We heard a blues guy named Shane O'Brien was supposed to play at Harold's Place last night starting at nine. We'd never been there, but as a sometime habitue ( or is that "habituee" in my case?) of down-at-the-heel boites, I wanted to check it out. One of the few dives left on Pacific from the rowdy old days of San Pedro, Harold's, at 19th next to the Burrito Factory, looked to be a suitably downscale cubby hole.
On Google somebody said Harold's used to host to San Pedro's punk scene, which argued against it, but that its regulars were non-judgementally accepting of the punksters, which argued for it. I thought I remembered Harold's was one of Bukowski's hangouts, which argued for it. Reviews noted its location in an iffy Pedro neighborhood (only a few blocks from the green and manicured Air Force base, but the AF officers generally stay snugly garrisoned behind thick walls. From our hillside though we could see somebody flying a red kite on the grass Ft. MacArthur quadrangle yesterday afternoon, a perfect blue day. I doubt if that innocent kite-flyer hangs out at Harold's).
Being calculating adventurers, we reconnoitered earlier to check out where to park. We thought the lot of the Bethany Apostolic storefront across the street offered the perfect sanctuary.
Back home, getting ready, I was thinking about how it takes a bit of guts to walk into a bar for the first time, and how that felt especially true about a dive on Pacific. Standing at the butcher block island in our kitchen, therefore, I readied myself by swilling a small tumbler of merlot. For courage.
All we had to do was cross the street from the speaking-in-tongues storefront and go inside, under Harold's yellow neon sign. We took a deep breath (Ted and I are secretly shy and self-conscious) and loped decisively forward, holding hands. A bouncer with a shaved head, a white teeshirt and elaborate, beautiful arm tattoos standing at the door didn't exactly smile us in, but he wasn't hostile either.
Inside, a row of barstools offered the only place to sit, but at first it looked like all the stools were taken. In the momentary panic I looked around: six pool tables waited, unoccupied. Thankfully, we spied two last stools at the end of the bar, far from the door so we could watch everything. We negotiated our way through the room. Officially, nobody looked up. A string of plastic American flags, left over from the Fourth, hung over the little stage. A sign said beer was $3.75 a bottle. A six-piece band listlessly tinkered with set up, sorting out cords and plugs, doing perfunctory sound checks.
A digital readout said "Hapy Birthday Candy" over and over in red and we tried to guess who Candy was. Everybody looked like regulars. The bartender, Debbie, told us Shane O'Brien wasn't going to play -- there'd been , she said, "a misunderstanding."
Ted and I exchanged glances. I like that kind of moment in a marriage. You look at each other and you go, "Yeah, let's see what happens."
"I'll take a Heineken," I said.
"Ginger ale," my husband ordered.
Debbie said the band was called "Last Minute," which was cute. They finally finished setting up and cranked up two rock 'n roll classics. The zaftig singer with small, delicate feet in bejeweled flipflops world-wearily shook her tambourine. And then they plunged into a respectably convincing cover of "Stormy Monday," during which I committed myself to a couple of blues shouts. Ted started bouncing his shoulders the way he does when he likes the music.
The band looked depressed, playing for a house of about seven people, all with their back to them at the bar, except for Ted and me. But gradually things warmed up.
A woman who might have been Candy jumped up from her stool and danced by herself on the sidewalk, just outside the door, alternately smoking a cigarette and singing along, grinning back in at a big guy we gathered was Ray. (Smoking, of course, is strictly forbidden at Harold's, and so we won't dwell on those who placidly might have lit up at the bar and were officially not noticed.)
A guy sitting next to us didn't say a word to anybody. He poured beer into his glass an inch at a time and fastidiously sipped, savoring every swallow. But he gave the waitress some money to put in the band's tip jar.
A round little troll about four feet tall wearing a huge straw hat ambled in with a black bag over his shoulder, hawking...straw hats, as it turned out. Nobody bought. An enterprising madame in lycra and a helmet parked her bike out front and tried to sell Debbie some body wash -- also unsuccessful, but still. The pleasantly unexpressive bouncer came and went. We ordered a second round. More people wandered in in teeshirts, baggy shorts and flipflops. Everybody seemed to know who they were.
"Howdya like the band?" Debbie asked.
"They're good. I liked the blues," I said. I was thinking about other dives I've hung out in -- The Tonga Club in Nuku'alofa, Hat's Pub and The Torch Bar and Grille on Buckham Alley, both in Flint, and I was thinking how good it felt to be sitting on Pacific Avenue in Pedro with a row of people bent over their drinks, heads nodding just so slightly to the music, which wasn't totally bad.
After the first set a bunch of people came in, hugging the singer, ordering drinks, shaking their booty and populating the pool tables. One of the guitarists bared his belly to the overhead fan. It was hot. The women didn't try to hide big unsculpted breasts and happily flaunted love handles and plump unworked biceps. That's what I like about Pedro -- so NOT Rodeo Drive. "Lots to love" ought to be the town motto.
If I'd stayed through the whole second set I might have danced a little myself. We liked the band a lot and felt for them. But Ted and I are party geezers and we'd soon had enough. Nonetheless, we smiled at each other as we crossed the street back to the Apostolic storefront. Saturday night at Harold's -- that's my kind of church.