Every time I’ve met a woman at The Royal Cuckoo, something unexpected has happened. I don’t think that’s an accident. I like meeting people here who can surprise me. The bar is dark in the best sense: The people I’m talking to are always partially in shadow. If they don’t have anything to hide when they walk in, the bar supplies it for them, the way some restaurants will give you a jacket and a tie to make sure everyone is up to the dress code. But faces in shadows and mysterious pasts are much more interesting than generic coats and ties.
Nicole was waiting for me when I arrived, and I handed her a leather case as if some secret exchange was being made. It wasn’t exactly: We’d traveled to and from Burning Man together, and some of our stuff had gotten mixed up, and I was returning her property. No big deal. But, on the other hand, she probably wouldn’t want me telling you what was in it. So … maybe this moment was exactly as mysterious as it looked like, concealed in the darkness.
Nicole was drinking an IPA — she always drinks IPAs — but I went right for the cocktail menu. The Royal Cuckoo cocktail menu is kind of a problem for me: I like it a lot more in principle than I do in practice. Sure, some of the cocktails are good, like the “Cuckooland” (Absinthe, cognac, cane sugar, fresh lemon shavings), and the French Marguerite (Armagnac, Cointreau, crème de peche, lime, egg white). But most of the time I find myself intrigued by the words on the menu and disappointed with the liquid in my cup. Tonight’s Green Ladybug (Tequila, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, mint and pina) was no exception.
And yet I’ll gladly come here any time someone asks.
“This reminds me of my bar at Burning Man,” Nicole said, looking around. If the Royal Cuckoo didn’t wear it so naturally, its quirkiness would seem forced. It has a working record player (next to a red rotary phone) and a wall of old vinyl selections that it plays most of the time. It’s decorated with over-the-top knick-knacks and odd art that must have once meant something to somebody. It has an old electric organ that gets played most nights … its decor could easily be dismissed as a row of hipster bingo, and yet it all comes together to be more than the sum of its parts. Like the dark, the comfortable offbeat sensibility of The Royal Cuckoo suggests that anything can happen.
This bar has possibility. It’s full of it. That, as much as any physical resemblance, is why it reminds Nicole of Burning Man. An environment where you never know what’s going to happen next.
I order an Antica Manhattan (camparo antica vermouth, Basil Hayden’s bourbon, orange bitters, house brandied cherries), and curse my luck that I don’t like it more. But again, that’s not the point.
I love possibility — and I think it’s why we go out to bars in the first place. Booze is cheaper if you drink at home, and you can always invite some friends over. But a sense that anything can and probably will happen? That’s magic. That’s something you need to go out for, and it’s worth going through an entire menu of mixed drinks to ferret out the ones you like.
The record player was turned off and someone started playing the organ, which is wonderfully atmospheric but makes it hard to hear. Our argument, about self-care, took an unexpectedly personal direction — although if self-care isn’t personal, what could be? – and I tried to be heard above the music while also trying not to shout at her.
At Burning Man this year, someone made a sticker about a meme that Nicole was part of: “Hotmessday” — a play on the Hindu greeting “Namaste.” “Namaste,” roughly translated, means: “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” Hotmessday, therefore, means: “the mess in me bows to the mess in you.”
That, more or less, is what we do. And it’s absolutely essential to have someone like that in your life.
“Think of yourself as a heroin addict,” she told me. “You’re like that.”
Well, I don’t appreciate that comparison at all.
Possibility, it turns out, isn’t always fun.
But we’re experts at this. We spent weeks in the desert seeking that out. We both have baroque and intense personal lives, and we both knew exactly what we were getting into when we met in a dark and shadowy bar, and I handed her a leather case. In a few minutes, our conversation would go completely off the rails. And you can bet we’ll both be back again.
It might not feel at all like self-care, but it will feel like we’re taking care of one another.