We ended up having an especially intense conversation, so maybe it was for the best that we were sitting at the bar in Virgil’s Sea Room. We’d wanted to sit in the back patio, but the music coming from El Rio, next door, was so loud that we went back indoors fast.

I imagined that a more laid-back bar like Virgil’s would deeply resent its louder, more-high-energy neighbor next door … visions of a feud danced in my head … but the bartender said that it’s more like a family affair: The partner of the owner of Virgil’s manages El Rio, or something like that, so everybody’s happy.

Which was oddly boring. I mean, we want everybody to be happy, right? So why was I disappointed?

Virgil’s Sea Room always looks nicer than I expect it to … although maybe that’s just because I remember the space from a bar or two before it became Virgil’s. Back then it was definitely more divey. Now it has nice wallpaper, a shelf of knick-knack wall decorations that are quirky without being obnoxious — and blessedly few and far between. It’s nice without overcrowding itself with stuff or trying to make a strong impression. Back when the bar opened, six years ago, its use of local micro-celebrities as drink names (think “Frank Chu”) felt like it meant something: Were you one of those people who don’t know about the city they’ve gentrified? Or are you one of us? But now it feels pointless. Like trying to get bar patrons to have an opinion about the Whig party in Britain in the 1880s. 

Are you in the know?

Oh, the memories…

I tried to explain to Meghan that Virgil’s Sea Room used to be a big political hot spot – a place where progressive politicos hung out together when Daly’s Dive closed its doors. But she wasn’t having it. “No,” she said, looking around. “This isn’t a bar with an opinion.”

Oh, but we used to be so passionate about things, back in the day. 

I saw they were advertising a tamarind margarita above the bar, and figured I had to try it, just because I’ve never had one before. It was fine. Perfectly good, but I can’t say I really cared.

I’ve lost the passion for local politics, but Meghan is a counselor for the homeless, and cares so much it burns. She was telling me about time that a trans man who had obviously been brutalized could only find space in a shelter for abused women, and he refused to go in, because dammit, his identity meant something, and so Meghan had to turn him loose without services or support because there was no place else to put him, and all she could do was get him to promise, promise, that he would take care of himself as he looked for someplace to find sanctuary. Then she told me about a woman who had been lit on fire by her boyfriend, sent to a hospital, and then kicked out of the hospital and sent to the shelter by a taxi, which all but literally kicked her to the curb outside her building and drove away.

It can be brutal out there. So brutal. And no, it really doesn’t seem like the rest of us do care, does it?

A man suddenly walked up between us and draped his arms over me. “You’re so handsome,” he said. Then he draped an arm over Meghan, so he was standing between us. “And you’re beautiful.”

We blinked at him as he grabbed each of us. “Oh, are we hugging now?” she said. “We’re doing that?”

He looked back at me. “Oh, here …” he licked one of his fingers and rubbed it against the side of my mouth. “There you go.”

“Did … did you just put your spit on his face?” Meghan asked. “Is that what just happened?”

“You had cocaine on the side of your face,” the stranger told me. “I took care of it for you.”

“Oh, wow, no …” Meghan said, gaping. “You have seriously misread this situation …”

“I’m pretty sure that was salt from the margarita,” I told him. 

“No, it’s okay, I don’t mind,” he replied. “Happy to help.”

There was a long moment where we wondered about our life choices. 

“Okay, bye!” he said. “You’re so handsome!” He walked away.

 Meghan and I each held our breaths for a moment, trying to decide what to say first. Then her eyes widened. “Oh!” she said. “He wanted to fuck you and I was only getting acknowledged since I was here!”

“You think so?”

“Look!” she said, pointing behind me. 

Sure enough, there he was, pressed up against a store room door in a tight embrace with another man, locking lips and going to town. 

“Oh,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s high as fuck and was looking for somebody to do that with and … wow, with the light coming in from the patio just catching them at that angle, that’s a really beautiful image they make.”

She was right. “Yeah … it’s almost like a really vivid black-and-white image. Almost Ansel Adams. Also, it’s guy-on-guy, which I, for one, can’t get enough of.”

The bartender stepped over. “Hey, was he bothering you?” she asked.

We shook our heads. “Nothing we couldn’t handle.”

She nodded, pleased. She obviously felt the need to check, but hadn’t wanted to have this be an issue. “Another round?”

We said yes, and I asked to look at the cocktail menu. Most of Virgil’s house cocktails are tasty and only about $10.

“Wait,” Meghan said as the bartender brought the drink menu over. “Aren’t you going to do the thing? With the drink?”

“Oh … well, I hadn’t planned on it, but sure.” I turned back to the bartender. “So … what would the perfect cocktail be right now? The one that epitomizes your passion as a bartender? That most speaks to you?”

“Well, what kind of liquor do you like?”

“Anything,” I said. “Do it the way you think it should be done.”

This is sometimes a controversial thing. Some bartenders react very badly to it. Some people reading this column have said it’s the ultimate asshole move and should get me kicked out of bars or punched in the face. But I’ve never really seen the problem with politely asking a bartender to do something they think is amazing – to do the job the way they’d want to do it. As long as you can take no for an answer.

“Sure,” she said, shrugging. She made me a La Vida Loca from the cocktail menu (Vida mescal, house hibiscus syrup, fresh lime, soda), and it was fantastic. She had simply not stressed about the question, and it had worked out fine.

There’s an important lesson there – but I’m not sure if it applies to homelessness and politics as well as it does to bars. In bars, however, shrugging and rolling with whatever comes next is almost always the right answer. 

A moment later, the man who’d hugged us walked by again, being led out by a group of his friends, over to El Rio. He seemed to be having a great time.

So were we.

Previous Distillations.