The Joss Bar
Book Excerpt from "The Muse in the Bottle"
Non-Fiction: From "The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers Celebrate the Joys of Drinking" (Citadel Press, 2003) Book Anthology featuring the likes of Mark Twain, Pete Hamill, Bert Sugar, Lou Johnson, Martin Booe and Jeremy Rosenberg.
The Joss Bar
By Jeremy Rosenberg
Jack Dallas* stands behind the homemade and heavily bamboo’d bar in his 400-square-foot Hollywood efficiency. Pours a drink.
“The Shipwreck: Banana, coconut, papaya, rum," Dallas says. "You won’t know what hit you, but you’ll suddenly find yourself ashore.”
This is Dallas’ joint. Booze mecca. No charge. Open bar. No secret knocks. No passwords.
Calls it Joss Bar, after the paper polyurethaned to the flat drink mantle. Joss, the same paper burned at Chinese funerals.
The place is twenty by twenty feet. Bathroom and closet to one side, with a partial wall. Kitchen on other side. In the greater middle plane, a rectangle. One corner clipped off for computer, phone and drawing table. Most obscured by bamboo and brocade three-panel Chinese folding screen. More of the panda produce throughout. Blow-dart-gun-thin reeds.
Up above the bar is a thatched hut roof that looks like brown sunkist blonde layered hair of a surfer. A seaside shack in Mexico. Shuffleboard court in Florida.
“I wanted to design a space where I would feel comfortable,” Dallas says. “I chose bamboo. Everything else just filtered in.”
Fish nets hang from ceiling, cast shadows like topographic maps.
The wall behind the bar is covered with cross-hatched grass matting, squishy to the touch. Like a bird’s nest, from egg’s view.
Here are two skulls. Plastic. One flips open, mango candies inside. An alligator head, from a Bayou curio shop. Theosophy poster. Kreskin’s ESP, a parlor game. An accupuncture model, diagramming pressure points.
Oh yeah, the bed. Folded up into futon sofa. The desk, computer, telephone. Pads and sketchbooks. Easel.
Dallas lives here, paints here. Hosts and bartends here.
And this is Dallas. White dude. Clean shaven. Thirty? Thirty-five? Maybe younger. Ex-military. Okinawa, six months. Won’t ever say more. Has family connections with the secrets and sauce. Great-grandma was a moonshiner, made bathtub gin in Prohibition-era Chicago. Po’s raided once, saw poverty, winked mercy. Said kill the still but made no arrest. Great-grandma went right on cooking.
Dallas, at his joint. Holds court. Murray’s Pomade in brown hair. Apply with two palms, push strands up, then smooth back. Wears shortsleeved shirts, silks or blends. Most gatherings, flies the Guayabera, flame red gear, popular in warm-weather locales. The Philippines. Made in Korea. Dallas removed the pockets. Nothing to hide.
“The Icy Tarmac: Frosted vodka plus licorice. One or two of those, you’ll be happy to slide into somebody.”
Dallas makes calls. Invites twenty over, female and male. That’s what the room can hold. Animators. Crafters. Writers. Treats them to concoctions. Guests sit on two bar stools, pair of other chairs, and on his futon, the one with the furry gray cover that feels like a rabbit’s hide and looks like an elephant’s.
The visitors chat. His age and younger. Look down, on the old steamer trunk with the buckles and snaps. See Hush-Hush. Gossip rag from the `40s. Sample headlines:
“Exposed: The $300,000,000 Davy Crockett Racket.”
“The Naked Truth about Terry Moore’s Fantastic Antics.”
“The Lowdown: Hedy Lamar’s Strange Bout with the Lie Detector.”
Mag’s a reminder of Dallas’ day job. He fields calls, tracks tales for a celebrity journalist. That’s new way to say gossip columnist.
Dallas is discrete. Dummies up until publication. Then repeats. The big screen ingenue using the butt double. The `70s singer with such a midnight jones for crack that he smashes the glass stem and smokes the shards.
“It can drive you mad,” the barkeep says. “I’ve heard things that would make your eyes spin.”
“The Monkey’s Paw: Blended drink. Frothy banana pleasure. You couldn’t ask for more, except for an opposable thumb.”
Dallas takes the silver mixing tin and the clear glass mixing cup and shakes them back and forth, elbows wide, like Houdini trying to escape a straightjacket.
He pours a green drink into a martini glass. Call’s it a Headhunter’s Honey. Stirs it with a chopstick held loose like a jazz drummer’s brush. Keeps time. Cracks his knuckles, sounds like felled redwood.
Full set list:
Mildred Bailey, throaty jazz singer from the `40s. Charles Trénet, “The Singing Madman,” bald, wore a monocle. Famed for acting, looking like a chicken. Tampa Red. Mexican Go-Go tunes. Blues. Rockabilly. Curtis Mayfield. Tom Waits. Trance and electronica.
“The Grassy Knoll: A vodka absinthe equivalent. Kind of like Dallas, 1963 – you wonder where the shot is coming from.”
You’d never know from the outside. Dallas resides in, pours out of, a three-story brick apartment house thrown up eighty-years-ago. Brick building, ivy covered, some nice in-laid ornamentation. Now on a dead-end cul-de-sac overlooking a freeway.
Dial digits to be buzzed through the metal gate. The wood door, heavy, paint peeling, unlocked. Sign over trough for mail packages reads, “This is not a trash basket.” Nearby notice: “Caution, Broken Tile.” Big middle chunk of the third step up out of four has crumbled.
The public interior is covered with gray shag. Carpet bespotted, stained like a rummy’s liver.
“The only thing that’s really notable in this building, besides myself,” Dallas says, chuckles, “Is that Elizabeth Short stayed here when it was a residence hotel.”
She: The Black Dahlia. Murder. Infamy.
More recently, more trouble. Ten years ago, Dallas hears, the place was a drive-up crack den. Autos pulled up to street level panes, made buys.
These days, there’s a senior citizen home across the street.
“Seven Seas Regret. A special mix. Like Malibu dirt – it slides, baby.”
Dallas never charges his guests, blows his own sleight dough. Accepts food donations, sometimes hard stuff. Has a candy-color collection, mouthwash-looking menagerie of syrups and mixers and the Sherlock Holmes stuff – the proof.
Cherry Flavor brandy. Crème de Noyeaux. Crème de Banana. Blue Curacao. Sour Apple Schnapps. Lychee Punch. Vermouth. Compari. Drambuie. Midori Melon Liquor.
Joss is about the soft stuff. That’s what pleases the crowd.
Toughest guests walk in grizzled. Ask for martinis. See surroundings. Smile. Chips cascade from shoulders.
“You can have the biggest bruiser in the world and he’s not going to just want beer,” Dallas says. “Sooner or later he’s going to back down and he’s going to want some foofy little apple drink. When you get right down to it, people want to look forward to their drink. They don’t want to be punished by it.”
Has Phoenix brand Gao Ling Chiu, two peacocks on the bottle and an emblem of a monkey. Basically a rice brandy, 112 proof, 56% alcohol. Yellow-clear hue, a la industrial cleaner. Just barely on the edge of blinding, barkeep says.
“Drink it straight, it’s a lot like drinking paint thinner. It’s powerful stuff. It will make you hurt. It’ll make it seem like grappa is a soft drink.”
And Dallas drinks Macallan scotch when he’s alone.
The habit starts to cost. Fifty bottles of exotic booze, always, on a crank job’s wages.
Dallas thinks maybe sometimes to come full circle. Open Joss Bar up to strangers with cash, tapping secret knocks on his door. Be like great-grandma with her still. Maybe build bamboo cages for go-go dancers. Hope the po’s don’t raid. Hope the neighbors keep leaving him alone.
For now, he won’t even accept private bartending gigs. Just Joss, free and clear, that’s all. Whether it makes any sense or not.
“There are moments,” the man says, “When I look around and say, ‘What the hell?’ Couldn’t I just go out and buy a six pack like everybody else?”
*=Jack Dallas is the legal doing business as, but not given name, of a Los Angeles resident.
Jeremy Rosenberg lives in Los Angeles, California. He writes The Secret City column for latimes.com.