I had an old friend in town recently for a visit, a friend who’d lived in San Diego for many years until leaving for South America before the law could catch up with him. Back in the day, my pal was a real wild man, spending much of his free time scouring San Diego for the next dive bar with its mandatory sordid adventure, so his return to our heavily gentrified city was like watching a bewildered Bukowski re-emerge after being cryogenically frozen for 20 years, stumbling through the streets of downtown, Golden Hill, North Park, City Heights, and the beaches bitterly muttering to himself about chic bistros and expensive craft brews. The statute of limitations was up but his city was gone.
Never has a stout middle-aged man seemed so distraught to be in a room full of beautiful young women as my companion was when confronted with the new gang populating the renovated Waterfront Bar and Grill or the cocktail lounge that replaced the bar with no name and the crooked pool tables. “What happened, Miller?” He kept saying to me as he shook his head disapprovingly. “Look at this! What the hell happened?”
Even beer Meccas like Hamilton’s were a letdown to him when compared to his memory of Sparky’s—the musty old bar where we used to drink cheap beer after wandering over from Snippy’s or the Slip-Inn. There’s just nowhere left to go with people you run into in the park at 1:00 AM anymore.
Watching my friend stroll around downtown was like seeing a man suddenly stricken with traumatic memory loss as he searched futilely for evidence of the Naha, the Orient, and the Hong Kong. His cognitive map of past debauchery had been summarily erased. Memories of depravities past had been murdered. Drunken shaggy dog tales about SRO nights and 6 AM greyhounds rudely thrust down the memory hole. “Where do people drink when they get released from the tank now?” he asked with concern “Where do they go?”
I tried to satisfy the hollow-leg thirst of his nostalgia with trips to the Star Bar in the Gaslamp, the Tower Bar in City Heights, and Tobacco Rhoda’s on University Avenue, but even these venerable standbys were now tainted with unwanted revisions and a new population of tattooed hipsters who frequently received my friend’s beer-soaked musings about the days of yore with amused contempt. In turn, my friend sneered at their versions of “dive” and incessantly noted how much grittier the place had been when he was holding court after the nightshift. The old Tower was better than the new Tower, Sparky’s superior to Hamilton’s, the bar in the Greyhound Station better than everything in the Gaslamp Quarter nowadays.
Fundamentally, the loss of all his old haunts was a betrayal of sorts. It was the big middle finger of time and market forces mocking his glory years. More than anyone I have ever met, my companion lived by the Neil Young lines, “See the losers in the best bars/Meet the winners in the dives/Where the people are the real stars/All the rest of their lives.” Thus, as I pointed to the new spots on 30th out the window of the #2 bus, all he could muster was a dismayed, “I don’t know, Miller. I just don’t know.”
One evening, as we sat at the bar in the now far more fancy Turf Club I pressed him into duty with this question: “If you had to name the top five lost places in San Diego, what would they be? You name them and I’ll put them in my next column.”
Here, then, in no particular order, is what he came up with:
1) Suzie Wong’s Bar, downtown, east of market on 9th: the bar with the highest number of sleeping patrons at any one time. Perhaps it was the place in San Diego where you were most likely to be greeted with “Fuck You” from the regulars for no particular reason other than the fact that you sat down next to them. It was the kind of place where people still said, “Buy one or be one.” Never once had my friend had a drink at Suzie Wong’s without ending up in an SRO or some seedy apartment on Cortez Hill performing unspeakable acts with strangers. Ah humanity!
2) The Stage Door at the foot of the pier in Pacific Beach. Here you could play pool all day long and watch the sun set gloriously on the Pacific Ocean as you enjoyed a cheap domestic draft. Open at 6 AM and closed at 2:00 AM, really. Good chance to leave with someone for an after party at their dumpy beach pad or, better yet, to simply head over to the bay side, hop the fences of the expensive condo places, and steal into a hot tub. “There’s nothing like sneaking in a quick one in somebody else’s condo, Miller. I once had sex in three different places with this great woman I met at the Stage Door. Got chased out of the last one and never saw her again. It was beautiful.”
3) The Dolphin Inn down a side street off Market in Southeast San Diego: This was a little bit of Southern Juke Joint in San Diego. They had blues music all the time and a great jukebox with old soul and super nice bartenders. The neighborhood was rough at the time, but folks took care of each other and made sure everyone made it back to their cars. There the blues really felt like the blues. But there was joy in the place too, lots of life, unvarnished.
4) The old Arizona Café in OB. Here my friend once enjoyed watching me get tackled and straddled on the floor by a tough biker chick after I beat her at pool. No harm, no foul. I lived to tell the tale. Cheap beer, no new flat screens, endless potential for trouble.
5) Buffalo Bill’s under an SRO on 2nd street, downtown. My friend drank there all day before going to see the Jerry Garcia Band at the California Theatre once. The place had a board with the food special on the wall over by the pool table. Every day it was “Navy Bean Soup.” Never left without hearing at least 12 epic lies followed by a shot of Wild Turkey.
Just after 2 AM toward the end of his stay, my friend went to a taco shop near my house in Golden Hill after shutting down yet another unsatisfactory new bar. He was the only Anglo in there but since he speaks fluent Spanish, he started chatting up the patrons, asking them if they lived in the neighborhood and what they thought of the changes that had happened over the last few years. As he told me, “It was pretty interesting Miller. Most of them said that the neighborhood was calmer now, less rough. They like that part. But this one guy says to me, ‘It’s cool to have all the nice new places, but we can’t afford to go there so what good is it really? That’s why we still go to the old places, where we can afford to eat. If I want a beer, I go to the market and get a whole six pack for what I would pay for one beer.’ Pretty interesting, Miller. Don’t you think?”
OK old timers, anything to add to my buddy’s list? If you are too embarrassed to play, you can make up a name.