"Damn," I said, meaning it.

"Do you want a beer?" she asks solicitously.

"I actually have to go to a meeting for work. Sorry, can't guzzle one with you."

VFW Post 3559 is a longtime outpost of affordable drinking on South Beach, but — alas — it doesn't offer $1 draft beer. The Bud that bartender Debbie Brooks is offering goes for $2.25.
Jacob Katel
VFW Post 3559 is a longtime outpost of affordable drinking on South Beach, but — alas — it doesn't offer $1 draft beer. The Bud that bartender Debbie Brooks is offering goes for $2.25.
Like any good American dive, however, the VFW offers darts and photos of random people on the wall.
Jacob Katel
Like any good American dive, however, the VFW offers darts and photos of random people on the wall.

"This is your work? Researching beer deals? And you can't have one?"

"Not right now." Peggy looked a little sad for me. "And I've already had a few, to be honest."

"We've got mints."


Word-of-mouth recommendations all turn out to be dead ends. I hit up storefront crawfish joints in Sunrise. Dead pool halls in Plantation. Nothing. I burn whole rush hours inching up clogged streets. I prowl Broward's Monopoly-board wasteland of strip mall and housing developments, only to find the bar I'm looking for is now a Thai place. I seek. I come up empty. I seek again.

So it's with a bruised soul and hemorrhaging hope that I wash up on Fort Lauderdale Beach, the anything-goes, gap-toothed, skanky cousin to South Beach's haughty Euro glamour.

The Tropic Cay is tucked into the hotel of the same name, a three-story discount bin of efficiencies on Atlantic Avenue. When I pull in, a storm is letting loose against the beachfront. Sheets of rain knock against the bar's rust-colored roof and sputter in through the place's open sides. Tending bar is a pretty girl in her 20s, walking-dead thin and stuffed into a pair of cut-off shorts. She beams big anime eyes on me.

"What's cheap here?"

"Everything's cheap here," she says. "It's the cheapest place on the beach."

"What will a dollar get me?" I try, eyebrows doing a little hurried dance.

"Dick."

I order a $4 Bud Light bottle then. Maybe because of the nasty black night churning beyond, the crowd is thin tonight. The lighting is gloomy and mellow like in the belly of a wooden ship at sea. Near the Ping-Pong table, a couple are grinding their lower halves to Jack Johnson, two wet logs rubbing to catch a spark that ain't coming.

"Heeeeey there, Senator," a voice announces behind me.

He's old, 70s probably, wrapped up in a windbreaker, topped with a baseball cap. He doesn't exactly look homeless. He does walk in with his own juice glass topped with vodka from home. The old-timer nods to everyone in the room, a regular making his rounds, then parks down next to me.

"You know what's wrong with pussy?" he creaks.

"Uh."

"The women have all of it."

"True."

"You know what's wrong with fucking a goat?"

"Uhhhh."

"You mean you don't know?"

"Uhhhhhh."

"Then why don't you stop?"

When we get around to introductions, he tells me to call him "Mr. Crazy."

"What do you do, Mr. Crazy?"

"I cut corners for the government," he says.

"How long you been in Florida?"

"Oh," he says, putting his shaking hands six inches apart. "About this long."

We Abbott-and-Costello our way through some more banter, Mr. Crazy handing out these bathroom wall koans, me mumbling. Pretty soon I'm buying him a beer. He gets around to telling me about sailing ships near Ibiza and chasing Spanish women. Mr. Crazy could never waltz into some holier-than-thou craft-beer palace slinging these gutter one-liners and clutching a drink from home. Nope, this guy is meant to be here and only here. I silently toast him, hoping he survives the Guccification of America.

"So what do you do?" Mr. Crazy asks me. "Besides fuck sheep?"


Nobody can tell me exactly where to find the Wayside Inn. The intel is spotty: It's a bar. It's in Dania Beach off Federal Highway. And it might have a dollar draft at happy hour. I prowl past storefronts. A gas-station attendant shrugs, then Googles it on his phone. Nothing. I'm just about to spin off for home when I pull down a side street off Dania Beach Boulevard and catch an orange stain of neon in my periphery. Sure enough, the sign fixed to the single-story building says "BAR," at 38 NE First Ave.

Pouring from the open doors is the familiar sonic salad of sportscasts, music, and the throaty laughs of men fresh off the job. I walk in, take a stool, and fire away. "Do you have one-dollar beer specials for happy hour?"

"Yeah."

Fireworks blast across the sky! Brass bands blow! Sure, not a full pint, but a 12-ounce mug is enough! I slap that dollar down on the counter, my inner choir of fat ladies now blaring hallelujahs. Suddenly, it's all OK. America's safe from inflation, the war on the working class, $10 craft beer, and bros! We're going to make it.

Two mugs in, I'm sitting next to Debbie Meklas. She owns the place with her sister. A short auburn-haired woman drinking a Corona, she's still in her dress clothes from a full day as a secretary at Broward General, where she's worked for 20 years. I'm babbling about her dollar-draft deal.

"We're not looking for the kill, you know what I mean?" she says evenly. "We have a lot of people that have been coming here forever, and we're trying to keep the deal going."

For Meklas, barkeeping is a matter of blood. Her grandparents owned a place in Somerville, just north of Boston. When her own mom and dad fled the cold for South Florida 43 years ago, they bought the Dania Beach spot. Meklas' father ran the show, holding court daily at a table near the side door.

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5 comments
dyl64
dyl64

Wow that was an awesome piece.  As a young undergraduate from FAU Boca Campus I really appreciate all that field work! It's so true - I look at my peers and see them buying expensive ass drinks, dancing to shit beats and molly and all that shit. Anyways keep writing!

gatorbytz
gatorbytz

Thank you Mr. Swenson for this interesting and very well written piece. As I read I could see myself perched on a barstool leaning against the bar with a cold beer in my hand in any and all of the places you described. And, I feel I know all of those dive bar denisons. I are one. Another thing... 70 ain't old and gettin' old only happens when you think and act old. Anyway, thanks.

 
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