“Can I buy you a cocktail?” Sarah asked me as we were all sitting down in Homestead. A table big enough for the five of us had just opened up, and we were playing the “some of us stay here to make sure it stays claimed while some of us order drinks” game.
“That’s very kind of you.” I looked up at my options. Homestead has drink menus, but I was ballparking it off the abridged cocktail list posted up above the bar.
“I want to see what you order,” she said.
“Ah. Well … Based on what I see there, I’ll have an Old Fashioned. But, if I were talking to the bartender, the odds are that I would try to get them to do something weird and interesting.”
She considered. “So maybe I don’t want to buy you a drink?”
My life flashed before my eyes. I tried to stay calm. “It depends on what kind of outcome you want.”
“I’ll buy you the first drink,” she said, and walked over to the bar. Crisis averted.
Homestead is one of several bars in a relatively small radius that seem to be channeling Wild West saloons. The old-timey touches at Homestead are light, and added to by lazy fans overhead, peanut baskets (you can toss the shells on the floor), and framed pictures of mostly naked women in a classical French style up on the walls. The total effect is greater than the sum of its parts, feeling like a homage to a San Francisco past. I don’t understand why so many bars around here do it at all, but Homestead does it particularly well.
The most intriguing touch is the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, engraved on to top of the back bar: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
That is the kind of idiosyncratic detail that departs from a bar’s theme in a way that actually enhances it. It suggests that somebody gave a damn, rather than going through the motions, and is interesting enough that you give a damn, too.
We’re talking about gifts, and Heather asks us if we’ve ever received any small gifts that we’ve become obsessively attached to. And Sarah not only has, but has it on her: a plastic case for a cigarette lighter, in the shape of a fish. She takes it out of her pocket, and shows it to us — it’s, you know, a plastic fish case to hold your cigarette lighter. Nothing special. But she puts it down on the table in front of her and explains that it was a gift from a stranger at a party, and that something about this moment made her obsessed with it. She’s terrified she’ll lose it; she always wants to know where it is; and in those moments where it’s been lost in her purse or momentarily misplaced, she’s actually accused people of stealing it, which of course no one ever actually did.
A moment later she looked down at the table to pick it up again, and it’s gone.
Her face curls. “Ha, okay,” she said, and she started to look for it — was it nestled under the basket of peanuts? Had it fallen on the floor? — then made a show of stopping herself. Obviously it hadn’t just gotten up and walked away. It was still here somewhere. She didn’t need to panic. It would be fine.
She listened to Zaius tell a story about working out in the desert at Burning Man, and a woman in a perfectly clean costume with perfectly arranged hair walked up to the work site holding a lazy Susan on which were a series of elegant pickles. She offered him one, in the afternoon heat.
“Normally I’m suspicious about this stuff,” he said. “How long has your food been out in the sun? But somehow she was immaculate, the pickles were perfect, so I just said ‘thank you’ and took one, and it turned my whole afternoon around. Then she walked away. I don’t know who she was or how she did that.”
Sarah nodded and laughed, because damn it, everything would be okay.
It was time for another drink. I left the conversation and walked to the bar, and studied the bottles as I waited for the attention of the heavily tattooed bartender in a floral print shirt.
“What can I get you?” she finally asked me.
“I notice the bottle of Gentian Amaro on the shelf back there,” I said. “I’ve recently become a little obsessed with that spirit, can you make me something interesting with it?”
“Absolutely!” she said, and got to work.
Amaros are an Italian herbal liqueur, a digestif. They usually have a spirit base, but this stuff, produced in Napa, has a white wine base. I have no idea what she made me, but it was delicious, and the unique red color so impressed the table that, before the night was over, I would buy everyone an amaro shot.
But for now, I sat back down as Heather finished telling her story about how she had once lost a small tin cup, and made everybody in a busy area stop what they were doing and all search for it on their hands and knees.
“Okay,” Sarah said when the story was finished. “This is driving me crazy,” and she looked on the floor, and through her purse, and in her pockets for the cigarette lighter holder shaped like a fish. “It was just here. I JUST put it down!”
“Wow,” I said. “So it’s really missing?”
“Yeah,” she said, looking over at me. “It …” then her face dropped in shock. “YOU!”
“Oh my God, you! Of course it was you!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Somebody finally did steal it! This is the first time I’ve actually accused somebody of stealing it who really did! This is amazing!”
“I deny everything. However … while we’re on the subject …” I took a small velvet pouch out of my shirt pocket. “I’m wondering if you would want to make an exchange.” I emptied the contents of the pouch into my hand. “Two magic tokens, each an individual work of art, forged in the workshop of a mad alchemist who used a unique formula to infuse them with songs and stories. Go ahead, take a look.”
She gently removed the two small metallic disks, each a different size and shape, from my hands.
“Wow,” she said. “Okay, these are really good … I’m kind of blown away …”
“Did I mention they have magical powers?”
She gave me a stunned look. “What are their magical powers?”
“Each is different, and you’ll only find out if you trade me one for your fish cigarette lighter holder … wherever it may be. That’s the only way you ever know.”
Around her, it seemed like the wild west saloon had gone quiet, although really nothing had changed.
“I’m really feeling this one,” she said, holding the thicker, hollow, token in her hand. “I am. But … honestly … I just want my fish cigarette lighter holder back.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’re turning them down?”
“I’m turning them down,” she said, handing them back to me.
The table released its collective breath. No one was confident in this decision. “You’re turning down magic!” Kentucky said.
“Mind you,” I said, “just because you’ve turned these down, doesn’t mean you’ve gotten the fish back.”
“We still have to figure out how to do that.” I looked around at the table. “What do you think she has to do to get it back? Is there a ritual she has to perform? A sacrifice of some kind she has to make?”
Heather leaned forward. “She has to become the fish!”
Sarah considered. “I can do that.”
“I’ve seen her do a mermaid,” Kentucky said. “So she has to go all out.”
Sarah jumped into the role, creating a fish face and looking around the table, then adding hand gestures which somehow symbolized being underwater, or mermaidness, I’m not sure. But it was convincing, she was giving 100 percent, and a moment later she realized the cigarette lighter holder was sitting on the table, close to where she’d put it in the first place.
“YES!” she said. “IT WORKED!”
We all congratulated her. “Of course,” I said, grinning, “if you had chosen a magic token, its powers might have helped you get the fish back too.”
“Oh no!” she said. “I should have … but I really wanted this … ”
“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s good. You asked for what you really wanted, and you got it, and any time that happens, it’s a good night.”
“I feel really good, actually, that I finally accused somebody of stealing it and was right. That helps, somehow.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied again. “I deny everything.”
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Read more from Benjamin Wachs here.