A friend of mine recently told me, “Hey John, when it comes to bars, you’re like the Pied Piper. Except you usually lead us into traffic.” Aw, that’s so sweet.
It’s true, I know where to get a drink in this town. As God-given talents go, it ranks far, far behind sculpting, healing, and belching the alphabet, but hey, you play the cards you’re dealt.
As a card-carrying member of the drinking illuminati, I’m often asked about bars that I like to frequent. Ah, now that would be telling. One of the rules about secret watering holes is not to discuss secret watering holes. The next thing you know, that quiet, dignified, old-man bar that you regard as your own personal fortress of solitude is overrun by off-brand hipsters in PBR T-shirts demanding that the proprietor replace Lightnin’ Hopkins on the jukebox with the Strokes. Sorry, not on my watch.
I can, however, give you a shaky shove in the right direction and hopefully fuel your spirit of adventure with two simple words: stumble zone.
Contrary to popular belief, a stumble zone is not merely a cluster of bars and taverns packed together in the same vicinity, whose proximity makes for a convenient night of carousing. As my pal Sal Dali used to say, “There’s more to this picture—and it involves melted clocks.”
A true stumble zone should be more than an evening’s distraction; it should be a cultural odyssey. Begin at a nice, respectable joint. A place where you can safely order food without signing a waiver. Pricey cocktails, breathable air, and reasonably attractive people would indicate that you’ve landed in the right spot.
From there, your next three destinations should be heavy on atmosphere, but they should also represent a noticeable decline in quality. Like your own increasingly impaired judgment, your night out ought to capture a feeling of descent. What kind of descent is for you to decide: joy, degradation, oblivion, idiocy—the possibilities are endless. As long as you manage to complete the journey from debonair to degenerate.
A stumble zone should also present you with plenty of options. In other words, it’s vital that you get out of your comfort zone and rub elbows (or whatever) with folks you wouldn’t normally associate with. After all, nothing brings people of all type and temperament together like a Dark and Stormy or two. Besides, you’ll never learn anything by hanging around with people who think the way you do.
Your stops should offer contrasting clientele (bohemian, redneck, gay, beer snob, punk, bridge & tunnel, colorful oldsters), different diversions (TV sports, DJ, live band, karaoke, strippers, comedy, pinball, quiet despair), and varied potables (cocktails, craft beers, cheap beer, sake, wine, coffee). But by the end of the night, you should be somewhere you never dreamed of going. The scarier the better. Then, and only then, will you discover what sort of person you really are. Timid sheep? Fearless leader? Pathetic souse?
In future posts, I’ll provide sure-fire detailed routes for some of my favorite stumble zones, in an effort to get you all better acquainted with our fair city.
It should be noted that I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility. Not in the Ayn Rand sense, but rather in getting your boozy butt home in one piece. While the term “stumble zone” implies a certain cavalier attitude toward sobriety, revelers should keep a glass of water handy throughout the evening. And don’t forget to shovel some grub into that piehole to ward off the whirlies! Most importantly, a stumble zone should be readily accessible to public transportation, a taxi, or at least to a sober buddy who owes you a favor. Stay tuned.