Our fifth anniversary issue seemed like the perfect time to pony out the Bar Spy, our first verifiably popular column (this was before Secret History appeared, of course). The brainchild of MP managing editor Coury Turczyn, the column reviewed dive bars, those oft-ignored watering holes. Bar Spy never failed to delight/ anger/ interest/ disgust/ intrigue/ revolt/ horrify/ amuse/ sadden our early readers. So it is in homage to the king of pickled eggs that we present these much-loved highlights:
The Lucky Lady, the Conversation Pit, the Hollywood Lounge. These aren't the type of bars that attract moussed fun-seekers from across town. Instead, these quiet edifices to wino-hood gather up their own regulars from around the block. The advantages are innumerable. Just image, if you can: no frat boys drunkenly brawling with the Pop-a-Shot machine, no big-haired femme fatales giggling like dervishes, no black-attired bohemians radiating their superior alternativeness. None of that. Just a bar, some stools, a pool table if you're lucky, and an occasional barfly. The drinking experience stripped down to its very essence.
To truly kick off the series with a bang, I chose what is possibly the Mt. Everest of dives, the Circle N. Literally located "across the tracks" from the Old City, this drinking establishment enjoys a reputation for being Knoxville's most popular source of sex crimes and illegal narcotics. They also serve popcorn.
Going into an unfamiliar bar is a plunge into the unknown. Will you meet friendly faces and outstretched hands, or knuckle-dragging fellows with occipital ridges who really, really dislike your choice of shoelaces? Ah, adventure!
It's in this spirit of discovery that I chose the Ol' Plantation for my weekly rendezvous with excitement. From the outside, the Fourth & Gill neighborhood bar looks like a frontier outpost with its all-wood, windowless construction and metal-barred door. I imagined grizzled, out-of-work factory men inside drinking cases of Olympia tall-boys, angrily thumbing well-honed Bowie knives and hoping for a stranger to walk in. "C'mere, hippie boy! Whoop-whoop-whoop!"
We took a table away from the bar over near the jukebox and surveyed the scene. Against he wall was a hardwood dance floor with multicolored lights flashing overhead; pretty sophisticated equipment for a down-n-dirty dive like this.
A hard looking fellow in a swelling shirt stood up and began walking toward our table. This was it. I could see it coming ... the ring of screaming, spitting rednecks around us in the parking lot, cheering on their buddy as he uses my head to repaint the parking spaces....
The brooding monster stopped at our table and looked down at us.
"You guys wanna dance?" he asked.
Located directly across the street from Theatre Central, Tom's Place raised my hopes. I envisioned circles of thespians and writers gathered at its tables, fervently debating the vicissitudes of their craft, snifting the heady inspiration of grain and hops through the wee hours of the night. My friend and I entered the bar prepared for an evening of intellectual fencing, ready to do battle for our seats at Knoxville's own Algonquin Roundtable.
We were immediately greeted by the sight of a busty woman in her 40s playing video poker and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Vicious Power Hungry BITCH."
Never before have I been forced to witness such lows in the human condition, such feral scuttlings of people stripped to their most sickening urges! It took every bit of willpower I had to quell my nausea in order to make this report. I assure you, that was my last visit to [the Unnamed Pickup Joint That Wanted to Sue Us].
I walked inside, turned a corner and was stunned by a scene of unrelenting horror. On every seat, at every table, lined up at the bar, occupying every available space were yuppies brazenly socializing. A veritable swarm of stubby men in white shirts and red ties slavered over women in tarty cocktail dresses, a cloud of hair spray hovering overhead.
Staggered, I held on to the bar and tried to retain consciousness. Gathering every shred of courage I had left, I forced myself to walk further into the darkened lair. Squeezing through, and desperately trying to find some space, I popped out into an open area. Calmed, I took a few breaths and steadied myself.
But that was before I realized I was on the dance floor. Cold fear gripped my entrails....
A flood of people crowded around me as I sought much needed escape. Blinded by the glare of faux gems, I groped for a way out. I was blocked by a wall of unnaturally suntanned flesh. I think I started to moan at that point.
"Quit jackin' yer jaw and get on the dance floor!"
It's a Wednesday night at Miss Nina's Saloon and the glitter balls are spinning. George Jones is on the jukebox, crooning over some godawful pain, and the regulars line the bar like a row of dominoes about to fall. Every so often, in between the whispers and chuckles, they peer over their shoulders to the dance floor. There, beneath the wagon wheel lamps and posters of Elvis, dances the sweet angel of their dreams: Miss Nina.
"The song's over!" she bellows to her partner. "Get your hands offa my ass!"