When I drink it’s in small, measured amounts. Neat, no ice please. I’m here for the chemistry experiment: watching how a diverse group of humanoids handle the social lubricant of their choice.
On this rainy day in Walnut Creek I select my viewing location carefully, like a hunter picking his blind. I slip into Va de Vi, spotting an opening at the “bend of the elbow,” the perfectly positioned curve at the Front Bar. Prime viewing, all exits and entrances in view. I arrange my shopping bags on the bar hooks, order up an 18-year-old from Speyside and try not to lose myself in Miranda’s, the bartender’s, brown eyes – a color as deep as the single malt before me. Bit of an import herself, that Miranda, fresh in from Nashville and knows her way around the music scene and good wine. Raindrops trail down off my jacket and spatter the tile floor. The Scotch is warming, the bar empty and calm. But I know that’s about to change. I wait.
They descend at once, as normal, three couples – all older than the usual bar crowd. It’s a good sign. No endless talk of failed mani-pedis, or what Jennifer thinks of Mike stepping out on her, the air is heavy with the portent of conversation. Couple No. 1 takes a position two stools down, not wishing to crowd, but obviously here to play. The male half is in his 60s with a Kenny Rogers beard, black rimmed glasses and darting eyes. His companion is small but together, parenthesis around the corners of her mouth, hair worn long and I think: “Child of the 60s.”
Couple Number Two – man with Navy cut, JC Penney’s style and proud of it, his wife tall with short, grey hair set off by a fashionable looped scarf. The two men sit next to each other. The Navy man’s wife ends up next to me, smiling as she settles in. She has great skin, of the type Nordic peoples are blessed to have.
Food and drink is ordered and plates begin to arrive, our attention diverted from the Roasted Alaskan Black Cod by the arrival of a couple I immediately dub “Fission,” the blend of personality and chutzpah necessary to most exceptional Chemistry 101 experiments. Like the rest of the gang today they are older – she with a leopard print top, some expensive looking jewelry, hair pulled straight back from her face and accented. She is what my old friend O.J. Kippenbrock would have called an “itty bitty,” small but game – and she has had “work.” Her companion is tall and lanky with a country club smile, a Resistol pork pie perched on his head and everything set off by a salmon colored sweater straight out of the 50s. That proves telling.
Wine and champagne is ordered. Itty Bitty shrieks with delight, puts down her iPhone and high fives Country Club, announcing completion of a big jewelry sale. “Sapphire necklace,” she trills, everyone looking up. “Gorgeous thing. Made my month.”
“Antique?” I venture, setting forth into the conversational jungle.
“Oh no, just great big sapphires, in layers. It’s beautiful.”
“She’s in sales,” Country Club says needlessly, “What do you all do?”
Fission. You just have to love the type. Turned out that even if his lady friend wasn’t into antique jewelry he was into vintage aircraft, the pork pie and sweater matching the Cessna 170 I envisioned him having on the taxiway at Buchanan Field. “I’m a pilot,” he said. “You spend much time in planes?”
“Well, yeah, and rotor, but…”
“We fly whenever we can, beats driving. What’d you say you did again?”
Kenny Rogers was into “Old School” Hip Hop, and was studying its various forms to “keep young thoughts.” Tom, it turned out, was a former Navy contractor, and knew his way around a Lasserette Hatch. Retirement was good to him and he was happily trying to stay off the grid. Talk of recent world events made him scowl.
“I.Don’t.Care,” he intoned a time or two when the conversation steered his way, enough that I knew he was trying to keep the superfluous at bay, but that he still had an interest. I started talking about ships and he brightened like a Locomotive-struck penny. “Stumbled into the War Room on a carrier once,” he said. “I was tracing cable and couldn’t figure out where this one trunk went. Walked in on all the stuff the government tells you they don’t have and a big Marine walks up, waggles his finger and escorted me out of the area, everybody looking at me like ‘how did he get in here?'”
His wife was more gregarious, talking about movies and culture and art and knowing what she was saying. We chatted about books we had read and wanted to read and sleeper movies we should see and then, after a tangential conversation about her daughter’s forays into the culinary arts – she requested a bottle of something from the bar I think was called Bancroft. Round bottle. Whisky, I think. Kenny Rogers offered to buy everyone a shot and I sensed good trouble ahead. Tongues waggled and the confluence of strangers on a rainy afternoon peaked as Dustin, Va de Vi’s stellar barman, arrived and assumed his position behind the plank, surveying the assembled entourage with a “Well, well, what have we here?”
Bartenders prefer their bars to jump a little, I would imagine, with the symbiosis leading to more drink orders and fodder for an active mind – which Dustin has. “This is good,” he said as Itty Bitty and Country Club tried to nail down the name of “that cute little gal from Texas, that show, the one who died…” with everyone tossing out names in a warmed up version of bar trivia – Anna Nichole Smith… Candy Barr… Ginger Rogers… until someone finally hit on Linda Evans and informed Country Club that Ms. Evans is still alive and going strong.
“She is? Dammit,” he said, losing a bet perhaps but triggering laughter along the plank. Kenny Rogers was fist-bumping his neighbors and talking about what it takes to stay young and he let something slip about a misspent youth and the police reporter in me prompted the question I’ve always asked of guys who had the look. “Been inside?” I said simply, the darting eyes fixing on me for a hot second and I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “Twice,” he confirmed, and we let the moment pass in light of drinks shared and good conversation. The bar was alive, conversations sparking up and down like lights on an old Brainiac computer, spinning off into nothing or ending with ribald punch lines and laughter.
My second single malt was gone and the rain had passed. I unhinged my shopping bags, warm inside and joining Country Club and Itty Bitty as they left the bar. Handshakes all around, fast friends on a rainy afternoon, slipping into each other’s lives for a brief, pleasant moment. “Happy Landings,” I offered to my pilot friend, the country club smile snaking across his face. “Thanks. Enjoyed it,” he said, the two of them making as much of a splash in departure as they had upon arrival.
“Me too,” Navy said, extending his hand. “I had fun. My name’s Tom.”
Pleased to meet you, Tom. It was good meeting you all.