Lessons from An Indescribable Dive

Somewhere in Maryland, Anne Zimmerman stumbles upon Buzzy’s—a mashup of clapboard general store and local hangout—and finds out why the best bars often defy categorization.

In the welcome packet at the house we rented off of VRBO, Buzzy’s Country Store was described as being like Cheers: the kind of place where “everybody knows your name”—italics and quotes included. That didn’t mean much to me. My memories of the beloved sitcom were fuzzy and tinged with annoyance. (It was the 1980s; I was kid. A TV show about bar culture wasn’t exactly alluring.)

But the draw of a good, old-fashioned white clapboard general store was undeniable, and driven by hunger and thirst, we took a sharp left into Buzzy’s dusty parking lot around 8 p.m. on a Friday night in June.

“There are better snacks down the road,” a woman with blonde hair said to us when we walked through the door. She waved her hand in the vague direction of the grocery store we’d seen a half a mile back.

Seemingly unwelcome, I pretended to be interested in the various flavors of ice cream bars in the cooler while Sean, my ever-curious husband, waded in. Soon he was chatting with the guy behind the counter while I was discussing beer-can chicken recipes with the blonde woman who’d taken a liking to me as soon as she realized that I was pregnant.

“Stand back,” she’d said when I told her I didn’t know if I having a boy or a girl. “I want to get a good look at you.”

I pulled my dress tight across my belly and waited. She voted for girl, but the man sitting next to her said boy. A wild-card entry came from the third member of their party, who swore I was having twins. When I told him the ultrasound only showed one baby, he shook his head. “I’ve seen it happen…”

But there’s a deeper truth, too—that the regulars at most so-called dive bars are generally of a different class than the urbane folk who stop in from time to time for a sip of humble brew. We visit dive bars for the cheap drinks, but also for the spectacle. But sometimes, if we’re open to it, we can learn a little something too.

Buzzy’s isn’t a bar. It is, however, a place where you can get a basic drink: a cold beer or a mini bottle of Jack Daniels, a plastic cup full of ice and a can of Coca-Cola. Their liquor license allows for drinking on site, and that’s just what the locals like to do. They congregate after a shift for a cold one and line their motorcycles up outside the front porch at night.

“Stay and have a drink,” someone said to Sean.
He stared at the mini bottle collection longingly.
“I don’t think so.” He tilted his head towards me, heavy with responsibility.
“Drop her off and come back,” someone shouted.
“Shoot, if you wanna stay, I’ll buy her a drink,” the local drunk at the front bar said, insisting that wine was problematic for pregnant women, but beer was just fine.

The next night, we went back with a trio of friends, but when we pulled into the dark parking lot, things felt different. It was later. Darker. Buzzy’s was glowing and the front porch was crowded with drinkers. As we stepped from the car in our wedding finery I could feel the stares.

As we walked up the stairs and into Buzzy’s, I was worried. Maybe our visit wasn’t a good idea. But it was.

My tipsy, accident-prone girlfriend broke the slightly hostile spell when she reached into the cooler for a Miller High Life and an entire twelve-pack cascaded onto her geranium colored toenails.  She bloomed pink and laughed, and everyone else did too. We were back.

The Urban Dictionary defines a dive bar as “a well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” All this is true. But there’s a deeper truth, too—that the regulars at most so-called dive bars are generally of a different class than the urbane folk who stop in from time to time for a sip of humble brew. We visit dive bars for the cheap drinks, but also for the spectacle. But sometimes, if we’re open to it, we can learn a little something too.

Of course, there were things at Buzzy’s we chose to ignore: the offhanded joke about lynching and the stories of hard times that were harder than anything we’d ever wish to know.

But there were good things too: the guy named LP who invited us back to his garage for a dance party. And Shari, who slipped her email address into my dress pocket and told me I had to come back in the fall to learn how to make corned pork using her secret recipe. “Bring the baby,” she said, swaying her words a little. “You can stay at my house.”

When it was time to leave, I was glad Shari was in the bathroom. It felt disingenuous to hug her goodbye, to pretend that I’d email and come visit—I knew I never would.

We brought a Buzzy’s hat and a jar of sweet cherry jam home with us from our vacation on the Maryland shores. Sean wears the hat with some regularity. And with some regularity, people ask him about Buzzy’s. We haven’t quite figured out how to describe it. Dive bar isn’t quite right, nor is local watering hole. I recoil at any comparison to Cheers. Most of the time we just smile at each other and exchange sly glances. “Buzzy’s?,” we say. “Oh, it’s a very special place.”

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