I lost power at my home in D.C. yesterday morning. I woke up to a Flash Flood alert on my phone. The rain was so heavy that I couldn’t see my neighbor’s house. By 11am, it looked like 11pm.
I’ve been in low spirits lately—the constant drip of content content content, the tragedy in Afghanistan, and the ethical incoherence over the virus have given me a kind of Kierkegaardian existential angst.
I needed to write, but I didn’t want to write alone in the dark. I needed to be around other people, but not talk to them.
I grabbed an umbrella and made it all the way to the Marx Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall bar with food about a 10-minute walk from where I live. (Look: I won’t not patronize a place merely because of its name. I’ve walked by the establishment several times and could make out a magical-looking bar through the partially-fogged up windows. The story I’ve told myself is that it’s owned by conscious capitalists, or woke capitalists, or capitalist’s capitalists, or newly minted Bitcoin millionaires, and it’s all an inside joke—or they just know the market they’re serving. That was the story I liked to believe, at least.)
By the time I got there, I was so wet that it must’ve looked as if I hadn’t used an umbrella at all. The wind had been blowing the rain sideways.
I was in such a rush to get out of the monsoon that I didn’t realize the power was also out at the bar until after I burst through the door. I found myself in a dark wood-paneled room with a few candles set-up on a small table next to a hand-written sign that said “We’re open for business.” This has to be a violation of fire code, I thought, before suspending all doubt.
I could make out two men sitting at the far end of the bar. As far as I could tell, they were the only two souls in the place. One had a ponytail sticking out of what I think was a pink-colored baseball cap. He was tapping his fingers on a lowball glass and staring into the void. The other guy was smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper by candlelight.
The smoker looked up and acknowledged me with a nod.
I took a seat at the opposite end of the bar, nearest the door, and set my backpack at my feet. I reached down to retrieve my laptop from it—I was worried that it had taken on too much water during the walk—but I was afraid to power it on and ruin the experience of the other two men. I took out my notebook and pen instead.
A man emerged from somewhere in the darkness and appeared behind the bar. He lit a candle, and set it directly in front of me. He extended his hand. “I’m Dave,” he said. I saw that he was a man of about 60 with long, wild white hair and blue eyes that seemed like they glowed in the dark. His forearms were veiny and strong. He was the one they had told me about.
I shook his hand. “I’m Joe,” I said. It was the most unoriginal pseudonym possible. I had forgotten to prepare.
He handed me a towel to dry my face. “You didn’t come here to drink,” he said.
“No, I did not.”
“Well, then what did you come here for?” he asked.
He smiled and looked at me warmly—almost as if he loved me. “And?”
“Xanadu,” I said. I tried to look as confident as possible. “Xanadu is the word.”
“Yes,” he acknowledged. “That’s right.”
He twisted a large ring on his right hand that I hadn’t noticed. I could now see it clearly: the ring was of a large fish with a hook in its mouth.
“If I let you down there,” he said, “you are going to see things you’ve never seen before—unimaginable things.” He shifted slightly to the side and looked over his shoulder to the wooden door in the floor at the end of the bar.
“You sure you don’t want a drink first?”
“Yes,” I said. “It might ruin the experience.”
He motioned for me to walk around the end of the bar. I left my backpack under my chair. As I walked behind the two men, they each turned and nodded to me.
Dave grabbed the latch and pulled the door open. It was pitch black inside. He motioned for me to go first. “There are steps,” he said. “They’re steep. Once you find the first one, continue to place one foot in front of the other. Keep your back foot steady until your front foot reaches the next one. Keep going until you’re on solid ground.”
There must have been eighty steps in all, but I stopped counting after the first 10.
When I made it to the bottom, I saw, and believed.