Why We Love the Gulf

Love at a Dive Bar: Ode to the Flora-Bama

Over Bushwackers and Budweiser, a relationship takes root at the Flora-Bama

Photo: Matthew Coughlin

First date. First kiss. First “I love you.” Every romance has significant firsts, and if the romance ends up a happy one, say one that elongates into a marriage, those firsts become gilded with pixie dust, signposts in the story of how-we-got-together. My husband and I, married nineteen years, celebrate those firsts as well. But we have one first you might not have, or at least might not admit to. First fart. My husband-to-be let one go on the upper deck of the Flora-Bama, the most apt setting imaginable.

Ah, the Flora-Bama Lounge, five-star honky-tonk of the Redneck Riviera, immortalized in song by Jimmy Buffett and in prose by John Grisham. Its greatness is agreed upon by all who gaze upon it in wonder, some of them seeing two of it. The establishment’s own how-we-got-together story is worth recounting. In the beginning, and the beginning was 1962, the bridge tethering Orange Beach, Alabama, to Perdido Key, Florida, was completed. With the bridge came the opportunity to build a roadside tavern two years later, on the Florida side—the ’Bama county next door was dry. Imagine the sweet relief, driving out of the darkness—the Gulf wasn’t built up then—and coming upon the glowing hulk. LIQUOR & LOTTO, announced a sign (the lottery also illegal in Alabama): one-stop shopping for thirsty Baptists looking to get lucky.

Photo: Matthew Coughlin

A mount with extra trophies behind the main bar.

It still is, more than fifty years later. The Flora-Bama’s a huge ramshackle spread now, expanding over the decades and especially after Hurricane Ivan bellied up to the bar in 2004. Live music leaks onto the beach. The people- watching is Olympic caliber: sun-brown locals alongside sunburned tourists, construction workers and bachelorette parties and divorce parties and genial grandmas slugging Bushwackers and slick real estate developers and families playing bingo and sometimes a celebrity, and usually in the dark end of one of
the bars, you’ll spot a good, saliva-slick PDA. It’s gloriously trashy—overhead, shed bras dangle from clotheslines. The affiliated package store hawks
DO IT WITH US ON THE LINE T-shirts. Once I stood waiting to pay behind a blitzed blonde with two handles of Tito’s vodka, trying to pull her bikini wedgie out of her sandy butt.

Trashy, yet oddly sweet. The Flora-Bama’s website promises unironically to “grant equal respect to all who enter… expecting the same in return.” Furthermore, the place is a dang church. I don’t mean that metaphorically. A “nondenominational bar church” celebrates Sundays on the beach. And the Flora-Bama’s annual Interstate Mullet Toss (what’s being tossed across the state line, just to clarify, is a dead fish, not a dude with the haircut) raises thousands for charity.

Photo: Matthew Coughlin

The steps to the top deck overlooking the Gulf.

A Yankee by birth, I had never dipped a toe in the Gulf when I met my now husband on the first day of grad school at the University of Arkansas. By October, we were ready for a break from grading papers. We hadn’t yet taken a trip together. He was poor but had an uncle with a condo. “Let’s go,” he said. “I know a bar where we can eat steamed Royal Red shrimp big as croissants, seven bucks a plate, while watching dolphins frolic through glittering waves.” By the next nightfall, we were there, on the upper deck, stars so close it seemed they might taste the spray from our cans of Bud. Before us, waves pounded the shore hypnotically. Tommy bent to stroke a stray cat weaving between his ankles, then rested an elbow on the railing, slung the other arm around my shoulder, sighed with pleasure, and, deeply relaxed, let slip something he’d been holding in for hours. He tensed, shocked. Did he really think I’d be offended, stomp out? He must have, because when I laughed, he laughed too, laughed so hard another one snuck out, which made us laugh harder. This moment was not the relationship-ending gaffe he’d feared. It was, strangely, relationship solidifying.

My life is a little more buttoned-up than it used to be. Par for the course, I suppose, with a job and kids and whatnot. And these days, when I find a good-fitting bra, the only clothesline I’m flinging it over is my own. But I take comfort in knowing the Flora-Bama’s out there, 365 days a year. Even at this very moment, somebody’s tuning a guitar, somebody’s frying some pickles, somebody’s slicing limes into wedges, someone’s sweeping sand out the back door, cleaning up the place, but not too much, never too much, because somebody knows a good beach bar always needs a little grit, and so somebody’s keeping it beguilingly gritty, getting it ready for somebody like me to cross the line.

>See more reasons why we love the Gulf