Romancing the bar at Pop's

For someone who writes a bars and nightlife column, I've always felt a little nervous walking into new places. Depending on the joint's zeitgeist, walking into unknown territory feels like barging into someone's living room, or someone's classroom, or someone's appointment at the free clinic. It's worth it, though. The really great spaces always feel uncomfortable at first, and then they make you feel welcome, like you're a part of something. Like you have arrived.

It is only lately that I have overcome these insecurities, however. I no longer feel any trepidation entering a new bar. I don't feel uncomfortable sitting there all by myself. I sort of welcome the odd look or the get-the-fuck-outta-my-bar vibe that sometimes comes with the territory.

As nice as this confidence is, I still get a little bit nervous, and I'll tell you why. Right now, I am at "Stage Two" in my love of bars. Stage One was the excitement of finding a new one and being intrepid enough to tackle it. Then came the comfortable feelings that I have described (Stage Two). The part that makes me nervous is the inevitable Stage Three: Taking Bars For Granted. I liken it to loving Disneyland so much that you get a job there so that you can surround yourself with it all the time. Then you begin to see what goes on behind the scenes. How the frozen bananas dipped in chocolate are shipped in from Honduras, not from Never-Never Land. You see Goofy remove his head and light up a Parliament Menthol, his face careworn and pedophilic. You realize that Space Mountain ain't nuttin' but Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the dark.

So, I await my fate. For now, though, I am still happily ensconced in Stage Two.

This week I was also happily ensconced at Pop's Bar in the outer Mission. It has a basic stronghold of young neighborhood locals, unpretentious hipsters with tattoos, and the full Motörhead catalog at home. It's a no-frills joint — a watering hole — with a pool table, a long bar, and two tables in the front windows.

I showed up to meet a reader who wanted to give me something. She had read my story about the now-defunct Owl Tree, and she wanted to give me an owl figurine that she had inherited from the old place. As we sat in the window, she gingerly pulled it out of her satchel like an archaeologist presenting a rare Egyptian scarab brought back from a dig. She put the gift on the table in front of me. I took a big, deep breath. It was amazing. The owl was about 4 inches high, carved out of stone, with a marble base. It had geometric eyes like the clockwork owl in The Clash of the Titans. For a bar enthusiast, owning something from Bobby's Owl Tree is the holy grail.

Just when I thought my happiness knew no bounds, she hit me with this: "Are you hungry? Because they have free chili dogs in the back." Holy shit. We loaded up our dogs with cheese, jalapeños, and crunched-up tortilla chips (OK, I did) and dug in. It turned out this reader was a flower stylist. I have always been fascinated with people who do that for a living. For one thing, if you love flowers, and who doesn't, aren't you forever sentencing yourself to inevitable Stage Three? Taking flowers for granted?

She laughed a bit at this. Then she mused. Maybe, her face seemed to say, I am a little bit burned out. But, she assured me, like anyone who really gets into something, there are always more avenues to explore and keep your interest. I had never really thought of this. For her, that avenue is the orchid. It's a finicky, stubborn flower. It may bloom forever, or not at all. It may be doing great one day, and then its roots will drown the next. It keeps things interesting. Like if you worked at Disneyland and got to hop from Adventure Land to Fantasy Land in the same week.

"What's your favorite flower?" I asked her, to the strains of AC/DC. (I'm pretty sure that sentence had never been uttered in Pop's.) She thought about this for a while, even going so far as to furrow her brow and prop her chin on her index finger so as to facilitate the search.

"It's called a 'Gloriosa Lily,'" she replied with finality. I have seen those before. They are indeed amazing. They look like fire, with spindly, upward-reaching, bright-red plumes outlined in yellow. When things get stale, when throwing together yet another funeral arrangement loses its thrill, she can always throw in some Gloriosa Lilies for a kick.

I like this approach, the idea of reworking things to keep them fresh. For example, lately I have been listening to a lot of classic rock; songs I have heard 7 million times. Only this time, I choose an instrument to focus on. Like I'll tell myself, OK, I'm just gonna listen to the bass in "Don't Fear the Reaper." Or, I'm just going to focus on the drums in "Smoke on the Water." I'm telling ya, they are like whole new songs. You'll find nuances that you never noticed before.

I'm thankfully not at this stage with bars yet. If it were a real relationship, the bars and I would be at the go to eat a great meal and then rent a DVD stage. The sex is comfortable and occasionally surprising, but there is no need to spice things up. Yes, Stage Three is far off in the distance. Then, of course, there is the inevitable Stage Four, rehab. But for now, the bloom is still on the lily. I am thankful.

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