At some point during the night, people started spilling from out of the Hi-Tide Lounge into a scummy street near downtown San Francisco. This was Monday night, and St. Patrick’s Day – a small detail we didn’t account for that could’ve thrown a wrench in our celebratory plans. The Hi-Tide specializes in cheap liquor that has a grit you can practically feel on your teeth, which makes it pretty well-suited to Unwinnable. But when you combine bay area hipsters and crusty regulars with a drinking holiday even the scrubbiest place in the Tenderloin has the potential to blow up.
It did, but not for the expected reason.
It might’ve been fate that brought Unwinnable to the Hi-Tide in 2012. Four of us were hanging out in a hotel the Sunday before the Game Developers Conference started, waiting for editor and podcast host Chuck Moran to find a good local place to have a little writer’s meet-up Monday night. I was still a rookie with the site and didn’t have much more than a rookie’s mental picture of what I’d soon learn was a big team. Chuck threw a proverbial dart on the wall and just like that the decision was made, sight unseen.
The next day we knew we’d made the right call. There’s a metal grating surrounding the sagging building’s workmanlike column entrance that feels a little like being detained in a slummy pawn shop. The cheap leather upholstery at the tables inside is lumpy and marred by worn strips of red duct tape. There’s a painting of a topless woman I’ll call Wanda ripped straight from Scatman Crothers’ room in The Shining, breaking the endless clutter of chintzy light strings and dollar bills covered in scrawled ink. The scuffed black and white floor has probably seen hundreds of drunken nights calling up luckless withdrawal over a showy $7 Cutty Sark – if Unwinnable is a literary iconoclast, the Hi-Tide is its divey brick and mortar double. The bar’s even backed by a handful of saucy Asian ladies.
As we take in all the character, Wanda lords over her domain like a crust goddess.
The writer’s meet-up got a little out of hand. The Hi-Tide’s a cramped little hole with maybe a 120 capacity, a number it probably doesn’t see much on a typical Monday. Somehow word got out that we’d posted up here and before we knew it the place was packed industry friends that had come out of the woodwork to drink. It’s tough to recall details like words when booze has put holes in your brain, but no one expected this kind of turnout. Stu couldn’t even comprehend it.
“Everyone knows us,” he confided in me later, nursing a whiskey. “How the fuck did that happen?”
On St. Patty’s, the crowd bulged. We’d launched a Kickstarter for a subscription digital magazine just a few hours before and, more to the point, had promoted the party that this year went with it. Alcohol fueled decibal levels. In the blowout I lost my business cards. Eventually a mob of developers, writers and colleagues were drinking and talking on the street. When the cops finally showed they decided that, on a night like tonight, we weren’t worth the trouble.
We’d bought fifths to celebrate. Some of us got sloppy. That was my lot a year ago, when I went through a preposterously dangerous amount bourbon in just a few hours the Sunday before the show. The revisionist versions here are probably a lot less interesting.
Regardless, when Chuck’s booming voice told the packed side room our plans, I crawled out of the heady stupor where my brain had curled up in flight-or-flight. You could see already see the support on everyone’s faces. It meant a lot. Without friends, that first Unwinnable party might’ve been quaint. The site might not exist at all.
God only knows what our next clambake will look like – it’s not important. As long as you’re still keen to talk we’ll be here. Wanda’s waiting.
Follow Steve Haske on Twitter @afraidtomerge.