A “love letter” to the Locust Tap, a dive bar in Des Moines, Iowa. You’ve drank in a place just like this. And if you haven’t, well then, welcome.
The Tap, or Locust Tap as it’s formally called in Des Moines, Iowa, is the closest you can come to the experience of drinking in Iraq. I would say, “Drinking in Iraq during wartime,” but it seems like there was never any other kind of time for Iraq.
Locust Tap still exists at the time of this writing, although when I left Des Moines for Denver nearly two years ago the city shut it down because of inspectors’ anxieties that the concave floor would soon collapse. Just like Iraq always seemed to be in constant trouble with inspectors before our boots stamped it into statelessness, so does the Tap. And just like Iraq, Locust Tap doesn’t play by the rules; after it was shut down for the flimsy floor, it reopened without permission, announcing it was back in business triumphantly on social media—the police ended up escorting patrons out and barring entrance to the public.
The owner, Kirk Blunck, thinks Locust Tap looks just like it did in 1937. He said as much in an interview when the bar reopened after propping up the floor with a few support beams. The camera pans around to show the single room, and although the gaze undulates unsteadily as it moves, the high ceiling with its ancient paneling is nearly left out.
While I can’t speak for how it was in 1937, I have my doubts that Locust Tap would have always reminded me of choking down tequila on my birthday after getting back to Forward Operating Base Riviera after a foot patrol. Maybe it has to do with the lingering stench of bracken sewage left to fester in Locust Tap’s basement until the city shut it down and forced a cleanup. The walls don’t look like they’ve been painted save for the first time. In some places there is no paint at all and what’s underneath shows through: some spots brick, other spots boards. But the real treat of examining your surroundings at Locust Tap isn’t the grungy pool table crammed between the bar and the disgusting bathrooms, and it’s not the long ago broken booths that were at one time plush, but are now dirty, tattered, and broken, with stains that could be blood or oil or shit. The real treat is looking up.
If Locust Tap is a carious tooth cracked open, then the ragged shreds of paper dangling from the ceiling are its nerves. Blackened from the time when the public could smoke in Iowa bars, and most likely with a little bit of mold and other things growing up in the once ornate paper facade on wood paneling high above. I used to stand leaning back against the bar and stare up at the detritus of broken down paper and glue slowly being stripped from the ceiling by gravity. If I was real drunk the ceiling would spin and blur together, like some kind of black hole of filth trying to suck me up but the sticky floors were holding me down. I used to wonder what the ceiling looked like in its old glory, before the years had been so unkind and the economy’s booms and busts had left little for a bar to be maintained.
I’d wonder what other Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers used to think when they’d get too drunk in the Tap and look up at the ceiling, if they were hopeful for a future of flying cars and world peace, and what they would think of the present day, with ISIS, oil spills, mass shootings, climate change, and a seemingly endless series of violent confrontations abroad. I bet they were at least thankful to have all their shots. A friend of mine won’t set foot in the place for the same reason he passed on all the GG Allin shows back before the shit-smearing punk rocker overdosed: fear of hepatitis somehow becoming airborne and floating into an eye, or drink, or spiraling in a nasal cavity when breath is cut short by a wretched smell—only to be sucked down into a lung to inoculate.
As you might imagine, some of the people who frequent the Tap are of the caliber that blend in with the grim surroundings. One of GG Allin’s disciples asked if he could have a threesome with me and a buddy of mine, saying everyone needed to “feel their kidneys shift around from a big dick.” We laughed, joked, and declined. The character told us we’d meet again, and I replied with, “All paths cross at the bottom.” It seemed appropriate given the circumstance. But how much has the hub of drunkards, misfits, and hipsters cost the public?
Just like the war in Iraq cost the United States big time, Locust Tap has cost the owner, but ostensibly none of the million dollars (of now delinquent loan money lent to Kirk Blunck by Des Moines to revitalize two buildings) was on the Tap. So, the American taxpayer didn’t pay for both the war in Iraq and Locust Tap—ostensibly; although when the tenants at his apartment complex got ordered out by the inspectors last year, everything seemed murky. Something else of Blunck’s that’s been obfuscated is his architecture firm, which changed its name after doing a bunch of great things in the late nineties; kind of like Blackwater—a company that the U.S. contracted mercenaries through during the war in Iraq—ended up not being what it seemed and kept changing its name to confuse the public. The two restored buildings are thriving; the American taxpayer getting what it paid for, even if they didn’t consent or agree with the assessed need. All of it designed by a man that’s a Fellow of The American Institute of Architects, a title he won with the old firm by a different name.
Just a stone’s throw from both revitalized buildings that were once blighted, now fixed and occupied by an arcade bar and music venue, Locust Tap decomposes. Between Des Moines capitol and the jail. A pretty good place for it, all things considered. If this place sounds intriguing to you, visit soon, because who knows how much longer it will be around. Although the Tap might have outlasted Iraq on the timeline, Iraq clocked in at circa ninety years of tumultuous existence. Right now, assuming it opened in 1937, Locust is seventy-eight years old and appears to be on the fast track of meeting much the same fate as Iraq—abolition by American government.
Does Locust Tap deserve to be seized by the state and torn down? Maybe. But at least when I drink there, unlike Iraq, I don’t have an ongoing existential crisis about participating in war that on some days was mind-numbingly boring, and on others tantamount to genocide. And as far as I know no patrons have ever had their drinks served to them via rectal enema after being snatched off the street; although with drinks so cheap I hesitate to say you don’t “have” to go in there.
I’m not sure when I’ll be in next. I’m in and out of Des Moines rarely now since I moved, and usually to see family. But I don’t expect to be barred, even if Blunck becomes aware of this writing. From the hearsay I’ve heard said, the man doesn’t have a problem throwing fists after stepping outside.
I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it.