“REPTILES” reads the sign over the mini-mall parking lot on Sepulveda at Sawtelle. Brother, you don’t know the half of it, I think, getting into my car to leave.
An hour ago I had stopped here, on the way back from the airport, for a few beers. Culver City’s not a place I spend much time, and my memories of that fair town’s lounge lizards and bar gators date to the twilight years of Big Ed’s on Washington Boulevard (where Barfly was filmed) before the place shut down in a blaze of civic face-lifting. This fading mall, though, with hand-lettered signs everywhere, seemed promising, offering not one but two bars: The Scarlet Lady Saloon and Roger’s Exciting Tattle Tale Room.
Once in an anonymous while I like to get lost in a place where the bartenders don’t know me and where the regulars never stop sizing you up, trying to figure out if you’re a spy for the ashtray police or merely passing through. My biggest barrier to walking into a strange bar is literally the door. I have a special aversion to walking into any place whose doorway has a curtain over it, but here I was at 3 in the afternoon, parting two weighted drapes to enter the dark of The Scarlet Lady. It turned out to be a big sporting place with pool tables, dart boards and TVs everywhere — “Drinks Take Priority Over Lotto” admonishes a sign behind the bar. The Scarlet Lady doesn’t have a kitchen but will order cuisine from the nearest restaurant — Tomy’s, whose gigantic menu on the wall looks like a bus-station departure-arrival board.
Today happens to be the day of the London subway bombings, and one TV shows the carnage — grim-faced stretcher bearers, men being interviewed in tattered suits — and plays next to another screen full of racing results. (Fanatical Radical was an also-ran in the eighth race at Ruidoso Downs.) There are only about four people here, not counting myself. The bartender, a young blond “from a wee place north of Glasgow,” brings an elderly woman another cocktail. Why, I wonder, do women in sports bars drink hard liquor in the afternoon, when most of the men nurse beers?
There is a very old-fashioned, time-forgotten feeling to this place — as though the people here would look at my cell phone as if it were a ray gun. On cue, Patsy Cline warbles over some speakers. People seem to be killing time here, waiting for something. The patron talk drifts to someone who’s absent — about his drinking exploits of the previous night and speculation about his hangover today. I half expect a man in a straw boater named Hickey to walk in through those curtains offering redemption.
Another TV screen shows hands flipping cards against the green, national velvet of gambling. It turns out to be a celebrity poker program. Some star, sitting behind sunglasses, is losing.
“If it’s not in the cards it doesn’t matter who the fuck you are,” the old woman sighs.
“That’s the truth,” agrees the bartender.
Roger’s Exciting Tattle Tale Room sits at the other end of the storefronts and its Dutch doors, open at the top, is more inviting. It is packed and loud inside — I have never seen a place in the L.A. area with this many people drinking in the middle of the day — and Bud’s a quarter more than at the Scarlet Lady. Most of the drinkers range from middle-aged to retired, and seem far more motivated to drink than at the Scarlet Lady. Today there was animated talk about someone killing a bird with a golf ball. Instead of Der Freischütz Overture, though, the stereo played Merle Haggard’s angrily plaintive voice as I caught a whiff of disinfectant. Sandbag-sized sacks of peanuts sit behind the bar waiting to be torn open.
“I’m a salad eater,” one old-timer says; then, after reflection: “And a pussy eater!”
“How about some ass?” asks another man.
“Go to the other end of the bar,” a third answers, referring to where a couple of matrons are sitting.
It occurs to me: This is where all the compulsive cursers in high school go — they don’t clean up their language as they grow older, they just save it for the Tattle Tale. I like getting lost here, in a bar with a George Bellows boxing print and men taking turns telling dirty jokes and insulting one another. They’re not waiting for the iceman to cometh, let alone a guy in a straw hat selling redemption — if a Hickey did show, he’d quickly be shown those Dutch doors.
The Scarlet Lady Saloon, 5411 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-9079
Roger’s Exciting Tattle Tale Room, 5401 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 390-2489