|Lockhart's Bar: A
K. S. Anthony
First prize for General Nonfiction
Photo by George Bakos on Unsplash
I was 19 when I moved to California. I lived for a short time on 23rd street in the Mission district of San Francisco with my brother’s ex-wife and several of her friends, all women. The flat was always bustling with some sort of activity, and from the kitchen, smells of cooking vegetables and sweet basil constantly wafted through the house. I had moved with nothing other than a single suitcase full of clothes and a box of notebooks that I had kept my writing in. I had no idea what I was going to do once there, but I knew I wanted to get myself involved with Irish nationalist factions in the area. I had long been reading about Irish history and the small percentage of Celtic blood in my veins had stirred to angry life. Knowing quite well that one does not simply look up "Nationalists, Irish" in the phone book, I immediately headed to the nearest Irish bar after dropping my bags off at the flat. I was nothing if not naïve, but I was well received, probably because of my obvious youth which was taken as a novelty in a bar full of cranky old men as well as my knowledge of Irish history which surprised the more politically inclined. I tipped the bartender well enough to leave with all of his Guinness coasters—a novelty for me having come from a virtual Guinness desert—, which I mailed to all my friends. I know for certain that it was at least ten pints of Guinness before I stumbled out and the hangover the next day was amazing.
Two days later, I decided that the first bar wasn’t politically inclined enough for me. I walked around the city for hours, hoping to find an answer and, as I ambled about, I found exactly what I was looking for. I passed a decrepit old building that housed a bar on its corner. There was a large neon sign with the prerequisite martini glass reading, in cold red letters, LOCKHART’S. The doors were dark and stained with age and were not the welcoming doors one might expect to find at a friendly neighborhood tavern. They looked more like something you might find in a medieval dungeon or a local chapter of The Hellfire Club. In the window hung the usual gaudy neon beer signs, but there was also a very large sign saying FREE IRELAND NOW and a smaller placard that said Irish Parking Only. I was damned impressed. I walked in, and found that the place was almost totally empty, except for an old fellow who looked like some incarnation of Odin with eyeglasses reading the New York Times, a dark haired woman behind the bar who looked like she’d kill you as soon as look at you and a thin, amiable looking fellow with very long hair and a beard. Above the door was an ancient, yellowed sign that read: "Paddy Doolan’s Toast: Let’s Drink to the Final Defeat of The British Army in Northern Ireland." Behind the dark bar were the usual bottles of liquor, dozens of pictures of a ruddy, heavyset Irishman holding various signs, assorted signed photos of people whom I didn’t recognize and a framed picture of a phoenix in front of an Irish flag with the legend, "Out of the ashes arose the provisionals." I sat down, quite sure that I had found what I was looking for. The woman behind the bar looked at me, considered me briefly, and much to my surprise said, "what’ll you be having?" without asking me for any ID whatsoever. I ordered a Guinness then took a further look around the bar. It was dark, only somewhat smoky, and smelled like sour beer. There was a beat up old upright piano in the corner that never got played. There was a stand up video poker machine that paid out at the bar and no one said anything. There was a pool table, a pinball machine and an ancient sign that read, over the pool cues: "Doolan’s Law: Break a pool stick and die." The ceiling was yellowed from the years of cigarette and cigar smoke and a huge blue Marlin hung over my head. It had nothing if not atmosphere. The bartender introduced herself as Joan and asked me my name and where I was from. "James," I said, "from Hawaii, by way of Florida," remembering my fake ID was from Florida. She looked at me with obvious disbelief, and smiled as if to say yeah, sure kid, whatever. I managed a weak grin and started in on my pint. The longhaired fellow introduced himself as Stringbean, and then introduced me to Carl, (whom I often compared to Odin the wandering God of Viking mythology because of his long white beard and generally sour Nordic disposition) who looked me up and down and said, in a tired voice, "Hello Jim," then returned to his newspaper. The moniker would stick, and from that point on, I became known as Jim, James, Seamus, or finally, Black Jimmy. The owner of the bar came in a few hours later and I liked him immediately. He was about sixty, wearing a flat cap, and had a gruff, raspy Dublin accent, the result of frequent bouts with throat cancer, which he kept winning. He had the scarred knuckles of a boxer and was obviously the fellow in all the pictures behind the bar. He bought me a drink and fixed himself a concoction of brandy and Ensure that he seemed to feel complied with his doctors "no alcohol" orders. His name was Paddy Doolan. He disliked being called by his last name (which would result in his growling "knock off that ‘Doolan’ shit") or anything other than Pat or Paddy. He refused to serve me anything except Guinness and Powers Irish whiskey, due to the fact that he was from Dublin and, well, it was his bar. Every time I’d walk into the bar, he’d greet me either by saying, "you’re late" or "where the hell have you been?" He frequently employed me as an errand runner, occasional painter, half-assed barman, cabbage and potato cook (on Saint Patrick’s day) and 5am drinking buddy. I was invited to and attended film screenings, Noraid dinner dances, parades and strip clubs. I was always paid in Guinness, shots of Powers and an education that one can only get from in an Irish bar. It was the best time of my life.
I spent every day that I could there, drinking from the time I woke in the morning (and often much earlier) till the bar closed at night. I met everyone that came in there, from the trio of hard nosed longshoremen brothers who made me an honorary member of their family one night after hard drinking at a Church crab feed benefit, to the Norwegian Italian who was fond of telling the story of how his father met his mother in San Francisco and knew instantly that he’d marry her as she walked past the storefront that he worked in. There were the relatively famous who came in, like the eye-patched journalist and his occasionally top hatted basset hound, as well as the infamous that I also got to know in small degree. Hunter S. Thompson occasionally came by or called (screaming, "this is Hunter, who the fuck is this?!" one day when I had the misfortune of answering the phone), as did various political types. I drank with law enforcement, political candidates and their advisers. I heard about more scandal and corruption in a year than some people hear about in a lifetime. Most of them paid me little attention, knowing me only as the kid who hung out, listened to stories, bought his rounds like a decent person should, and could be trusted to keep his mouth shut when he was supposed to.
It was San Francisco as I always thought it should be: dark, noir like, generally foggy, with incredible characters with amazing stories. I was living a life that I had only read about in Spillane novels, or seen in old movies. There was a whole world in this little bar that no one was allowed into, but I had managed to sneak into just before the doors slammed shut. I was part of something bigger than me and it felt good to be appreciated, befriended, and cared about.
That August, I registered for college classes, knowing full well that I couldn’t spend all day in the bar without catching static from my parents or my roommates, even though I was getting more than a lifetime’s worth of education there. (Let me give you readers some sage advice: If you ever have a choice between getting your education in an Irish bar or getting it at a junior college, get it in the bar. You’ll be getting a far better value for your money.)
The night before school started began like any other night: I was sitting in the corner of the bar. It was already dark out, but it was still pretty empty. Just Karen, the pretty, new bartender from Dublin whom Paddy had hired a few days earlier, myself, and a couple of the old timers who sat in their tweed coats, drank their red wine or gin and smoked incessantly. I recall that it was as breezy inside the bar as outside, but that wasn’t uncommon, as the door would often be left open as the evening waned so as to give the bar the appearance of actually being open.
I was on my second or third beer when she walked in. She was petite—about 5’0" and 100 pounds, if that much—and she carried herself with a certain decisiveness that I found very appealing. She seemed as though she was just stopping through, perhaps on the way to meet someone or on the way home. She was wearing a plain black leather jacket, an old T-shirt, and faded blue jeans. Her eyes were an icy blue and she had short blonde hair. I watched her with some curiosity, mostly because she was beautiful in a way that caught me off guard, in a way that seemed almost brazen, but also because it was uncommon to see anyone under the age of thirty-five in the bar on any night, never mind one as slow as this.
She sat down a few stools down from me, and in an accent that I couldn’t place, ordered a half-pint of Murphy’s. Perhaps it was the Gaelic courage, perhaps it was merely bold youth, but suddenly I found myself addressing her. "Is that an Irish accent I detect?" This was one of the stupidest things I have ever said to anyone anywhere ever. I am a fucking moron was my next thought.
She turned to me with a half-smile, and a look of total amusement and said, in a gentle voice, "no, I’ve just come back from Europe." The fine lines of her profile and the astonishing arctic quality of her eyes amazed me, but mostly I was surprised that she was speaking to me.
I introduced myself. Her name was Kyra, and she had just gotten back from Prague where she had spent some amount of time working and being bohemian. She had just gotten off work as a welder, and was irritated by the tiny pieces of metal that had gotten onto her skin. This fascinated me, but then again, I was fascinated by everything about her. She was an Aries, 25 years old (an "old lady" as she put it) and smoked Dunhill’s. Her parents were Buddhists. She had just gotten back to the states. She was going to be at the same college I was, learning more about welding. She was bright, beautiful, darkly funny, and looked at me in such a way that I thought she burn me alive with her gaze. We talked about Europe, books, life, and beer. I couldn’t believe that Czech beer was so cheap; she couldn’t believe that I was only 19. Sadly, it turned out I had been right; she was on her way somewhere else. I desperately wanted to continue talking to her, but after buying her another two beers, she had to leave. She pulled her jacket up over her shoulders, turned to me and said, "Come on. Let’s go." I was in love.
We walked down Valencia Street, passed the empty lots that are filled by yuppie boutiques now, through the fresh night with its whisper of fog, side by side. I worked up the courage to slip my hand into hers, but found that she already had mine. We walked on. She turned to me and smiled, "slow down, tall guy, I have a Napoleonic complex." I did. Every step with her filled me with a feeling of utter bliss. It was an absolutely faultless moment, and the first one I had felt with a woman in a long time. We walked for a while and I asked, "what if you’re kidnapping me?"
She looked at me again with a pleased smile and said, " I am kidnapping you."
We walked down to a bar a few blocks away, but in a decidedly seedier part of town. The Uptown. It was on the corner of 16th and Capp, at the foot of the infamous Capp Street Corridor, an 8 block stretch of street known for being the last stop before dying for junkie hookers and solitary predators. If Jack The Ripper had lived in San Francisco, he’d be ripping on Capp Street. I had never been to the Uptown; had never even heard of it…but there I was. They didn’t have Guinness, but I, at her behest, ordered a pint of Red Hook. Friends of hers were there and she introduced me as Seamus, and then proceeded to brag about me. "Look at him," she urged her friends, "doesn’t he look like a movie star?" Her friends seemed very affable, and one of them was the great, great grand nephew of Irish hero Roger Casement, which impressed me greatly. The music was much too loud, the bar far too crowded, and the whole place was lit entirely in red and orange light. There was no room to sit, so I offered her the one seat that was available as I leaned against the wall and did my best James Dean. She refused, choosing instead to lean up against me.
I remember in gorgeous detail the feeling of her body against mine. Her slender waist, the smooth, supple planes of her arms, the sweet, subtle fragrance of her neck and her hair. I remember all of it, though now it seems like a dream long passed. I asked her for a cigarette, but she shook her head. Instead, she inhaled deeply from hers, held it for a second, then pulled me close. And then, as if in a trance, she pressed her lips tenderly to mine and exhaled the light, sweet smoke into my mouth. I slid my hands over her back, feeling the cotton of her t-shirt slide over her silky skin and again felt her lips press against mine, more firmly this time, but still with a yielding touch, as I tasted her soft, wet mouth, her smoldering lips, her tongue. She brushed her hair against my neck, nuzzling against me, and looking up at me with her quietly glowing eyes, said in a voice I’ll never forget, "your kisses are intoxicating." I was wordless, and totally, irreparably, in love with a complete stranger. She smiled again while nibbling at my neck, and continued, "I guess I’m just a sucker for a pretty face." I soared.
The night continued in smoke and kisses and soft, seductive words. By the time the bar closed, I was drunk, in love, and barely able to walk. And it was here that I have one of my profoundest regrets in life. I stood at the corner, invited to go home with her. For reasons that I have no recollection of, I did not. School the next day, you know. Being responsible. But it was okay, she said. I had her number. Call me soon. I want to see you again. I watched as she disappeared into the abyss of night, illumined only briefly by the spill of streetlights.
I called her. She made a date at the Irish bar, but never showed up, only leaving a note.
Sorry I missed you. I’ll be around more often from now on.
She later invited me to a friend’s birthday party, but when I finally got hold of her she said only that something terrible had happened. She never said what and I never talked to her again…well, at least not in any capacity.
Two years later, I was on Valencia Street, not far from the bar, when I saw her. She was as beautiful as I remembered. She recognized me instantly. "Seamus?"
I could not believe my eyes. "Kyra?" It was she. She started to say something, but looked at two friends who had continued walking on, then smiled in that same way and kept going, looking back at me in disbelief. I did not follow her, though I wish that I had.
I never saw her again.
That night has been with me in vivid detail since it happened. I never found out what happened to her or where she went, though for a while I’d run into the friends that were at the bar that night who always said she had asked about me.
Lockhart’s closed under political pressure from local feminists who wanted to turn it into a coffeehouse. Paddy died a few years before that, as did Odin and Stringbean and many of my friends there, leaving only me and a few others to hold onto their stories. The bar has since re-opened, ironically in the place of the first bar I went to upon arriving in California, but it’s not the same. I don’t know very many people there now, but occasionally, I’ll be walking down the street and hear someone call out "Black Jimmy!" and turn to see an old, friendly face.
I received my first real education there. The bar held my dreams, my hopes, my tears, my joy and my spilled whiskey—not to mention the spilled whiskey of others. In my heart, it never closed, and in my heart, my friends are still very much alive; perhaps more so than the people I contend with elsewhere.
As for Kyra, I think of her often and fondly. Her memory still haunts
me nearly a decade later and I often wonder, what if...? I wrote a long
poem about her that I later sealed in an envelope along with the pieces
of paper with her phone number and note. It is long lost amidst the thousands
of pieces of paper that fill my home. I have never told anyone about the
way she made me feel, and I’ve never told this story in such detail before.
I’m much older now, but I imagine that if I were to see her again, it would
be as if time had not moved at all. It may be unlikely, but I hope that
she would feel the same way and that she would remember, if nothing else,
the deep sighing breaths we shared, the hours we spent and our kisses,
sweet, light, warm and utterly intoxicating.
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