We arrive just after nine at night, and there are two burgundy Naugahyde stools left open at the bar; mostly people are standing up and crammed in tight, clutching Martini glasses and draped with vintage purses. Acapulco-patterned dresses and bowling shirts swish and slide against one another as San Diego’s waist-deep-in-hip leisure aristocracy jostle to sizzle their own steaks at the diminutive and crowded indoor grill.
“What can I get you?” the tender asks.
With a nod, he’s off to pluck orange slices from a tub and find the little bottle of bitters. At seven bucks apiece, it’s a bargain to spare me from cleaning any more sugary gunk off my kitchen counter, walls, and cabinets.
Stacks of cash clutter the bar between pools of splashed liquor. Women apply makeup with the aid of pocket mirrors. Men drop hunks of their paychecks in exchange for icy glasses of liquor. The jukebox rattles. People shout and clamor.
The girl says, “This is perfect.”
The right place with the right drink, gold shimmers in the hearts of the people, me, and her.
Oh yes, takin’ it easy is serious business.
Tears of the Prophet at Parallel 33
-2 oz. orange vodka-3 oz. pomegranate juice-Fresh mint leaves to garnish
Pour vodka and pomegranate juice into a cocktail shaker and add ice. Shake vigorously and pour into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with fresh mint leaves.
I am not someone who wishes I were still 21. Or even 29. I could have skipped the decade after 19 and happily ended up at 30. Sure, I had fewer wrinkles in my 20s and could sleep in on weekends, but I had almost no money and even less self-confidence. I worked at a series of unstable ad agencies, and I was suffering from unsuitable boyfriends and the breakups that followed.
Luckily, I had friends willing to put up with my stream of complaints, and for a while, my friend Mick had a weekly ritual of Friday happy hour at Parallel 33 in Mission Hills. This was back in 2001, when Washington Street was still charming, before the Gathering burned in the fire and Phil’s BBQ moved to the Sports Arena area. It was wintertime and always dark when we met, or at least that’s how I remember it, although that might be due as much to those dark times as to the time of year.
Mick, his friend Ralph, and I were an anomaly in the upscale restaurant. Most people came in to eat, but we couldn’t afford the entrées. Instead, we stayed in the bar and ordered pita and hummus, or sometimes ahi poke. But, really, we were there for the drinks.
Ralph knew the bartender, a fellow runner named Scott who had traveled around the world and could juggle three cocktail shakers at once.
“Hey,” Scott said to me one night as I climbed onto the bar stool between Mick and Ralph. “Tears of the Prophet?”
“Of course,” I said and watched as Scott filled the shaker with ice, Absolut Mandrin, and pomegranate juice. He shook it with his right hand, while with his left he poured three Martinis, which a waitress whisked away. Scott placed a mint leaf in my glass and pushed it toward me.
Ralph, Mick, and I raised our drinks. “To the bartender,” Mick said, and Scott bowed his head and smiled. As always, the first sip was heavenly. It tasted like going back in time, maybe to New York in the ’40s, when glamour was easier to find, or at least not hidden by a Starbucks or a strip of condos, like the ones springing up down the block.
Mick said something funny and I laughed. There was a mirror over the bar, and my own happy face surprised me. I stared for a second at my reflection and then at an older couple in their 50s who were entering the restaurant. The woman had an expensive haircut, and a gorgeous cashmere wrap draped her shoulders. She must have felt me looking because she turned for a second and caught my eye. I looked down, suddenly self-conscious of my cheap shoes and wrinkled Old Navy suit.
A longing wound through me then, tangled with shame. I wanted to be that woman. I wanted her seat by the window, her husband, her life. For years I had prided myself on my independence, but really all I wanted was to be with someone who liked me back, someone who would stay with me, who would call when he said he would and tell me I looked beautiful in the candlelight. How had my dreams become so small?
Scott turned to me again and refilled my glass with his shaker. “On the house,” he said. “The benefits of front-row seats.” He went back to the conversation with Mick about his latest six-month trip to Central America. As he filled two glasses with gin, he talked about the surf off the coast of Belize.
“How do you do that?” I asked him. “How do you just pick up and travel for half the year?”
Scott shrugged. “I bartend for a while, save up money, and go. Don’t you have a passport?”
“Then what’s stopping you?”
I caught my reflection again in the mirror, as well as the reflection of the couple seated behind us. My own reasons were stopping me: my childish desire to be safe, to be taken care of. Instead of a life of adventure, I had chosen a cheap suit and a lousy job, thinking all the while that someone — some man — would ride in to save me. Instead of tasting real freedom, I settled for exotic drinks and someone else’s stories.
And yet, I was also aware that I was only 28. I could still travel to Central America. I could join the Peace Corps or go to grad school. I could get another job. I could move to a new town and start over. I could save myself.