Diving back in

Remembering the past at Molly's Place.

People are always asking me to write about dive bars. Certain 20somethings — especially ones who were raised in the suburbs — maintain romantic notions of that dimly lit corner bar in the bad part of town. I sure did.

I started writing a column similar to this one while in my mid-20s for the Bradenton Herald, when I lived near the newspaper's main downtown office for about four years. During that time, I frequented the area's most notorious bars. I listened to a fisherman's tale of spending a week at sea battling a storm. I heard about the rigors of 10-hour days from a tomato picker.

But after four years and about 100 nights, I began to lose my fascination with the dive scene. I realized that its denizens were, just like the rest of society, a mix of good and bad. It was just that while the gentleman seated next to you at Bern's might be running a felonious savings and loan scam that would bankrupt your grandmother, the bad guy at the local dive bar might whack you upside the head with a beer bottle for not laughing at his racist joke.

The thrill was definitely gone.

But then my friends Alex and Shannon — both in their mid-20s — suggested I visit a St. Pete bar called Molly's Place. It had been a long while since I'd set foot anywhere grungier than South Tampa's Tiny Tap Tavern, so I decided to dive in once again.

I enter Molly's at 8:30 on a Saturday night and spot Alex and Shannon at the bar. Before I can greet them, I feel someone tug at the sleeve of my sports coat.

"Got any jukebox money?" asks the dentally challenged codger.

I smile at him and mutter "no." After saying hello to my friends, I order a cold one. The server scoops up my $1.25 gratuity with great haste.

"The other bartender here told me to never leave tip money on the counter," Alex says. "Give it directly to her or someone might come by and take it."

Like the Old Main Pub and my other stomping grounds near the Manatee River, Molly's has all the markings of a vintage hole-in-the-wall joint. The room is long and narrow. Customers play classic-rock staples on the old-school jukebox. There's a small pool table in the back. The wood-paneled walls look to have been installed during the Carter administration.

In other words, it looks like every other dive bar in the world.

Molly's has a largely male clientele (another commonplace among dive bars), and the artwork reflects it: a poster of a naked woman with an overflowing mug of beer balanced on her perky rump. The stools are numbered, and every 30 minutes the bartender spins a wheel to see who gets a drink on the house.

Coin-operated washer/dryers rumble in an adjacent room. There are efficiency apartments one floor up. The bar has character, but this isn't where you'd take a first date.

Mugs of cheap draft beer and bottles of Busch are the popular selections. (Molly's doesn't have a license to sell liquor.) Hand-written signs read "Ca$h Only" — maybe the customers aren't trusted with credit cards.

A man who appears to be in his 40s hollers at a heavy-set fellow who's probably old enough to collect Social Security. The older guy gazes straight ahead at the poster of the gal with the beer mug. He's clearly uninterested in hearing the long-winded political rant. I've heard quite a few of these slurred speeches myself over the years, but this one's being broadcast at too high a decibel level for me to tune it out.

"They don't want to find bin Laden!" Political Ranter shouts. "Because, see, they need him out there to keep getting money for the war machine!"

Political Ranter's lecture is interrupted by a billiards challenge from a young man wearing a thick, cheap-looking silver chain over his Martin St. Louis hockey jersey. "Tonight's tame, but I'm told there's been a lot of violence in here lately," Alex says. A few stools down, a regular nods in agreement.

I learned firsthand how dive-bar pool can lead to bodily harm one evening at the Old Main, when my nose got bashed by a cue ball. Another night at a joint in nearby Palmetto, I watched the regulars peruse a Herald front page splattered with mug shots of sex offenders — and offer sympathetic remarks about all the guys they knew.

Nothing like that was going on here. But I feel no urge to return.

Molly's Place offers sanctuary for the outsider, the folks who would neither be welcome nor interested in sipping sangria at a place like Ceviche. But it's not the kind of sanctuary I need — unless I'm down on my luck and a $1 draft beer is all I can afford.

Molly's Place, 615 Ninth St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-823-1654.

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