I once observed in my Dad a particularly well-oiled ease of posture in settling into a bar stool. He sort of sunk down into position like his ass was part of the seat and his arms became bracers for the bar itself before leaning over to signal and chat with the bartender. It was a move i’ve seen in many people over the years: the relieved drop into the bar, the ceremony of the first drink after a long day. I see it often in people who work in and around bars and restaurants: a subtle signaling to the bartender that they have long experience with this storied exchange of money for conversation and a drink. I don’t know if I can pull off the confident bar slump - lord knows I try - but I’ve certainly tapped into the ability of bar culture to connect us through shared ritual and history.
The night I’m thinking of started with a baby and a kitchen. To preface, I’m kind of a sissy when it comes to straight whiskey. I know it’s the tough girl thing right now, but I’m only just learning my way through suffering the first boozy kick on the exhale; I’ll take a Sazerac’s sweetness any day. However, I was celebrating an anniversary of sorts this night. The anniversary of a year’s worth of learning, love, picking up, travelling, being afraid and being brave. It began in the East Village, New York City, with a taste of Hudson Baby, as all good things do. A year hence, here I was with my partner at Irving Street Kitchen in Portland, OR raising a glass.
Portland has a reputation for being a hipster paradise, yeah, yeah, yeah. But hear me out. That night was First Thursday - on the first Thursday of the month every art gallery downtown within a 13-block radius opens its doors until 9 pm for free. They hand out free alcohol, they host special exhibits, the artists show up to talk and mingle with the attendees. It’s an open and inclusive space. Almost all of the galleries are owned by women (which me and a little 9-year-old ball of girl-power energy in a tie-dye hat that I met at the Oregon Center for Photographic Arts think is badass.) The Whiskey Women would take it by storm.
My partner and I bought a painting at one of the galleries by an artist named Sarah Fagan. She painted at least 20 separate versions of spoons in negative space, then framed them in incredibly elaborate vintage frames. The intricate frames are meant to echo those historically used for paintings of royal and religious subjects to “create a singular focal space by both closing off the outside world and exalting the subject within” according to her wonderfully articulate artist’s statement. The whole thing was an explosion of art, design and community. I was wondering how in the world I would turn it into a Whiskey Women piece that said more than: Portland is lovely, y’all; give it a chance; we need more Southerners up here.
The night wore down and my Hudson Baby wore off, so we headed over to Davis St. Tavern to repeat that age old ritual of the end-of-the-night bar settling. We walked in, the room was dark and the lanterns glowed yellow-orange light across the wooden bar. We settled in at the bar like you, me, and everyone else will do at least once in their life, with ceremony: removing coats, sighing with satisfaction as we noted the whiskey menu, nodding our hellos to the two other barflies hanging out. We were cold from the outdoor walk, so ordered cioppino and Weller Antique neat. The girl to my left was writing in her notebook in between chatting with the bartender and us. The man at the end of the bar called down to us to ask how our meal was, as he’d come in specifically for the cioppino himself. He wanted to be sure we were enjoying it. An older lady, who I had noticed eating alone when we walked in, stopped by our seats as she was leaving. “It’s wonderful to see you two here together,” she said, “my wife and I started dating 30 years ago and back then we couldn’t ever have been seen together in public. Good luck to you.”
In her artist’s statement, Sarah Fagan asks: “Each day we feed ourselves. Each day we are hungry again. Do we take pleasure or pain in the cycle of days?” I thought about that as I spooned seafood stew over crusty bread. I thought about my father, settling in to his history. I thought about how I’m repeating his story in my own way even now. I thought about the Hudson Baby at the beginning of the night - its place in my most recent beginnings. I thought about the women I’d met that night: the gallery owners, the artists, the lone diner at Davis Street Tavern giving us her love for ours, and the bartenders. Oh, the bartenders. Without whom tonight, my night a year ago, and many more nights into the future would not be possible. I started my night with a baby and ended with an antique. I started in a kitchen and ended in a tavern. It’s the whiskey that guides us. It’s the bars that serve it that “close off the outside world and exalt the subject within,” so that for a moment through the many long nights of our histories, that subject exalted is us.