One day in May, bored with the pandemic, I started a home improvement project that I hoped would ease my discomfort: building a bar.
Bars are good places to go for bad times – or at least sooner, before it's canceled along with everything else. My last public drink was consumed on March 6th: a Bud Light at the Hogs and Heifers Saloon in Las Vegas, possibly the least socially distant place in the world, where the all-female staff wear Daisy Duke shorts and dance in the bar. I was in town for the Mint 400, the desert off-road race immortalized by Hunter S. Thompson at Fear and Loathing, Las Vegas, and the Hogs and Heifers were hosting an event for teams and sponsors. On the other side of the counter a bartender was holding a bottle of vodka in one hand and a megaphone in the other, which I aimed at, where I was sitting on a stool a few yards away yelling, "Are you going to take a shot or what ? "
I miss bars. Less the ones that make it feel like a fight is about to break out than the quiet local facilities where you can talk to the person next to you. Such places have long been woven into the life of writing. In the 1990s when I was in graduate school at the University of Montana, no one on the writing program took you seriously until you made at least one trip – and better still, many – to the now-closed Milltown Union Bar. Located a few miles east of Missoula, the hotel was the legendary hangout of the school's late poet-awardee Richard Hugo. The wood-paneled waterhole was known for its clientele and its peculiar decor, such as the goat and sheep's heads that were mounted on the wall and covered with clear plastic. "You never have to go," wrote Hugo in one of his most famous poems about the joint. "Money or a story brings you alcohol."
When I'm not writing, I like building things. Building is therapeutic in many ways: the hard work, the feel of wood and metal, the cuts and calluses, the weight and roar of power tools. In Santa Fe, where I've lived for more than 20 years, I have renovated three old houses – "Dumpitos", as one of my estate agents called them – in a historic district. The last, in 2015, was a 900-square-foot adobe cottage that I named CrackShack because I bought it from an infamous local drug dealer who had inherited the place along with his five siblings and couldn't quite manage the maintenance of it .
My most recent project was made from piles of flushed wood left around the property – an unfinished two-bedroom adobe brick on three acres in the Santa Fe foothills – by the previous owner, an artist and anarchist who is also something of a hoarder was. But one person's trash is another person's hardware store, and soon I was sawing and pounding away, becoming the newest participant in a long tradition of brothers creating dream spots in the backyard. I thought I was ready by five.
At one point, my friend and the property's co-owner, Madeleine, who goes by the nickname Maddawg, walked up to her and crossed her arms to rate the progress. I was hoping she would approve of my rustic addition to our home. I was lucky.
"Wow," she said. "I'm impressed. When do we start drinking?"
"Soon!" I said optimistically.
(Photo: Madeleine Carey)
A week later I had built a ten by six foot L-shaped structure bracketed by three posts topped with old wooden consoles – decorative supports – that I had found in the garbage heap. I finished the counter with four one-by-eight fir boards, which I sanded and sealed with two coats of marine spar varnish and then polished to a shiny sheen. When I started the wood looked gray and sad, but after absorbing the polyurethane, the color deepened to a rich caramel and brought the structure to life.
I went to a Dremel ($ 60) to make a sign, the only money I spent other than buying some 6 inch lag screws to secure the posts. The Dremel, a rotating power tool used for grinding and engraving, was awkward to work with, like drawing with a dentist's drill, and it took me a few tries with scrap before I wrote in my best loop cursive: Cholla Bar. I hung the sign on two hooks that were twisted into a cross over the bar counter.
Cholla (pronounced "Choy-yah") are shrubby cacti that are common in New Mexico. Undisturbed, they can grow eight feet. Until I moved to the foothills, where they grow in abundance, I never really noticed them. But they soon became my favorite flora. In early summer, light purple flowers happily burst from the ends of their tentacles. When chollas die, they leave behind twisted honeycomb skeletons that are almost as haunting and beautiful as the living plant.
Another bonus on construction projects: They're a great workout. The gyms around Santa Fe were closed, and the idea of doing burpees in my living room made my eyes cross. So I went to the old school: I worked shirtless and alone in the scorching New Mexico sun, dredged in a fine coat of sweat and sawdust, and my shoulders turned a startling purple. I imagined myself looking like Brad Pitt at the Fight Club until I saw the pictures Maddawg was taking on her cell phone. Unfortunately, my Brad body was more like a father body.
No matter; I didn't do it for the gram. I did it because I was hoping a cool outdoor space would attract friends to hang out. I had hardly seen anyone else in months, and they were mostly other face-masked buyers on stealthy food missions. Every trip from home was a new kind of masquerade ball that made guests afraid of getting too close or even making eye contact, as if a flawed look could blow you up with COVID-19. The tension and fear were palpable. I thought we could really use a big, collective drink in real life, maybe a toast to the human connection.
It worked! I lit decorative lights, some friends showed up, and we sat around in a carefully spaced circle drinking blueberry and basil margaritas. (Not with me; they're good and will flatten you.) A buddy brought two whole chickens from his house-smoker, and we chopped up the tender meat, added coleslaw, and piled it all between slider buns. Someone else made guacamole, which we shoveled into our faces with tortilla chips. We exchanged stories from the old days when people gathered in large groups without a single piece of PPE to listen to concerts, watch sports, or frolic on the beach.
Was our meeting safe? Of course, there are always risks, but in this situation they seemed pretty minor. Was it necessary? An emphatic yes. After my friends went home, I lingered in a lounge chair, staring at the Milky Way galaxy brightly over the cholla bar, and pondered the big questions: what if Trump is re-elected? Was the pandemic some kind of cosmic reckoning for years of wasteful and charitable behavior? How much did i drink
By the end of June, many bars across the country had reopened – and immediately closed again after increasing infections. In Florida you could go to a bar but not buy a drink. In Texas, angry citizens came to the state capital and waved ill-advised sign: "Bar Lives Matter". Was drinking a right or a privilege? It wasn't clear. It was clear that bars were dangerous reasons for transmitting COVID-19.
"Bars," noted Anthony Fauci, the contested infectious disease expert, during an interview on CNN. "Really not good."
As July broke out, the understanding that our bleak new reality would not change anytime soon gained weight again. An elderly woman in my neighborhood was berated for not wearing her mask properly while walking her dog, and she felt threatened enough to call the police. Entire industries – retail, restaurants, and travel – imploded. The parents were frayed, lined up, staring indefinitely at the prospect of a school at home. Children went crazy. Yet it seemed that things were going to get worse before they got better. In mid-July, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the approaching fall and winter "could be one of the toughest times we have seen in American public health." Zoiks. I would need cases of tequila.
About a week later, on a chilly morning, I was sitting outside in a chair next to the cholla bar, checking my handiwork, trying not to cause my phone to fail. A vicious heat wave had finally broken out with the arrival of an afternoon monsoon pattern. I sipped coffee, enjoyed the chirping of birds and the blue sky, and admired a silver lace vine that had wrapped itself around a nearby bentwood fence and frozen over with tiny white flowers. "Nature, man," I said to Lebowskied.
This morning brought the first hint of the changing seasons. I knew I had to put a roof over the bar by autumn to protect it from the harsh weather. Where we live, at 7,500 feet, conditions can get intense. I found some paper and came up with a rough design – a shed style, a simple two-by-four frame with a top layer of corrugated iron. If I started now I would be sure I could be done by five.
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Main photo: Madeleine Carey
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