The sound system was playing “Carry on my Wayward Son” as I stepped through the wooden door and out of the cold night. It's easy to feel like a lost soul this time of year, when we are told to love all mankind but can't stop noticing how little they deserve it. Santa Claus isn't the Christmas myth most in need of debunking — goodwill toward men is.
The Fireside Bar in the Inner Sunset is exactly as advertised: a small room featuring a real fireplace and a fancy digital jukebox, both of which are incongruously surrounded by neon lights. The rest of the red and wood-paneled walls are plain to the point of being almost undecorated. There are a few framed pictures, but so few as to give the impression that someone quit early in the process and never found another art guy.
I sat down at the bar. Even with the music playing, voices carried, with conversations bouncing off the bare walls and landing everywhere. If they had put more art up, that effect would be muffled. I preferred it this way.
They had Chimay on tap. But when I asked which label it was, the bartender hedged.
“The regular kind,” she said.
“Yeah, that's not …”
“It's the red label,” she said. “Definitely the red.”
I ordered one, and began to warm up.
I had planned to review a different bar this week. I'd arranged to meet some people at a place in the Mission. But when I walked in, it was packed wall to wall, two games were on TV, the music was pumping, and the servers were trying to shove their way through the crowd. “Hell no,” I said, and walked out.
There's nothing wrong with a packed bar, but the more packed a bar is, the more it comes to resemble every other packed bar. What differences exist matter less when filtered through an indistinguishable mass of people. A tightly packed bar aspires to be a club. If you're going to have that many people in a room with loud music, why not dance?
The experience clubs aim for, in myth, legend, and pop music, is epitomized by the blackout: a night of such epic adventure and excess that it can barely be remembered, let alone talked about and described coherently. A transcendent act of partying.
Which is great. But it's in the open stools and empty silences of a bar that unique experiences find room to step in. The kind you'll always remember.
The music had finished. A guy at the other end of the bar told the bartender he'd do something about it.
“Oh, I'm enjoying the sound of silence,” she replied.
“Really?” he asked.
“Oh yeah. I like the sound of conversation a lot more.” She paused. Hesitated. “Actually, I think what I really like is the sound of men laughing.”
The bar chuckled. She looked happy. She's the rare type who can banter with her customers about anything — even politics and religion — without ever offending. I've always wished I could do that.
She walked over. “You want another Chimay?”
I put my hand over the glass. “You have the white label on tap, not the red.”
She gave me a skeptical look. “You think?”
Do I … think … I know what Chimay tastes like?
I have traveled to the Scourmont Abbey in rural Belgium, where monks have brewed this beer for 150 years. When the monks only wanted to talk about Christ, I snuck past them into the inner grounds to see the vats and the casks. That night I got so drunk off the fruits of their devotion that I lay on the floor talking to myself in the third person, as though an angel were speaking through me. Then I blacked out.
“Yes,” I said. “I'm certain.”
“You're probably right. I don't really remember,” she said. “Sorry. What else can I get ya?”
She'd handled that perfectly — just the right amount of apology and casual dismissiveness. She was bulletproof behind a bar.
I told her to make me a drink that was the essence of her. She laughed. “That's a Jack and a beer. Is that really what you're going for?”
“Make me something special.”
She came back with a ginger beer and bourbon, with a dash of triple sec, deliciously balanced. Suddenly James Brown was coming through the sound system. I felt good.
But a fireplace and beer can only keep out the chill and the dark for so long. Soon I left the laughter of men behind. It's as easy to be a lost soul leaving a bar as it is walking into one. Carry on.