Burnside hole-in-the-wall is home to an assortment of Old Town types
There are dive bars, and then there is Dugo's on Burnside. No amount of hipsters in trucker caps could ever gentrify this place. If the hookers and drug salesmen don't get to them first, the cigarette smoke eventually will.
'Put a white sign on the wall, and in three weeks it's this color,' says owner Mike Dugovich, grinning and pointing his stogie at a piece of yellowed cardboard in his office above the bar.
Dugovich, 56, hand-painted the bar's street sign 12 years go when he bought the place. He and his ex-wife, Pam Seagraves, have one of the toughest jobs in town: keeping Dugo's viable and friendly without letting West Burnside's parade of prostitutes, drug dealers and thugs spoil the party.
'I realized this was a tough place on my first day,' he says. 'Every single person in here had a Department of Corrections ID.'
A television monitor shows the customers playing pool, though Dugovich can look out of his window and see the same view. Patrons either have a manic energy or sit very quietly. Leathery faces and stubble are everywhere. Above the stairs is a vintage sign he found in the basement and repainted that reads 'Center Hotel, Rooms 35 cents to $1.'
'I had a guy wander up here one day asking for a room,' he says with a chuckle.
Later, on the evening shift, his regular bartender, Doug Pewitt, 48, confides, 'They weren't the kind of rooms you take for the night.' Of course, Dugo's has no rooms to rent, although some patrons do spend an inordinate amount of time in the restrooms.
Pewitt and Dugovich agree that the No. 1 quality required of any bartender at Dugo's is patience. 'It's a hundred little things,' Dugovich says. 'There's one woman who can't complete anything; she gets her drink, then comes back for a cigarette, then for a keno card, then back again for a match.'
Pewitt used to run security for Dugovich at other bars. He's like a kindergarten cop, gentle but firm with the string of customers who don't quite know what they want. All the while, he scans the room for problems. A grizzled young blonde who looks like something out of a Denis Johnson novel keeps interrupting, explaining that she's fresh out of the hospital and is off her meds. He tells her to go away and, alternately sulking and cackling, she complies. Half an hour later, now at the other end of the bar, she calls Pewitt a crackhead for no reason. He matches her, curse for curse, and sends her packing.
The scene causes comment for about 30 seconds, then it's back to the TNT channel or personal reverie.
West Burnside and Northwest Fifth Avenue is easily the most trying corner of downtown, all hollering, aggressive eye contact and pocket searching. People are constantly popping into the tavern asking for change for the meter, the phone or video poker. 'It's usually so they can buy or sell drugs,' Pewitt says. 'You don't feed meters after 6 o'clock, and you don't sit down to play video poker with one dollar and no drink.'
Pewitt explains a common drug scam: 'They simulate crack cocaine by coating a macadamia nut with Orajel (which numbs the mouth), or with a white aquarium chip in a baggie. Then they grab your money and run.'
Dugo's might be solidly underclass Ñ a lot of the patrons live in single-room occupancy hotels or even the local shelters Ñ but it's diverse. 'The bar used to be run by a Native American in the 1970s; it was like the headquarters for their movement,' Dugovich says. 'We still have a large Native American clientele. In the 1960s, it was a lesbian bar called Sissy's. There's been a bar here forever.'
The morning shift usually brings veterans who come for the 75-cent coffee. Laid-off machinist and former Navy man Duane Smith comes in most mornings. He lives in the West Wind Hotel, Northwest Sixth Avenue and Flanders Street, on two pensions totaling $969 a month.
Times are hard, but Smith is philosophical, waiting for the economy to pick up. 'When I was a kid in the 1950s, Burnside was full of winos,' he says, impressed at how things have improved.
Bartender Neesha Mackmer, a 33-year-old single mother of five, does the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, then works as a state caregiver to the elderly and handicapped. She keeps an eye on her dad, a Grizzly Adams clone in a Navy SEALS cap, who sits near her at the bar.
In Mackmer's view, the place is fullest, and craziest, at the start of the month, when the welfare and pension checks come in.
'By the end of the month, people are broke,' she says. 'It gets real quiet.'
And how does a petite woman handle internecine strife? 'They call me the flying bartender because I jump between fighting people,' she says.
Marlboro and Camel cigarettes cost $5, but Liggetts sell briskly at $3.50 a pack. Miller and Pabst are $1.50 a pint or, for the really desperate, a buck for a 12-ounce plastic cup. Dugovich says he sells just $20 worth of wine a day but pays out thousands in video poker money.
At Dugo's, the drinker's 11
o'clock rule (whatever you're doing at 11 p.m., stop and go home) is observed. 'We close at 11 p.m. most nights, because in our experience, that's the time to close,' says the sage Dugovich.