[Editor's Note: We all know local music and dive bars go hand-in-hand. So in the interest of merging the two together on Heard Mentality, we bring you our nightlife column Dive, Dive, My Darling. Read this week as our bold reporter, Charles Lam stumbles into the dive bar scene to find crazy stories, meet random weirdos and guzzle good booze.]
Here are the most-retold stories about Fern's Cocktails in Long Beach: Parts of Sublime's "Date Rape" video were shot in the back. The bartenders, whose tattooed beauty and disinterested service break hearts the world over, once fed a rat alcohol-soaked cherries until it died. The bathrooms? Witness to more sex than your local casting couch (not to mention a few pregnancies). See a pizza? Better be careful: You don't know when it'll be topped with magic mushrooms.
Fern's is all about its past, one of the remaining jewels of the city's punk history, an anchor of Fourth's lovely street of dives, and it shows–sort of. Google Fern's, and the first thing that'll pop up is its MySpace. Walk into the bar, and be astounded by the kitsch-lined walls. But if you're looking for the dive of legend? Well, I've got some bad news.
First off, my stories: I got to Fern's around 11 p.m. on a Wednesday. I was already drunk after attending Beer Paper LA's one-year anniversary party at Beachwood. And I kept drinking after I left the bar. Even in that state, I could see Fern's as a bar in transition, trying to find a niche in modernity while keeping its identity–and fumbling around like two crusty kids trying to balance their bodies on a Kohler sink.
The punk-filled jukebox? It's gone, replaced by a giant Internet monolith that you can find at basically any bar nowadays. There's no more foosball, no more air hockey, and the boxing machine that would prompt machismo competitions between bros that often spilled onto the sidewalk is now hidden behind a wall. The ribbed-condom machine, previously housed in the women's bathroom for her pleasure? It's been 86'ed, replaced by, in the words of our Long Beach Lunch correspondent Sarah Bennett, "Gasp–a paper towel dispenser."
Even the music has changed. With the new jukebox came new playlists. The dozen or so patrons who were present Wednesday night were not serenaded by Bad Religion or Sublime, but by Hall and Oates, though there were still the occasional, syncopated punctuations of ska. There's new paint in the bathrooms, and the high-top tables and booths are nearly brand-new, the vinyl and leather uncracked by history. Everything feels eerie, not skeezy.
The crowd is also changing–the night I was there, three groups crowded around their own respective pool tables, not mixing. One was a couple who would seem completely at home at the Fern's of the '90s, the guy barrel-chested and clad in jeans and a tank top despite the sub-60s weather outside. Next to them was a larger group, a collection of gabacho hipsters and their chipster (Chicano hipster–get it?) pals whom I suspect queued up what was more or less the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack. The last bunch of kids? Baby faces, all of them.
Some things have stayed the same, though. The drinks are still cheap, coming in at $16 for a not-shitty beer and two ginger and Jacks. If you're drinking swill, which you probably should be at a bar such as this, the prices drop even more. Show up during happy hour? You can get a drink for $2.50. The ever-popular PBR Tall Boy is just $3 on Mondays. Bottom of the barrel, you can get $1 Busch cans on Tuesday and Wednesday.
But the more things stay the same, the more they change. The famous bad service? A few seconds after I had signed off on my receipt, the bartender beckoned me back to her bar. In my alcohol-addled sense of the moment, I had failed at simple addition, thinking $15 + $2 = $18.
"Your math doesn't add up," the bartender said. "So, $17?"
Huh, I thought to myself. I figured the service would be worse here or at least more impolite. "Let's go to $18," I replied. Then I left to get my ass kicked at pool.
BEST QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: "All right, I just coined up at the pool table the meth couple is hogging. Hopefully, they don't take too long."
FAVORITE PIECE OF FLAIR: The boxing machine. Give it a swing!
Fern's Cocktails, 1253 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 436-6694; www.facebook.com/fernscocktails.