Attracted to the grit, equality and community of those modest watering holes, a Times reporter has worked them into his coverage.
By Jack Nicas
Dec. 14, 2021
When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, a colleague immediately invited me to a “dirty foot.” My reputation, it appeared, had preceded me.
A dirty foot, as I wrote this month, is a Brazilian blend of a dive bar and a greasy spoon. The hole-in-the-wall joints are scattered across Rio, and, after spending some time in them, I realized they were democratic oases in a city of deep inequality. Men and women, young and old gathered to debate politics and soccer over cheap beer and fried balls of cod.
I also realized, after talking to the clientele and proprietors, that many dirty feet were filling up again, for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
It was a sign of Rio’s return — and a fun story. Plus, it gave me another reason to write about dive bars.
For the past four years, I’ve covered Silicon Valley out of The Times’s bureau in San Francisco. But in between articles about the power and influence of the world’s biggest tech companies, I’ve also written a few stories about gritty places that added to the fabric of my adopted home, Oakland, Calif.
It began with a ballpark. When I moved to Oakland, I knew the city’s sports stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, was maligned as dingy and decrepit. Then I started going to Oakland A’s games, and found that it was also laid-back, inviting and freewheeling in a way that newer or more historic parks weren’t.
So I penned a love letter to America’s ugliest ballpark, calling it “baseball’s last dive bar.” A’s fans loved the moniker and even wrote it on a sign at a playoff game hours after the article was published. Three fans, Bryan Johansen, Paul Bailey and Carl Moren, started a line of merchandise with the phrase, including shirts, mouse pads and Christmas tree ornaments, with all profits going to charity. They have donated nearly $23,000 to local organizations, and several players have donned the gear.
Then, at the start of the pandemic, I began following my local bar, the Hatch, and its employees. After three months, we published a report on their struggle to keep the bar alive — and themselves safe. After six months, we aired an episode of “The Daily” that took an even deeper look. The Hatch, buoyed by reader donations, survived and even expanded, adding a flower shop next door called Pothead.
I also wrote an article last year about my journey on a yellow school bus that a local pastor was driving through an Oregon town destroyed by a wildfire. To give a sense of what was lost, I made sure to describe the smoldering husk of the town’s lone bar, Barkley’s Tavern. It was, “like most taverns, a place where people found a lot of fellowship and friendship,” the pastor told me.
I am drawn to these kinds of places because they are often hubs of community. They are haunts for people of all stripes, the spots where people go to let go, and the kinds of places that make a city what it is.
Now I’m writing for the International desk in Brazil, where I’ve reported on President Jair Bolsonaro’s attacks on the election system and a climate disaster playing out in the country’s northeast. I was attracted to Rio’s dirty feet by the same spirit I felt at the Hatch and the Oakland Coliseum. These are not exclusive establishments. They are authentic, unpretentious and democratic. Brazilians call this essence “raiz.” The word means “root” in Portuguese, but Brazilians have adopted it as an adjective to describe a place that is genuine and original.
My instinct also stems in part from my background. My family ran a restaurant outside Worcester, Mass., for more than 70 years. Earlier in the pandemic, they were struggling through many of the same challenges as the staff at the Hatch.
We journalists come to our coverage with our own sets of experiences and interests. Often, they inform our work, infuse it with personality and lead us to stories that others might not spot.
For instance, Daisuke Wakabayashi, a Times tech reporter and a self-described sneakerhead, has written about how bots have upended the sneaker-resale market. Sopan Deb was a culture writer when his love of basketball led him to write on the side for the Sports section; now he covers the N.B.A. And Katherine Rosman, who often finds fascinating tales about the media and celebrities, also published an important investigation about unwanted touching in yoga. (Yes, she’s also a yogi.)
So it makes sense that I write about gritty places that serve cheap beer. Now keep an eye out for my meditation on the cultural importance of karaoke.