The telephone at the Brown Barrel Tavern is ringing, but owner Bob Lyons pays it no mind. He's mid-conversation with the only guy at the bar under forty, something about sub-floors and plastic sheeting and mold. He finishes filling two mugs of $2.25 Budweiser and eventually gets around to picking the damn thing up on its sixth ring.
"Brown Barrel." Pause.
Brown Barrel Tavern
Brown Barrel Tavern
76 South Broadway
"Haven't seen him in three hours." Pause. "No. Not in three hours."
The caller — perhaps a friend, more than likely a wife — was looking for someone named Leonard. Whether or not Leonard is one of the grizzled regulars currently bellied up to Bob's nautically themed bar, I can't be sure. If he is, then I've just witnessed a flawless execution of the legendary Dive Bar Phone Fee play, wherein customers pay their 'tenders to lie about whether or not they're still with drink. The ruse, more often for nyuks than actual deception, is commonly outlined via hand-scribbled or manufactured sign. The Brown Barrel doesn't have one that I can see, but the Campus Lounge, another great dive, does:
$1: He's not here
$2: On his way out
$3: Just left
$4: Haven't seen him all day
I'm at the Barrel at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday because my wife's at an appointment down the block, and because I need to know if the rumors are true. Not long ago, one of the regulars told me over a smoke that Bob threw a fit upon receiving the Best Dive Bar award from Westword in 2008. As a result, I've assumed Bob to be just another bar owner who mistakes "dive" for "dump," when in truth the two descriptors aren't (necessarily) synonymous. Knowing full well that my curiosity might get me tossed, I wait patiently at the end of the bar for Bob to notice my empty mug and ask if I want another. As he does — just after he rejects the $1.75 I've left him as a tip for the first one with an amicable "I don't take tips" — I tell him that I have a gift for him.
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"Yeah," I reply, "but I hear you might not be too keen on it." Then I hand him a copy of my book, Denver's Best Dive Bars, and tell him his bar is on page 21. As he slips his readers on and slowly turns the pages, I silently imagine a dozen different scenarios of how getting 86'd might go. Maybe he'll lunge over the bar at me and throttle my neck like a classic Warner Bros. cartoon; maybe he'll rant and rave about how I wouldn't know a quality joint if I shat one into my own hand; maybe he'll crank his head in my direction while whistling, thus summoning his loyal customers, suddenly armed with West Side Story whips and chains, to take me out back and teach me a thing or two.
Mostly he just smiles and tells me he thinks the write-up — in which I claim that the ice cubes in the pissers make the bathrooms smelly and accuse the jukebox of being unreliable but in general assert that the bar is "unremarkably remarkable" — is fair. He goes on to explain that he doesn't mind the whole "dive" term, acknowledging that he "runs a different kind of place here," but in the same breath, he admits that when someone from Westword called to say they were sending down his Best of Denver 2008 plaque, he might have told that person they could shove the plaque up their ass, even though his wife, Cathy, was thrilled with the honor and disappointed when the Barrel didn't win again in 2009. We share a good laugh about this last bit, and I wonder whether he actually had the gall or whether the guy just spins a good yarn. I'm tempted to claim it's the latter.
But that's how rumors get started.