“Ye, Intruders beware, Crushing death and grief, Soaked with blood, Of the trespassing thief.”
These ominous words translated by Corey Feldman’s Mouth as the Goonies began their quest for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure could also double as the opinion held by many in Columbus of the one-time, sud-soaked monument to the working man: the dive bar.
The scrappy, hard-living reputation of Columbus’ dive bars has been well earned. After all, these are the oldest bars in town; the run-down watering holes where mill workers would blow off steam after long shifts at Swift. Bibb. Jordan. Where cheap beer and loose women met, bloody knuckles and broken noses were soon to comingle. But like so much Schlitz spilt on dusty, worn carpet, the textile jobs dried up and the mills stood empty; shrines to Columbus’ long march from sleepy mill town to the cosmopolitan city we are only now awakening to.
Yet, somehow, the dive bars kept their dim lights on, even as the mills went dark. They may not have flourished, but they somehow boxed their way above their weight into the 21st century, nonetheless, and are still the local bar of choice for several communities scattered across the city. Electric City Life set out one Tuesday night to hit up three drinking establishments in and around downtown to get a feel for what makes a bar take a dive and why some among us wield the badge of “regular” in these hole-in-the-walls like a treasured family crest.
6:42 – L’il Kim’s Cove Lounge
From the outside, L’il Kim’s looks like somewhere you might hole up if the dead rose from their graves to feast on the flesh of the living. Heavily fortified; thick metal doors; if there were windows, you weren’t getting in or out of them. Once inside, you’d think the apocalypse has long ago taken place. Dark; dingy; the scent of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and decaying dreams hangs over the pool tables, the Keno screens, the electronic slots. The walls are lined with hundreds of dart champion trophies, no dartboards are to be found. This conundrum will not be sufficiently addressed. I was the first of the ECL Dive Bar Tour Crew to enter the darkness of the Cove, so I sat near the register, under the black-and-white light of the security monitor, and ordered a Budweiser. Not my first choice of beers, but here, a top shelf selection.
And then The Allman Brothers “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” came on the jukebox.
Humans possess a unique ability called mind-body dissonance. It’s the reason we sometimes laugh at a funeral or cry when we’re happy. It was the reason I saw L’il Kim’s for what it was as Duane Allman’s slide slid out of the karaoke speakers: it was just another bar that regular people went to at the end of the day for a cold beer to make life a little easier to swallow.
A simple, good thing.
The ECL Dive Bar Tour Crew arrived and we got down to the serious task of having a good time. Chaz Miley, staff photographer, and Rado Mann, ran one on the pool tables; while Cora King and Jacy Jenkins, Co-Founders of Electric City Life, and Brandi Perryman learned more about the Cove’s history. It’s one of the oldest dives in Columbus, open for over 30 years. The people here are regulars. They are friendly. They are proud about the cold beer and food the Kim’s prepare.
The bartender also tells us it is one of only two bars left in Columbus operating under the old Brown Bag laws; the other being Sputnik, which, incidentally is our next stop. As it so happened, I had an unopened bottle of Sweet Lucy in my car, so we exercised our civic rights and popped the cork; at which point I was told $10.00 would be added to my tab for the privilege. So, if you mount your own Dive Bar Tour – and by all means you should! – know that freedom isn’t free. Also, bring cash. These places don’t want a paper trail. Just paper.
Before we go, Brandi tells us there is a sticker we have to see; above the Goody’s Headache Powder at the register. Jacy, Cora, and I slip behind the bar to discover a particularly vile sticker proclaiming something to the effect of, “today is yet another day to perhaps smoke a bit of crack and perform fellatio,” (for those interested, the sticker is called a “Backslapper” and is available at Starship. I only remember this because as the old bartender said, “Backslapper,” she slapped Jacy’s shoulder, whose shirt sported Mad Max- style spikes, and the old woman’s hand immediately started spurting blood onto the floor. She reassured Jacy, “I bleed easy.” I’m not sure that’s supposed to reassure anyone. I wanted to bathe in Purell.
As we gathered our group to head to Sputnik, Chris Holmes joins us as we are told that it recently closed. The owner of 20-plus years had thrown in the towel due to dwindling patronage and shuttered the doors. Several of the regulars offered other suggestions as we did a bit of fact checking on the Interwebs. As it turns out, Sputnik is still very much open; under a new owner trying out a new business model.
This is when our visit to the Cove took a turn for the surreal. From across the wrap-around bar, a leathery elderly man, half-cloaked in darkness, half-bathed in the light of Vegas knock-off electric gambling machines pushed his trucker hat back on his head and cleared his nicotine-honeyed throat, putting out his Marlboro. “I wouldn’t go to Sputnik if I were you. It’s changed.”
The room went silent. No music. No words. No pool balls rolling across the felt. No egg rolls frying in kitchen. All eyes were on the mystery man at the darkest corner of bar.
“That right?” asked Jacy.
“Mm ’hm. Different,“ he drawled. “Ain’t safe for the likes of you. Why don’t you kids go somewhere else?”
Remember the old guy in Scooby-Doo cartoons that warned the gang to stay away from the abandoned amusement park, only to be outted as the “ghost” himself? That’s the vibe this barfly was putting out.
So, we piled in our respective Mystery Vans and to Sputnik we did go.
8:57 – Sputnik
We amassed in the back gravel parking lot behind Sputnik – which is actually the front gravel parking lot behind Sputnik, when you really think about it – took a head count and inventoried our weapons. When a Scooby-Doo Barfly says you’re walking into the pit of hell, you take it with a Red Sea of salt; but that doesn’t mean you don’t go in unprepared. Between us, I think Chris had a pocketknife; Chaz could swing his camera, if things got hairy; and I found a stray Swingline stapler in my car – fight with what you got, amarite? After the proverbial I-Got-Your-Back-You-Got-Mine speech, we breeched Sputnik.
The Scooby-Doo Barfly was a villainous liar. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for us meddling kids.
The inside of Sputnik was well lit and fairly clean, if in a bit of disarray due to the recent change in management. Again, there are the Vegas-style gambling machines and pool tables; but here there is a twist: with money tight, there is no payout in the machines, so the pool tables act as a makeshift yard sale. There is a spirit of entrepreneurship here. Of passion. Modernity. Immediately, this was more our jam; this was a local we could call our own. The fact that Hank Williams’ “(Jambalaya) On the Bayou” was playing upon our entrance only reinforced the feeling of belonging.
The new owner is Thomas King. He’s the kind of guy you can’t help but like after five minutes of meeting him. Jovial. Accommodating. Honest. Business has been slow – in fact, the bar was empty when we walked in – and Thomas usually has a bit of free food for customers to snack on while they drink; so as we sipped our first cold beer, he popped some pop corn in his just-unpacked microwave.
But it was his honesty that was most refreshing. Thomas opened up, relating that his wife had died nearly a year ago and that he was just trying to pick up the pieces and be productive the best way he knew how. When he realized that Sputnik was for sale, he saw an opportunity.
“See, the old owner was having to sell beers for $10. Folks who were used to coming in here aren’t going to pay $10 for a beer. But that’s not the only problem they had. They wouldn’t let everybody in. I’m opening Sputnik to everyone. As long as you’re a paying customer, this is your bar, too. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who comes in; I’ll set it up like you want it. This is y’all’s bar. Not mine.”
For a dive bar, this kind of forward thinking is nothing short of revolutionary. Thomas’ neighborhood knows no boundaries, no race, no restrictions. As we walk outside to caravan to our last stop that night, we linger in the parking lot, inspired, imagining a rooftop bar here, a outdoor stage there; but when does a dive stop being a dive and start being just another bar. I can’t say. What I can say is that Sputnik’s old reputation has gone the way of the mills; it’s future is what “the neighborhood” makes it.
Give it a chance. You may be surprised.
10:36 – Pop-A-Top
After the refreshing anomaly of Sputnik, we dive back into the essence of what this tour is all about: the neighborhood bar that time forgot; and the neighbors who are just fine with that, thank you very much. Pop-A-Top hits all the notes: Johnny Cash on the jukebox singing “Ain’t No Good Chain Gang;” sports memorabilia wallpapering the bar; assorted decorations that would give the set designer from True Detective night terrors; and regulars that sing the praises of their bar and would go nowhere else, even if paid to do so.
Take Jim. When we asked him what it is like to be a regular here, he compared it to Cheers. “Sure, I know everybody’s name in here. Except yours. But you’re welcome here. Anyone is welcome here. Anyone is treated like family until they don’t act like family. Then, well, we’ll address the situation.”
I took more notes. There are more photos. But at this point in the evening, it stopped being about the assignment and started being about a night out with friends; because when it comes right down to it, a dive bar really is just a bar. And what do friends do at bars? They drink and they dream. They plot and scheme. They come up with “the next big idea.” And then they either write it down on a cocktail napkin or, more often than not, they forget it. But they definitely have a laugh. And if it’s a good bar – dive or no – they leave with more friends than they walked in with.
Take it from Electric City Life: Columbus has some good dives.
Go make some new friends.
Photos by Chaz Miley