I love a dive bar. Can't help myself; I just do. Maybe it's because they remind me of my whippersnapper days, when the only bars in New York that let my preposterous fake ID slide were dingy subterranean caves; maybe it's because knowing how to pronounce every ingredient in my cocktail (whiskey and Coke, gin and tonic if it's over 75 degrees) gives me some small measure of confidence; maybe it's because so many of them are named after ladies who sound like they don't take kindly to no foolin' around (Sophie's, Lucy's, Delilah's).
I've picked my poison in dive bars all over the world, each one special in their own way, but my very favorite dive is Memories Lounge in Sarasota, Florida. I'm not from Florida, but my grandparents have lived there for years, and my annual visits are usually more about R&R time with the geriatric community than exploring the local nightlife. That all changed a few years ago, when I brought a friend down for company and we decided to hit the town.
Downtown, however, with its kitschy margarita huts and slick neon-lined clubs, wasn't to our liking. So, cruising in my grandmother's Lincoln Towncar, we retreated to the outskirts of town—more specifically, the part of town my grandparents had always warned me about getting lost in. And there it was—glowing like a beacon in one of Route 41's dozens of strip malls, wedged next to a liquor store, like a beacon in the night: Memories Lounge.
We parked the YOLO mobile* and walked in. The first sensation upon entering Memories is a persistent burning in the eyes, due to the heavy chain-smoking emanating from nearly every patron. (I don't smoke, and I don't love the smell of cigarettes staining my hair and clothes, but there is something perfect about a smoky dive bar, so I was pleased regardless.)
*This is not a pop-culture reference—my grandparent's personal life motto for over 30 years has been YOLO, and as such, their vanity plate reads 1YOLO1.
After the burning subsided, my eyes adjusted to take in our surroundings: the room was low-ceilinged and dimly lit, apart from the Tiffany lanterns above the pool table and the string of Christmas lights draped above the bar, with a XXX photo hunt machine installed on one end of the bar and a TV blaring karaoke videos in the corner. The pool table was packed with a mix of hipster-looking John Ringling and New College students and ruddy sandal-clad locals, and a middle-aged woman was karaokeing Rob Zombie with alarming accuracy.
We sidled up to the bar, and I got my whiskey and Coke. Total: $3.50. I left $1.50 to tip, and the seen-it-all-before bartender was so pleased I doubted he'd mind if I brought my own liquor in from the store next door. Before I knew it, we'd made friends with our snaggletoothed neighbor and were playing the XXX photo hunt game with him, hooting over the outdated pinups. I don't remember his name, but I do remember his utter disbelief when he found out we came all the way from New York to make memories at Memories.
I nursed my whiskey and wandered to the karaoke corner, where Mrs. Zombie was now a cappellaing to Coolio. Feeling the sort of giddy adrenaline that only comes when you know you're about to make a fool of yourself but it's too late to get off the train, I asked if she'd mind if I sang something. I nearly flinched when she handed over the mic with narrowed eyes, but my standard karaoke jam, Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me," proved a hit with the crowd (or at least palatable enough not to punch me over).
I knew it was time to go when our photo hunt friend started nodding off at the bar. Quit while you're ahead, they say—and even if they were wrong about getting lost near Memories, I wanted to remember this night for a long time.