Richie DeMaria

With cancer, there’s always something. Some gleaming chamber in which to be inserted, some noxious compound with befuddling or bizarre collateral damage to ingest in a variety of ways, or great periods of mental vacancy wherein you drift around the edges of mortality as you thought you knew it.

But for some reason, life must go on, so I shuffled off some procedure and enlisted my friend Connery to join me in an afternoon at The Press Room on Ortega in answer to a summons from my Pedant Stalker, the Erstwhile Blimp Repairman and Hat Fool, written on the back of an unpaid bill for two Long Island iced teas from the Cliff Room on the Mesa with its bad music, silent barman, and worn pool table. I asked Connery to come along because he is both smarter and younger than I am, and that seemed like a good résumé for a meeting with the painstakingly mysterious happy-hour ghost who had somehow identified me as interesting during one languid after-lunch glass of wine on ice at Joe’s Café not far over on State.

The Press Club cocktail lounge is a British carryover from what they cheekily call the English Channel. The men’s loo boasts portraits of Queen Victoria over the toilet, Elizabeth I by the paper-towel rack, and a Warhol portrait of the current monarch — another incomparable Tudor like the first Elizabeth who allowed us Shakespeare and the hysterical romp past the medieval world into what became the English Renaissance, or an era that bears her name. The new queen, now some 65 years into her reign, watched history dismember Victoria’s empire, the Blitz, the rebuilding, and then Thatcher and then Brexit and now May and Trump — and, well, God Bless Her Graciousness. Victoria scowls down and on.

Inside, at the corner of the bar closest to the street, there’s a porcelain bulldog smoking a cigar and wearing a Union Jack waistcoat. A sign warns that there is no Wi-Fi and advises patrons to “get drunk and talk.” The music is all British Invasion stuff, messy or clean, certifiably iconic or obscure. The matchbooks claim that The Press Room is “the best place to get shagged” in, I presume, Santa Barbara. Connery said that claim probably wasn’t accurate if “shagging” was what he or Austin Powers thought it is, and if this was the place this actually was.

The stools are free-standing. No back door to this saloon. Some window tables look out at Dargan’s Pub and, of course, the girls in their summer dresses (that are worn all year long on Ortega) as they go to or from the beach or bistro or to Isla Vista and the crushing demands of academe on the American Riviera. There’s a copy of the first Stones album by bar light, and rock lyrics printed in ransom-note fashion cover the west wall. The drinks are cheap and strong, Guinness flows, and there is, so far as I can tell, always fútbol on the two flat-screens. It’s a bright bar, so the Blimp Mechanic didn’t enter in the same sort of nimbus of light he punctured at The Sportsman or the Cliff. He sat next to me and Connery, edged on his stool closer to the jukebox from which a Bowie fest was in full swing.

He was wearing a fez. With that and his Mubarak dye job, he looked like a child’s idea of a Halloween cupcake. I finally asked him what his name was, and he said “Bob,” and I said, “Of course it is,” and he ordered a Long Island iced tea.

Bob, I said, you know, a fez is more than a little pillar you put on your head. “It’s not just a hat, Bob …” He said he didn’t care what his hat meant and went into a weak, Trumpian screed about sensitivity and political correctness and the decadence of Europe and, for some reason, the perfidy of the Chinese. His blimp talk I had heard not long ago at the Cliff Room. Bowie was singing about an American girl, some guy in a vast stadium made a goal, and The Press Room had a bit of a tribal moment which passed soon enough. He laid not enough money on the bar and stepped out onto Ortega in time, or maybe even in tune, with the parade that was passing. I finished my wine, Connery his bottle of water, and we talked about ottomans and presidents-elect in one of the two window seats that look out from London to Ortega.

As everyone with cancer, I am in the Epitaph Mode, or the Summation Sweepstakes. One could do worse, and many have, than to share the eulogy or emulate the life of one Guinness, commemorated by a brass commemoration that reads: “Dedicated to Guinness, The Smartest Dog We Ever Knew.” It’s there on your right, just as you come into the bar. n


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