There is a city surrounded by Detroit, Justine tells me. It’s a city enveloped by another city, and it once had the most bars, per capita, of any place in America. In the heyday of Detroit’s industrial revolution, it became a settlement for Polish immigrants coming in to work the assembly lines; gradually they converted the warehouses, churches, and markets around them into bars, each one amassing its own lifetime customers.
Twenty years ago, Justine’s boyfriend heard about one of these bars — a perfect dive bar — in this city within a city, and the two of them went to see it. There they found what Justine describes as the most perfect jukebox in the world, and they met Eddy, a wrinkled old man who owned this bar and had been tending it most of his life. A painting of his wife, made in the 1950s when she was young and beautiful, hung on the wall beside the top-shelf booze. The woman herself lived above the bar but never came down. And as Eddy told them his story and poured them some scotch & gingers, Justine fell deeply in love with him.
She got up, and put quarters in the jukebox, and a moment later, Eddy asked her boyfriend why he wasn’t dancing with her. The boyfriend said that wasn’t something he did.
So Eddy walked around the bar and asked Justine if he could have a dance.
That got her boyfriend up on his feet — not to dance with her, but to tell Eddy that this wasn’t okay, and he couldn’t do that.
Eddy took the “no,” and went back to slinging beers. A year later, his bar was incredibly popular, in part from all the cool kids Justine’s boyfriend had brought. A few years after that, Eddy died and the bar fell apart, and now it’s gone.
Tonight we were in San Francisco, sipping craft drinks at Mission Bowling Club on an upstairs balcony overlooking six regulation-sized bowling lanes within a converted warehouse. People who look an awful lot like hipsters are playing frames. I don’t know what Justine thinks of all this, although we both think it’s a fascinating view to drink by. But I can’t help wondering: Are these people bowling ironically?
If they were, how could I tell?
“Is it all in the wrist?” I asked out loud.
“What?” Justine said.
“Nothing.” I waved it away.
Just a few blocks up and over, there is another converted warehouse that now serves as a bar and mini-golf course. I know that some people go there because they sincerely like mini-golf, and some people go there for the unexpected novelty of playing mini-golf inside a San Francisco craft beer bar — but I have no idea what the ratio is. If this trend keeps up, however, we’ll soon have a whole district dedicated to drinking mediocre cocktails made of high-end booze while we play the favorite games of the places we deliberately ran away from.
Was bowling and mini-golf always that much fun? Or does this represent a fundamental failure of a rich and tech-savvy metropolis to actually invent something better to do?
Justine knows bowling, and enjoys it. “Growing up in the blue-collar Midwest? Oh yeah, guys joined leagues, my childhood was filled with it,” she said. “It was there, it was a thing to do.”
But like me, she admits, she’s not very good at bowling. We both agreed that pool is the game we always wanted to be good at.
“It takes me a while to get back into it,” she told me. “My first three games are terrible, then I suddenly get good, and everybody assumes I’ve been pulling a fast one on them this whole time.”
I believe that. Justine is a woman of compelling contradictions. The first time I met her, she told me this story about herself:
Just before she turned 18, Justine’s mother decided it was a scandal that her wild, tomboy daughter had never been confirmed in the church. She demanded that Justine go through the process. Justine, not quite yet independent, had no recourse — and so she went to be confirmed, wearing a tight and revealing red dress.
After the service, where the holy words were said over her in a moment every bit as uncomfortable as you can imagine, Justine went home to get ready for a wild night of drinking with friends. But from her window she saw a propane tank explode out on a neighbor’s property, setting up a fire that threatened to engulf the whole area. Justine ran outside and began digging a fire stop, in her red dress, as the flames roared closer.
Her efforts might very well have saved her homestead, but when the firefighters pulled her out her dress was melted to her body and they had to rush her to the hospital.
When her mother came to visit her in the intensive care unit, all Justine could think to say, drugged and in pain, was: “Momma, tonight God and the Devil were at war for my soul.”
Idon’t know who won. I don’t care. All I know is that I don’t want to go back to bowling alleys and mini-golf. I don’t see the point of adding better beer and craft cocktails to experiences that were never good enough to hold my interest anyway, things that were only a way to kill time with people I never liked quite enough to try and do something really special with. It’s worth exploring new places. That’s a worthy goal. But the truth is: I was in this bar/bowling alley ironically.
A server came up to the balcony, where we’d been sitting alone all this time, to tell us that the place is closing down — at 8:30 — and we’d need to settle up.
Justine looked at me inquisitively, wondering what we were going to do next. Maybe something more adventurous?
That’s more like it.