Push open the wooden saloon doors, and you’ll probably think you’re in for rot, not regeneration. Dusty phone lines swoop overhead, rickety wooden fences divide the booths, and a fake pawnshop window glows on one wall. Every surface is covered in dusty memorabilia: flaking newspaper articles, sex-joke bumper stickers, a voodoo-dolled Cabbage Patch Kid—and thousands of yellowing business cards, some worn to stapled nubs, bearing seven-digit phone numbers from the days when Oakland and San Francisco were all one area code. As the barmaid hands you a stiff scotch and soda, you hear something vaguely familiar—the chords of an old song, something Sinatra used to croon. Then you see it: the grand piano in the back corner, beneath the stopped clock draped in rusted jumper cables clamping dead roses.
You’re in the Alley—the last piano bar in Oakland.
Pull up a stool, and a piano player in a fedora nods hello. He takes requests, and participant singing is encouraged. A tall, gray-haired man croons “Blue Skies.” A college-age woman in a crop top asks to do “Fever,” then loses the key, but the pianist covers for her, fills in the melody, hooks her back in for the chorus. A tiny elderly woman calls for “I Got Rhythm,” then loses her nerve and seems to shrink even more as she finishes with “Who could ask for anything more?”—but everyone applauds, and she decides to wait her turn and try another.
Now the piano player looks at you. The regulars pass the book of lyrics your way. “Pick a song,” they say. “We’ve got your back,” they promise.
If you’re like I was when I first walked into the Alley 13 years ago—this is terrifying.
What if the voice that in the shower you dare to think sounds like Norah Jones actually comes out like a moaning cat in public? What if you choke up and your body betrays you? Or what if you pick a song that means so much—“Someone to Watch Over Me,” say—and you give it all your heart…and you look like a fool?
It’s one thing to gawk at the place and just listen. Anyone can see from the, erm, decor that this bar has history. In fact, the Alley is an official Oakland heritage business, founded in 1933. Ella Fitzgerald sang here once. The legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton did a session—there’s a handwritten set list to prove it. But the singers who matter here aren’t famous. Like the woman taking the mic on a typical Saturday at midnight, Susan Esposito. She’s in her 60s, with thickly mascaraed eyes, and her voice is both husky and croaky as she opens her bubbly magenta lips. “You’re just…too marvelous…too marvelous for words…” Susan’s been performing here for three decades, but she still needs a drink before each number. We regulars have to beg her a little. Like me, she was once terrified.
When I discovered the Alley, I had just divorced an Ivy League–educated, entrepreneur husband who believed above all else in the importance of image—the right designer clothes, the right haircut, the Breitling watch. He loved, at parties, to rate people’s attractiveness on a 1–10 scale—and one day, when I took him to church and dared to join in with the hymns, he said, “You know, you’re a terrible singer.”
I believed him.
And so, when I walked into the Alley at age 30, I thought I might die from shame if I risked exposing the full me—the real me.
Rodney Dibble changed that. Red-faced, bulbous-nosed, raspy-voiced, Rod started playing the piano here in 1960. When I swallowed hard after more than a year of lurking and asked to sing that old Gershwin tune “The Man I Love,” Rod instantly transposed the song to my best key. Gave me a sweet little intro. Gave me the evil eye, too, until I summoned all my breath and rose out of a sludgy, mumbling alto into my upper register. “We’ve got a soprano!” he announced to the crowd when I’d finished, and he rang his “virgin bell.”
I felt exposed. Exhilarated. Had I sung well? Not really. But I had put the real me out there, my naked voice. And Rod loved me.
Does a place make a person, or does a person make the place? I know Rod made the Alley, and Rod made me free. I started singing with him two or three nights a week—sometimes five, at the height of my Alley addiction. Sometimes I sang great. Sometimes I blew it. The regulars cheered no matter what. And I learned to do the same for them. I learned to see people as gloriously unique individuals whose “success” was not delivering a perfect performance but pouring out their hearts.
It was a powerful antidote to an age of filtered Instagram posts, curated Facebook walls, and harsh Twitter takedowns. But Rod was 77 when I first sang with him, in 2009. He finally played his last tune in 2017. All of us regulars feared the Alley would die after Rod passed. But maybe his spirit so infused the peeling old photos that finding a successor was inevitable. Or maybe it’s a miracle that a young musician named Bryan Seet walked through those saloon doors one night, saw the piano, and understood not just the mechanics of how Rod accompanied singers but also the ethos.
Song by song, after Rod died, Bryan got to know and love our motley gang: my 94-year-old buddy Harold; Lori Robinson, who possesses an Aretha Franklin–caliber voice that makes everyone hoot. When the pandemic hit and the bar closed, Bryan took the Alley online, gathering us for weekly Zoom sings set to prerecorded backing tracks. When we learned from the owner, Jackie Simpkins, that the pandemic might close the establishment for good, Bryan rallied us to raise $75,000 in just three weeks. And so, after being shuttered for 12 months, the Alley rolled back its metal gate and welcomed customers through those creaky saloon doors again in late March 2021.
Rod’s name still hangs on the black-and-white sign on the front of the building: “Entertainment Nightly Featuring Rod Dibble.” But it’s not entirely the same place he presided over. There are two rotating piano players now, and they’ll play ’80s and ’90s tunes if you ask. (Rod hated any song written after 1961.) The steak dinners are better, thanks to a new cook, Stan. And after a behind-the-bar renovation to bring the plumbing up to code last June, the Alley now accepts—I almost can’t believe it—credit cards.
Yet those rusted jumper cables continue to clamp those dead roses above the piano. The “virgin bell” still rings. And the place still carries on Rod’s work. The Alley still changes people.
If you walk in tonight and pull up a barstool, you’ll find an old friend on your right and a new singer on your left. And that tiny older woman who lost her nerve on “I Got Rhythm”? I sat next to her this past May, urged her to try again. I watched her ask for a Dinah Washington number from the 1950s—a dirty old song Rod himself would have loved. She started singing about some guy who plays the trombone, and within a few bars there she was, belting out “Need my daddy with that big long slidin’ thing!” The whole place howled. That woman’s voice rang out all the way past the dead roses and the detritus, through those creaky saloon doors and onto Grand Avenue. She was fully herself, fully alive. The Alley had set another voice free.•
You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.