When we pull up in front of Mr. Steven's Bar, we know we're going to be the only ones in the bar, but we don't know what a truly bizarre experience is about to unfold. We park in front of Sweetwater Tavern, pour four quarters into the meter, and head across the street. Mr. Steven is sitting outside the bar. He's waiting for us.
We walk up to him, sitting in his folding chair, just left of the front door. He has a pot of dry rice in his lap, but we never find out why. Maybe it's keeping him from blowing away. Immediately, he reaches for our hand, grasps it up in a firm shake and asks our name. He smiles and speaks a sentence that isn't entirely English. We ask, "What was that?" but the answer is just as unintelligible. We ask again, same answer. We point to the door of the bar and head in, Mr. Steven following close behind.
Inside, it's dark. There aren't any lights on, but a lone fan whirls from the high ceiling. Mr. Steven's wife is asleep, feet propped up in a chair near the back of the bar. It's hot and muggy; it smells musty and strangely sweet. It's old. There's a patch of the ceiling falling down. There's no TV or radio on, even for background noise. There's nothing but an empty drinking hall. Nothing but us, Mr. Steven, and his slumbering wife.
We belly up to the bar and sit in one of the dilapidated brown leather chairs. Close as ever, Mr. Steven is behind us, placing a decrepit hand on our back, asking, in broken English, what it is we'd like to drink.
"Do you have High Life? Miller High Life?" we ask.
"No, no, we have Low Life," answers Mr. Steven.
Well, at least he's got a sense of humor.
He shuffles behind the bar and opens one of the refrigerator doors. We're sure he's about to pull out a warm, dusty bottle, but magically he produces a frosty, cold Miller High Life and snaps the lid off with an unseen bottle opener under the counter. Just as soon as he sets the beer down, he reaches for a shot glass and a bottle of Mohawk Blackberry flavored brandy.
"This is the good stuff," he says.
He pours us a shot and we ask him to do one with us. He grabs another glass and fills it with the last of the Mohawk. We cheers, but he doesn't drink the shot. The warm brandy tastes as sickly sweet as the bar smells.
While he's still behind the bar, we ask how business is. Whether he can't hear us or he's ignoring the question, he doesn't answer. The phone rings and Mrs. Steven yelps from her napping place.
Once off the phone, Mr. Steven pulls up a chair at the bar and puts his feet up. We try to make conversation, but he's pretty hard-of-hearing. We ask again how business has been. "No business," he says and makes a comment about just being able to pay for the lights.
We order another High Life and Mr. Steven insists that we take the shot he poured for himself. It seems a waste, so of course we finish it. He gets up to come closer, his hand returning to our back.
"You like massage?" he asks.
Stranger-danger is the first thing that comes to mind.
We pay our tab, but Mr. Steven wants us to do another shot. We kindly refuse, shake his hand and head out onto East Congress.
Exiting the bar, several thoughts cross our mind: Not only is this is the single most bizarre experience we've ever had in a bar, it's also unsettling and dream-like in its strangeness. Not like a daydream, but more like a labyrinthine and baffling sleep dream that one ponders the meaning of moments after waking. That's the best way we can think to describe Mr. Steven's Bar. mt