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Memphis Dive Bar Adventures: Searching for Life on the Mississippi

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.  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 NINE: SEARCHING FOR LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

Everyone knows that Memphis exists because of the Mississippi River.  But it’s not always easy to see the connection between the present-day sprawlscape and the port city that preceded it.  We really wanted to work the river into our weeklong stay, but that would prove more difficult than we imagined.  As usual, day drinking solved the problem. MEMDIVE_Bucc_summ

Buccaneer Lounge

But why was seeing the city’s connection to the river so hard in the first place? Before the trip, I checked out Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, hoping to get a head start.  Three or four renewals later, I wasn’t getting anywhere.  The book was as funny as 1880s nonfiction could be, and I didn’t get to anything about Memphis.

So we decided to get out on the river instead, to see Memphis the way past traders and contemporary mariners did.  Could we rent or charter a boat?  Nope.  Local redditors warned us that the river near Memphis was very difficult to navigate, especially in mid- to late-spring.  Instead, they suggested that we go on a dinner cruise.  But that just sounded too touristy.

Fast-forward to the end of our trip.  We’d survived a weeklong blur of dive bars and ribs.  And we’d gradually forgotten about the river — as it turns out, this is easy to do.  We were looking for a few last places to visit before the three-day drive home, when we remembered the Buccaneer Lounge.

Several people had recommended “the Buc”, and every one of them called it a “pirate bar.”  But no one ever explained what that meant.  We’d tried venturing to the Buc several times during our long nights out, but getting to the bar seemed as difficult as getting out on the river.

“Dude, I wouldn’t walk to the Buc” was something we heard again and again, even though the Buc is about three blocks from the P&H.  Maybe it had something to do with the people who lurk between the bars at night — like Mohawk.

Our last afternoon in Memphis, we finally visited the pirate lounge.  It was a simple little yellow house with an open front porch, surrounded by parking lots and bigger buildings.  I don’t remember seeing any pirate stuff at the Buc, other than the bar’s name and a cartoon pirate on the well-worn sign.  There was no food menu, but there were two barrel smokers out front.

Our plan was simple: get a cheap beer, check the place out, then enjoy one last barbecue dinner in Memphis.  The plan did not work out.  It was late winter, and late afternoon, and the first warm day of our trip.  As the sun fell lower, Dan, Sarah Rose, and I sat and talked on the porch, sipping yellow swill between sentences.  Then we got into Relationships, discussing things like the “human functionality spectrum.”  We realized that we were going to need a lot more beer — and pizza — before we started figuring out the pirate thing.

STEVE-O, the bearded bartender, came by on his sweep of the patio for empty glasses.  STEVE-O spoke in jovial ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME, and he recommended that we go off-campus for pizza. STEVE-O was funny, and he knew a lot about Memphis bars, bands, and food.  He wore a t-shirt with an image of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford that said “BROS BEFORE HOS.”  He played guitar in a stoner metal band called The Joint Chiefs.

I stayed out on the front porch for a while, chatting with STEVE-O about music and pizza.  It was getting cold fast.  All the people who’d been on the patio were gone.  Where the hell were Dan and Sarah Rose?

I soon found them inside the dark, woodpaneled dive, interviewing a wiry and graybearded Vietnam Vet at his tall little table opposite the bar. The Vet tranquilly drank glass after glass of beer.  When he finished a glass, he’d say, “STEVE-O!  ‘Bout time for a beer.”  Each time STEVE-O appeared with a fresh glass.

Sarah Rose & The Vet

I pulled up a stool to the Vet’s formerly lonely table, joining Dan and Sarah Rose.  The Vet seemed to relish the attention we young’uns were paying him.  He also had a lot to say, and the conversation was getting heavy.  Sarah Rose frantically tried to keep up with the Vet’s soliloquies, her pen flying across pages.  She must have foreseen the demise of her Memphis notebook, because she surreptitiously recorded the entire conversation on her phone.

When I arrived, the Vet was talking about Vietnam, his voice raspy yet steady, drawing parallels between that conflict and the American Civil War:

I was born and raised here, and I don’t think Southerners should have even thought the way they thought.  You know, it was an idiot way of thinking.  And there’s still a lot of people here that think the same damn way, and I don’t agree with them.  Every individual on the face of this earth, or anywhere else in the universe, is created equal…  

And I don’t think anybody has the right to demand anything upon anybody, no matter what it is.  To oppress anybody is wrong, especially the oppression of a certain group of any sort, I don’t care what their race, religion — we’re all created equally.  We’re all pink on the inside.  That’s the way God made us.  That’s the way the higher power made us.  We’re all pink on the inside.  You open up anybody, brown, black.  A person gets shot, they bleed red blood.  

And every human thing and animal thing, any animal, bird, rabbit, deer, whatever, the blood is blue while it’s inside your body.  When it’s exposed to air, it’s red.  Everything on the face of earth that’s living, it’s that way.  And that’s the way the higher power made it.  And he had — he, she, what, I don’t know! — had that thought for billions and billions and billions of whatever it is.

Now we were thinking cosmologically.  The Vet, his mouth dry, took a big sip of my beer.  When I pointed this out, he laughed.  He said it was a trick he’d developed in Vietnam to steal his fellow servicemen’s drinks.

While the Vet hydrated, I started wondering about the river again.  If this were a pirate bar, where were the pirates?  There didn’t seem to be anything remotely nautical in the place.  Right then I noticed the insignia on the Vet’s cap.  It was a waving flag with four letters on it.  That logo came from the smokestacks of the massive towboats we’d seen pushing barges up and down the Mississippi.  I asked if he had worked on the towboats…

Oh, yeah, I’ve been a towboater since ‘72.  Deck hand….

We were about to see the Mississippi through the eyes of a Midtown Memphis mariner.

I’d get on different towboats, and they’d send me on different rivers.  [To get to St. Louis], it takes two days if you got fair sailin’.  Sometimes it would take two days to get from here to St Louis, which wasn’t too bad, sometimes three days.  And from St Louis to Chicago, it’d take about four to five days, depending on the traffic.  Because you had to pull over for any kind of southbound traffic.  That’s the Coast Guard rules, the southbound had the right-of-way.  And then again, it depends on, you know, wherever you are in the river, due to the dikes, you know, the situation in the river.  Dikes and sandbars…

But, no, it wasn’t fun.  It was just a job.

Now this was interesting: here was a guy who had lived his life on the Mississippi, just sipping his beer and waiting for a willing ear.  He was a Midtown Memphis native — “born and raised” — whiling away a late winter afternoon at the Buccaneer.  The beer and the story flowed freely.

I’d work 30 days and then extend it to 60 days… depending on if I had a woman waiting on me or what.

Sometimes I’d get off at Baton Rouge, sometimes I’d get off at New Orleans.  But that train ride, from New Orleans to Memphis…

And I’ll tell you the truth, when they wanted you off, they’d KICK you off.  If they knew that you were Memphis-bound, and you were asleep or something like that, they’d throw your bags off there and throw you out there too!  And then they went ON, because they had a schedule!

We never got the Vet’s name, just his initials: RAB.  And RAB certainly wasn’t a pirate.  Instead, he was emblematic of the other Memphians we met: a hardworking, thoughtful person who wasn’t shy to share wisdom about his city and his life.

Thanks to RAB’s soliloquies, our minds were racing, and we were too hungry to drink any more beer.  Another bartender came in to relieve STEVE-O.  STEVE-O suggested that we meet him and his friends over at Coletta’s for barbecue pizza.  The next Memphis adventure, a very big one, was about to begin.

STEVEO & Sarah Rose

Audio recording of RAB interview by Sarah Rose Butler.

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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