Ellen Goodwin
How Dive Bars Can Change Your Life
TEDxSanDiego 2016

Hi, I am Ellen Goodwin, the CEO of EllenGoodwin.com, an organization that utilizes neuroscience based solutions to enable people to overcome self-sabotage, build stronger habits and be more focused so they can be more effective with their lives. As a productivity expert, I live and breathe the importance of eliminating procrastination and distractions everywhere possible.

I know that, by being effective and efficient with my life, I can accomplish more in less time, which means I have more time for the important things in life, like hanging out in dive bars. At first glance, it would appear that there is nothing effective or efficient about a dive bar. They’re ground zero for distractions and procrastination. There are no success strategies to follow.

There’s nothing neuroscience-y to contemplate. Most people think the only thing you could learn in a dive bar is that the more stickers on the wall means the more surly the regular clientele is going to be.

But this is where I believe you would be wrong. If you really take the time to look below the surface, you would see that dive bars are positively teeming with life lessons. I should know. I have spent the last six and a half years looking for them.

In March of 2010, my neighbor Bob and I, both self-described dive bar aficionados, decided to start a Dive Bar of the Month Club to bring likeminded dive bar lovers together. The first bar we visited was Nunu’s in Hillcrest. For the uninitiated, a dive bar is usually a neighborhood bar that, because of time or circumstance, evolved into what we now know as a dive. There are no hard and fast rules for what constitutes a dive bar.

Must the same as the Supreme Court’s ruling on pornography, when it comes to a dive bar, you’ll know it when you see it. The members of our club run the gamut from the gentleman who moves the concrete lane dividers on the Coronado Bridge to a zookeeper who films videos about dung beetles to a pediatric nurse to a docent on the Midway.

Honestly, these people couldn’t be surly if their lives depended on it. Together, we have visited over 60 dive bars in San Diego County, and we’re still going. During that time, I have watched, listened and imbibed. But most importantly, I have learned, in no particular order, 10.5 very important life lessons.

Life lesson number one. I learned to be kind to everyone. A dive bar, just like life, attracts everyone and anyone. You are all equal within the friendly confines. So be kind to everyone. Be nice to everyone you see. Don’t pick on anyone. Slide down a barstool if someone needs a place to sit. Watch your neighbor’s drink when they go out for a smoke. Always remember to tip your bartender.

Life lesson number two. I learned that you’re never too old to make new friends. Sit at the bar with an open mind and a full cocktail. Turn to your neighbor and strike up a conversation. You never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn. That is the magic of a dive bar, and of life in general.

A friend of mine sat next to and chatted with singer/songwriter David Crosby, all the while thinking it was just some old dude that looked like David Crosby. You just never know who you’re hanging out with. Nine times out of ten, by the time one of you leaves the bar, you’ll be lifelong friends.

Life lesson number three. I learned that the camera never lies. Dive bars are not shy about putting their history up for all to see. Just like your mom, they proudly display photos of the regulars in all manner of parties and occasions, in all states of celebration, happiness, joy, but mostly drunkenness. These photos are the bar family scrapbook. What happens in a dive bar stays in a dive bar, on the walls forever.

Life lesson number four. I learned that those we love never really go away. When a longtime regular shuffles off to that big barstool in the sky, they are not forgotten. After the post-funeral get-together at the bar complete with trays of cold cuts on the pool table and the requisite shots in the dear departed’s honor, their memory lives on.

You’d be hard pressed to find a dive bar that doesn’t have a memorial to someone who really made the bar their home. Just look for a brass plaque by a barstool or a photo on the wall, such as this one where everyone who shuffled off now has a bright gold, glittery halo. But some bars take it just a little bit further.

At the Scoreboard in Imperial Beach patrons leave quarters in a shot glass as a tribute to a man who played quarters there every day. At Danny’s in Coronado, the walls are sadly covered with photos of and memorials to fallen Navy Seals. At the Waterfront in Little Italy, regulars can still toast a long-departed friend as his ashes reside in an urn above the bar. As a regular, you can check out but you can never leave.

Life lesson number five. I learned that recess isn’t just for kids. All work and no play makes for a very dull day. Pool, darts, shuffleboard, ping pong. Games should be encouraged and enthusiastically enjoyed. You know why? Because you can’t be unhappy when you’re having fun. Healthy competition leads to healthy laughter. Who hasn’t experienced the joy of your pool playing getting just that much better after a couple cocktails?

Life lesson number six. I learned that cash is king. Not Johnny Cash, but the power of cash. A lot of dive bars stubbornly cling to a cash only pay-as-you-go world. The cash register was invented by a saloon keeper in 1879 as a means to stop unscrupulous bartenders from pilfering his profits. The distinctive bell on the register was designed to make it impossible to open the cash drawer silently. Sticking with paper and no plastic keeps a dive bar simple and uncomplicated. Always keep some cash on hand and you’ll never go thirsty.

Life lesson number seven. I learned that the soundtrack of my life should be unexpected. Truly great dive bars ignore soulless digital jukeboxes, and instead go old school and put their own CDs on the box. Then they mix the hell out of it. There should always be surprises. You’ll find Frank Sinatra next to the Ramones, Patsy Cline next to Prince. In the best dive bars and the craziest jukeboxes, you’ll find and sing along with that dive bar classic, “Why don’t we get drunk and screw?”

Life lesson number eight. I learned that there is always room for Jell-O. As a booze delivery vehicle, you just can’t beat a Jell-O shot. When the new owners of the Manhattan in Chula Vista bought the bar, they took all the old booze and used it to make Jell-O shots. Now you can find such favorites as black cherry and scotch, grape and brandy, lemon and rum. I guess that’s a life lesson as well. If life hands you lemon Jell-O, make Jell-O shots.

Life lesson number nine. I learned the importance of keeping Christmas in my heart all year long. Whether it’s an attempt at festive decorations or just sheer laziness, a surprising number of dive bars keep Christmas lights up all the time. When your neighbors leave them up too long, it’s a nuisance. When a dive bar does, it’s ambience.

Life lesson number 10. I learned the joy and delight of the unexpected quirks and surprises that show up in life. If there’s one thing you can say about all dive bars, it’s that there’s nothing cookie cutter about them. Just like people, every dive has its own quirks and surprises.

It’s their authenticity and lack of pretentiousness that makes them unique and memorable. Some of the quirks make sense. Some are just odd surprises. The half-hidden mannequin head at the Small Bar. The lending library at Club Marina. The tree through the bathroom ceiling at the Livewire. These all make sense.

The rusty, coin-operated washer and dryer on the patio at the Boulevard Bar is a really odd surprise. Sex toy/condom machines are the unicorns of dive bars. They are rarely seen but universally enjoyed. They prove to us that, when it comes to anything having to do with sex, we’re all still giggling 12-year-olds at heart.

Through these 10 life lessons, I have learned that the ultimate productivity tool is human interaction and connection, and dive bars provide that to us in spades.

My challenge to you is to go and visit a dive bar after this event. But don’t leave yet. There are three more speakers. If you leave, I get in big trouble. I want you to go to new places. I want you to see new faces. I want you to talk to new people. You never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn.

Which brings us to life lesson 10.5. I learned that it’s not a small world. It’s really a big bar. Strangers are just friends you haven’t had a drink with yet. Thank you.