Beer & Loathing

Journey into the last, real neighborhood bar on the Beach. It's nothing like Cheers.

The beautiful people they are not. Outsiders wander in, look around, eye the regulars, and cringe. A man on the sidewalk lowers his sunglasses to take a peek: "Oooops, wrong bar." The place is avoided like the potholes that pock the street in front of it.

Definitely not on any visitor's map, the Cove Bar is an inconspicuous establishment for the forgotten ones in this corner of Miami Beach: local working poor, retirees, misfits, and dregs. No neon, no frills, no MTV, just the nitty-gritty: booze and beer, jukebox, and a little drugs and gambling on the side. The obverse of everything South Beach -- four Bud longnecks for six bucks, any time.

To its regulars, the Cove is a mecca, a place that breeds easy friendships and takes care of its own. Pretensions are shed and only one assumption holds; namely, nobody who's anybody spends time here. The feeling is down-homey. Way down.

"We're a hard-core neighborhood bar where everything can go to the limit -- as long as it's fun. We're like a community," declares Jaco, owner of the Cove. "A couple of shots of this and that, beer, playing pool, the slot machines -- whatever, whatever keeps them up. Play the music, dance a little bit. You know."

You won't find pretty, silk-clad men and women sitting around a magnum of champagne, with two phones on the table and a limo waiting outside. "Most guys here don't have a goddamn car!" exclaims Jaco, who always wears jeans and likes to go days at a time without shaving. "If they can buy a round a few times, they're a big shot. I'm not dealing with the brightest people around, but these are good guys. I love 'em. I think these people come into the bar just for social reasons. Most of them are really lonely people. They've found a secure place and people to talk to who can really open up."

(Because of the nature of the activities there, the name of the bar, its location, and the identities of the regulars have been changed.)

"Well, like the man says, it's two kinds of people in this world," begins a Harry Crews short story. "Us that wants a drink and them that don't want us to have one." The Cove is a beacon to the former.

Ten glass ashtrays, a foot or two apart, dot the worn wooden bar as customers belly up and sit on round swivel stools. The age of the patrons usually, for some reason, decreases as distance from the front door increases. Newspapers are scattered along the bar, although it's really too dark to read. The joint smells dank and beery. Promotional clutter hangs from the mirror that runs the length of the place.

Every twenty seconds Libby, the day bartender and human jukebox goes off: "Don't they know, it's the end of the worrrrld..."

"I know a lot of songs," squeaks Libby in her little-girl voice. She has spent most of her 45 years free-pouring liquor and listening to recorded music. "But I only know one line of each song."

The daytimers arrive as early as 8:00 a.m. and leave before dark. They pay no attention to the gambling and other shady occurrences in the back. Their sole pastime is boozing.

Grumpy old Sylvia drinks canned Schlitz poured into a glass (ice on the side) and talks trash about almost everyone who comes through the door. She can afford to talk down, the regulars say, because she lives comfortably in a high-rise on the beach. Not like some of the old folks here, who hardly make it from one Social Security check to the next. Still, the first week of every month, with Uncle Sam's check cashed, they pack the Cove. The retirees come in, play the oldies, and dance around like it's V-J Day.

Libby: "Fly me to the moooon, so I can play among the stars."
A half-dozen men and one woman are in the bar in the morning when Short-Hand Luke wobbles in asking the bartender for a drink. "I'm the only guy in the neighborhood who the police can't arrest," he says with gravel in his voice. He pauses three beats before extending his left arm. "They can't handcuff me -- I don't have a hand."

Luke has a friend who acts like a banker, cashing his monthly check and doling out a daily allowance for booze. There's nothing left over for shelter. Luke, who looks like a roughed-up troll, orders bourbon with a splash of water, then pours in a Goody Powder. After two full swallows his hand stops shaking.

"You got to take care of people," says Jaco. "You have to learn to listen to people and deal with them. You've got to be a giver. They show up every day, every single day. You feel obligated to keep this place open. I'm not selling flowers or hamburgers, I'm selling something they need desperately. Sometimes a drop of alcohol, just another shot, makes all the difference. Boom. It takes away the edge and they're a totally different person."

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