As you’ve no doubt heard if you’ve spent more than five seconds talking to me over the last year, I’m working on a book on the dive bars of Boston. I’m almost done, with some 105 or so in the can at this point, but I think I finally found the worst one. Or the best depending on your outlook. It’s called Upstairs Downstairs, and it’s like walking into the void.
This rough and rugged dive bar, wedged between a highway on ramp and a desolate few blocks of auto repair shops, and near one of Quinchester’s (where Dorchester meets Quincy’s) purgatory-like traffic circles, looks like a bowling alley with its colorfully playful sign. Inside runs with that theme as well, with video games, dartboards, posters of athletes covering the walls and other arcade-like fixtures. This sort of décor plays up the idea of how a lot of dive bars, even the ones where you’ll find largely older men, are really just examples of suspended adolescence at work. No surprise then that you’ll often find drinkers in dives reverting to their childish states. Yelling, drooling, nodding off for a nap, fighting when they don’t get their way.
Speaking of fighting, Ups N Downs, as it’s called, has a pretty menacing reputation in that regard. Fights over the past few years have placed the bar’s liquor license in jeopardy, and plenty of people in the hospital, on numerous occasions. Last Christmas a massive brawl in the bar spilled out onto the streets when a woman smashed one of the bartenders in the face with a bottle. This being Dorchester, he punched her right back in the fucking face. Every police car in the area was needed to control the situation. During another brawl one of the customers jumped behind the bar and emptied the cash register, while others made off with armfuls of liquor bottles out the back door. There are police officers on duty now on weekend nights in the bar’s upstairs area.
That upstairs downstairs demarcation is where things get a little interesting here, if by interesting you mean racially fucked up. The name of the place implies a sort of segregation. Upstairs is for hip hop, downstairs is for Sinatra. Or to put it another way, upstairs is for blacks, downstairs is for Irish. It’s the same old shitty story of Dorchester race relations played out literally every night in the place people in the neighborhood go to get drunk. Like that’s not asking for trouble. The bar, formerly known as the Pony Room, has been in operation for about 50 years.
“Don’t go in there. Seriously. It’s a bucket of blood where many, many innocent patrons have been assaulted,” my friend Dave tells me. “That place is an infamous late-night haunt popular with people grabbing last call on their way out of Marina Bay. It’s also popular with thugs from Quincy/Neponset who like to start fights with random drunks. If you want to fight or witness a fight, this is the place to go.”
Actually I don’t want to do that, but fuck it, I need to check it out anyway. For journalism’s sake. I almost get into a verbal fight anyway when I’m there drinking on a slow early evening. Everyone seems friendly enough on the surface. The bartender is cute in that trashy Dorchester way, with tattoos on her neck and feet. I’m drinking with a few old guys watching the game, and a seemingly reasonable guy in a Brett Favre jersey next to me. So what’s upstairs like tonight, I want to know?
“You don’t want to go up there,” the bartender tells me.
“It’s like cockroaches up there,” the Favre fan says. “It’s fucking awful. It’s all black upstairs and all whites downstairs. Now you can’t have glasses to drink out of up there anymore.”
“It’s like Blue Hill Ave at its busiest.”
“It didn’t used to be like that, but then they started playing the hip hop.”
Wait a second, is this a joke? This is a joke right? I mean, I know Boston has a reputation, but we’re in fucking public here people. Instead I keep my mouth shut and my head down, because I’m a pussy. And what am I going to do, give a lecture? Kind of good to have some confirmation that Favre fans suck though.
“Ah well, as the world turns,” the bartender says.
“As the neighborhood turns,” another guy adds from across the bar. Then we all go back to staring at the Red Sox game, cheering on a bunch of black dudes.