Desmond had something waiting for me when I arrived with a small party at the SRO (Standing Room Only) section of Oddjob.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this all day,” he said, and actually made me leave the room while he created my drink. I stood near the bar in the much larger outer room, and one of the bartenders came up to me and asked if I needed anything.

“I’m just … Desmond sent me out here, it’s part of making my drink,” I said.

“Oh, sure,” he replied matter-of-factly. All kinds of shit happens here.

I was summoned back within, where a very antique, very weathered, bowling ball case sat on the bar. I examined it. Ran my hand over it. Opened it — and a cloud of fragrant smoke billowed out, revealing a chalice inside containing my drink, which was itself still smoking.

“Beautiful,” I said. And it was: both to look at, and to drink.

But I’d brought my friends here tonight to have a different kind of drinking experience. An experiment SRO is trying, and may well still be trying when you read this. On Monday nights, Alaric is moving from behind the bar in Oddjob to one of the (very) small, candle-lit tables in the alchemist lab of a bar that is SRO, and conducting three-card tarot readings. The bartender Desmond then creates your drink — unique and never to be repeated — based on the ultimate card of your reading, and what answer you took from the experience.

Related: Distillations: An existential voyage into San Francisco’s greatest bar

“Janet” was up first, while “Brad” and I stood at the bar and talked about occultism.

“You’ve got a tattoo of the Kabbalah’s tree of life,” Brad said to Desmond. “And another one representing the devil in the major arcana.”

“Yeah! Good eye!” Desmond said as he poured us shots to pass the time. (Waiting can be a significant part of the SRO experience – never come here in a hurry; you can’t rush the sacred). Although, since Desmond is covered in tattoos, I was more impressed that Brad could pick anything specific out than I was that he could recognize the symbolism.

“Oh, I’m really into this,” Brad said. “I have a whole occult library at home. Floor to ceiling, all kinds of stuff.”

I’ve actually been to his place: His room is half occult library, half antique bar (well stocked), with a bed wedged in. He lives in an artists’ collective, and I am convinced that every artists’ collective should have a room like that.

It’s also awkward for me to talk with Brad about this kind of thing. For me, occult texts are something I grew out of in college. I’m still interested in it as history, but it’s like having a conversation with somebody who’s really into D&D and won’t believe you when you say you don’t do that anymore.

But Brad and Desmond were getting along like old friends, which is always gratifying, and a moment later Janet’s reading was finished, and she came up to the bar and handed Desmond her tarot card. Then it was Brad’s turn for a reading, and he stepped over to the little table.

Alaric uses a hermetic tarot deck that was passed down from her mother, and the card that held Janet’s fate was a Two of Pentacles — “the Lord of Harmonious Change.”

That’s a good card for her. Janet needs some harmonious change in her life. But it didn’t come easy. “There was a lot of gloom,” she said of the reading. “A lot of introspection.”

Desmond fixes her two drinks, with very different flavors and appearances, which sit on a used board with nails protruding from it. The drinks need to be sipped together, one right after the other, to deliver the full effect. She tries it, proclaims it delicious, and tells me as she drinks about how her boyfriend left his phone lying around and she tried to hack it to see his messages. It didn’t work, and the phone is now locked to the point that only the manufacturer — maybe — can unlock it. So she had to come clean. It’s a problem.

I’m not sure what to tell her. I am not nearly a good enough friend to know how to talk to about something like this. This is not my strong suit. Recently at a house party I introduced the people I knew to the people I didn’t as “forest rangers from Oregon,” just to see what happened. That kind of thing is much more my speed. I’m that friend.

Brad’s reading ended and he was about to come back up to the bar when Alaric stopped him to give him a hug. “Thank you for being so open,” she said. I have no idea what happened there. I saw the card he got — a King of Wands (“Prince of the Chariot of Fire”) but didn’t get to hear what it meant or see how his drink was made, since now it was my turn to be read, and a crowd had come into the bar since we’d first arrived, and so there could be no lingering between readings.

Alaric and I looked at each other across the table. She shuffled the deck. “This is cheating,” she said, “because I know you. But go ahead.” I cut the deck in several places, put it back together, and then selected three cards: an Ace of Pentacles (“Lord of the Root of the Power of Earth”) reversed; an Ace of Wands (“Lord of the Root of the Power of Fire”) reversed; and Death (“Child of the Great Transformers”).

“Wow,” she said. “Two reversed aces and Death. You’re screwed.” We laughed. “Okay, like I said, this is total cheating, because I know you, but it’s also pretty obvious; you have this whole mask, this whole persona, which is these powerful aces, fire and earth, but holding on to that mask and wearing it too much is twisting everything, and you’re not getting the benefits and riches that normally accompany these two cards. So … you have to kill the mask. Kill the persona. It has to die. And that’s it. Take the Death card. Get your drink.”

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

I showed Desmond the card. “But I don’t want you to die!” he protested.

“I’m sorry, but we both agreed,” I gestured back to Alaric. “It has to happen.”

“Well,” he said, thinking about it, “then I’m making you a sweet drink. I want you to have a sweet death.”


So I watched him work as Brad told me about the way he’s studied the iconography of Devil card representations in Tarot, and that in many traditional decks the Devil figure is holding chains that wrap around the necks of humans in his service.

“But,” Brad continued, “The chains are really loose, they’re not tight, they’d be easy to slip out of. Which means that they aren’t being held against their will. They want to be there, in bondage. I think that’s pretty interesting.”

In this moment, he’s talking to me about my life, not D&D at all.

The drink Desmond made me was dark and foreboding and deep … but indeed very sweet, as if I were not so much dying as falling asleep in the arms of friends. This does seem to me to be the perfect way to die.

Brad looks over at the exposed nails coming out of the board that Janet’s two-drink drink is situated on. “Pretty dangerous, there,” he said.

“Drinking is always dangerous,” Desmond replied.

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