In the pale light of the bar, I can see a bottle of Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple Rum. It’s a product becoming more readily available in well-stocked bar programs, but for a while it was a catch-as-catch-can sort of affair, and if you saw it anywhere you bought as much as they allowed. My first drink is an easy call.
“Can I get a Stiggins’ daiquiri?”
Carlos smiles. “Absolutely.”
The lights are dim in the Sugar House, a cocktail bar in the Corktown area of Detroit. The bar is at that perfect degree of crowded, where your conversation is shrouded in the anonymity of jumbled voices, but not so much that you need to shout to be heard. It’s a volume level that wraps you up comfortably without becoming stifling.
We’re on a road trip that has taken us on a meandering journey away from Seattle through Portland, Boise, Park City, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago. Our VW Golf is packed to the brim. There’s one more stop in Pittsburgh, then onward to Brooklyn, which my wife and I are about to call home, in hopes that eventually we might even mean it.
Tonight, like anywhere we are, Detroit is an island. We are adrift in a strange city, weary from the weeks of packing and driving. There is no turning back, but the way forward is murky. I need more than just a drink, I need a pick-me-up, a familiar taste. The pineapple is the symbol of hospitality, after all. Why not order Stiggins’ and hope for the best?
Nine years earlier, when I’d moved to Seattle at 25, I felt at home for the first time in my life. I loved that city from the very first day, a love that only grew with time. It was our home in every possible sense of that word, and home is no small thing.
But in time, all things end.
Two months ago, my wife was offered her dream job as a children’s librarian for the New York Public Library. We both knew it was a job she needed to take, but goddamn if it didn’t break our hearts.
I think back to one of my last nights in Seattle. I’m at Rumba, my favorite bar, with my favorite humans. We are all crowded around a table far too small for our number, but none of us feels cramped. My wife and I laugh with these friends who feel more like family, but there is a frantic quality to our laughter. Each joke that lands, every fond memory relayed, reminds us of what we are about to lose.
And now here we are two weeks later, the loss of our former life cementing with every mile we travel away from the Emerald City. We are sad, worn out. We can’t imagine finding a home like the one we’ve left. Maybe we’ve made a huge mistake.
Carlos brings me my drink.
He has warm, welcoming eyes above a smile which, bracketed by his Van Dyke beard, never leaves his face for long.
As the night wears on, that smile — along with his energy — becomes infectious. His exuberance bleeds into the conversation. For a few hours it undoes the weariness in our souls.
When he learns that until a few weeks ago I was a bartender, he grows even more welcoming. We are distant cousins in the same big family of bar folk.
He tells us about the bar’s ice program. After closing the Sugar House in the small hours of the morning, he’ll be back before lunch to help a team use a chainsaw and ice picks, transforming a giant block of ice into the smaller shapes and sizes the bar needs.
He explains how the Sugar House organizes its menu as a series of pop-ups. Not long after my visit it will feature a Chinese Zodiac theme, not long before, it was the Bill Murray bar. We laugh as he relates the story of their brief tenure as the latter, when the sign was just Bill Murray’s likeness, with no words, confusing many a would-be patron. Tonight, it is winding down its brief existence as a tiki bar, which is what initially drew me in.
As we share too many draft Fernet shots, he tells us about how meticulously the temperature is regulated. The perfect temperature — 43 degrees Fahrenheit — creates a wonderful cooling of mouth, without being so cold as to mask the complex flavors.
His passion is drawing us out of our heads, and our genuine interest feeds his enthusiasm.
Through the alchemy of hospitality, a random cocktail bar in Detroit becomes a temporary home for two weary travelers. The kindness of a stranger helps me believe that things are eventually going to be alright, that home is always out in front of me, just waiting to be created.
It’s seven months later and we still haven’t gotten our bearings in New York, but our friend Michael is even newer in town than we are. He is discouraged by the arduous process of finding an apartment, and is crashing with us in the meantime.
I listen as he relays his fear of never finding a home like the one he’s left behind. I can see that familiar shell-shocked confusion in his eyes.
“I just don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here,” he says. “It’s too much. I’m having trouble believing I can make it work.”
Then I remember Carlos.
I can’t fix Michael’s problems. I can’t recreate what he’s left behind or speed him through this transition. But I have a bar stool he can sit on, and I have limes in the fridge and some simple syrup I made yesterday.
I smile at him, remembering how much a smile can be worth, before reaching into my bar and pulling out a bottle of Stiggins’.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I have just the thing.”