Pork Pyramids and Clamped Crappers: The Anatomy of a Dive Bar

A recent assignment for the San Francisco Bay Guardian sent me to some of The City’s more… ummmm, established establishments. The story was on the look and decor of dive bars. Real dive bars. Not faux dive bars where people go to look cool and drink cheap beer, where the clientele is totally different from one year to the next, where you can get drinks with more than two ingredients. This was about real dive bars, where people go to drink cheap and will do so, at the same bar, on the same stool, until they die; where the fingers outnumber the teeth, and photographers are regarded with considerable skepticism.

Usually, when I shoot bars and restaurants people are exited to see me. They give me free food and drinks, access to restricted areas, and pleasant conversation. Not the case this time. Well, not entirely. My first stop was at the 21 Club, in the heart of the Tenderloin. After introducing myself, the bartender was basically like “I don’t care. Do what you want.” The glances at first were sideways and the questions antagonistic (“Who even reads the Guardian?” ), but they soon warmed up and a few of the guys even let me shoot their faces, which they weren’t to keen on about 15 minutes earlier.

Seeing double before my first drink.

Local paraphernalia: essential dive decor.

Canned Pork Pyramid


He told me not to give this to America’s Most Wanted.
The Bartender at the 21 Club
My next stop was North Beach’s The Saloon, San Francisco’s oldest bar. I don’t necessarily know that this place qualifies as a dive, as it’s quite large, has live music almost every night, and just doesn’t have that dingy feel (plus, it has a website), but it was on my list. I was greeted by Gary, who told me that he, “knows a phony mountain climber when he sees one” and demanded that I hand him my phone, so that he could call any number on it in order to confirm my identity. When I asked him for his photo, he flipped the proverbial bird, which he later told me was that so I couldn’t get a clear shot of his face. I hope he’s not upset when he sees his face and his finger in this weeks issue.

Everyone else was quite nice, allowed me to shoot them sans hand gestures, and one even bought me a beer. After I got the interior shots I needed, I saddled up next to Gary and eventually struck some common ground about this or that. We proceeded to discuss the treatment of war veterans, his post-traumatic stress disorder, drugs, prostitutes (he was very forthcoming), his impending death (he claims to already be alive 1 year longer than his Dr.’s 2 year prognosis) and before long he bought me a beer. Maybe I’m damn charming, but in places like I think people just like somebody to listen to them. Everything seemed to be going fine until Freebird came on the jukebox. He admonished Brent, the friendly barternder, for playing it, picked up about $20 in tips that he had left and stormed out, flipping the ol’ bird through the window as he walked past.

The next guy to sit down claimed to be an investigator for The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), and was freaking out about some crazy lights spotted above Norway. He showed us some photos that I thought looked pretty fake. I finished my beer and took off.
On my way out, I stopped to use the facilities and thought it was interesting that the toilet tank was clamped shut (maybe to prevent upperdecking?). I pulled out the camera for one last shot, just for fun and it wound up being one of the three that were published. I don’t reckon I’ll be getting many more free beers at The Saloon.

When I got home, I turned on the TV and saw that those photos were, in fact, real. Apparently they had something to do with a Russian missile test.

About askreamer

Photographer
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