Distillations
Illustration by Molly Oleson

Elixir was standing-room-only by 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Bars in the Mission are back, just in time for the Delta variant. 

A sign on the bar by the beer taps said that, for everyone’s safety, to keep your mask on when you weren’t actually eating or drinking. It looked like literally, no one was doing that. Maybe I missed some guy in the corner, but … no. This was a big unmasked crowd, packed together. I went back outside and sat — the lone person at the parklet booths. 

On the bus over, I’d been texted by someone I’ve written about in this column before, telling me that she’d just been tested for a possible breakthrough case. 

I waited for Michelle to arrive. We’d wanted to come here on our first bar hangout together post-pandemic because we love Elixir and because it was actually the first bar we’d ever hung out at together, just the two of us. It seemed so fitting. Assuming the bar hasn’t changed too much — and, that night, it didn’t look like it had changed at all — they have more than 300 bourbons, and do wonderful flights. I’d been looking forward to this for a while, but now I was gearing myself up to ask her if we could do something else, because it was noisy and crowded and I just wasn’t feeling it. 

Then someone got on a microphone and welcomed everyone to trivia night, which made everything easy. I hate trivia nights at bars. Michelle hates trivia nights at bars. When we were hanging out together at a bar for the very first time, just the two of us, we got up and left Elixir because it was trivia night. Leaving was now fitting, too.

She arrived, we hugged, and I said, “It’s trivia night inside.” She made a face. We walked two blocks down to Delirium, where she’d never been before.

“This is weird,” Michelle said, looking around at the street. 

“Yeah,” I said. “We’re right by 16th and Mission, and the bars are crowded, but the street life is still empty. You’d think it would be the other way around.”

From a Covid-19 standpoint, I can’t say that Delirium was a better bet. There were fewer people, and it’s a bigger room, but Elixir had all its windows open while Delirium has no windows at all. No one but the staff was masked here, either. But it was quieter, there was a weird playlist of what sounded like Broadway hits coming through the speakers, and — who are we kidding? — no one goes to bars to be safe. So we walked up to the center of the bar, under the glowing light of a neon sign that says “Service for the Sick,” and ordered drinks.

Delirium is on the hipper end of the dive-bar spectrum, but make no mistake, it is a dive. There would be no fancy flights of bourbon tonight, just cheap drinks. Michelle ordered a Tom Collins and I ordered a Havana Mule (it has rum instead of vodka), and both were just $8. We sat at a table near the back and started to catch up. 

We’d seen each other once since Thanksgiving, 2020. It was at an out-of-town camping trip this past spring, involving more than 400 vaccinated people. We’d hugged for maybe a half-hour but barely had a chance to talk. “How are you?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I have been so up and down that I’m starting to think those terms don’t mean anything anymore, and I need to come up with new words to describe this state of being.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m hearing things like that a lot. I’m telling people to just hang on until things calm down again.”

I hesitated, then decided to say it. “My fear is that, the way the world is going right now, with systems failing and cascading into each other, that it’s not going to slow down: It’s going to accelerate.”

She made a face again. Thought about it. “There’s a camping thing that happens every year near Slab City — do you know where Slab City is? Okay, it’s near there. And they blow a lot of things up, and light a lot of things on fire, especially cars. One of the things they do is to light a car on fire and weigh down the accelerator and have it go off a cliff, where it explodes and they put the wreckage in a kind of a circle. Like a monument of wrecked and exploded cars. Well, this year, they lit a car on fire and it drove off the cliff … and then, somehow, it landed, didn’t blow up, righted itself, and kept on driving. This flaming car drove right past a group of tents — it could have killed people — and then just kept on going, disappearing into the horizon, and we all just stared at it, thinking “shit, we have no idea how far that’s going to go or where it’s going to end up.’ And I realized: That’s the perfect metaphor for this year.”

For a few moments, I couldn’t stop laughing. It’s so perfect. 

The room had grown considerably noisier since we sat down, and I suddenly realized why: not only had more people come in, but they’d all — all of them — moved to the back of the bar for some reason. Everyone had crowded around this one spot, where absolutely nothing was happening, and we were all packed together. I pointed this out to Michelle, noted that there were now several free tables up at the front of the bar, and we pressed our way through the crowd to sit near the door, surrounded by no one.

What’s that about? I wondered. It was that way at Elixir, too: There was space to spare, but everyone was so pressed together.

We ordered more drinks: another Havana Mule and a London Mule (made with gin). And this time the mule didn’t come in a copper cup, which disappointed Michelle deeply. But she was pleased with the bartender. “She seems so much more caring than the bartenders I remember from dive bars. You should definitely mention that, if you write about this: how much the wellbeing of her customers seems to matter to her.”

Michelle has seen a lot of people in need of comfort recently. She spends a lot of time in Doyle, California, a small town 44 miles north of Reno at the Eastern edge of the Plumas National Forest, where the legendary Bay Area arts space NIMBY moved after it was priced out of Oakland … and then burned up in a fire. Its attempt to get to safety has ended in ashes. She’s been trying to help what recovery there is. She has a fire victim living in her home right now — not the first one she’s taken in. She sees images of homes in flames on the news and realizes: She was just there. 

I listened to her stories, realizing that even though I’ve been so constantly up and down recently that the words have lost meaning, I’m still basically okay. My world has held together shockingly well. So has hers. 

Even so … “The best part of all this?” Michelle said, “The one good thing? Is that we don’t have to pretend things are normal any longer. We don’t have to go through the motions, the way we all used to do before the pandemic, of seeing one another and acting like things are okay, pretending life is normal. I like not doing that anymore.”

When we were done, I called my friend who was sick and had been tested for a covid breakthrough.

“I’m sure it’s not covid,” she told me as I rode back home. “It’s probably something else.”

“Yeah.”

“And if it’s covid, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’m already getting better. My sense of taste is returning.”

“Yeah.”

“It’ll just suck if it’s covid because I’ll have been spreading it around.”

“That’s the worst part, yes.”

“But it probably isn’t covid. And I get my test back tomorrow, and I’m going to stop worrying about it tonight.”

“Okay.”

“How are you?”

I took a breath. “Apparently there’s a big camping trip out near Slab City where they burn a lot of things and blow up cars. And this year …”

Join the Conversation

7 Comments

  1. Big Little Lies meets the Higgs boson inviting or anticipating the next world war. While, ‘And I realized: hat’s the perfect metaphor for this year.”’ Sick service. Go figure.

  2. Interesting a camping trip of 400 vaccinated people in November 2020 is mentioned here since the first covid vaccines were rolled out in December of 2020 – unless of course you just meant vaccinated in general with any sort of vaccine. In any case…huh??

    1. “ We’d seen each other once since Thanksgiving 2020. It was at an out-of-town camping trip this past spring involving more than 400 vaccinated people.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *