When I started college at the University of Arizona in Tucson back in 1989 I discovered Mike’s Place near the corner of Park and University next to campus. It didn’t look like much with its grotty interior, the smell of hot grease wafting from the kitchen, and mix of locals and students. But it did have two things going for it–the bartenders didn’t card much and there was a spacious patio where you could watch the sunset over the Tucson Mountains.
I spent a lot of time on that patio. The Cliffhangers, the U of A rock climbing club of which I was a member, gathered there at least once a week. We’d drink pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon or, if we were feeling flush, Sam Adams, and plan our next expedition.
The food wasn’t too bad if you were an undiscerning 19 year-old with no ability to cook for yourself. I usually ordered the hot wings. The owners claimed they made the hottest in town and while that’s debatable they certainly had some fire in them. My friend Chainsaw worked there and I once challenged him to cook me up a dozen wings I couldn’t eat. To this day I don’t know what the hell he put in them. He hurt me, but I won.
Then there were the nickel beers with Sunday breakfast, the slop bucket of extra PBR that turned Chainsaw off of drinking forever, and the guy who threatened to kill me with a nonexistent gun. Good times! Good times!It’s the patio and people I remember most. Fresh-faced college kids who couldn’t handle their beer got leered at by middle-aged drunks, while bikers guzzled gallons and kept to themselves. And in the midst of it all sat the Cliffhangers, partying late into the warm desert night but always getting up at dawn on Saturday to go climbing on Mt. Lemmon.
Mike’s Place has been gone for years. In the name of “development” the university built a parking garage next to it and a Marriott soon opened up. These blocked the view of the sunset and killed the main reason people gathered there. The bar shut its doors shortly after that.
The corner of Park and University looks different now. All the old places are gone and the buildings have been torn down and replaced with modern, clean, strip-mall suburbia. What used to be a tattered but living neighborhood now looks like just about everywhere else.
Mike’s Place lives on, though. It gave me an appreciation for a great human institution. I’ve been to many dive bars since, and have found that every culture has its equivalent. The chicharias of Peru, the backroom bars of Syria, the men-only drinking dens of India, all have something in common. They’re rough and poorly kept, places that look like nobody gives a damn about them but are truly loved by the regulars. Learning to appreciate dive bars gives you an unexpected passport to the world. Most tourists won’t go drinking in some dirty boozer where nobody speaks English but if you walk inside, grab a beer, and don’t look too closely at the food, people will recognize you for someone who enjoys the good things in life.
So thanks, Mike’s Place. All those sunsets and hot wings and drunken conversations actually helped me become a world traveler. Strange how things work out. Next month I’m off to Addis Ababa and I’ll be trying some of the local tej bet, the Ethiopian equivalent of Mike’s Place. No doubt I’ll get that old feeling of familiarity I’ve experienced in so many other dives. I wonder if I’ll find Chainsaw behind the counter cooking me up some hot wings?