G-Rob and I missed the driveway into the pub and busted a U-turn in the middle of a busy highway. Our tires crunched on rock as we slid into the small gravel parking lot. The entire bar could've fit in the downstairs floor of my house. It was barely big enough to hold G-Rob's hair, let alone his ego and my enormous sense of self-loathing.
It was a Friday night around 7pm. Nobody reasonable goes to places like this, least of all suburban fathers with mortgages and firm grasps on their drinking problem. No, these places are for professional drunks who don't quaff martinis before sundown and certainly don't have many people who give a damn or dram where they are.
We two suburban fathers, however, find ourselves in these dives more often than we do the trendy or chain bars in town. We look for out of-the-way Quonset huts and cinder block buildings where the floor really does smell like beer and the people only look up from their drinks to make sure you aren't the police.
I picked the place Friday because Mapquest said it was the closest possible drinking establishment to a poker game G-Rob and I were hitting. Trendy names and dueling pianos be damned, this place simply called itself the name of its city and "Pub."
I knew I would love it before we even sat down. My belief was confirmed when the bleach-blonde 40-something behind the bar gave G-Rob and me a look that said, "Oh, give me a fucking break."
"IDs," she sighed.
See, it's not that people in places like this don't like you. It's that they don't like the idea of you. You are something new, something they can't immediately trust, something they have to work to know. That kind of activity is not what dive bars are about. The places where I feel most welcome are the places where I can walk into an established routine, even if it is not my own.
I stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out my drivers license. "I have gray in my beard," I said as I handed it in the direction of the woman's ample bosom.
She looked me straight in the eye. "I don't care," she said.
The two beers we ordered were cold and appeared immediately in front of us. The bar was comfortable and everybody except G-Rob and I knew each other.
I caught G-Rob's eye and nodded toward the back of the room where seven or eight guys were sitting around the table. Someone was dealing from a red deck. No chips were in sight, but it was obvious the game was serious. No matter they were drinking some concoction made out of Crown Royal and Rumplemintz, they were into what they're doing.
"Playing cards back there," I said aloud, half to point out the obvious and half to see if the bartender would eavesdrop and fill me in on what they were doing.
G-Rob did a half-turn on his barstool and took a look.
"Somebody just passed some money across the table," he said.
We had a poker game to go to. It was a safe place where there was no chance of robbery or arrest. There was no chance of cheating and no chance of getting knifed in the gravel parking lot. Still, we were intrigued.
G-Rob noted someone had just mentioned trip queens getting beat by trip aces.
"Are they playing on paper?" I wondered aloud.
It seemed like such a game would be difficult to pull off, especially for a group of guys hopped up on peppermint schnapps.
"It's Guts," said the guy sitting on the other side of me. I came to think of him as our new best friend.
This is how you survive in a dive bar. This is how you survive in a gambling hole. You find one guy who is willing to let you in and show you the ropes. If you decide you can trust him, you're good as long as you want to be.
"Four card Guts," he said, "With a discard. $20 a hand. You can drop if you want to, but if you're in, you're in."
He went on to tell us that winning and losing $500 is not impossible in the game. He further told us the game runs nearly every night and well into the dark hours.
This is the beauty of gambling holes. You will not find people playing cards at the Applebees bar. Liberty Taproom may have a great selection of beer, but the chances of rolling dice for "however much cash is in this envelope" are slim to none. This little pub, though, was all about gambling--cops, preachers, and wives be damned.
If we'd stayed a week, we could've played four card Guts with the drunk and sunburned. We could've played a game in which a winning raffle ticket earns you a roll of the dice and a successful roll of the dice earns you a draw from a deck and a successful joker-pull from the deck can earn you...
"I won $7,000 one night," our new friend said. "They had to walk me out to my car." And I believed him, because there is no real reason to make up something that ridiculous.
We didn't have a week. We had but an hour, time to roll the dice for the envelope money, time to laugh at the guy at the end of the bar who said, "Do you know the odds of actually--oh, nevermind."
We knew the odds and we didn't care. The dice could've been weighted for all we cared. There could've been only deuces and threes on them. We still filled the cup, slammed the dice on the bar, and sighed happily when we lost. It was action, in a public place, where nearly everything that was happening was in some way illegal.
It was perfect.
We walked back out into the sunlight on the way to our surburban poker game where the table stakes were much higher, but the romance was the same as an entree from Ruby Tuesday.
No, we don't haunt or hunt in the underground games much anymore, but the glimmer in both of our eyes as we finished our beers was enough to say without saying, "Damn, we would if we could."