It’s Fourth of July week and I’m about to get older, and I’m in a café on the Bay thinking how I’d love for this place to be open at night, late, like 4am, and sit and have beers or wine and talk to strangers about where they’ve been, literally and figuratively. It kind of reminds me of a place I used to go to that burned down.
We called it The Shack because it had no name.
This happened about twenty years ago.
Just off the Gulf of Finland not far from an exclusive hotel but well in the woods was one of this world’s coolest bars—a dive really—a place to drink and sing and meet people you’d never want mad at you. It was small, with broken-down shed-like walls and windows which barely kept out the storm blowing off the Baltic one May night in the nineties. It was well after midnight and we ordered a bottle of Georgian Merlot and several plates of shashleek, a Russian shish kabob dish. A gypsy band showed up, including a guitar and violin player I’d met before along with a friend of theirs, a woman singer. Hours passed as we sang and drank. There were four of us, three of them, a waitress, the owner and his cat, and we sang and drank while what must have been that hurricane from The Perfect Storm slammed to shore. This duck blind of a building sat amongst birch trees, but that simply made me more aware of the weather, wondering when one might topple through the roof. It was exhilarating, an adrenaline rush that had nothing to do with the wine. It was being alive, right then at 3 am, with total strangers, live gypsy music, Georgian wine, and shashleek, that kept us awake. It felt dangerous, subversive, but it was just a bar in the woods.
The band took a break and came to our table and we spoke in broken Russian and English about the storm and how we hoped it wasn’t high tide soon since the water was just a few hundred feet west, maybe less. Then Alexi, a two hundred eighty pound drunk Russian who hated Americans started screaming at us like he had the first time I ever met him, the first time I walked in the place a few years earlier. He had kept to himself mostly since then, sometimes talking to me, mostly not, but this night something got under his skin and he screamed at me like he did that first time, “I hate Fucking Americans.” He startled me, but he had a drink in front of him, and another regular customer, a friend of the gypsy band, was sitting with him and told him to quiet down so he did.
But then I saw his eyes. They were deep and vacant, like he’d seen a ghost, and when he saw me watching him he stood up and said, “I hate fucking Americans!” and he tossed his beer at me. Sasha, the guitar player, stood up and yelled at him in Russian. But just then thunder, with a sound like the sky opening up and dropping two tons of hard earth on our shack, rattled the walls and ceiling and we all cringed. I thought for sure one of the birch trees cracked and was going to kill us all. I went down on the floor with my friends and the gypsy band, and Alexi cursed and fell against the back of his chair. He suddenly looked so small, and the thunderclap crashed on us again, this time blowing open one of the windows, and rain and wind sheered a path across our booth and against the other wall. Dima put his violin under his coat and our shasleek flew off the table onto the floor. The shack cat went for it but the wind and rain chased him back under the bar and into his bed.
Another flash of light lit up the shack and Alexi was trying to hide under his table but he was too big, and just as he glanced out the window on his way to the floor, he stopped and stared. I was watching him, and he looked out the window for some time, then looked at me, and with a nod he said, “Horosho. Horosho” which means, “okay. It’s okay.” And he looked out the window again when the window slammed back and forth. He grabbed it before it hit him and he held it a second, staring out over the Gulf. He looked at me as if to ask me to come see but he didn’t know how. Instead he closed the window and latched it again and turned and sat down. He nodded to me, “Horosho. Edeesuda.” It’s okay, come here. A few of us gathered and sat at his table, and Dima took out his violin. Alexi smiled at me, looked out the window and peered with a stoic face, then turned and smiled again. He looked at the waitress and said “pivo,” beer, and he motioned to us all so she brought us all beer. The rest of the night we laughed and sang songs. I asked Alexi what he saw outside but he just nodded at me and said, “I hate fucking Americans,” and we laughed and toasted and Dima played, then Sasha joined in and then the woman singer, and the beer tasted good. Alexi sat quietly the rest of the night.
The storm passed and the sky quieted down. I almost had stayed at the hotel that evening, turned in early, read in bed. Those are all good things, quiet ambitions which keep me grounded and invested in whatever happens next. But that night I didn’t. Like the time a friend of mine and I went Ghost Hunting at midnight at the Saint Augustine Lighthouse, or when my son and I sat up all night in the town square of Portomarin, Spain, because we couldn’t find a place to stay. One time a friend of mine and I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls and it took no longer than it would have to drive, but coming back wasn’t so lucky; we walked for eight hours along dark roads through small towns. But if we had been given a ride right away, I’m not so sure I’d remember we even made the trip to begin with.
Sometimes you have to stay up until dawn to understand what’s hiding behind the night. It’s the rest stop at three am with two truckers and a couple of local high school kids farting around; or the sound of wildlife in the desert brush, or tall pines scraping together in winter in the woods with no light but the moon. It’s walking up an Arctic Path at four am in snow-deep March with Northern Lights bouncing past like a bull whip; or lying on my back on a cot in a compound in Africa beneath more stars than could possibly exist, the distant sound of someone chanting the Koran. It’s walking out of a shack in the woods after a storm passed, the sun just lifting over the raised bridges, ears buzzing from loud live music.
On that night, we stood for a second in the quiet morning light, the four of us, and we watched the sun rise over St Petersburg, then we walked home.