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Bee’s Knees in the Barrio

Never be the first to arrive at a party or the last to go home, and never, ever be both. — David Brown

I led David through a labyrinth of suspended fabric and into an unpopulated room dimly lighted with red bulbs. We made our way between a bed on our left and a coffee table and sofa to our right, finally reaching a table at the end of the far wall, on which sat a green-shaded lamp muted to near darkness. Behind the table stood the gatekeeper. She wore a flapper dress, long strands of pearls around her neck, and a cloche hat over a blond wig fashioned into a straight bob, its flaxen color glowing against her mocha-toned skin. She was Shug in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, primed to belt it out at Harpo’s juke joint.

“What’s the password?” Even her voice was as I imagined Shug’s would be: sticky and sweet like molasses. We’d already passed the first two tests — finding the place and dressing appropriately. David wore a black suit with a black silk tie over a black button-down shirt. The feather in his gray fedora flashed a hint of red that matched my black-and-red feather headband. “Zimbabwe,” I said. Shug (who now introduced herself as Tranita) welcomed us in with an impish smile.

We stepped around the final curtain and into a capacious warehouse with ceilings that disappeared into the blackness above; the walls were made infinite by mirrors and projection screens that were alive with swirling scenes of a 1920s dancehall rendered in shades of red. The only thing missing were the people.

“How early are we, Barb?” David asked, his tone a hair shy of exasperation.

“We’re not early at all,” I snapped. “I even called to make sure that this would be a good time to come. The party started at 9:00 — it’s 9:30.” David sighed, and I answered the question I knew was forming on his lips. “The invitation said from 9 to 3 a.m.”

“And you thought 9:30 was a good time to arrive,” David said, as if he wasn’t already aware of my greatest social handicap — premature party appearance. I have a hard time with parties that begin late, especially on weeknights. Not because I have to get up early or anything, but because on weeknights there usually isn’t much else going on, and I end up sitting around and waiting at home until it’s time to leave. The later it gets, the more my desire to ditch the comfort of my living room diminishes. I like to get the party started pronto, which means as soon as I’m ready. And I was ready — we’d already spent most of the evening listening to podcasts of Radio Lab and sharing a bottle of Block no. 45 petite syrah, and if I didn’t get out of the house when we did, it would have been nigh impossible to fight the urge to grab a book and curl up with it on the couch. But whereas I was just happy to be out and about (i.e., getting the party started), David needed some entertaining.

“Where do you think the term ‘speakeasy’ comes from?” I asked. David shrugged. “I mean, it’s what they called places like this during Prohibition, right? So, do you think people were not only not able to drink, but also not able to speak freely back then and they would go to these underground joints and ‘speak easy?’ You know what? Wait a second, I’ll look it up,” I said, and retrieved my iPhone from my purse.

While I searched for answers, David watched over my shoulder as the bartenders prepped the emerald-lit bar. Behind them, drink choices had been written on a large mirror in glowing green paint — green signifying the presence of absinthe, bringer of la fée verte (the famed green fairy who is not only a euphemism for the liqueur but is also said to be summoned by drinking the intoxicating green beverage).

“Okay, got it,” I said. “Apparently, the term came from an Irish woman who sold liquor without a license and told her clients to ‘speak easy’ when they wanted to buy some. But that still doesn’t tell us anything about the etymology. Wait, here it is. Looks like ‘spake-aisy’ was used for a hundred years before that to define the hideouts of smugglers…doesn’t say what kind. Well, so much for Google having all the answers.” I adjusted my feathers and tilted my head back. “You smell that? What’s that smell?”

“Smoke,” David said. “Cigar, and,” he paused for a moment to analyze the aroma. “Weed.” It was wafting above the dividers from the makeshift “cigar lounge” near the front entrance that had been an advertised feature of the event. Having come of age after the statewide ban of smoking at bars, the cigar seemed stranger to me than the burning herb, especially as the latter’s scent went well with the green theme of the bar.

An hour passed before the party began gaining altitude, an hour during which I suffered the penance of David’s deadpan stare. My redemption arrived in the form of esteemed trumpet player Gilbert Castellanos and his bandmates. As members of the tight quartet took turns soloing, fedoras and pearls gathered round. A pair of professional dancers seized the floor, while at the bar, absinthe was poured over flaming cubes of sugar. A woman in an Asian-style silk dress circled the room, offering nibbles from the kitchen.

Walking outside the nondescript Barrio Logan warehouse, one would never have suspected that on the other side of the wall a party had fallen through a wormhole in space to a time nearly a century earlier. “Isn’t this the bee’s knees?” I said to David, raising my voice to be heard over the trumpet player’s solo.

“What?” David asked. He leaned closer to me but kept his eyes on the quartet. I imagined his appreciation for the music went beyond mine, as David played the trumpet in high school.

“You know, the cat’s meow,” I said. “As in, say, ain’t this joint swell?” At this, David turned his head toward me and smiled. We’d been watching the Thin Man movies, featuring our favorite married characters, Nick and Nora. The first film of the series was made in the early ‘30s, and the dialogue is heavy on the slang.

“That’s right, doll,” David said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll fetch us each a glass of giggle water.”

“Say, that would be nifty,” I said.

“Say, you don’t happen to have any clams on ya?” David said. At this, we both laughed and then turned our attention back to the band, the dancers, and the eclectic crowd of misfits like us, enjoying a night of speaking easy.

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