To barflys

Bangers and mash at the Phoenix, and lessons I could've learned from my mother


CHEAP EATS I went into the liquor store and bought a bottle of Extra Strength Excedrin, that was all.

"Bag?" the guy behind the counter said. Like the rest of the store, he was aflicker with fluorescence.

I was afraid to shake my head. "No thank you," I said, very very softly.

He gave me a bag. I decided to look at it like this: I had a bag! I could fold it up and keep it in my purse, I could recycle it, write a poem on it, make a funny hand-puppet for the kids, pack a lunch ... a small brown paper bag has many uses. I remembered my mother leaning forward in a soft chair in a darkened room, her eyes rimmed in red, breathing into just such a bag.

The rest of the family had found better things to do — playing outside, getting married — but I sat cross-legged on the living room carpet, a discreet distance away, watching my broken-down mother breathe into a paper bag, and learning loneliness.

Outside the fluorescent liquor store 30 years later was a bright, lovely day, and I knew I had to get out of it. I unhitched my bike, then rehitched it, walked five or six parking meters down the street, and ducked into a dark bar with two old guys and a bartender.

I sat between the two old guys. One was reading a newspaper, the other was just blinking.

"What can I get you, young lady?" the bartender asked, though my guess is I'm older than him.

"A Coke and a glass of water." I smiled at the old man who wasn't reading the newspaper, and he blinked. Maybe he was trying to focus. If so, we had that in common.

I opened my new bottle of pills, popped two, drank some water, drank half my Coke, and the bartender said, and I quote, "Headache?"

I nodded. I love bars. I wish I loved to drink, too. I would spend more time in bars, and then my life would be different. I met Crawdad de la Cooter in a bar, and a lot of great people in bars. People I didn't meet in bars include: the German asshole, an Argentinean asshole, that Canadian one, and a whole lot of home-grown crap.

"I have a date for dinner," I said, after we had discussed print media vs. electronics, children, the neighborhood, Proposition 8, and sports. I'm talking about me and the bartender. The newspaperman was only interested in his newspaper, and the man who blinked had left, his mood no doubt ruined by young women and Cokes and such.

"Oh yeah, where are you going?" the bartender said.

So then we got to talk about neighborhood restaurants. The neighborhood was Rockridge, but where we ended up eating was in Temescal, at the tapas place across the street from Pizzaiolo, which was closed.

And, no offense to the tapas, but I wish I had cancelled that date instead of curing my headache with a Coke and Excedrin beforehand. My mom, for example, doesn't believe in Western medicine, not even aspirin. She thinks your body can take care of itself, and now I have to wonder if sometimes my headaches are trying to tell me something: "Stay in this bar, with these friendly and harmless people, and with at least 15 TVs to look at," my headache was saying. "Eventually it will be tomorrow morning and soccer will come on." Or: "Go home and go to sleep."

Also, I remember now what I love about sports — fandom, I mean, in this case. It brings people together. In sports bars and stadiums and living rooms, where there are things to eat and drink.

At the Phoenix, where I managed to watch a lot of the soccer that I watched during this World Cup, I sometimes ran into people I knew, and sometimes sat and twitched or stood and cheered with people I didn't. It was crowded in there, always. And people stood on the sidewalk on Valencia Street, looking in.

More important, bangers and mash: two big smoke-tinged sausages that were soft like butter inside, baked beans, smasheds, and a great Guinness gravy drenching everything. New favorite bar:

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