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Memphis Dive Bars: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide to Drinking in Memphis

by Rob Bellinger
photos by Rob Bellinger and Dan Meade

The Memphis dive bar scene is legendary, but not many people outside Memphis know that.  Memphis bars are peerless in their diveyness, unmatched in their numbers.  And the uncontrived dive scene quietly offers choose-your-own-adventure possibilities nightly, right up until 5 a.m. or so.  We went out every night we were in town, and something zany or insane happened every one of those nights.MEMDIVE_e1_summ

Memphtallica


Most of Memphis’s dives are unreachable by public transportation, which basically doesn’t exist.  And there are no hotels anywhere near the city’s greatest concentration of dives, on Madison Avenue in Midtown.  Most outsiders simply don’t make it in.  If you were in town for a night, you certainly wouldn’t walk over to any of these bars from your room at the Days Inn.

Actually, nobody in Memphis would walk to these bars, either.  Anytime we told anyone we’d walked to a bar, we were met with blank stares.  When we did walk to and from the bars, we were met with blank sidewalks.  Often, the gracious people we met offered us rides.  It’s that Southern combination of autocentrism and pity for the autoless.

Since the bars are hard to get to, we thought we’d bring them — and their very colorful patrons — to you.  Here are the ten most insane Memphis dive bar adventures we had, over the course of just six nights.  All the stories are true.  Take your pick — one or all!

The Last Real Place in MemphisActual Meth Camper | Snake Tattoo Face | Down by Sundown | Ghost Mustang & the Magic Skillet | Bar-B-Brawl at the Bar That Never Closes | Perfect Ribs at 3 a.m. | Cougar in Training | Searching for Life on the Mississippi | PRAYING FOR YOU HATERZ

 

EPISODE ONE: MOHAWK’S METH CAMPER COMES TO THE P&H CAFE

We were standing in front of the P&H Cafe, Dan and I and the chill, bearded, self-professed “gearhead” dudes we’d been drinking with.  We were admiring the pristine ’57 Chevy California Highway Patrol car one of them had restored.  Its paint job was so convincing that the car needed to have OUT OF SERVICE stenciled on each end, just to stay on the right side of the law.

P&H Cafe Exterior

One by one, everyone stepped up to look under the patrol car’s hood.  The engine block was clean enough to cook on or eat off.  When the car’s proud papa flicked a switch on the dashboard, the red dome light atop the cabin shot its rotating beacon across the empty, six-lane expanse of Madison Avenue, a big red spot chasing its way across the unlit storefronts.  Then, the mechanical siren spooled up and let out its lugubrious wail, a sound straight out of film noir.  That old cop car sound may be an anachronism, yet you know it as the last thing you hear before you get caught.

As the vintage siren spooled down, whining and then growling, another wailing sound emerged in the distance.  It was actually more like squealing, a high-pitched, repeating shriek of two pieces of metal scraping together.  We all winced, because the noise was so distinctly awful.  And it was getting louder, coming from somewhere down Madison Avenue, somewhere east of the P&H and even deeper within the night.

A white-and-woodgrain 1980s Chevy camper slowly hulked itself over the black horizon and rolled toward us.  Its motion was neither smooth nor straight.  The gearheads in the group made horrified faces as this baby version of the Breaking Bad camper wobbled by, looking like it could tip over at any second.

“Spray that belt, man,” I said to no one in particular.

“No,” said the guy who had restored the cop car.  “That’s the back right wheel.”

“You sure?”

“That fucking thing’s about to come off.”

About 300 feet past our group, the camper rolled to the curb, a doomed ship in search of any mooring.  Its engine stopped.  The tail lights went dark.  A disoriented, white woman came out the side door and started wandering in circles on the sidewalk.

A dude got out from the driver’s side and started arguing with her.  From the distance, he looked like a black guy wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt and sporting an ice-blue mohawk.  We watched for a second and went back to our conversation.

The man approached us first.  He actually was a black guy wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt and sporting an ice-blue mohawk.

“Hey guys,” he said.  “I’m a n**ger, and I do crystal meth.”

“Huh,” someone said.  Someone else asked, “What’s your name?”

“Mohawk,” he responded, without a hint of irony.

“Huh,” someone said.

Mohwak smiled and pointed at his ‘do, as if we hadn’t noticed it yet.  There were some pleasantries exchanged, along with a round of fist-bumping.  Definitely no handshakes.

“Any of you guys looking for some crystal?” Mohawk asked.

One by one, everyone said no.  No two people ever said no at the same time.

“Any of you looking to sell some crystal?”

Again, five or six individual nos.

“What about phones?  Any of you fellers looking to buy an iPhone?”

Unified chorus of no.

“Any of you selling phones?”

No.

“Would you ever think about working for me?  See, you give me three hundred up front, then you get the phones, I don’t care how, I don’t ask, and then I pay you one-eighty-five each for the phones.”

“So I have to pay you three hundred dollars to sell you phones that I steal,” I heard myself half-ask.

Mohawk coolly assembled his response, then delivered it flatly, as he had probably done many times before.  The punctuation is key to getting the meter of his counterargument:

“Are you making seven-hundred-forty dollars a week?  F*ck with a n**ger.”

It was an offer, an invitation, put out there with no malice of any kind.  And those were the strangest two sentences I’d ever heard another human string together.

Mohawk just stood there, smiling, and hoping to close at least one of us on the deal.

Someone asked why Mohawk’s camper had Maryland plates.  He said he had just come from Baltimore.

“County or City,” I asked.  I was really being a jerk.

He started to explain that he needed to get away from something in Baltimore, City.  He was going “west.”  He said “west” a few times.  He didn’t say why, or where, and he definitely didn’t know how to get there.

We told him that we probably couldn’t help.  The formerly circling-on-sidewalk woman approached, having run out of patience with Mohawk.  Our drinks were running out of patience with us inside the bar.  One by one, we said goodnight, turned, and went back inside the P&H.

“Think about the phones,” Mohawk said.  “I’ll be in the camper.”

CHiPS on Madison

An hour or two later, we were still at the P&H, drinking even more whiskey and PBR, when three well-dressed white girls busted into the room in a very disruptive hurry.

“Have any of you seen a white iPhone in a pink case?!” the one in a white winter jacket shouted, exasperated and panicking.

AHAHAHAHAHAHA, my inebriated self thought.

But it was a false alarm.  She found the missing phone in her purse about thirty seconds later.  And when we finally left the P&H, whenever that was, the camper was gone.

Choose Your Next Adventure:

The Last Real Place in MemphisActual Meth Camper | Snake Tattoo Face | Down by Sundown | Ghost Mustang & the Magic Skillet | Bar-B-Brawl at the Bar That Never Closes | Perfect Ribs at 3 a.m. | Cougar in Training | Searching for Life on the Mississippi | PRAYING FOR YOU HATERZ

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