her pictures of their sailing expeditions.
What the hell just happened? I asked myself as the guy with the laptop — Jonathan — showed Masha a video in which his friend was floating in the water next to a boat. They tossed him a beer, which he caught and then he slowly floated away. It was not actually a funny video, but everyone was acting like it was. Jonathan kept trying to explain it “he just floated away! Well, we were moving too. But he caught the beer!”
He was convinced it got funnier the more he explained it. It did not.
I wanted to find a way to ask Masha what the fuck was happening, but she was still surrounded by an impenetrable wall of sailing enthusiasts, and I was suddenly distracted by the arrival of a new bartender. A new bartender! A mustachioed, ballcap-wearing, tattooed, My Name Is Earl-type, named Berto. At last, I thought, KJ gets some help! But instead of double-teaming it, she started to close down and go off shift.
“Excuse me,” I asked her as she passed me on her way out: “Can I confirm? Were you really just pouring the drinks, making the sandwiches, busing the tables, working the DJ booth, cleaning up messes and managing the customers, all at once?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “It’s fun.”
It turns out they weren’t short-staffed — this is the way it works. Each bartender comes in, and runs everything. “It’s doable,” she said. “It only gets crazy when the Warriors play.”
I get the appeal of running your own shop, really making the space yours for a while — to turn it into a kind of song of yourself — but that still seems like a hell of a lot of work. I’m not sure if it’s art or exploitation.
It was Berto’s turn to create his song of himself, and he was changing things up. The music suddenly veered from metal to country, with a lot of horns, played at top volume.
This switch distracted the sailing swarm, and so I took the opportunity to lean over to Masha and ask what the hell just happened. Had she been expecting to be mobbed by sailing enthusiasts when she’d sat down at the bar?
“No, I was very surprised,” she said, but she didn’t mind, because apparently, she is actually interested in sailing.
Talking to her attracted Jonathan’s attention, and he explained that there are a bunch of regulars who all have boats, and they often meet at Gestalt during happy hour instead of at the yacht clubs where their boats are docked, because it’s easier to meet new people to go sailing with this way.
“You didn’t know this was a sailor bar, did you?” he asked me, needing to shout because the country music was so loud.
I had not. Amazingly, neither had Jonathan when he first walked in here, six years ago. He’d had no interest in sailing back then. But he met this group, and now he sails twice a week and is always looking for new blood.
That’s my phrase, not his, but God help me, this felt weirdly predatory. Like L. Ron Hubbard trying to sign me up for Amway. Not because he needed the money, but because this and Scientology are the only ways L. Ron Hubbard knows how to make friends.
“Are you part of Masha’s crew?” he asked me, by which he meant, “will she invite you to go sailing with us? Or do I need to?” It was my opportunity to become the new Jonathan. And I said “No! God, no!” With such speed and fervor that I think I offended Masha.
“We just met, right now,” she explained.
“Well,” Jonathan said, “people always think that it’s hard to get invited onto somebody’s boat. But no! If you own a boat, you want people! It’s like: Yes, come on board!”
He kept telling me all about sailing, and in the blink of an eye my night had somehow become a socially inept man explaining what people don’t understand about boat races and yacht clubs, as twangy country music asked if I can “hear my heat a’calling down the road” so loudly I actually couldn’t hear the pinball machines anymore, and suddenly I hated this bar. So much. I no longer wanted people to come as they are.
But Jonathan got Masha’s number, so it’s working for somebody. And Berto was singing along.