Sunday, December 24, 2006

Living With Myths

The only bar I've ever been kicked out of was located on the Haight in SF. I walked in with a couple of friends of mine, sat at the bar and ordered a beer. The people at the bar rose up their heads from their glasses as I said the word "beer;" I might as well have used the f word. The bartender, an older diminutive man in a white shirt glared at me. "Get the hell out of here," he said. "You'll be happier at the fern bar down the block."

I was incredulous. "Are you kidding, me?" His resolve was firm. "Get out!" We went to the fern bar down the block. It was a crappy place. We talked about the bartender at the other spot and decided he was psychotic.

About a year later, I had moved from SF and was listening to an interview on NPR with a guy who had rated bars across the country for their ability to make martinis. Two bars out of hundreds visited - the guy must have been a real lush - were given a five martini rating: one in Cleveland and the other one that bar on the Haight in SF.

I like martinis. For me, it's the only drink I'll have at a bar in the winter. And it better be a gin martini. Vodka is made for getting drunk. My grandfather used to keep 180 proof vodka in his house and would burn a spoonful for me for fun before he drank. Gin is for sipping. Unlike my grandfather, I'm a sipper.

I resolved that one day I'd get back to that bar on the Haight and try this vaunted five-star martini. I read up a little about the bar. The psychotic bartender was also the owner. He'd owned the place for decades. And he'd kicked out a lot of people from his bar for offenses far less trivial than ordering beer. That's why the regulars kept flocking back; it was entertainment to watch Bruno the bartender do his thing. Plus he made a helluva martini.

But every time I'd go back to SF, the bar would be closed. Once I got Bruno on the phone and asked if he was open. He said, "Right now I am." I hopped in a cab. It was 7:00. By the time I got there fifteen minutes later, the iron gates in front of the bar were closed. I'd just missed him. Or maybe he was just pulling my leg and the gates were closed even when I called.

This went on for years. It became a kind of quest. I started to think the bar was never open. But I asked around and found out that the only reliable time Bruno opened his doors was during Monday Night Football. This seemed odd to me because I remembered the bar as being a classy place, no TV, something out of the Rat Pack era in terms of decor.

But one day I found myself in SF on a Monday night and called the bar. Bruno answered. I hopped in a cab. The iron gates were open. The regulars were seated around the elegant if time-worn bar. I sat down. At first, Bruno pretended that I wasn't even there, not a good sign. He turned to me and asked dryly what I wanted. I told him. He said nothing. Two minutes later a martini arrived in an orange juice glass.

I took a sip. It was the worst martini I'd had since one lousy night in Columbus, Ohio many years before. I gave him a five-dollar bill. He gave me back four singles. The drink was lousy, but at least it was cheap. I asked if he could call me a cab. He declined and said I could use a pay phone down the block.

I don't know if he purposely served me a lousy drink. Or maybe he always made lousy martinis and people were simply interested in the entertainment value of Bruno so they created a myth about his bartending abilities. Either way, I had accomplished one of my very minor lifelong goals: to get into that bar and have a martini. It felt kind of redemptive in a way.

The cab came and took me back to my hotel. I went straight to the hotel bar and ordered a martini, Bombay Sapphire please. Ten bucks later, I took a sip. A solid martini. Sometimes myths get in the way of a good drink.

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