Quiz nights are the bane of my bar-crawling existence.
I admire erudition, I adore the ability to take distant and obscure facts and show their relevance to a greater subject under discussion – or even the human condition. But that’s not what happens when you shout the correct answer to a random question out to a room of strangers who then move on to the next random question.
Trivia knowledge is, in this sense, the opposite of erudition. Even its enemy. Knowledge requires context, otherwise it’s just showing off about something that literally no one cares about.
When the bartenders at Elixir announced that it was quiz night, “Aida” and I rolled our eyes at each other, and started to settle up with the bartender.
We’d been making a point of staying here – Aida had even grabbed Chinese food from a nearby restaurant and taken it into Elixir, rather than going out for food, just because “I really like the ambiance.” Rightfully so. A short little rectangle of a room with beautiful wood furnishings, a bar has been on this spot continuously since 1853, and today it’s run by people who like to get things right. Their cocktail menu is creative and well thought out, featuring surprising sets of ingredients. They have a massive whiskey collection, and relationships with bourbon distillers that allow them to get things like custom single-cask batches. They are laid back, without a hint of pretension. Elixir definitely ranks highly on the list of “bars I don’t come back to often enough.”
But I probably wouldn’t have gone if I’d known it was trivia night.
Still, anything that helps Aida relax right now is good. She got pulled over at a bullshit traffic stop on the road to Burning Man late last year and was intimidated by the officers into admitting she was carrying ecstasy. The charges carried more than decade of jail time. Her lawyer hit the DA hard and now they’ve pled it down to a fine and “don’t get in trouble for a few years.” But the paperwork hasn’t been processed and the judge still hasn’t signed off on it. There’s a plan, everyone’s in agreement, but until it’s all set and done, she is living under the shadow of another life that could crash into her own, leaving nothing behind. She wonders how many of her friends would visit her in prison, and for how long.
Three weeks: she has three more weeks (as of the time I write these words) until the hearing where things get made official.
Living under the threat of annihilation doesn’t give you as much to talk about as you might think. Over the last few months she’s gone through the despair, the outrage, the self-pity, the horror, the crying, the hope … there’s only so much of that you can do. Now that it’s almost over, her life is divided between “before three weeks from today” and “after three weeks from today” – and nothing important can really happen in “before,” and “after” is unimaginable. All her energy, everything she has, is devoted to preserving a façade of normalcy in the hope that, a month from now, it can take root.
It’s my job, as her friend, to help her paint that façade. To provide the social bullshit that those roots feed off of.
I’m surprised by how much I have to talk about. And, as I’m talking, it sounds like my life is really full and rich and wonderful, and it’s all true, but I find myself wondering: “Is this real?” Because this seems like the life I live, but not the way I live it.
That question doesn’t need to be answered, because tonight none of that’s for me. I’m creating a vision of normal life that Aida can grab hold of. It provides cover, so that when we do talk about her, it that doesn’t lead her back to the giant shadow overhead, coming inexorably closer.
Elixir was packed by the time the pub quiz was announced: I might not like it, but it was clearly a big draw. I got up to settle my tab and had to press my way through the crowd. “Who did Donald Trump just fire today?” the quizmaster asked. “Not his position, his name. What is the name of the person President Trump fired today?”
Dammit, we’d gone all night without any of that coming up. Maybe it wasn’t just for Aida that I’d been creating such a pleasant image of normalcy.
Aida was standing away from our table when I got back. A couple had come over, desperate for a pencil. “You’d think the bar would have pencils, but I guess they ran out,” Aida said as we left. “I gave them a pen and told them they could have our table, and they were thrilled. It totally made their night.”
She was smiling, then she frowned. “I kind of liked that pen, though. And … “she reached into her pocket and pulled out a little pencil nub. “Why didn’t I give them this?”
It’s a good question, but I try to put a good face on the situation. “They’re having a great night because of you. That extra touch of fortune means so much.”
“Yeah,” she acknowledges. She holds up the pencil stub. “But, they would have been just as happy with this.”
“Maybe.” It’s a ridiculous debate, in its way. But it opens itself up to all kinds of issues – what makes people happy, what do we owe one another, why do we make unexpected sacrifices – and because we can discuss them as we walk towards BART, and grow wiser from the discussion, it is not trivial at all.