“What’ll you have?” the dirty blonde-haired bartender asked me, seeming more curious than interested.

“Okay,” I said, “here’s my dilemma: I’ve had the kind of day where I either want to order the cider, stay sober, and pretend everything’s fine, or order one of those ‘Painkillers’ I see you’re advertising, and really commit to spiraling out of control. There’s no middle for me right now.”

“Oooh, yeah, those are really different,” she agreed.

There was a pause. She hadn’t seemed to realize that this was a consultation, and we were in this together. “What do you think?” I finally asked. “Which is the way to go?”

“Oh, well, I love the Painkiller,” she said. “It’s really delicious.” It seemed more like she was going through the motions of enthusiasm here, but let’s be honest, I was looking for the excuse.

“Well,” I agreed, “if love is on the line, then I have to support it.”

“Okay, small or large?”

“Oh, I’m all in.” Ordering a large drink at a new bar is perhaps the closest I come in my life to romantic gestures.

The Painkiller is a boozy strawberry margarita, and one of the highlights of the Wooden Nickel’s relatively meager offerings. At first glance, The Wooden Nickel, at 1900 Folsom St., looks like it’s trying to be the classiest establishment in a small town. The bar itself is wooden and elegant, with art pieces that are just slightly off without registering as “interesting” on a San Franciscan’s radar. It’s middle-of-the road on beer and cocktail selections. It has a pool table, a jukebox, and everything looks both well-cared-for and well-loved. It’s clearly run by people who know how to look after a bar. But perhaps the most telling thing about The Wooden Nickel is: It’s the kind of place that eschews fancy drinks but has a press handy to squeeze fresh grapefruit.

That’s a really good sign, just the right blend of fuck you and this is delicious!

My friend Anselm was also impressed that the food menu we saw basically said, “here are the kinds of tacos we have,” and nothing else.

“A bar that says ‘we’ve got tacos, we’ve got burgers, we’ve got sushi, we’ve got Chinese food …’ It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “A bar that says, ‘we’ve got tacos. Stop. That’s it.’ They’re going to be good.”

Anselm and I were supposed to be working, but the more we’d talked about it, the more we realized we just did not give a damn right now, so we went out for a drink instead. Sometimes productivity is less important than finding the fun. Or spiraling through it.

Anselm ordered a drink with fresh juice, and we sat down at a table. “On our honeymoon,” he said, “Amy and I went to Indonesia, and one of the places we stayed in was Lombok, which is almost entirely Muslim. And there are almost no bars in Lombok, because of course nobody there drinks. So they have a couple bars on the edge of town for tourists, and the bartenders there make these elaborate concoctions out of all these fresh juices and ingredients … and almost no alcohol. The bartenders will only use just a splash of alcohol in each drink, because they can’t actually taste it. You’re basically drinking fruit cocktails with a liquor garnish.”

I laughed and sipped my Painkiller, which was the exact opposite of that drink. “Ohhhh,” I said, “this is good. This is a hole I will gladly sink into.”

“I’ve been in bars in seven countries,” Anselm said, “and what I love about it is that a bar is a bar is a bar.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Really? I don’t think that’s true at all.”

“The atmosphere is different,” he said, “the drinks are different, but it always works pretty much the same way no matter where you are. I have never walked into a bar and wondered ‘what do I do here?’ Which I have done in a restaurant.”

“No no no,” I said. “You’re missing the key point: People go to bars because they want something to happen. If you’re really in this for the alcohol, you can drink alone. If you just want to see your friends, you can hang out at home — it’s so much cheaper and more convenient. But if you go out to a bar, it’s because you’re hoping you can be part of an experience. That you’ll meet a stranger, have a conversation, get into an argument, learn something new about the world — but you want something to happen. You want to leave with a story to tell. And every bar is different, because the kind of story you get out of every bar is different.”

He admitted I had a point, but our views seemed intractable: Where he sees similarities, I see differences. He’s sorting people and places by type, I’m reveling in the differences that only become apparent when you apply heat.

Our conversation grew heated. Perhaps because we were drinking.

We had had a similar argument, earlier in the evening: Anselm once almost got a tattoo across his chest reading “Words Have Meaning!” I told him that, speaking as someone who has carefully studied the use of words his whole life, I’m not always sure that’s true.

I took a long sip of Painkiller while Anselm told me stories about cars. Cars don’t interest me at all, but these were stories of cars being demolished by epically bad decisions, which was perfect. It all eventually led to a tale about a tractor, a pool table, and the words “we can be heroes!” And that’s really all you need to know.

“WE CAN BE HEROES!”

“People will get an epically bad idea, and say, ‘I’m going to do that!’ and commit to it for like, a year, and it’s just so stupid and amazing,” Anselm said as we got up to leave, our drinking curtailed by the dinner he had to go to in the East Bay. “And then they say, ‘That was so much fun! Let’s do it again, only we’ll do it even better! And THAT’S where they make the mistake! Don’t do it better! Don’t try to improve it! That’s where it loses all that value and just becomes a stupid idea.”

My only regret is that I never really sank as far down as the Painkillers would have taken me. I was in the mood for it, but somehow I ended up only middling drunk. I was worried, for a moment, that the bartender would be disappointed that I hadn’t lived up to my banter.

But, as I saw her interact with customers, I decided that she had thought my words hadn’t meant anything. And it all worked out. Something had happened anyway.

That’s how heroes are made.

Illustration by Molly Oleson

Read more from Benjamin Wachs here. 

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