I live in Massachusetts, which is a proud but anxious state with liberal policies regarding who can get married or call his roast beef famous and very conservative rules concerning most other types of personal behavior. For example, it's a lot harder than you'd think to get a drink around here.
Despite its reputation for progressive laws and drunken rulers, Massachusetts didn't allow Sunday alcohol sales until Mitt Romney became governor. We needed a pro-business teetotaler to grant us the right to buy booze on the Sabbath without a debasing drive to New Hampshire, and we still haven't found the right hero to legalize happy hour. This is why I love traveling: Bolt Bus has yet to deliver me unto a state with a more restrictive drinking culture.
My last trip was to New York, which is a very fine drinking town but for the appalling shortage of places to get a quick cup of restoration at nine on a weekday morning. Wandering around Manhattan positively living for a beer before I was ready to face "The Price Is Right" made me appreciate that Boston's crippling affection for all that is antiquated and ingrained does bring with it the mixed blessing of a flourishing dive bar demimonde.
Boston has the standard distribution of callow profiteers with more dollars than decency, to be sure, but it's just so damn hard to get anything done here that barroom gentrification comes more slowly than it might in a city with fewer natural born obstructionists in charge. It's not that the powers we let be have a particular affinity for Murph's Busted Bucket—they're not charmed by the dirty bathrooms, surly service, and illegal gambling. It's just, who the fuck is this new guy who wants to turn it into some yuppie joint with clean ice and proper ventilation? I never seen him at church. Where was he when my cousin's cousin was running for city council?
Metro Boston is also stuffed with hundreds of thousands of pre-affluent college students who crave the imaginary credibility that comes from sharing cheap drinks with the Busch draft riffraff that float enough dive bars to justify a book about them. And, good for all that. Boston has plenty of bars for fancy people, and even more for the humble and clean, so it's great that the dives hang on to provide a wider range of strokes to a wider range of folks.
Dive bars are necessary to a healthy drinking community, but we need to stop glorifying the shoddy majority of them. There are few things better than a simple, friendly, run-down tavern where any man or woman off the street can get a $3 fix in low light. But just because a bar is old, cheap, and decrepit doesn't make it venerable. There's a thick, bold line between "unrefined working-class bar" and "unrepentant shithole."
Let's not waste a lot of time defining "dive bar." We all know what it means in a broad sense, and it's OK if we differ on some of the details. Can a dive take credit cards? Serve food? Have more than one TV? Up to you. Sometimes the less enlightened—the not-we—will erroneously refer to a firmly middle-class place as a dive; these are the same fucked folk who call themselves "ghetto" for buying socks at Target. You and me, we're going to forget those people exist.
The more important matter is what makes a dive bar good. I know this is perilously unpunk of me, but I think the basic, ground-floor requirement for being a good dive bar is to give a shit about something. It could be a thoughtfully arranged jukebox, a conscientiously rotated beer stock, a well balanced pool table, a hosed-down bathroom, or any other little indication that the guy in charge realizes he's not entitled to your money just by virtue of having hung a crooked shingle.
I used to live in New York's East Village, where one of the more popular parlor sports is bemoaning the closure of this or that dive bar; sometimes I joined the wailers, other times I welcomed the new frozen yogurt place. In one of the most famous recent cases, that of the execrable Mars Bar, I'm delighted that it's being replaced by a bank. I think it's funny. Mars Bar sucked, because all it cared about was not caring about anything.
I like a dive bar that welcomes all comers, even slumming uptowners with green money and good intentions. As long as a customer is willing to work within the established social parameters of the place—which is to say, willing to order a shot and a beer and put his fucking phone away—new blood can only help. Mars Bar staff and patrons were way too self-conscious about being Official Mars Bar Staff and Patrons; a proper dive bar is no place for childish cliques.
Though I favor dives that take 'em as they come, I do prefer some clienteles to others. I gravitate toward places filled with simple suckers looking to drink away their problems, as opposed to bars that attract people looking for new problems. A good dive bar is embarrassed by violence or even implied aggression. There's no room for tough guys at the right kind of dive, the kind where everyone's just trying to go about the business of turning $20 into a comfortable buzz before the sun does whatever's next on its up/down schedule.
A good dive bar doesn't chase trends, of course, but a confidently anachronistic tavern is not to be confused with an ostentatiously dilapidated shack that keeps it real by opting out of basic courtesies such as verbal communication and toilet paper. A worthwhile dive will be broom-clean and cursorily disinfected, and the ones without kitchens will try to provide pickled eggs or at least unexpired potato chips.
The very best dives are low-end community centers: They string up Christmas lights, sponsor softball tournaments, organize bus trips to ballparks and 50-50 raffles for chemotherapy. My favorite dives, such as the Hot L in South Deerfield, Mass., and Paddy's Lunch in Cambridge, will occasionally set up a communal crock pot of what-have-you in the back beneath the Schlitz lamp (no, the other Schlitz lamp, the one with the bulbs). That's going above and beyond, but it's the kind of detail that separates a good, honest, shit-giving dive from the kind of combatively dingy holes that draw their strength by sapping yours.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain