(Ed. note: This gorgeous essay came over the transom, from cocktailian and friend of the blog Susan Harlan.)
I am unpacking my bar. Yes, I am. My bar was just delivered, and it has all the potential of a new thing. And now I am going to fill it with old things.
This bar will house many objects that have been in storage for the last year. These things are hidden away in boxes that have been hidden away in warehouses. Taking things out of boxes is like acquiring them for the first time. My dining room floor is covered with crumpled packing paper. I am surrounded by boxes, and I have an X-Acto knife.
I gaze on this new bar, this gorgeous creation of chrome and wood with its vacant shelves and mirrored back, and I know I should be unpacking more practical things. I should probably unpack my clothes, toiletries, and dishes. But I’m not going to. I have a whole house to unpack, but I am unpacking my bar.
I open the doors to this bar. The inside smells deliciously of wood, but it has an appealingly fake varnished smell, too, as if this bar of mine understands artifice. I think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book I never liked. The bar’s doors open onto a world of fantasy, minus the creepy fauns and witches with candy fixations.
There’s something sad about the end of unpacking, so you don’t want to unpack too quickly. You want to draw out the process – to live a bit longer amongst the mysterious things in bleached packing paper. And so I take my time. I unwrap a set of gray glass tumblers decorated with signs of the zodiac. I unwrap a pink flamingo tumbler and pour myself a bourbon. The little pink guy looks content against the brown of the bourbon.
The pink flamingo is a very retro bird. The bird of choice of John Waters. I have two pink flamingos in my yard; they are named Patsy and Edina. But the pink flamingo is particularly suited to a bar, as is the penguin. They are both boozy birds. I unwrap my penguin cocktail shaker. His head is tilted ever so slightly in the air, as if he is a proud penguin butler, a figure invested in elegance and order. (He is wearing a tie, of course.) I unwrap a silver orb-shaped ice bucket with a parade of penguins marching all in line. These penguins seem worn out by life; they trudge along, slightly slouched. They are penguins of the working day. The orb ice bucket is very mid-century; it oozes sixties-ness. And next to the owl, the penguin is the most mid-century of fowl, but the owl has more of a punch bowl physique. And as penguins can’t fly and are not considered particularly wise, they can take comfort in their established place in bar culture.
Some people think of objects as real – almost as living things, or at least as the non-living means by which we make manifest our lives. Others think that there is something unsavory about this sentiment – that it is a kind of false worship. But those who feel the life of things take it for granted that this is how it is, and it seems impossible that one could feel any other way.
I unpack swizzle sticks and straws. Swizzle sticks with orange and black spheres at their ends. Marbled straws. Straws striped in red and yellow. Straws printed like the bark of birch trees. One should always have things that one does not use. I have two mini-olive skewers for martinis with plastic olives on their ends. They are pretty, and they serve no real purpose.
I am unpacking my bar, and there is a lot to unpack. A rhinestone-encrusted golden elephant bottle stopper. A small stack of linen cocktail napkins embroidered with ladies in large skirts.
I rip open another box. Gifts. A monogrammed mint julep cup my friends gave me for performing their wedding ceremony. In another box, I find the cocktail shaker they gave me, in which I have mixed virtually every cocktail I’ve ever served. I find a white ceramic bottle stopper in the shape of a dog (the stopper part makes up the upper half of the pooch’s body and his head.) Some of my favorite people to drink with gave me this dog. And I come across my bluebird bottle stopper from a friend in New York. That little guy doubles as a candle-holder: he is an over-achieving bottle-stopper. Multi-tasking.
So many glasses. I arrange them in neat rows on the shelves. I unwrap an old PanAm tumbler. Some friends gave it to me when they lived here, but now they have moved away. I like the little PanAm icon on the glass. It suggests a glamorous era of air travel – a time when people sat back in wide seats and sipped cocktails while a semi-magical, gorgeous machine cut through blue skies. I unwrap a Cachaca glass from a Brazilian restaurant where I had my thirtieth birthday. It was not a happy birthday, but the glass makes me happy now. It has a cheeky-looking crustacean on it.
Glasses decorated with ferry boats or four-leaf clovers or acorns. Foxes. The devil. A whale – that elusive creature. Glasses with stems and silver rims. Glasses that are rounded, squared, heavy, light.
These glasses promise future evenings with friends. They recall past evenings. Over the summer, I drove across the country to work in Los Angeles for a month. It was an alien place – in some ways a lonely place, a place where I felt trapped in my car or trapped in my temporary home. In the evenings, I walked my dog around the quiet residential streets of my neighborhood, and I listened for the sounds of parties or get-togethers. Silence. I looked for extra cars on the street. Nothing. The turning in of the American family, a friend said to me recently.
People used to have bars in their houses, sometimes built into their houses. Bars turn out.
I unwrap a set of coupe glasses. I love the way a coupe glass feels in your hand. Everyone says they’re terrible for drinking champagne as they let all the bubbles escape, but I don’t care. Nick & Nora glasses. Glasses from flea markets and from vast, disorganized antique malls. Glasses printed with leaves and flowers. I set a solitary little cordial glass on the middle shelf and stand back and survey the scene. The bar is starting to resemble a cabinet of curiosities.
I come across things that I have bought for myself. A narrow, elegant blown-glass pitcher. A tumbler with a nice, heavy bottom that I found at a store on Block Island last summer. The shop also sold fishing tackle and rain gear. The glass has the shape of the island etched into it, an abstract white shape on the clear glass. If you don’t know what it is, you wouldn’t know what it is. I unwrap another tumbler with a gleaming Statue of Liberty superimposed right in the center of the city’s skyline. “New York,” it proclaims. I think I found that one here in North Carolina. I come across my favorite vintage cocktail shaker printed with colorful Paris monuments – Moulin Rouge! Ballets de Paris! L’Opera de Paris! – and drinks recipes: Tom Collins, Martini, On the Rocks, Old Fashioned. On the Rocks suggests that you take a bit of liquor and put it over ice.
I set a small book of Fitzgerald’s writings entitled On Booze on the lower bar shelf. I like the way it looks – it’s a slim, clean white book – but I’m not convinced he knew all that much about drinking. He’s a mythic boozy figure, like Dorothy Parker, but to me there is always something cold about Fitzgerald, like the flickering diamonds of his depicted worlds. Plato is a warmer model. He understood that friendships are forged by boozing. And he understood that thinking and drinking are suited to one another.
I finish my bourbon and walk into the kitchen and rinse out the pink flamingo glass, and then I dry it off and put it back on the top shelf of the bar. Now I just have to gather up all the paper and the boxes and throw them away. I look over the shelves. There is no more room. And so I close the doors.
Susan Harlan is a professor of English literature and an avid cocktailian. She also enjoys drinking on the move, as she chronicles in her travel blog Born on a Train.