March 11th, 2010

Diesel Dive Bar: More Than Just a Name?

In 5 Words: Burlesque, Dark, Cans, Bunnymen, Maverick

“Where do you want to go tonight?” I ask, not ready to make the decision myself.
“I don’t really want to go out and get completely drunk,” he says.
“Bacchus won’t like to hear that.”
“You’re right. Fate will catch up to me. The gods don’t like to be teased with freewill.”

Adventure is brewing on this night. After a long week at work and a head full of rebellion, I take to the streets of Houston. With me, a friend who works in the restaurant industry with a rare Friday night away from the bustling kitchen. There’s no time to be wasted being waited on. We have already eaten a quick dinner of hot wings and with our check en route we need a plan.

“What about Diesel Dive Bar?”
“Where is that?” he asks. “The public has to certify you as a ‘dive bar,’ right? You can’t just throw it in your name.”
“There’s only one way to find out…”

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At 9:30PM, the night is young. We pass the streets of Smith and Milam, which will be congested by patrons heading to the ever popular Midtown clubs within the next two hours. As of now, the area is desolate. My friend and I are ahead of our time; then again, we always have been. Our destination is further East, toward the clutches of the Fifth Ward but not quite.

Left on San Jacinto, the destination comes upon us, not because it is obvious, but because it is the only building that is not a self-storage facility. An eight-foot, iron fence surrounds the one-time parking lot in front of a building supported by Corinthian columns. “There is something familiar about this place,” says my friend. I can make no connection with any of my previous travels among Houston nightspots (having never been to Zeppelin). There is new ground to be trod.

We park in the lot behind Diesel Dive Bar and walk to the front entrance of the fence, a gate that has been wheeled back to allow the barflies entry. As of yet, there is not a drinker to be seen. We walk in the door and are greeted by a bouncer who asks us for IDs and just as quickly waves his hand in a grandiose gesture saying “just kidding,” letting us pass without validation. I am left with a feeling that I’m too old for this place and a question: Would anyone younger than me know what to do when bestowed a perfectly good dive.

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The walls are an overwhelming red. Anything that didn’t start out crimson has been spray painted to comply with the standard. A magnificent chandelier hangs from the ceiling of the second story, to which a curving staircase leads up. My destination is the bar. My wingman has banked off course. I order a Budweiser for myself. Maverick gets nothing having forgotten to give me any orders.

One thing is glaringly evident: I am the only drinker at this bar. A DJ, two waitresses, a bouncer, two bartenders, and a manager and a half are the only human life. My beer comes in a can; the first sure sign that this is a dive bar. The bartender asks for three dollars and I open a tab with my crooked credit card. Maverick gets back from the little boys’ room and orders a Fat Tire. His drink is placed in front of him in a can. Why is being served beer in a can such a novelty?

Instead of being the two creepers leaning up against the bar, we decide to take a seat. Long red booths line the walls like dominoes a step up from what could one day be a dance hall floor. An area on the north wall has a sign stating “reserved.” For all I know all of Diesel is reserved and they are too benevolent to tell us to leave. There is a certain feeling exclusivity about the bar. It’s as if Dirt Bar classed up its act. Even better, it’s an emo/goth version of Red Room. On cue a well-dressed, yet out of place couple walks in the doors.

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“Dude, is that a stripper pole?” asks Maverick.

In fact, it is a stripper pole. Things just got a little interesting. The piece of detective work deserves a beer. I go back to the counter to order a Southern Star Bombshell Blonde and another Fat Tire. The Conroe brewery is always packaged in a can, so it comes as no surprise, but I still secretly love the fact that the New Belgium brew is being served in aluminum.

The music is a strange mix. Jimi Hendrix, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fashion, The Who, Interpol, play back to back ad nauseum. Diesel is not a place to be defined by the DJ’s choice. So far it has defied categorical organization. A crowd would help, but a crowd we do not have. Another well-dressed, slightly older couple walks in taking the place of the first which left without me noticing. The woman is a humorous level of drunk.

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Two girls walk. Both tote backpacks. Which begs the question: If a girl shows up at a bar wearing a backpack, is she a stripper? Thou with inquiring mind should know that the probability is 97.3% that she will be dancing for you that evening. The two young ladies prove the percentages as they return from upstairs scantily clad with five-inch heels to complete the look.

My phone alerts me of a text message and I look down. We just got to Nouveau. Where are you? The bar with a hundred Tiffany-style lamps is four blocks away; an easy distance to traverse. I write back, I’m at Diesel. There are stippers dancing over here. I don’t think your wife would appreciate the scene. Immediately I get the response Then you don’t know my wife.

Thinking that I’ve stumbled across Houston’s version of Forty Deuce, I have to convince my friend that it wouldn’t quite be up to that standard. Maverick and I decide to leave Diesel and live to fight another day.

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[pregnant, somewhat embarrassed pause]

As it happens, “another day” is an hour after the clock strikes midnight. Bored, having been abandoned at Nouveau Antique Art Bar, curiosity takes over. “I wonder what Diesel is like right now…” says Maverick, trailing off. Nothing more needs to be said. We head back to the dive for one last drink.

Roughly 15 times as many people are wandering around and one less sexy dancer gyrating. When we walk in to finish the night off with a round of Tecate. “I gotta say, it has potential,” says my wingman. Indeed, it does. But, what potential, exactly, is it going to live up to?

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Where – 3101 San Jacinto Street, TX 77004 (View Map)
What
– A Dive Bar by Any Other Name Would Serve Canned Beers
Wear
– Search for Darker Tones in the Closet or Red to Blend into the Walls
How Much
– $3 for Budweiser, $4 Bombshell Blonde, $5 Fat Tire
When
– Crowds Roll in After Midnight
Web
– None (It’s a Dive Bar… Dive Bars Don’t Need No Interwebz)

— Paul

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