Holy Water: Come All Ye Faithful

I'm waiting at Holy Water, in Bernal Heights, to see if one of the most brilliant men I know will show up. He usually doesn't.

The term “holy water” usually refers to a substance found specifically in the Catholic and Anglican churches — two faiths which love to decorate. Yet Holy Water, the bar, has gone for sparse. The walls are a weak blue with light splotches of white paint, except for a back wall, which is a black and white photograph of what looks like a 1930's group baptism in a river. The bar takes up about a third of the room, and the seating is all basic stools — either at the bar or at simple group-style tables farther back. It's all communal seating here.

I've met a few genuine geniuses in my life — the Harvard-trained translator of a seventh century Indian philosopher; the three-time Peabody award-winning radio producer who exiled herself to northern France; the Soviet-born Jewish linguist who played academic politics with the KGB before escaping to Israel. Eric never graduated from college, but is among their ranks. An extraordinary thinker.

All the really interesting people I know are bad at keeping up — they get lost in the worlds they discover — but Eric's isolation is extreme. It's been more than six months since he's responded to a message, and mutual friends are asking me, “Have you heard anything? Is he okay?”

The bar is full of regulars, always a good sign, and Holy Water has the feel of a great neighborhood joint. To pass the time I order a “Search for the Holy Gimlet” — just Hendricks gin, cucumber, and lemon. It's a simple drink, made perfectly. All Holy Water's featured cocktails are classics made with no more than four ingredients.

“Not a lot of people are actually good at making really complicated drinks,” the bartender tells me. “And most of them are based on the classics anyway. You know? As a style … simple is the best.”

By now I'm a half-hour in. No Eric. I order an “After the Gold Rush” (Bourbon, pineapple, apricot, lime), which is equally perfect. “Since we keep it simple, we don't even put a cocktail on the menu until we've got it exactly,” she tells me. I believe her.

“I wonder,” I say, “about the name of this place. Which on one hand I really like, and on the other troubles me — because our culture tends to take anything sacred and turn it into a bar or a tourist attraction.”

“Or housing, she says. “We've turned a lot of churches into houses.”

“Right. But isn't this troubling? We need to hold something sacred — because when nothing's sacred the only things that have influence are money and power. And no one wants to live in that world.”

She scowls. “I think what the name refers to is the ritual, to the way people come to their neighborhood bar, every day and order the same thing over and over again, and feel good. It's that ritual, I think, and not religion, that this is about.”

“But that's the point. We like to re-create the forms of the sacred without any content, turning things we should believe in into recreational activities.”

“But that's enough! I think the form, the activity, is beautiful,” she says. “Is enough.”

We stare at each other. I realize I'm trying to have a conversation with her that I really wanted to have with my friend.

I order a Jungle Bird (black rum, pineapple, Campari, lime). It's delicious. All is good.

Eric arrives 45 minutes later, looking ragged. He's been playing in the park with a dog and lost track of time. We hug, he sits down, and after 30 seconds of small-talk he asks me, “Are you familiar with the econometric examinations of the fall of Rome?”

It turns out that Rome did, indeed, fall quickly — that the society went from dominance to collapse within a single living memory. “Apply the same metrics to us,” he says, “and we're nowhere near that kind of decline. Nowhere near. And yet … we act like we are. We're constantly parroting the forms of a society in collapse — which kind of disturbs me more.”

I realize that after a six-drink wait I'm no longer capable of having the conversation I was looking forward to. “Well, I've told you before,” I say, trying to keep the words in the correct order, “that Western culture has a death wish.”

That came out okay.

Keep it simple, I tell myself. Simple, smart, don't put on airs, and that will be enough. All will be well.

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