“Okay,” I said to the bartender at Shotwell’s, who has just that right combination of it would be my pleasure to serve you and I don’t take shit. “I see you’ve got Chimay Red, which is great by me, and I would happily drink all night. But, I see you’re also offering some punches on special, and it’s exactly the right hour and they sound really good, so … what do you think?”
Shotwell’s doesn’t really do liquor. They’re a beer and wine bar with a kind of western-saloon vibe, like something you’d see in a gentler, smaller, contemporary version of Deadwood where everybody was really into craft beers and pool. Next to the pool table there’s a digital jukebox, pinball machines, and a 19th-century French-style painting of a naked lady lounging on a chaise on top of the back bar; kind of hard to see, but there. The menu is written on a wall-sized mirror behind the bar, which works out well. Although I’ve never understood why proprietors put big mirrors in bars: Does anybody really come to see themselves drinking?
“Well, I made the punches,” the bartender tells me, “so I’m biased.”
“Oh, in that case, I have to try them. Let’s start with the ginger mint lemonade punch.” This doesn’t always go well for me, but if a bartender tells me “I made that,” I feel honor-bound to try it. It’s the closest I come to living by a code.
I was brought to Shotwell’s by Kentucky, who says it’s one of her favorite bars in San Francisco. “Tell me,” I said as she was poured her Racer 5, “What do you love about it?”
“Oh, easy,” she said. “It’s not like a San Francisco bar.”
“Yeah. You can have a conversation! It’s easy to go here after work and relax; you don’t have to figure out what their thing is, and make a big deal about translating the menu into something you can understand; it’s not supposed to be an art project; you can just relax. And, you know I love art and I love weird people being passionate, but … ”
“But San Francisco’s got a whole thing going on, and it’s hard to just jump into it,” I agreed.
“Assuming you give a fuck in the first place,” she said, clearly not giving one. “I like places where you sit down and it just works.”
“You just moved to Treasure Island, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “About two months ago, yes.”
“How is … ”
“It’s AMAZING. I needed cheap, I needed available, and I needed dog-friendly. Boom! Plus … plus … it’s beautiful. I actually love it. The view — from my window, you can see this — is of San Francisco across the Bay. It’s so wonderful. And the island’s got this kind of lost city quality to it, do you know what I mean?”
I considered. The bartender dropped over and asked if I wanted a refill. I tried the other punch: spicy agave.
“No,” I finally told Kentucky. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“Really? You’ll have to come out there. It’s full of these weird abandoned spaces, I’ve done some really interesting urban exploration. Lots of fun.”
“Wow.” I try to figure out how to gently bring up the radiation.
“Of course, it’s irradiated as fuck,” she said.
“I’ve heard that.”
“Yeah, my lease has a clause about how we’re not allowed to dig up any dirt, or plant any plants, or eat anything from plants that grows in the soil.”
“Yeah, I figure my best option is to be bit by a radioactive animal and get superpowers.”
“You’ll have to be careful which animal.”
“I know. It’s a crapshoot.”
An image comes over me. “Oh my God, if there’s ever a Treasure Island Zoo, it would become the leading generator of super powers in our time!”
“That would be amazing!”
“Oh no!” I cried out. “Someone just got bit by the radioactive parakeet! Again!”
It astonishes me how well Kentucky adapts to the idea that she’s living in a radioactive poison palace. But it shouldn’t. When I first moved to San Francisco, I didn’t understand how people could live with the constant knowledge that The Big One was coming. Now I shrug at the idea that we’re all going to slide into the ocean in a fiery cataclysm, not because it’s wrong, but because it hasn’t happened yet.
Our ability to adapt in practice to what we can’t countenance in theory is stunning. Earlier in the evening, our friend Laura was sitting at the bar, telling us stories from shitty jobs she’s had.
“Before I moved here, I worked at a gas station,” Laura said. “I gave them my two weeks’ notice, and then, between the time I gave my notice and when I left, was the only time I was ever robbed at gunpoint.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to know,” I said, since she didn’t seem traumatized by the memory. “At any point during the robbery, did you say to yourself: ‘I was just a week away from retirement!’”
“No,” she said, chuckling. “But I laughed at him a lot.”
“Yeah. At first I didn’t believe him. He came up with a soda and a bag of chips and I said ‘will that be all?’ And he said ‘this, and what’s in your register.’ And I laughed and said ‘sure, right.’ And he said ‘no, I’m serious.’ And I said ‘really?’ And he said ‘yes.’ He kind of had to talk me into accepting that he was pointing a gun at me. And then … it was weird … when he finally got through to me, I said ‘okay,’ and put his stuff in a bag, and then scooped the $80 out of the register, and my reflexes kicked in and I put it in the bag too, and handed it to him and smiled like it was a transaction, and almost said ‘have a nice day.’”
Kentucky and I looked at each other. “Damn.”
“He got two years for $80. Not worth it.”
“No,” Kentucky said. “Not worth it.”
“And a bag of chips,” I reminded everyone. “And a soda.”
“Still not worth it.”
“It could have been refreshing.”
We are very bad at gauging risks.
If Kentucky weren’t here in San Francisco, she would want to be sailing around the world, or working for Meow Wolf, making art. She asked me what I’d be doing, but I haven’t had an answer to that question in years, even though I know it’s coming. It has to be.
And when it comes, I’ll probably greet it with all the skills and habits I’ve learned here in San Francisco, and write about how I’ve seen better pop-up earthquakes, or that it was a lackluster eviction, lacking real artistic merit. That’s the closest thing I’ve gotten to a superpower from this place.
Maybe I’m doomed.
What I know is that Shotwell’s has been a bar in one form or another since 1891, lasting through more than one major earthquake. I know that as it grew later in the evening that night, it grew darker and noisier, with more people coming in and playing harder games of pool and putting bigger music on the jukebox. And I know that while the punches there weren’t exceptional, they were solid.
That counts for something. It was worth it.