Illustration by Molly Oleson

I used to think of Holy Water’s decor as being out of time. Its simple interior is filled with religious iconography: Crucifixion images and cheesy plasters of Jesus and weird portraits of the undead. But the last time I was here on Bernal’s main drag, Cortland Avenue, right by Bocana Street, was pre-pandemic. That was then. In today’s troubled world, Holy Water’s decor seemed oddly of the moment, especially the creepy undead images.

“Is that a zombie?” my friend ”Tasha” asked, again and again, staring at a painting of a desiccated bartender on the wall behind me. The picture was just far enough away, and the light was just dark enough, that it was hard to tell. Maybe it was some kind of bizarre racist caricature? The more we drank, the more she had to know.

I’d been supposed to meet Tasha here alone, to talk about helping her create a personal art experience, but when she walked in the bar she hugged me and grinned sheepishly. “I bumped into two friends,” she said. “They said they were going to go to The Royal Cuckoo, and I had to tell them: ‘No, you’re not. It’s closed tonight.’” She’d known that because, originally, that’s where we’d intended to meet up. “So since they had nowhere to go, I told them they could come with me. I hope that’s okay?”

“Sure,” I said. Sometimes you just roll with these things.

But when her friends “John” and “Tod” came over, it turned out that I already knew them both: I’d met Tod before the pandemic, and had hung out at a few of his house parties. I’d met John just a few weeks ago, at another new friend’s dinner party. It was a strange moment: Everyone randomly assembled at this table already knew everyone else, but none of us had known that any of us knew any of the others.  

John had, in fact, just been telling Tod about my book that night, not realizing that we were acquaintances, let alone that we were about to see each other.  

Tasha put her hand on mine. “We’re probably going to peel away in a bit, to get some one-on-one time,” she told them. 

“Oh,” said John, “we’re probably just here for one drink.” Neither statement was true. The future, even in small doses, can be very hard to predict. 

Discussing Ukraine at Holy Water

Holy Water prides itself on making drinks that contain no more than four ingredients, and making them absolutely perfectly. It’s a boast it lives up to. But my sense is that those four-ingredient drinks have gotten less simple and a little more baroque since the apocalypse began. I could be wrong about that; it’s not something I can point to, just a feeling. But isn’t everything at least a little messier now?

Still, they didn’t disappoint. I started with a Butter Bourbon Berry Bramble (butter-bourbon, lemon, fresh house-made berry syrup), and while it’s more sour than I’d expected, it’s still a delight. Tasha tried a sip, and declared it her favorite drink of the night. 

The situation in Ukraine was unavoidable for a while. Tod assumes that it will need to have a government in exile at some point, and he wondered whether new technologies can make an entity like that more effective. And John … John will be moving to Poland at the end of the month to help Ukrainian refugees resettle there. 

Apparently, John’s family has a lot of refugees in it. His grandparents came here escaping a war. John’s done fine during the pandemic; he’s been safe, and his tech job pays him good money, but along the way he lost his sense of community and his sense of purpose. He was looking for a new, worthy challenge, and next adventure. When he realized he could go to Poland and help Ukraine, he was instantly compelled. Now he’s going off to the border of a war zone, and possibly beyond. It’s all set: The one-way ticket is bought.

I was impressed both by his sense of mission and by his sense of competence. I can imagine having a clear enough sense of mission to do something like that, but I can’t imagine thinking “yes, if I go there, I can be helpful.” But John has done relief work before, and sees a chance for him, personally, to make a difference. Something he’s been looking for, for years.

Tod got up to leave, and this set a round of goodbyes and another round of Holy Water drinks in motion. Tasha went to the bar and came back with a Butter Bourbon Berry Bramble and the clear knowledge, from the bartender, that the painting behind me is indeed of a zombie. “For sure,” she said. 

“I thought it was going to go the other way,” I said. 

“You thought it wasn’t a zombie?” 

“No, I thought they wouldn’t know. The last time I absolutely had to know what the fuck a painting was doing in a bar — in this case, right over the men’s urinal — the bar staff stopped me before i could even get the question out. ‘We don’t know,’ they said. ‘It was there when we got here, it was there when the new owners took over, it’s kind of super-glued into the wall, so we can’t really take it down, and everybody wants to know why the fuck it’s here, and we just don’t know.’ I figured that might be true here, too.”

“Well, this one’s the walking dead,” Tasha said. “It’s not complicated.”

I went to the bar next. Despite Holy Water being crowded, the bartender had everything in hand, taking my order and sending me back in good time. I came back with a zombie (blend of rums, citrus, and tropical flavors), which so impressed John that he got one, too. 

We talked about the loss of community John felt during the pandemic, and about the ways in which we’ve tried to use art to build community, sometimes by going to mass events where crowds of people were all experiencing the same thing, which is John’s passion, sometimes by creating experiences from small groups of people, which is mine. 

Has it worked? Well, we’re here now, and that’s how we all know each other, through the connections made by creating and attending art events in the Bay Area. 

But something’s missing right now, for all of us. It’s not the same thing; John needs purpose, the kind that can take you to the other side of the world. Tasha wants deep and profound intimacy, the kind that can break your life apart if you’re not careful; and I want … I want … I want to be so much better than I am.

Art has brought us this far, and connected us, but there’s always more to do. So much more to do. Sometimes, I think we drink to forget that. 

Eventually, Tasha says she’s going to go home. I offer to walk her down the hill, back to the Mission. She’d asked me, when we set this up, if I would help her develop an art project to address what she’s struggling with in her life, the way I sometimes do with mine, but we get so caught up in a conversation about Tod and John and the uncertain future of the world that by the time she walked up the steps into her apartment, we hadn’t brought it up. The whole point of our getting together, forgotten. 

What does it say about our wants and needs, that we are so easily distracted from them? 

Then again, only the dead are consistent. 

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