Illustration by Molly Oleson

“If it’s the Apocalypse,” Cat said at Asiento, “I don’t want to spend the last five years of humanity working for BigCo.”

“Yep,” I agreed.

“But if it’s not … ”

I’d arrived at Asiento on 21st at Bryant on a night that smelled like distant rain, and it had been all but deserted. Even the bartender was missing. Music was playing, but the place sounded like a Do Not Disturb sign. 

I almost hadn’t come at all. Going to bars now is like a party game where everyone gets a secret identity and one of you is a murderer, but you don’t find out who until the game is over, and it turns out it’s not really a game. They are, in fact, dying, and you were holding the murder weapon all along. 

I stood at the threshold, wondering, “should I really do this?” Then the bartender walked up behind me from outside and asked to see my vaccine card. I showed it to him, and together we’d both walked up to the bar. We’ll find out later if one of us is a killer.

Asiento has plenty of outside seating, but once I got in I didn’t want to leave. Without a crowd to contend with I was suddenly exactly where I wanted to be. “Do Not Disturb” instantly became “Stay A While.”

Asiento feels like a cross between a neighborhood bar and a vinyl junkie’s living room. It’s got a lot of wood, a long, L-shaped bar, plenty of tables and some comfy-looking chairs. There’s a lot of art on the walls, music I didn’t recognize playing (maybe vintage alt-rock?) and, though it’s not dark, it is low-light in a pleasing way. It’s got clutter in the corners and at its margins, which gives it a nice, lived-in feel. It’s comfortable. A sign taped to the mirror behind the bar warned “Alcohol may lead to pregnancy,” and writing on the mirror informed me of their “Kill The Bottle” series, in which they give you a shot from whatever bottle they’d probably finish today anyway, for $6.50.

I ordered an Oil Can (vanilla vodka, sherry, iced coffee, coffee liquor, orange liquor, fresh cream, $13) from the drink specials written on the mirror behind the bar, and the bartender jumped into action. It was tasty, just what you want a cold, coffee-based drink to be. 

I was the bartender’s only customer for much of the evening, and he clearly wanted to be attentive. “You look like you’re ready for another,” he told me prematurely, and I responded by saying, “You seem like you’re jonesing to do your job.”

“It was really slow around the New Year’s,” he said. “A lot of people stayed home, and then we were closed for a few days, and there’s a lot to do, and … yeah … I want to be doing this. It feels empty.”

“Oh, I don’t mind! Honestly, I really like it quiet and spacious.”

“It’s mellow,” he agreed. “But we’ve got comedy here later tonight, and pretty decent reservations for it.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “That’s unfortunate. I have a friend coming, and she’d asked me to prepare an art experience for her, so I don’t know if comedy is going to fit … ”

“Well, it’s not for an hour,” he said. “You’ve got time.”

Look, I ain’t THAT late…

He doesn’t know Cat. She worries that her friends will start introducing her as “the late Catherine,” not because she’s dead but because she’ll probably be late for her own funeral.

“I love the Kill the Bottle series,” I told him. “I think every bar should be a more active, playful, experience.”

“Yeah, it’s great,” he agreed. “You end up with these collections of bottles that are almost finished, and this is the best way to use them. A lot of weird surprises for people. We’ve got some leftover Fireball right now … ”

I shook my head, and turned my attention back to the Asiento cocktail menu.

“If you’re interested,” he said, “we have a drink special tonight, not on the menu. It’s something we’re testing out, slowly rolling out, it’s an Earl Gray-flavored take on an Old Fashioned …”

Oh, hell yes. I love tea-flavored drinks. “That. I want that.”

He leaped into action. 

That would be my favorite drink of the night, but by the time Cat arrived, a full 85 minutes late, I had also tried The Procrastinator (scotch, creme de noyaux, vermouth, orange bitters), and a Ziggurat (rye, Amaro Nonino, Cynar, lemon), both of which were well-made and high-quality but a bit too sour for my taste. 

I texted Cat to let her know that I was drunk. 

“Definitely order food!” she advised. 

On a Mission District mural.

Asiento’s fries are delicious. The burger, made with soy sauce and finely ground onions, served on an English muffin, is small for the price, but damn delicious. The taquitos, which we had together, are tasty. 

“I’m too out of it to do the art experience now,” I told Cat when she got there. “Plus there’s going to be comedy starting any minute.”

“I could do a drink and comedy,” she said.

Cat and I had been sending each other texts of support for the last half of December, reminding each other that we were going to get through this. I’d been alone, and she’d been at her place in Tahoe, where she’d had a small crowd of people forced to stay with her because Donner Pass was snowed in. I sent her my isolation and she gave me a little company. Now we’re wondering what the hell happens in the new year. 

If the world is ending, she wants to stop reaching for her goddamn dreams. She wants to live in the moment. But if it’s not the apocalypse, she wants to create something. She wants to build … I dunno … 

… “A horse ranch,” she said. “I want to buy a horse ranch that has a spa and hot springs and people who can do psychedelic healings.”

“A sanitarium for the creative,” I agreed. “Our people really need that.”

“If I have 10 years, I want to make that. But I don’t want to struggle to put that together if the world’s going to end in five.”

Asiento, at 21st and Bryant.

You never really know how long you’re going to have, or what your dreams are going to lead to. I know a number of people who bought up rural property in the last few years to make artist communes and psychedelic healing communities and off-the-grid lives, only to see them all burn as the wilderness turned to ash. 

That’s always a risk. But the world has gotten riskier. Is it worth planning for tomorrow anymore? Here we were, sitting unmasked in Asiento in the middle of a pandemic, drinking ourselves into incapacity, and having an amazing time. We realized, after a while, that the comedy was happening outside: The outdoor seating was crowded, there was a mic stand set up and a woman in a tutu was entertaining the crowd. We got to have the indoors, the most dangerous part, to ourselves. And we loved it. This was what we wanted to be doing. The only thing that bothered us was that we’d gotten to do less of it because Cat hadn’t been able to leave work.

Lily Janiak, now the Chronicle’s theater writer, once called me “San Francisco’s most lacerating theater critic.” I took a lot of pride in that. But I’ve noticed that my bar writing at this stage in the pandemic has grown a lot more euphoric as it has grown more fearful: I am far more terrified of going out to bars, and I have an especially wonderful experience almost every time I do. 

I think this is the nature of the apocalypse. Everything is terrifying, but whiskey and friendships are more flavorful at the end of the world. Cat put her head on my shoulder and we huddled for a while, pleasantly sloshed, and we committed to getting together again next week, if one of us hasn’t killed the other first. I don’t think the fact that I so enjoy Asiento is related to the fact that it’s easier to love things as the world ends. But I’ll probably never know. 


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