In the Belly of the Beast
Six East Lounge. "The Beast." People in Tempe have called it that since the late '70s, when it was still a biker bar. Today, it's easy to see--and smell--why the nickname stuck. When you walk in, rancid piss and cleaning chemicals mingle with whiskey, smoke and a musty, old-house smell to create a dank eau de 6E strong enough to flare your nostrils. Regulars say you know the Beast has its claws in you when that first noxious whiff yields a pleasurable reaction, like shrugging off a weight, or the sweet relief of coming home.
The interior of 6 East is not for the squeamish. The walls are covered with a combination of cheap wood paneling and decaying wallpaper that may have been orange at one time, featuring a decorative wrought-iron pattern popular 20 years ago. The carpeting is so matted it feels like concrete.
Stand at the front door, and you face the long side of an L-shaped bar with about 15 stools. To your right is a line of six booths with wobbly tables. The tabletops, like the wood paneling, are a mosaic of graffiti, presumably carved with knives. In the back of the bar are corner alcoves with shelves, two pool tables in remarkably good condition, a jukebox and an Elvira, Mistress of the Dark pinball machine. There used to be two bullet holes in the front wall, just beyond the last booth, but they were covered a few months ago.
The bar was named after its address--6 East Seventh Street in downtown Tempe, spitting distance from Mill Avenue. 6 East is only a short walk from Fat Tuesday, Uno's, the Crocodile Cafe and the other flashy franchises that have taken over Mill Avenue. But in spirit, it's a world apart. It is seedy, cheap and locally owned. It does not take credit cards.
"Think of all the other Mill Avenue bars as these big, clean, corporate rocks," says 6 East regular Martin Montofano, 30. "6 East is the bar for people who like to pick up the rock and watch the centipedes crawling around. It's also the bar for the centipedes."
About seven years ago, 6 East began a transition from biker bar to a sort of United Nations for disenfranchised youth in Tempe. Its reputation is not sterling. People who speak knowingly of 6 East use the words "whirlpool," "vortex" and "black hole" with striking frequency. They speak of the bar like it's crack--a wicked good time, but addicting and dangerous. A few will actually warn you never to go there, or, if you're already inside, to leave before it's too late.
Depending on whom you ask, 6 East is either a creepy dive bar full of junkies or a big, gnarly middle finger to the rest of fascist downtown Tempe. A freak show where they serve drinks, or a spiritual proving ground. A stronghold for the dark side of the force, or a place of perverse camaraderie.
But whatever else it may be, the Beast is also on the verge of extinction. The City of Tempe is going to put it down. But not because of its scruffy image. 6 East just happens to be in the way.
According to plans for the "Seventh Street and Mill Project," 6 East is now the future site of an underground parking garage and "artisan's court" of retail spaces topped with luxury condos. Ted Claassen, one of the developers hired by Tempe to implement those plans, says construction will begin next spring or early summer.
"Getting rid of 6 East is just another step in Tempe's idiotic obsession to become another Scottsdale," says co-owner David Iman. "Well, one Scottsdale's enough. They're just going to knock this building down and build a bigger one that looks just like all the other buildings on Mill Avenue."
Built in 1963, the building at 6 East Seventh Street was a "Ham Bun" restaurant before it was a bar. There's still an old sandwich board in a narrow hallway between the bar and the storeroom: "Iced Tea .15; Ham Bun .55; Chili .25 & .45; Budweiser on tap .25; Apple Pie .25."
According to county records, a liquor license was transferred to the location in 1970 for a business called "6 East, A Meeting Place." The bar went through four sets of owners before Iman and Ed Whitmann, both longtime residents of Tempe, purchased it in 1981. "No one ever changed the name or any of that crap," says Iman. "It's always been a neighborhood place. We don't raise our prices for the Fiesta Bowl. 6 East is 6 East is 6 East. It's just always been a bar. The last real bar in downtown Tempe."
"6 East is still an old neighborhood bar, but a lot of the old neighborhood is gone," says Whitmann, who first moved to Tempe in 1959. "When this place became a bar, there were all these trailers and run-down little shack houses just across the street on Mill. They went all the way from University to Second Street. Well, when Tempe got its first chunk of redevelopment money, I think it was in the mid-'70s, they started buying out all those homes. And it just progressed from there.
"P.F. Chang's," says Whitmann. "The Gap. That's what the city wants now. Not 6 East. There's no room in downtown Tempe for this kind of operation anymore."
Until last summer, the property 6 East sat on land owned by a Tempe old-timer named Ed Clark, whose family had a big farm along Broadway Road at the turn of the century. "He's an old guy, and the city came in and threatened to eminent-domain him, and he sold," says Iman. "We'd been trying to buy this property for years at a fair price, so I'm sure he made good money, but I'm a little bitter. We've got a lot of history here."
6 East was still a biker bar when Iman and Whitmann took it over 16 years ago. "It was the sort of place where a lot of days there were two or three Harleys parked out front, and maybe once or twice a month there would be 50 Harleys parked out front," says Iman.
But the bar experienced a paradigm shift in the early '90s, when local bands that played across the street at Long Wong's started drinking at 6 East between sets and after shows (Arizona state law prevents musicians from drinking in the same club they perform at on a given night). The fans followed, and 6 East was suddenly popular with the Tempe twentysomething underclass, in all its forms.
Now, any night there can bring together dirt heads (working-class heavy-metal fans), skaters, skinhead punks (of the nonracist variety), rockabilly boys, tweakers, junkies and straight-up Gen X barflies. Plus random crazies and rubberneckers who go slumming at 6 East when the mood strikes them.
Some say the Beast is a good place to go when you're feeling down, if only to take a look around and celebrate that at least you're not as fucked up as these people. Indians and old Tempe hippies are also in the house, and during the day, there's a strong blue-collar element, like maintenance workers from Arizona State University or roofers who start their workday early during the summer and get off their site in the early afternoon.
"It's a workingman bar in the day," says Montofano. "At night, it's definitely more of a skate-punk, trust-fund, heroin crowd."
Certainly, not everyone who drinks at 6 East is an alcoholic or a drug addict. But the most hard-core young alcoholics and drug addicts in Tempe drink there. So do the most intriguing. Sometimes, they're one and the same.
"I come here because the people are real," says Louis, 31. "The alcoholics aren't afraid to be alcoholics."
The self-proclaimed "best drunk in Tempe," Louis has been a 6 East regular since 1990, when he got out of the Marines and began studying physics at ASU. Louis is famous for epic drinking binges. He graduated in physics from ASU this May, and has been on a bender at 6 East since. His mint-green VW bus is a fixture in the bar's parking lot--routinely occupying a space from half past 10 in the morning until closing time at 1 a.m., more than 14 hours later. At 6 East, that's called "pulling a shift."
"I'm a social drinker," Louis says. "There's no booze in my house. I only drink here." His drink is Jack and Coke, 15 or 20 a day, maybe 30 if it's gonna be one of those nights. "I scare the alcoholics," Louis says, sitting at the bar on a recent Wednesday afternoon. "They can't keep up with me."
Most of the time, you can only tell how wasted Louis is by the focus of his eyes. He moves in smooth, graceful lines, even when he's far gone. He has good genes for a drunk. The bourbon hasn't bloated him or ripped up his movie-star face. Tousled hair looks good on him. "I've screwed 11 6 East bartenders," Louis says. "That's a record. And blowjobs don't count."
Louis has been fueling his binge with money he made from "a property thing." He recently paid off a tab that was well into four digits, and says he'll probably keep drinking through September before he accepts one of several job offers for semiconductor work he's received since graduation.
"Drinking like this gets intense. Any little weakness you have buried in your psyche is going to crack open and expose itself. It takes guts and brains. I enjoy the challenge."
While Louis is talking, another man limps into the bar. He sits down three stools away, takes out a bottle of prescription codeine and asks if anyone wants a painkiller. He says he crashed his motorcycle the morning before. "I hit on my knees first." He rattles the bottle of pills. "I took 11 of these last night and watched TV. Today, I thought I'd come to the bar, relax and recuperate."
Eight hours later, the codeine guy is long gone, but Louis is still on his stool, singing along to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," which is playing on the jukebox. He's not alone. Every time the song reaches its chorus, the crowd chatter from the 45 or 50 people in the bar eerily coheres into one roar:
I fell into a burning ring of fire.
I went down, down, down,
and the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns.
The ring of fire. The ring of fire.
6 East's jukebox is eclectic and loud as hell. Songs are only six for a buck, and the bartenders pick the discs to match the clientele's scattered musical tastes. So you wind up with sets that leapfrog from George Jones to Soundgarden and back, via Elvis, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, and Nirvana.
Members of several of the bands on the juke's program have frequented 6 East in recent years, including Krist Novoselic from Nirvana, all of Soundgarden, Eddie Van Halen, and Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots. The story goes that no one paid them any mind.
Another thing about the jukebox at 6 East is that the bartenders wield line-item veto power with an eject button behind the bar. One night last month, the Black Sabbath song "Paranoid" came on for the third time in two hours, then cut off a few bars into the opening guitar riff. Bartender Jordan Snow, a country singer who plays Winnie-the-Pooh at children's parties as a sideline, held up her hands, Egyptian style, as if to say, "Well?". A coven of rockers in one of the back alcoves began to howl in protest, one of them still holding his air guitar. Then the cheers began and quickly quelled the dissent. Snow nodded and the jukebox rotated to the next selection, "I Can't Surf" by the Reverend Horton Heat.
"Pretty much the rule is, the second song I hear by Lynyrd Skynyrd, or any group containing Ozzy Osbourne, I'm going to push the button," says Snow. "'The End' by the Doors will get it, too."
Snow, the most experienced 6 East bartender, has worked there for seven years. The other veteran among 6 East's five bartenders is Patti, who has worked there for five. Patti has a degree in English. She started a novel about 6 East, "but if you write about this place, it always comes out like Bukowski, no matter what you try."
Snow has only once drawn on the bar for songwriting inspiration, a song called "Who's Going to Take Care of Amy." "It was about this skinny little girl who just drank too much, and I wished someone would take care of her. It wasn't one of my best."
6 East bartenders are invariably young, beautiful women who pour strong drinks. "I like to joke that all the bartenders in here must have broken wrists, because they have the loosest wrists in the Valley when it comes to pouring drinks," says Montofano, who started drinking at 6 East about six years ago, before he flunked out of law school at ASU (now he's a broadcast journalism major).
The drinks at 6 East are priced to move, too--$2 for a shot of Jack Daniel's; $1.50 well drinks; $4 pitchers; and the bar's most infamous special: $1.50 Bloody Marys on Sundays.
"Sunday mornings, it's like a bunch of shipwreck survivors in here," says Montofano.
"This is a volume bar," Patti says. "Beer, shots, basic mixed drinks. We don't have a blender." On a Wednesday night last month, Patti served 73 drinks from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m., including pitchers.
Snow works three nights a week. Patti, two. The money, both say, is excellent. "We serve a lot of drinks, and people here tip surprisingly well," says Patti. "Better than places where the customers made more money. Many times, I've seen someone down to four dollars buy a pitcher of beer with three and tip their last one."
"There's more heart here than in most bars," says Snow. "People are warmer. I'm really protective of this place. I get angry when I hear people talking it down, because I think a lot of its reputation as some violent, scary drug bar is undeserved."
Maybe, but not unfounded.
You can make the argument that hard drugs are part of the scene in almost any bar, but you would be challenged to find another bar in Tempe where they are so openly offered, asked about, and used. "Got lines?" is almost as popular a query as "Can I bum a cigarette?", and it's not rare to walk in on someone shooting, snorting or smoking drugs in the men's room (although to be fair, this is partly because there's no stall around the lone toilet).
And while no one has died on the premises, too many 6 East regulars have died in recent years--including the Gin Blossoms songwriter Doug Hopkins, who took his own life in 1993--for 6 East not to be viewed as fertile ground for the Grim Reaper.
"At least six people I knew from here have died in the last two years," says Yaa Taah, 27, a 6 East regular from New York City who works as a manager at Buffalo Exchange. "They were all drug overdoses or suicides, and they were all young. Freaks me out when I think about it."
But in terms of violence, if you're not looking for a fight, 6 East isn't really dangerous. Just watch your step around the pool tables. If there's trouble, it usually starts there. Here's the description of a typical fight at 6 East, taken from an "Act of Violence" report to the state's liquor department, which a bar must file every time the police or paramedics are called:
"A & B were having words over the pool table when A hit B in the head with a cue stick. B went down and A started to kick him. My bartender called police and the doorman broke up the fight."
That fight occurred the night of June 12, 1995. Since then, 6 East has filed 36 Act of Violence reports, which Tempe police say is about average for bars near Mill Avenue. 6 East's disciplinary record with the liquor board is otherwise cleaner than most of its upscale neighbors. There are no citations for serving after hours or allowing underage drinking, just a routine warning letter after two acts of violence were reported in the same week in April 1996.
Eric Brown, 24, has worked as a bouncer at 6 East for about a year and a half. He's six feet five, 230. Brown resembles actor Michael Madsen, and 6 East regulars call him "Mr. Blonde," after the suave psycho Madsen played in Quentin Tarantino's 1992 jewel-heist movie Reservoir Dogs.
"You name it, I've seen it in this place," says Mr. Blonde. "Oral sex in the booths, people shooting up in the bathroom, whatever. This place is crazy, but it's not violent. That's a myth. A problem bar is one where the regulars start trouble. The regulars never start fights at 6 East. It's always outsiders, and usually the regulars break them up before I even get there."
Actually, the most notorious bloodshed in 6 East has been self-inflicted and accidental. Last June, some guy sat down at a booth with a gun tucked in his waistband. It went off and shot him in the ass. "It sounded like a firecracker going off," says Louis, who happened to be in the bar that day. "The funny thing was, this guy tried to play it off. He wasn't like, 'Aaah! I just shot myself in the ass!' He walked out the front door with his pants looking like he'd just taken a shit in them. They were full of blood."
Two months before that, a guy sitting at the same booth--fourth one in from the door--cut off his own fingers.
"It happened like this," says Mr. Blonde. "This big Indian guy, he was sort of drunk and grabbed ahold of the table's edge to steady himself as he got up, but these tables aren't secured to the floor, and he fell, but he kept hold of the table's edge, so that side of the table pinned his fingers to the ground, and the other side of the table was sticking in the air and he landed on the table with so much force that it chopped off two of his fingers at the second knuckle."
"So Patti calls the paramedics," Mr. Blonde picks it up again. "And, meanwhile, the guy's friend comes back in asking about the fingers. I'd seen he was bleeding, but until then I thought he'd just cut his hand real bad on a broken ashtray. Well, I'd already swept up all the broken glass and shit and tossed it out, so I was like, 'Oh, man. I threw this guy's fingers away.' But I got a little flashlight and looked under the table and I was like, 'Well, there's one.' I made his friend grab it."
Patti: "We just stuck it with ice in a little baggy and gave it to the ambulance guys."
Louis: "So after they find the first finger, they're actually calling out to the bar to see if anyone has found a finger. And this voice in the bathroom is like, 'I got it! I got it!' The other fingertip was in the pisser. He'd washed it off."
Weirdness. 6 East is good for weirdness. "That's why I'm hooked on this place," says Yaa Taah. "I'm afraid I'll miss a good episode.
"When my friends visit me from New York, I bring them here and they're like, 'This is where you hang out?' Then I take them to Fat Tuesday's, and it all becomes crystal."
Yaa Taah says she drinks at 6 East even though she could easily afford to drink elsewhere. "I come here because I do not like pretentious people and overpriced frozen drinks . . . and because I want a place where 'I like my women the same color as my coffee' is not considered an acceptable pickup line."
Not all 6 East customers are so concerned with aesthetics. A lot of them are, to put it bluntly, bottom feeders. They bum change in the bar all the time. And while leaving money on the bar at 6 East when you go to the bathroom is always a bad idea, late at night, it's not even safe to leave your drink or a pack of smokes.
Also, a lot of regulars at 6 East don't drive, and not because they're environmentalists. "A lot of them have two DUIs," says Louis. And a lot of them live within striking distance by foot or bicycle. But it's also an economic indicator.
"You've got a few people with family money, but most of the people who drink here are just sort of scrabbling by," says David Greenwood, an "underground performance artist and puppeteer" who has been a 6 East regular for the last two and a half years.
Greenwood, who lives 10 minutes away from the Beast by foot, moved to Tempe after dropping out of the University of California-Riverside in 1989, and says he drinks at 6 East three or four nights a week, on average.
"There are definitely people in this bar who are wastoids," he says. "Just dumb-fuck idiots who drink and get stupid. And then there are those who make it an art form. At 6 East, you can be a loser drunk going nowhere, or you can use the dive-bar experience, much like Bukowski did in Barfly, as a means of inspiration, a way to reach that next level of awareness.
"I can eat at the table with kings and queens, but I'm just as comfortable here with the beggars and thieves. If, as an artist, you really want to get to the heart of humanity, you can't preclude yourself from any sector of society."
Plus, Greenwood says, 6 East is a good place to go "fate surfing." Take June 19, the day of OzzFest, an all-day heavy-metal concert at Desert Sky Pavilion, featuring a reunited Black Sabbath.
"I woke up around 10 and said, 'You know what? I want to experience OzzFest,'" Greenwood says. "'I want to hang out with dirt heads and get drunk all day.' But I didn't have a ticket or a way there. So I went to 6 East. Decided to have a beer and think about it. Boom! Out of the blue, two guys walked in who had just gotten off the plane from California, and they had heard about 6 East, and they were going to OzzFest." After the festival, Greenwood says, he stood at one of the venue's exits with a hand-lettered sign that read "6 East, Tempe."
"I caught a ride with the fourth car out."
The surf was also up one summer day two years ago that began with Greenwood down and out in 6 East with his friends Carrie and Christian. "We got there in the morning with 36 cents between us, and decided to see how long we could last just bumming drinks off friends that came in. When 1 a.m. rolled around, we were still there. We'd pulled a shift with no money. 6 East is what you might call a very enabling environment."
The next day, Christian died of a drug overdose. Most of the regulars went to the bar that night wearing black.
"I've buried three friends from that bar," Greenwood says. "That place represents the best and worst for me. There's definitely a beautiful community there . . . but there's a lot of tortured souls. It's like the main character in Leaving Las Vegas. He was really out to get himself. And there are people at 6 East who are really out to get themselves. And some of them have great potential, and it's hard to watch them. But they're exactly where they want to be, so who the hell am I to judge?
"Still, I can't help thinking that when they knock this place down, this giant, evil face will appear in the dust cloud, like one of those Weekly World News covers. You know--'Satan Appears Above 6 East Ruins. Tempe dive actually a portal to hell, experts say.' I'd say it's earned that kind of headline.