Finding Comfort in the Discomfort of a Dive Bar

There’s something special about overlooking a gritty environment in the name of cheap drinks, good company and real-deal bartenders.

philly dive bars

We’ve missed hanging out in Philly dive bars. Photograph by Ian Shiver

We choose to go to dive bars not because they’re clean, but because they’re dirty. Or at least, we forgive the scratched glasses, hot-dog Jacuzzis and Superfund bathrooms because of the upsides: cheap drinks, good company, real-deal bartenders, old-hoodie ambience. Then, now, always.

But I went to one a week ago, and now I’m watching the seconds tick down on a 15-minute at-home COVID test. I poured the goo, swabbed the nostrils, downloaded the app.

In fairness, the bar is innocent. It wasn’t that dive-y, and we sat outside, more than a metric sneeze away from the next table. But it was late when my friends and I parted ways, and the off-brand SEPTA app displayed zero bus-dots in my area. Uber then, fine, whatever, get me home.

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Tony’s, like so many Delco dives and taverns, opens early and closes late. Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Along the way, the driver informed me that he wasn’t vaccinated. “Too scared,” he said.

“I understand fear,” I told him. I didn’t open my door and barrel-roll to safety, because I’m not rude.

Now, listen. He was masked and I was masked, and my window was down, and the ride was like 20 minutes, and I have no symptoms, but still. Paranoia is the spice of modern life, and the spice must flow. Hence the test.

Nine minutes.

Uber, Lyft, SEPTA — these go hand in hand with late nights, at least when the conditions are too hot/cold/wet/lazy for biking, and I should make peace with that. It’s built into the price of leaving the apartment, sitting down at a bar, and feeling like a person. Same goes with seeing mouths again.

My friends, like all people, are gross. The air mists with their speech. We catch spittle in the hair of our forearms.

During slightly braver times, when it seemed like the whole city was getting in on the I Got Vax’d sticker craze, I met up with friends in a lumpy booth at Oscar’s and came face-to-face with their unmasked maws. Lips worming and flexing, gums glistening, teeth like storm grates. And, lolling in the darkness, the hideous tongue. My friends, like all people, are gross. The air mists with their speech. We catch spittle in the hair of our forearms.

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Dive bar Wine Dive. Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Four minutes.

We’re the real plague, right? We know the rules, but we take dumb risks. Super-spreader concerts. Family reunions with a 50 percent kill rate. Uber rides with needle-shy strangers who should just get the goddamn shot. Poorly ventilated bars where we laugh and enjoy each other’s company unmasked. Disgusting.

Purell is a false idol, but alcohol may well save us. The mouth is the problem. Let us deal with the mouth. Whiskey. Beer. Even hard seltzer. Let us huddle around chipped tables in dim places and swish alcohol about in our cheeks like medicinal mouthwash till it peels the tongue and Zambonis the teeth. Perhaps something with lime here and there, to fend off scurvy. No, I’m not a doctor.

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Dive bar El Bar. Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Zero minutes.

Test negative. I screenshot the result and share it everywhere, with everyone. I feel invincible, virile, invirulent. Tonight I’ll see good friends in another lovely, dirty bar, and we will drown our germs and paranoia and feel a little normal for a little while. I mean, we’re vaccinated, we’re careful, and we’re low-risk. And though our mouths will be plainly visible in the dim light, we won’t mention them.

Published as “Finding Comfort in a Dive Bar” in the “We Really, Really Miss Bars” article in the October 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.