Dick’s is a dive. And sits at the corner of what geologists call the Mendocino Triple Junction (after the rare trio of tectonic cracks that bump and rub beneath it), on what alcoholics call Main Street, between Lansing and Kasten, in the center of Mendocino town.
Hard times for a dive bar. Yet somehow Dick’s abides — teetering on three faultlines since (in this incarnation) 1932, surrounded by tourist trade, but not yet swamped by t-shirt shops, fully discovered, but not quite overexposed.
For Dick’s, the beauty may depend on the teetering. I heard a waitress at a Mendo restaurant describe it — fondly — as a “dive bar with a million-dollar view.” And it’s true. It’s also true that, enthralled by the divey-ness, I didn’t really notice the view for close to an hour. Then, momentarily turning away from the birthday girl for another pint of the fine, local brew, I caught a face-full through the front windows, through the Dick’s Place lettering (in ravishingly basic sans-serif), backwards. Between the historic dive and prehistoric Pacific Ocean this sunny May day, nothing but swaying wild grasses and, clustered in natural bouquets of pink, purple and yellow, California wildflowers.
The beauty of Dick’s may be fleeting, but it is monumental, outside and in.
And there’s an extra jolt when you figure out no one has yet figured out how to turn the golden vista into actual gold. Or had the heart to. Hard to imagine they won’t, that this beauty isn’t just fleeting, but marked for death. And hard to imagine any place like this, anywhere, ever again.
The biker, in a leather vest full of biker patches, says to the barmaid: “Last time I was here you were pregnant.”
“That was a while ago,” she says, with a smile. “My oldest daughter is now five.”
The biker’s leather-vested girlfriend reaches across me for the glass of brown-paper matchbooks and heads to the covered boardwalk outside for a smoke with the rest of the gang.
In the smaller room, back by the john, a pack of boys packing ludicrous IDs turn beer bottles vertical and hoop and holler through the world’s most raucous game of pinball. In the big room, tall table by the window, a couple of old rock stars with old-rock-star white hair — wavy over the ears, Peter Fonda-style, for one; barely tamed in a ponytail, Dennis Hopper-ish, for the other — take turns masterfully working the jukebox, stepping to the machine with a nonchalance so practiced it seems almost natural.
I can’t make out who they are — something I’m good at, from the years of rock magazines. But it doesn’t take any savvy to know they’ve selected “White Light/White Heat.” Or that the Velvet Underground is not the usual fare for a jukebox outside Brooklyn, way outside — a strip of wildflowers shy of the western edge. And when they put on a cut from Exile on Main Street (literally, on Main Street), it’s not a cut anyone else puts on, not “Tumblin’ Dice.” “Sweet Black Angel.” And from the second Band album, not “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but “Rag, Mama, Rag.”
A moosehead watches from faded wallpaper. There’s a rusted crosscut saw, from when and why this burg got born. And sepia photos of young lumberjacks in pleated pants, astride great, dead redwoods. We study an old panoramic of a lumber camp — the hippie who’s always poised to play his acoustic (and never does) clarifies that the picture’s not Mendocino, but Tahoe City (though the caption in the corner, we notice, reads Truckee). Nearby, a big TV offers LPGA action. A half-mannequin standing on a shelf demonstrates souvenir Dick’s Place panties. Steer horns on a plaque brag they’re the biggest in the county. And orange-and-black SF Giants towels cheer from the ceiling. On one is scrawled in ecstatic marker: “2014 World Champs!”
Which reminds us that, despite the dreamy dislocation, SF is not that far away.
Next to the jukebox is a wooden model of Dick’s, about two-and-half cubic feet, a dollhouse of sorts, on a heavy-enough pedestal, within thick-enough plexiglass, to withstand decades of careening drunks and spazzed-out dancers. You can bend to look through the front windows, through the Dick’s Place sign, or peer through the plexi top to the interior, where the anonymous craftsman has set tiny wooden bottles behind the bar and little wooden stools in front. And on the little wooden stools are three little drunks. And if they’re anything like me, they couldn’t be happier.