Tom Becka: Hello and welcome to another addition of TomBecka.com where everyone is exceptional and everyone has a story to tell.
Before we get to the latest story I want to let you know the music you hearing in the background is from a very good man, Blue House, Blue House with the Rent to Own Horns. Some friends of mine and their incredible band and I’ve got to give them props for allowing me to use their music to start off this show because they are great musicians, a wonderful band, and good people, too.
Anyways, all of that out of the way, let’s get to today’s podcast. Scuba Steve is a guy, we have similar backgrounds. He’s from Pittsburgh and I’m from Cleveland, both industrial rusting cities, and great pals. Well, Cleveland is, Pittsburgh the Steelers. We joke about that actually. I’m a Browns fan, he’s a Steelers’ fan.
One thing we do have an affinity for, one thing we enjoy, is a good dive bar and he started a blog where he rates the various dive bars in town. The blog is called hitthatdive.com. Hitthatdive.com, it’s a fun little blog where he goes and basically reviews bars that, let’s put it this way, the avoiding toidy newspaper wouldn’t review.
We talked about what makes a good dive bar. We talk about what people’s attitudes towards alcohol. We talked about a lot of cool things about the people in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, good people. It’s a fun little interview and you’ll enjoy the conversation here.
Before we get going, the first question is where’d the name Scuba Steve come from?
Steve: Well, the name came…I had a logo done for website or blog or whatever the heck it is called Hit That Dive. A friend of mine, he does graphic design and I told him exactly what I wanted and he came back with this design which was nothing that I told him I wanted, but it was a guy supposedly roughly based on me diving into a big “Cheers” looking mug of beer.
I decided the thing needed a name or I needed a name. I’ve never written a blog before, I knew nothing about it. Not nothing about it, but these bloggers seem to have their own weird names. The movie “Big Daddy” there’s a character in there called Scuba Steve and since my first name’s Steve and I look like a scuba diver, one day I just wrote.
Somebody’s like, “Well, who are you?” “I’m Scuba Steve.” I didn’t think much of it and then all of a sudden, people started writing in, a couple of months later, always addressing me as Scuba Steve.
When I started going out and becoming at least a little more known in some of the bars, while these people didn’t know me by my face, they knew me by the name Scuba Steve. My entire life, I’ve never had a nickname that stuck until three years ago when Scuba Steve somehow now became the name I go by, most of the time around Omaha.
Tom: It all started when you started this blog of “Hit that Dive”.
Tom: Now Hit that Dive, it has taken on a little bit of a life of its own, has it?
Steve: It has.
Tom: People don’t know. What is Hit that Dive?
Steve: Hit that Dive started almost four years ago. I grew up in Pittsburgh and Tom grew up in Cleveland. Other than the fact that we hate each other’s sports teams, we’ve had probably, roughly the same upbringing — neighborhood bars, places you go in, places around here like Sneaky Pete’s where there’s a guy named All-Day Joe. There are characters everywhere go.
I was new at Omaha and I would wait out west and it’s funny because we were at the mustaches for kids’ event on Thursday, last week. Tom, you couldn’t get out of West Omaha fast enough, which is how I feel and I live there.
Tom: Yeah, I know. People don’t know that I’m not from Omaha. West Omaha, it’s a nice area.
Steve: Very nice.
Tom: It’s the suburbs. I live in midtown. I live where there’s more of those guides. You’re talking you’re from Pittsburgh and I’m originally from Cleveland. The bars out there are different than they are here, aren’t they?
Steve: Well, yes and no. When you get into South Omaha, which is why I gravitated down that way and really, that’s where I spend a lot of my time when I’m not doing parenting things or coaching and I have three kids.
The real Pittsburgh bars, the neighborhood bars, they are part of that community. In Pittsburgh, if anybody that’s listening has ever been there, you can’t give directions in Pittsburgh. You can’t say go up three blocks and make a left because there aren’t three blocks. Most of the time, growing up, when I would tell people how to get to my house, say, when I was six, I’d say, “Go to Zona’s Bar and make a right.” Everybody goes, “Oh, that I know.”
To tell them the name of the street or anything else, we gave directions even as kids, growing up in Pittsburgh, by the neighborhood bars.
Tom: When I was doing stand-up, I played Pennsylvania a lot. One thing I noticed about Pittsburgh bars, actually, pretty much all of Pennsylvania, was that when you went to the bars and they had music, the guys never dance.
Steve: No. [laughs]
Tom: The guys in Pittsburgh don’t dance. The dance floor had been crowded with these women and all the guys are just sitting around, drinking beer, and talking while the women were dancing. The guys were just like, “Yeah, whatever. Leave them alone.”
Steve: My grandfather emigrated from Croatia. My grandmother’s parents were from Croatia, so I was raised in a very — at least on my mom’s side of the family — Croatian household. Every Sunday, at the Catholic Church, which basically was one giant dive bar with a lot of people getting drunk every Sunday, there’s a thing called Ecola.
It’s all these women — sometimes a few drunk guys that get involved, too, but mostly women — in a circle would do these immigrant dances that they’ve been doing in Croatia and Yugoslavia for hundreds of years.
You’re absolutely right. All the guys would sit around. My uncles, or great-uncles, or whatever they were, were in the band that played extremely loudly and really fast. It was the women dancing, the guys sitting around drinking, smoking.
That’s not how I was raised, but I was raised around that a lot. That’s the sort of atmosphere, to this day, I still feel far more comfortable in than having to put on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt and go sit somewhere.
Tom: The same thing with me. Growing up in Cleveland, on a Saturday, my dad would go down the street to this neighborhood bar where he would go. He’d bring me around for the ride. I’d be like five years old. I would love it because I got to sit in the bar stools and stool around.
Tom: That would be it. They would be of a middle class or in a lower middle class, working blue collar neighborhood. The guys would go to the bar, have a few beers. They’d bring their kids. Kids might going to be playing some pinball.
In Pittsburgh, do they have…In Cleveland, it was very big with the bowling machines.
Steve: That’s funny, because you mentioned that when I was on your show, back at the Fish Fry.
I found a picture from a bar in Pittsburgh from two years ago when I was there that had — I’ll send it to you when I get home — a 1950s vintage bowling shuffleboard machine, exactly as you described. Those were more rare than anything.
We had a lot of bumper pool tables. We had a lot of pool tables. We had a lot of cheesy pinball machines.
My dad ran a bar that had the first sit-down Pac Man machine in Pittsburgh. The line was around the block to play that. There were always the staples of what would be in a place.
A lot of the times, you’d pick…I wouldn’t. I was 10 years old. But I’d try and talk my dad into going to one bar or a different one because I knew they had this game or that game, or the one guy would give me free candy, or I could drink all the Mountain Dew I wanted. I never felt out of place, even as a 10-year-old, in a lot of these bars.
Tom: Which, of course, now would get your dad behind bars of being an improper father. But going back then, that’s how you were raised.
Steve: To this day. I have three kids. I have a 14-year-old who would never step foot in a bar in her life if you paid her. I have a 12-year-old. She, occasionally, will come around with me. My nine-year-old son, I won’t take him into a place where I haven’t been many times before, but there are plenty of places in South Omaha he’ll walk in.
A great one is called Andy’s Place, on 38th and F. There’s a woman that works there. She’s in her 70s. She’s known as Mama Z. Her name is Grace Zimmerer. Her grandson played for the Huskers as a fullback this year.
When she knew my son was coming in, she’d bake cookies, she’d make deviled eggs. She gave him free candy.
It was the same kind of feeling. I didn’t feel that he was out of place, much like I didn’t feel out of place in some bars in Pittsburgh, when I was a kid. There was always a crusty old guy here and there that would give you the stink eye, but I get that to this day and I’m in my 40s.
Tom: You’re in your 40s. You’re living out in the suburbs. You got a nice job, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later.
What is it about the dive bars then that appeal to you? You’ve got bars a lot closer to your home.
Steve: I have bars right down the street that I could walk to, but they don’t have that feel. I can put a lot of things into words, but how a bar to me should feel is very hard to describe.
I can write about places that I like to go to. I’ll get people that are like, “I’ve never been in that place, but I know exactly what you mean.” I sat down. I felt like family. I walked through the door and everybody gave me the look — you know that, when everybody looks over their shoulder.
Tom: You’re new. What are you? Are you a cop? Who are you?
Steve: Are you a cop?
Tom: What are you doing here?
Steve: Do you belong in here? Are you going to keep your mouth shut? Are you going to fit in?
I like that. I appreciate that. I like walking into a place for the first time not knowing anybody. Walking out, I made five new friends, four of which I don’t remember their names when I get there the next time.
Over the years around town, I have found a bunch of places where I can walk in — maybe I haven’t been there in a month — and they’ll say, “How is your mom doing?” or, “How did your son’s hockey tournament turn out?”
It’s people that are there every day. Because they at least recognize me now, know I’m not there to make fun of it or turn it into some kind of comedy bit.
A lot of times you read an “Esquire” magazine, they’ll have “Top 10 dive bars in the country.” But there’s always some sort of schtick involved. They’re not doing it because it’s genuine, but because it’s an easy laugh.
Like Michael Moore used to go around, and quiz people that clearly didn’t know things about economic trading treaties, and then laugh at them when they didn’t know the answers.
To me, a lot of these Esquire articles that’s what they’re doing. They’re finding easy targets and making fun of them. People go, “Oho, someday I’ll be at Lowbrow and I’ll walk in there, and then run back to my champagne and everything else.”
I’m the complete opposite. I want to find these places. I don’t necessarily want to be a regular. I have, oddly enough, never been a regular in any bar in my entire life.
I like discovering new places and meeting new people. Much like you do with this podcast, I like to tell the story of people that can’t tell their own story. I don’t know that that was my intent. You said these things have taken on a life of its own, and it really have.
I have had people write to me, people in their 60s and 70s, saying, “What you do, you give a voice to the people that can’t say what it is like to be a person hanging out in these bars.” I’m thinking, “I did? That was never my intent.”
At first, I didn’t really deal with it. Then, after that, I realized this means something. Even if it means something to one person, it started to mean something to me.
Tom: Let’s talk about that. Hit That Dive is a blog that you have. Hitthatdive.com?
Tom: It is the Web address. It’s a blog that you had.
Where did this whole idea start? To document these bars that you were going to, and to talk about them like this, to build this following. Was this just a little stupid idea hobby that got out of control?
Steve: Yes. The short answer is my wife grew up in just north of West Virginia, in a small coal-mining town. It is — I use this word not in a derogatory way — littered with bars. You’ll drive up and down the main drag. There is bars everywhere.
I’ll ask my brother-in-law, “What’s that one like?” “I don’t know. We don’t go in there.” “What’s that one like?” “I don’t know. We don’t go in there.”
I said, “Somebody needs to…Somebody should go into all these places. And maybe you have a good experience, and maybe you don’t. But there should be a list of just what you’re going to find when you walk in there,” and wanted to do it back in Pennsylvania, and never got around to it.
Then we had kids, and moved to Omaha, and moved way out West, and didn’t come across anything interesting.
Then, one day, it was a burning idea that I had for years. The story I have told many times is I was watching one of my kids go off a diving board at a swimming pool. Somebody else’s kid jumped off the diving board. I said, “Man, that kid hit that dive.” I went, “Wait. That’s the name of this idea that I’ve had for 10 years.”
I took the kids, and I walked to a bar by my house. It isn’t necessarily a dive. It’s now, actually, a new name. It was, originally, the Wet Lounge. It’s now infamously Déjà Vu, which is where the Nikko Jenkins murder victim was leaving from the night last year.
I walked in there with a pen and paper and had no idea what I was going to write about. I just sat there and started taking notes. It came out to be, “What would I tell my college roommate if he wanted to come to this bar, but I was the first one here?”
Everything from what the people were like, what the service is like, how much it would my 20 bucks get me. Even though I’m not in college anymore, I’m still cash. When it comes to the bars, I prefer a bargain than not.
Tom: I suppose you’re at a dive bar. You’re not paying premium prices for a single malt scotch. Give me a beer and a shot of Jack, right?
Steve: Right. At bars in South Omaha — this isn’t the happy hour price for people that haven’t really been to South Omaha — you can get a Busch Light 16-ounce pint and a shot — the going shot down there is Polish blackberry brandy — for $4.65. A shot and a beer for less than 5 bucks — not a happy hour price, the regular price — all day, every day.
Tom: What is the good dive bar drink? You could go to a hoity-toity wine bar, you know the sort of things you’re supposed to order, or a martini bar, you know what you’re supposed to order.
If you go to a good dive bar, what should you order?
Steve: If you live in Omaha, I would say if you walk into the place, and you don’t want to stand out, there’s one of two ways to go. Busch or Bud Light, Anheuser-Busch Light — pick your poison that way. A shot of either blackberry brandy Leroux or, these days, lately Fireball is really creeping its way into even the dive bars.
That one made its way. You can find it in upscale places. You can find it in dive bars.
Or the mini pitcher, if you’re in South Omaha and even places. Actually, I ran into your brother one day. I was drinking a mini pitcher in Ozzy’s Pub. That is the drink of choice there.
How they’ll pick out if you’re a regular or not. If they ask you if you want a glass with it, the answer is, “No.”
The first time I was in there I got a mini pitcher. They said, “Do you want a glass?” It was a pitcher, and I said, “Sure.” I looked around. Everybody else is drinking right out of the pitcher, and there I am pouring into a glass.
That’s the only place I had somebody once come up to me, the first time I was in there, and say, “Are you the fuzz?” simply because I was drinking my beer out of a pitcher the wrong way. I was pouring into the glass, and the move of choice is to just drink it straight out of the pitcher.
Tom: Besides having Busch products or whatever, a good dive bar has what? Pinball machine? Pool table?
Steve: It may or may not.
Steve: Generally not, around here. It doesn’t necessarily have to have any sort of criteria.
A pinball machine would be nice, especially when I bring a nine-year-old. But if you go into a dive bar with a Pinball machine, chances are it will be sitting there empty.
A lot of them have Buck Hunter. A lot of them have broken stools. I have come to the point where it’s not so much the stuff in the bar doesn’t make it. It’s the people in the bar that really makes the difference.
You can tell the difference between a handlebar mustache wearing hipster in a dive bar. That’s probably not a dive bar.
This is a funny story. I’ve met a lot of people from doing this. A friend of mine had a barbecue on Saturday, mostly for his friends that are SOB, South Omaha Boys. I brought my wife, who is not a big fan of dive bars.
We get there, and there’s probably 30-40 Harleys parked out front. We walk around back. Everybody’s smoking. Everybody is in leather. Everybody is wearing Harley stuff. My wife walks in with a Kate Spade purse.
She wrote on Twitter, later that night. Halfway through, she’s like, “I’ve never felt so out of my element at all in my entire life.”
I would say, “Take all those people there at that barbecue, put them in any bar anywhere, and you’re gonna have a dive bar,” unless it’s the Louie’s Wine Dive out west, which I don’t even know exactly what that means.
To me, it’s really the people. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the characters in there. It’s the feeling that there’s a community in there. Not everybody in the community likes each other. They consider themselves families.
I have seen some pretty nasty family brawls in real life. My wife’s family reunion somebody pulled a gun one year.
Steve: They’re a bunch of coal miners in Pittsburgh. When whiskey and coal miners get together, somebody’s going to pull a gun on somebody.
Tom: [inaudible 16:50] in a dive bar, are you more likely to be in a fight?
Steve: Probably not. If you’re looking for one, you can find one almost immediately. But I would say, in my experience, 95 percent of the people in that bar that’s the last thing they want. If somebody comes in and challenges you, you’re probably going to find yourself in a fight.
I was at a bar — I won’t name it because I like the place, but South Omaha. There was a going away party for another bar that closed. People were in there having fun. It was getting late. It was about 1:30 AM, and a bunch of guys came in that didn’t really belong in the bar. If you come in and you act cool, you’re fine. They were being obnoxious and loud.
One of the guys said, “Look, this is a group of friends. Do you mind leaving? You guys are kind of being obnoxious.” These guys wouldn’t leave, so a large, large biker man escorted them out front and probably beat the snot out of them.
But no, I would say I’ve never in Omaha seen a fight in a bar. I’ve been around ones that clearly have been. There was a stabbing at one out in North on 108th, not that long ago. But it wasn’t a bar regular. It was somebody that just showed up looking for trouble.
Tom: You have already talked about being beaten up, being stabbed, a murder that took place, not necessarily things that bring enjoyment and entertainment to people’s minds.
Steve: No, but there was a story of somebody running through and licking everybody in a Walgreen’s last week in town.
Tom: People that don’t know the story. It was a bizarre story about somebody just running through Walgreen’s and started licking people at random.
Steve: That could happen in a dive bar, too. What happens ultimately, there are times where alcohol and bad intentions really come out with the worse results possible. Again, there are bars in town probably more notorious than others for random fights. Your everyday, average, neighborhood bar, dive bar, whatever you want to call it, fights are few and far between.
Ultimately, somebody’s looking for a fight, and you walk into a bar like that, you won’t have a hard time finding one, but it’s not anybody’s first priority. Their first priority is to come in, have a few drinks, talk to their friends, this time of year watch baseball and complain about political ads on television.
Tom: What would you say to somebody who’s listening to this right now, and says, “Dude. You got a drinking problem. You got something going on here, the way you’re just romanticizing these, what a lot of people would consider to be low-end bars.
Steve: I would say I do romanticize them. It’s a way of life, and regardless of people drinking Bush Light or if they’re drinking $400 bottles of red wine out in West Omaha, alcohol’s part of our culture.
You go to pubs, and it’s funny, a conversation like this wouldn’t happen. I used to go to London a lot, in England. I was engaged in Wales and my honeymoon was in Scotland, and the pubs are the community centers of those places.
Everything starts and ends at the pub, whether the people are in there drinking or not doesn’t matter. It’s funny. One time I went into London, I had influenza and ordered tea and the bartender looked at me and said, “Sir, if you want tea, you can leave.” I thought, “Whoa.”
Steve: It’s just a different culture. The drinking age is much younger, it’s not a bunch of kids on a Friday night trying to steal a bunch of cheap liquor from their parents’ cabinets, would guzzle it as fast as possible. Do I romanticize it? I don’t try to.
I’ve never written in my blog in four years about how much I consumed, about how drunk I was or wasn’t. To me, I try and write the experience. Every now and then, I allude to perhaps I had one more than I intended to, if somebody’s up buying free drinks. To me, it’s become more about the community. You don’t have to drink to be in these places, but a lot of people do.
Tom: Does the United States, we have a bad attitude towards alcohol? I was once in Europe, where it does seem to be more. I was in the Czech Republic, I’m of Czech descent. I was in the Czech Republic there where beer flows like water. Do we have a different attitude towards it here, maybe not as healthy an attitude towards alcohol as they do in Europe?
Steve: Yeah, I think we do. As a parent, there are two things I could do with the poison in the household. I could hide it somewhere where I hope my kids never find it. If they find it, they’re going to have to make a decision on something they’ve never had a discussion for, with about before. Or I can say, “Look. This is Drano. There’s a sticker on it. This can really do bad things to you.”
To have that frank, honest discussion at a young age. Anything that’s taboo, wet paint, I’m still going to touch it if somebody puts a sign up, probably, the minute there’s that enticement.
I had a friend I grew up with, very Catholic upbringing. He was told, until he’s 18, he basically couldn’t do anything. When he turned 18, he could do whatever he wanted. Guess what happened the day he turned 18? He went nuts. He was going to an Ivy League school that he basically failed out of, ruined his life for about four or five years, until he got it back on track.
I’m not saying do I think the drinking age should be younger. That’s probably a whole other discussion. I would make the driving age 21 and the drinking age 18, but that’s me. I just think we go about it the wrong way. We try and encourage kids to sneak around behind their parents’ back, who’ll give a wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
“I didn’t know what Johnny was doing, but here’s a case of Bush Light, now get out of here before I see you,” as opposed to in France, where they’re going to sit the kids down at 14, have a glass of wine with dinner and not make it this great taboo that somebody’s got to run out and steal and then drink too much, get sick and pass out.
Tom: It’s like the minister’s daughter when she goes away to college.
Steve: It’s exactly like that. Anybody that’s listening to this, anybody can remember from high school or college, you remember that guy, that girl that wasn’t allowed to do anything until the day they were. I graduated with a girl from high school, straight A student, scholarship, went to Florida, Florida State, one of those two, within a year and a half, flunked out and was a stripper.
She was captain of the cheerleading squad. But it’s this you can’t do anything until you can do whatever you want. Somewhere in between, why don’t we talk sense into children from the age of, my son’s nine. He’ll see somebody drinking, and he’s like, “Dad, that guy’s drunk. He shouldn’t be here.”
You can’t hide. Today, kids have phones and the Internet and iPads and Instagram and Twitter. They know about this stuff, whether parents want to admit it or not, so have an honest, frank discussion about what is accepted and what isn’t. And laws.
Do I want my kids to be drinking before they’re 21? No, because I didn’t. I had never had a drink before I turned 21, just because. I’ve never had a speeding ticket. I’m knocking on wood right now.
Tom: It’s Formica. Don’t worry about it. [laughs]
Steve: Good that I didn’t blow the deal. I’m not saying that to raise a bunch of non-law abiding children either. Follow the laws that are there. But even up until that point, have some frank discussions about it. Kids are probably less likely to want to guzzle a bunch cheap stuff, sloe gin from a funnel when they’re 16 if they know what the dangers are.
My dad, the greatest advice he ever told me when I was 18, he said, “Can you drink a bottle of Jack Daniels in half an hour.” He goes, “Absolutely.” He goes, “Will it kill you?” “Probably.” He goes, “Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.” Those are words that always stuck with me, and I always try and make sure my kids understand that as well.
Whether it’s drinking or anything else, there are lots of things you can do, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.
Tom: Now, when you go to a dive bar, you’re doing this blog, when you go to a dive bar, do you just go and enjoy yourself and write about it, or are you there like a food critic, looking for every little nuance to try to do a review, give everybody kind of a snobbish approach to this dive bar?
Steve: At first, that was kind of the idea. I didn’t really have much of an idea, so I would write down…Ultimately, I had a friend that does a podcast in town called “Worlds of Wayne” and he goes, “I’ve read your stuff. You’re not a critic. You walk in there and you want to love these things and you point them out.
If there’s something wrong you point it out as a customer and as somebody that would do something differently, or if they had the chance, to tell the bartender or the bar owner, I would do A, B, and C differently.” You have to write for a certain amount of flare, so there are times where — I’ve never made anything up — I use rather flowery language to get my point across.
But to go in and nitpick a bar owner, the “World Herald” wrote a story three years ago about a bar out west called The Rusty Nail, because I ripped that place up and down. I wrote such a “scathing review,” that the World Herald had to go out there and see just how awful this place was.
That was probably the fifth or sixth one I ever wrote, and was still trying to find my footing. Would I write it again that way? Probably still be pretty close, just because it was funny and I had people that wrote in and said, “You’re dead on.”
There’s a fine line. With more followers back then, I probably had 50 people that followed me on Facebook, and I wasn’t on Twitter. I’ve now got closer to 13,000 people. There’s a certain amount of, just a level of responsibility that I think I need to…I’ll never pull a punch. If something happens, it happens, if I was in there. I’ll try and word it in a way that isn’t so ridiculous.
People have come to trust that I’m not going to…I don’t get paid to do this. I don’t have advertisers. I have nothing to gain, I have nothing to lose, so I might as well just say what’s on my mind. Which is ultimately what people have found refreshing about all of this is, I’m not, “brought to you by.”
Tom: Why not? Why don’t you make a few bucks on it?
Steve: I haven’t figured out how. It’s funny, because your brother told me, he goes, “Do I think you have a million dollar idea. No. Do you have an idea that could probably make something? Yeah, I think you do.” I don’t know. I have enough going on with other things that I do. I coach baseball, basketball, volleyball and everything else.
This is a when-I-have-time hobby. If I were making money from doing this, and again if I could figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise how I do things, and quite frankly, there are just times I don’t feel like doing it.
I haven’t written a review in a couple of months now. I haven’t put anything on Facebook in over a week, just because it hasn’t struck me. There are people that will pump out, have an editorial camel what they have to put on social media. To me, it’s more of a feel thing. Last couple of things I put up didn’t get nearly the reaction of other things I did.
I don’t want to have audience burnout on social media or anything else. I think less, lately, has been more. People seem to crave when I do have something funny to say or a new bar that I went into. That seems to get a better reaction than if I’m trying to pump out something.
I’ve tried it different ways, try to do something a day. You just lose this sort of spontaneity of, “I was coming back from dropping a kid off at baseball practice, and I did see this bar, and I did wander in there.” It wasn’t that I wrote down, “OK. On Wednesday, May 7th, I will now go into this bar at 7:00.” If I were that structured, I don’t think it would ever come this far.
Tom: Now you’re just doing it as a hobby, not making any money. What do you do for a living? How do you make your living?
Steve: I’m a PR and social media consultant. My background is as probably different than anybody would assume a dive bar guy has. I have an undergraduate degree in political science from a school in Pennsylvania called St. Vincent College, which is the home of Rolling Rock beer, Arnold Palmer, and where the Steelers have their training camp, which is why I picked the school.
Steve: Latrobe, or as the regulars call it, “Laytrobe.” I have a master’s degree in public communications from American University in Washington, DC. My first job out of college, well first I was a union organizer, and then I was a press secretary on Capitol Hill.
I’ve done everything from be the PR guy for the American Society of Civil Engineers, to one of the top spokespeople for the Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on CES every year, the large international trade show, the largest trade show in the world.
I worked for an engineering firm. I worked on their FEMA flood mapping project. I worked in the communities, trying to explain to people why their house that had never been flooded is now considered to be in a flood plain, 100-year flood plain, which means there’s a one percent chance annually that it will flood, to try and smooth everything with the community.
I was moved to Omaha by a large railroad in town, and I figure people can figure that one out, to run their employee communications. They wanted a guy that wasn’t from here, somebody from the east that was going to come in, shake things up, do things differently, which is what I was doing. Not everybody was a fan of that.
Steve: I will say it was the one time in life I really went for the brass ring when it came to what they were willing to pay, and everything else. My tale from that almost nine years later is, you hear people say, “Don’t do things for the money.” I can back that one up.
It was a bad marriage from the start. I met a lot of nice people, interviewed everybody from Dick Davidson to Ike Evans to the late Jim Young who, those who didn’t know Jim, one of the greatest CEOs as far as a genuine person that I’d ever been around, was always nice to me, even after I was done working there.
That all got me to Omaha, where I worked for eight years as the National Communications Director for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. I was responsible for trying to explain to people why we still need coal and use coal in this country.
Now I do that, but I do a lot more on my own for a bunch of other companies, as well.
Tom: Hit The Dive thing. What amazes me about this, and having read your stuff, is that there is such a connection. People have a love affair with these dive bars, don’t they?
Tom: By any chance, have you ever heard of the book “The Tender Bar”?
Steve: No, but I have that in my Amazon cart because you had mentioned it. I haven’t ordered it yet because I knew haven’t had time to read it.
Tom: Order it. It’s a great book. It’s everything that you’re talking about here. The regulars, the people, a kid that grew up in that atmosphere, and what the bars of that area are like.
Have you traveled a lot around the country?
Steve: Yeah. In fact, I’ve done bar reviews in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Denver, Montana. I haven’t done a lot. If I was there for business or for work, I would go in.
When I’m in town or any town, I don’t want to go to TGI Friday’s. I will if it’s the only thing around, but I’d rather find a place where I can go in.
I know nobody from Columbus, Ohio is going to listen to this one. I was in Columbus in September, was there for a week. I just wanted to be home. I was gone for a long time, was not having a good time. I had a good treat. Go to a different hotel.
I saw this place called the Ruckmoor Pub. I thought, “Boy, that looks like my kind of place.” You just don’t know, because there is no reviews of it. I walked in there, and it was a bunch of blue-collar regulars.
We’re sitting there. Within five minutes, everybody knew my name. They only would call me “Nebraska.” They had a ring toss game.
For your listeners, it’s hard to explain. You stood about 40 feet away from a peg on a wall. It was on a string from the ceiling. There was this old guy in there. He could just walk in, let the thing go. Before it would hit on that peg and land, he’d be sitting in his bar stool already, drinking his beer.
Steve: He came up to me, and he goes, “Nebraska, you’re not leaving here ’till you get the ring on the hook.”
I’m sitting there. 30 minutes goes by, 40 minutes goes by. I can’t get it. He’s giving me advice. The bar is now giving me advice. Different people are coming and going.
I let it go, and I hear him yell, “You got it,” and I look. That ring went around the peg, and it made this noise. The entire bar — there’s to this point 30 people in there — cheered like I just hit the game-winning shot in the final four.
Steve: It was really then that it didn’t matter where I was. I could have been in Pittsburgh, Omaha, that I was in Columbus, Ohio.
Tom: The dive bars around the country that you’ve been to, are they pretty much all the same?
Steve: No two are ever the same. Some maybe remind you of others. It’s the people and the personalities in there that are very similar. They are still hardworking — define it as you will. They’ll still buy a stranger a drink. They’ll look you in the eye.
If you had to make a deal to buy somebody’s used car, a handshake is all you would need. They’re not going to judge you by what you clothes you walked in, how expensive they are, how much money you have in your pocket. Sometimes, if you have more than them, buy them a drink. You got even a better friend.
You’re not judged on that. You’re judged on a number of things. If you quietly sit there and mind your own business, most people will leave you alone. But if you can go in there and carry on a conversation, regardless of what part of the country you’re in, there’s a certain…Brotherhood’s not the right…I don’t know what the right word.
There is this feeling — when you’re not talking down to anybody, when they’re not talking up to you or down to you — that you all just want to sit there and have a conversion with a bunch of people that you might never see again. I’ll be treated in a way that you thought people should treat one another years ago. To me, that’s the common theme.
Tom: You sit there, and you solve all the problems of the world.
Steve: I’ve solved everything from budget deficits, to cancer, to, “Was the JFK shooting a hoax or not?” “Have we landed on the moon?” You name the topic. I’ve solved it with a guy whose name I can’t remember over the years.
Steve: Or several of them. Or the infamous, “We’re all going to chip in and buy this bar tonight. And then, that way we never have to leave.” Then reality kicks in. You’d get home, and you get, “What the heck was I thinking?”
Steve: I wish those were really the stories I could document well. But once you get into that part of the night and ideas start flowing, especially now, I don’t want it to be like I’m now making it a commodity of people and their stories. As close to a reporter as I’ve ever been, I will leave my reporter hat out in the car, at that point, and just enjoy myself.
That’s the trap I’ve run into lately. There are times where I want to go somewhere and just have fun, or I can go to a new place, and review it, and sit down. You go through the whole process again. Sometimes, that just becomes a bit…You have to make friends with an entire new bar.
I have been lucky that I’ve been able to do that just about everywhere I’ve gone. I’m unassuming looking enough. I know enough topics off the top of my head, whether it’s sports or — I won’t talk about politics at a bar, but just about anything else — modern events, music trivia, movie trivia.
Certainly, the iPhone has been the great equalizer when it comes to bar arguments. But long before that, I’d have friends call me 15 years ago saying, “All right. What was this name of this movie?” I’ve always had this sort of weird trivial mind, which seems to fit in very well in dive bars.
Tom: You say a trivial mind, which brings Cliff Clavin to mind from the TV show “Cheers.”
Steve: The difference is I’m right. [laughs] I have probably Clavined a few things in my day, too, but not to the extent.
Actually, even way back when I worked on Capitol Hill, for example, I got into a bar discussion about how Thomas Jefferson died. I was going back and forth. I said, “I think…I’m pretty sure I remember reading he died of diarrhea.” This guy kept saying, “No, he didn’t. No, he had something else. He had something else.”
Boy, you talk about getting busted by today’s modern world. I called a congressional research service to do the search for me. I said, “I need you to research how Thomas Jefferson died.” They went back into whatever they do long before Google and the Internet. They came back.
I got a phone call. She said, “Well, I have an answer for you.” I go, “Well, OK. What is it?” She goes, “Well…” I go, “OK. Before you say anything, I have a theory. I have a theory that Thomas Jefferson died of diarrhea.” She goes, “You’re pretty much right.”
He had some sort of dysentery. There are a bunch of things that played into it, but even that. I had a bar argument, not that I was Clavin. That does sound like a Cliff Clavin argument, that he died of a hangnail or something. But even then, I was right.
Tom: You had access to a research on that. But now, as you mentioned, we’ve all got the cell phone with the Google on it. He can answer all these questions, whether it be what the record was of the ’82 Red Sox, or who the 27th president was, or whatever it might be.
All the matter with the argument is you’ve got the answer right there, which I think ruins a lot of the beauty of the dive bar.
Steve: Except for there’s a lot of bars still in town where the 80 percent of the regulars, if they have a phone, they’d still have a flip phone. They are still mesmerized.
Again, I’m bringing up a place called Andy’s. I mentioned it already. Most of the people in there are on their flip phones, if they’re on a phone at all. They’re still pretty enamored by the fact that I have this computer in my pocket that has every answer in it.
There are still places you can go where you’d probably have to go to an old set of encyclopedia on a bookshelf somewhere in the back office to come up with the answer to the argument.
Tom: You were mentioning the flip phones, smartphones, all of that. That has changed so much over the last 10-15 years. Everything has changed so much over the last 10-15 years. Yet, the dive bar seems to pretty much be the same.
Steve: It’s the last bastion of what I assumed life used to be like long before all of this technology. I had never really put thought into it. I always have felt comfortable in places like that, but they’re a dying breed. We’re losing bars in town all the time. Whether it’s in London, the old-time pub is going under.
I just drove past the Venice Inn today, not that that’s a dive bar. That’s a whole another area, a whole another breed that won’t be around in a couple of weeks. For those listening that don’t know, it’s an old-time Italian steakhouse here in Omaha. It’s been around since the ’30s.
Tom: I used to be a busboy there when I was in high school. We ate there recently as a farewell dinner. That’s it.
It would have been — that’s true with a lot of the dive bars, too — handed down from father to son, to father to son. Then it got to this generation. The new generation just didn’t want to do it anymore. The brothers that owned it said, “OK. That’s it. We’re done.”
Steve: Whether it’s because of there is not enough money to be made, and there is Paneras everywhere. Not to pick on Panera, but you have large corporations running things. They Walmarted everything, any industry. Dive bars and neighborhood bars are no different.
The Welcome Inn on 24th Street is going to be closing in June because they’re going to put a gas station there. The land is more valuable than the building.
I never intended to be a trip down Route 66 either. But over the last couple of years, I’m morphing into more or less documenting some places that won’t be around, their attitude, their approach to life, the people in there.
I’d hate to say I’m an old soul, because I think that’s a dumb statement, but I’ve always felt comfortable around people that have a certain value of other people. I think we’re losing that.
Tom: You think the dive bars will be dead in 15 years?
Steve: I don’t think completely dead. A place like Trackside, which is now Tracks, on 68th Street — a lady named Karen bought it, totally renovated it, re-did it. I don’t know if all the regulars are ever going to come back. It certainly is a nice place.
Tom: It’s too nice.
Steve: It has good chicken. But you just don’t walk in and feel like, “I wonder if my grandfather hung out in here,” because we walk in there, and you go, “Well, he wouldn’t have hung out in here.”
I grew up in Croatian clubs and places that your father was in, his father was in, your mother’s grandmother was in. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to drink, but she was in there may be in the back cooking or whatever else. We’re going to keep losing those all over the country. Some will hang on.
Tom: A part of this is almost because of the homogenization of America. You mentioned you’re Croatian. I’m a hundred percent Czech. Is your wife Croatian?
Steve: My wife is not. She is Scottish. They don’t know what else is…
Tom: So now your kids…?
Tom: You grew up in Pittsburgh and me in Cleveland. That ethnicity, and you mentioned South Omaha a lot. South Omaha was a very ethnic part of the town and still is. Now it’s Hispanic ethnic, whereas before it was Polish and Bohunt down there.
As we become more homogenized as a nation, you’re going to find fewer and fewer of those dive bars you’re talking about.
Steve: My grandmother would come up to any of my friends and always ask the same question first, “Where are your people from?” If the answer was, “In Croatia,” she’d say, “Well, that’s OK, too.” That’s how I was born and raised.
If you ask my kids where they’re from, they’re going to tell you Pittsburgh. They’ve never lived there. They’ve only ever visited there. But they know their heritage, as they hear it from me, is as a Steeler fan or the guy that ate pierogies on the South Side.
Much as I had romantic fantasies of what it was like for my grandparents — my grandfather came through Ellis Island from Croatia — my kids wondered what it was like to be able to go a Pirate game whenever you wanted to. You just hopped in the car and drove there. It wasn’t a thousand mile each way trip to do it.
I like to think that, as we’re getting homogenized, at least people are going to be savvy enough to teach their kids whatever the heritage that they knew was, and where Horsemen’s Park or where…What was that? I don’t even know what the name of the horse track was by Trackside.
Tom: It’s Ak-Sar-Ben.
Steve: That was Ak-Sar-Ben?
Tom: Ak-Sar-Ben. Yeah.
Steve: To at least take your kids down there and say, “Look. This used to be part of our community.” Or Peony Park, which I now know as a…What is it? A Hy-Vee?
Steve: They are things that I make it a point to show my kids, “This is what this community where you were born and raised, where you don’t…You’re not necessarily…”
They’re not from here, but they are born and raised. They consider themselves Nebraskans by a way of Pittsburgh, where they’ve never lived, even though they moved here from Washington, D.C.
You talk about homogeny. There it is all in a nutshell in my Honda Accord.
What gets lost is people have these busy lives, and they want to be busy because they are busy for busy’s sake. “I have to run this kid to the soccer. And I have to run this kid here. Then I have to make a trip to Walmart. And aren’t I a martyr because I’m doing all this?” Probably not. You’re not.
Teach your kids a sense of something, have them be part of a community, not a bunch of cookie-cutter homes out where I live, which is why I drag my kids to stuff like Sing Stance Day down in South Omaha.
My oldest won’t go, but my other two walk around with these big bug eyes like, “Oh, wait. This isn’t our town. This really happens around here? I just thought…” We went to the gumball machine at Lowe’s, and I went home and sat on the back deck.
How I got to the point of being some sort of old-school romanticist, I don’t exactly know. From the start of Hit That Dive four years ago to now, it’s become a bigger part of me, more than I ever would have imagined when I first walked out the door to go to the Wet Lounge with a pen and paper to make fun of the place.
Tom: Actually, the whole idea for this podcast came from a dive bar. Just sitting around, I’ve met some great people, interesting people. Everybody was telling me stories, and I’m thinking, “Boy, this story needs to be documented.”
Take time. Go out and have a beer, and enjoy the company of others, and listen to the stories of others.
If you liked this, would you please do me a favor? Will you share it in your social media? Would you tell your friends? Would you spread the word?
This is something a little bit different, a little bit unique in all of the millions, and billions, and trillions of sites and projects growing on the Internet. I think you like this one. Spread the word. It’s growing rapidly with your support. I do appreciate it.
Until next time, take care. Bye, you all.