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Death Of The Dive Bar

What does a fellow have to do to get a warm, life-endangering Bud in this town?

A proper dive bar should be as much about the spirit of its characters (aka alcoholics) as about the lack of polish. I had found a favorite in Rae’s Lounge in Culver City, only to show up one day to locked doors and a notice that it was soon to become the Westside branch of the Bigfoot Lodge, that synthetic log cabin-style bar in Atwater Village. In search of a new haunt, I headed to a minimall on Sepulveda that is home to two of the last remaining dives in L.A.: Roger’s Exciting Tattle Tale Room, with its red, white, and blue backlit sign, and the Scarlet Lady Saloon, its name spelled out in hokey western script.

I’d heard there was a feud between the joints, so I sought answers at the aquarium shop, one of two businesses separating them. “In the 20 years I’ve owned this store,” said Ruben Peters, “I’ve never set foot in either place.”

“Some guy got stabbed in the Tattle Tale,” chimed in a (heavily inked) employee. Later I learned the shanking occurred in the parking lot of the adjoining vacuum cleaner store—a fact that didn’t give me much comfort.

I stepped inside the Scarlet Lady at noon. The cowboy motif yielded to a 1970s sports bar complete with a NASCAR-shaped light over the pool table and a dartboard flashing like a slot machine. Watching over the bar was Red, clad in sweat shorts with a braided ponytail sprouting from his balding scalp. Ted Danson he was not. When I mentioned the Tattle Tale, his convivial face turned somber. “I don’t know what their problem is,” he said, “but Roger won’t let his employees in here.” I decided to cross enemy lines.

I pushed open the heavy Dutch doors of the Tattle and waded toward a bar stool, blinded by darkness so thick it had a smell. “Do people still smoke in here?” I asked the bartender, Joanie Pleasant, a name I’m not sure she’d earned. She reached up and wiped the low wood-paneled ceiling with a cocktail napkin to reveal a yellow streak of nicotine. An enlightening trip to the gentlemen’s room uncovered vending machines with glow-in-the-dark condoms and 50¢ matchbook-size pictures of naked ladies. Back at my stool, I became ensnared in a conversation about gout. “Uric acid!” shouted a man with a belt bisecting his spherical stomach. My hour at the Tattle stretched into five; time was obliterated over Pabst Blue Ribbon and stale peanuts, and I was left with this thought: Do these warring bars understand that they are a dying breed that thrives on breakfast whiskey and bad lighting? The only war they should be waging is with time itself.