DIVE BAR DIVAS By Christina Ying
Bar hopping on a Saturday can be the stuff of nightmares if you’re the one catering to the drunks. *Shannon, who worked at an Irish Pub in NYC’s East village, described those customers at their worst. “I worked shifts from 6:00pm to 3:00am and it was pretty awful. You either have Bridge and Tunnel people or your business guys with their ties undone on a bender. Worst, you got your fresh out-of-school kids who have their first job and are there to get, ‘fucking wasted man!’ The trick was to crank the music really loud and that would encourage people not to linger and to drink someplace else. Those were the shifts where I’d regularly get my ass grabbed.”
For those who don’t need to get “fucking wasted,” you can find refuge in a dive bar. Sure, the lighting is that of piss-colored fog and yet so dark that you can barely read what they have on tap. The drinks are cheap and you’re expected to keep the order simple: Drink it straight and don’t complain about your dirty glass. In its best form, dive bars from all over the country provide a haven for all of those in the fringe. Such an establishment attracts only the most broken and disreputable.
In the larger cities, dive bars have broadened their customer base. As gentrification changes inner city culture, dive bars have diversified their nights a bit with trivia gatherings and sports events. “You wanted them to keep buying things, but you didn’t want to be pushy,” says Shannon. “You had to be on their good side, but you had to put boundaries because you didn’t want people to treat you like assholes. I had to take an interest in people so that I can cultivate this crowd of regulars. It got to the point where people were asking for me. I still remember most of my regulars and have fond memories of them. The vibe at our bar was very home away from home.”
Despite appearances, dive bars command a certain level of deference and respect. “With a lot of these bars, it’s like they’re hiring within the family. So it’s close knit,” says food writer Chad Eschman. “You’re approaching a place where people have been going there for ten years and it’s almost like coming into someone’s living room.”
For a lot of women, working at a bar is only a short-term stint and once you get your career path going you can leave, but at Doc Holliday’s in the East Village, some of the women have been there for over a decade or longer. It’s got a fun Coyote Ugly feel because if you feel like it, you get up on the bar and dance. “I feel like on weekends I’m just teaching people how to be in a bar,” says Doc Holliday’s bartender Julia Collier, who is known as Red, Red, Holliday. “I’ll be like, you wanna start a tab? These girls will be like, what’s a tab? I’m like, sweetie Google it, next!”
The bar is considered an East Village institution. Throughout all of the neighborhood changes the bar has kept its honky-tonk vibe although not shy of sex appeal. They’re featured in magazines and have even been approached about a reality show. Collier herself was a TV host for Travel Channel’s, Toy Hunters. With pin-up girl looks, Collier has the could be a star anywhere and yet without question she says that she could undoubtedly work at Doc Holliday’s for another ten years. All of the women that work there have the same type of draw. It’s a good time without being contrived with a magnetism that draws you in without losing its cool. When you see them all together, you kind of wish you were a part of this girl group.
“I think Doc Holliday’s has a reputation. We’re known to have tough and well-respected bartenders,” says Collier. “Any smack ass or perverted comments has never been an issue. I’ve been a dive bar broad bar since I was allowed into a bar. No one puts on a front. It’s mostly people that have lived life, and it’s so authentic. You never know who you’re gonna run into. They’re gonna be brash. They’re not gonna give a fuck. The realest people that you can find are going to be in dive bar.”
Doc Holliday’s resident OG, Joanna Leban, has been working at the bar for 23 years. “When we opened there were maybe five bars in the neighborhood. It was a seedy, a lot of homeless, artists, and people sleeping on the street. You had Hell’s Angels living here, people that wanted to start fights, junkies.”
Today’s high maintenance customers may throw a tantrum because their preferred whiskey is not available. It’s an annoyance for bartenders, but when Leban started working in the 90’s she regularly had to ask homeless people to move away from the bar’s entrance. She even had to break up a fight that resulted in a belligerent woman kicking her in the shin. “It was tough and sometimes you had no security. It was kind of neighborhood that you weren’t supposed to go to. We had very little business because it was in a part of town that people were afraid of. But, because of gentrification Doc Holliday’s doesn’t get those shady characters anymore. Slowly over of the years, people stopped being as tough and edgy as they were back in the 90’s. Now with so many bars in the neighborhood, if you pissed a customer off they’re just gonna go somewhere else.”
Regardless of the neighborhood’s cultural changes, it’s people like Leban that keep Doc’s honky-tonk vibe intact. “I grew up in Philadelphia. My mom was into country music. She was a fan of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson— just an old-school fan. I grew up in a honky-tonk environment. It was very bare bones and back in the day bartenders gave you a lot of grief. Part of the schtick was to abuse your customers, but they kind of liked it.”
There’s an investment in conversation with your regulars when it comes to working at a dive bar. You could just wear a push-up bra, serve drinks, and then go home, but that’s not what the culture is about. “Being a bartender is knowing what kind of customer you have,” says Leban. “As soon as they walk in the door I have an instinct for what they want. Some people want to be abused. Some people just want to sit there and not engage in a conversation. Some people just want to grab drink and sit with their friends. A good bartender will pick up on that.”
Dive bars are a place to meet the most resilient women, who won’t take shit from anyone, but she’ll provide the exact energy that you’ll need to get through your day. If you’re there with respect, she’ll do her best to give you a good time. “When you come here there’s camaraderie and you’re not judged. You can forget about your problems,” says Leban. “It’s a refuge for a lot people and they rely on it to be their sanctuary. We were open during 9/11, we were open during Hurricane Sandy when there was no power at all. People need a place.”
For the women who’ve done their time in this industry, being behind the bar can show you the best of humanity. “We had a staff party a few weeks ago,” says Leban. “I looked around and I was like, wow we’re such a diverse group of people, different ages, races, backgrounds. We all grew up in different places. It’s a really eclectic array of people that work together.”
For all of the downtrodden types that spend time at a dive bar, it’s always a mystery as to why these women are here in the first place especially in the era of #METOO where the most gruesome details of sexual harassment experiences are coming to light. When Shannon recalls her time working at the pub, she remembers her regulars fondly. “Usually you get to see people at their best,” she says. “Most of the time people are out there to have a good time and you’re there to help them have a good time.”