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Distillations: Running the Magic Gauntlet at Sparky's Diner 

Tuesday, Dec 2 2014

I'd thought "Helena" was only in town for the afternoon, but she was staying in San Francisco overnight. The last time I was in Chicago she'd been too tired to hit the town, so now that she was here she committed to "last man standing" protocols. The night wouldn't end until I said it ended.

Which was great — except that I got the news at 3 o'clock and already had plans. How the hell could I make this work?

I called E., whose new house I was supposed to visit for the first time. Arranged to make that a shorter visit. We'd just get a pizza.

I called Jimmy. "Hey, I've got a VIP in town and can't be on-site for a couple of hours. Can you handle it?"

He agreed to pick Helena up at her hotel (in a convertible if he could get it, in a Black Rock City DPW truck if he couldn't), show her around town, and then take her to my favorite bar, the tiny SRO nestled within another bar, OddJob, where I'd hopefully arrive later.

I emailed Joey, the bar manager, and said I'd have some people coming in.

I called up Miriam. We were supposed to go to a late night thing, but now I asked if I could cancel the thing and instead recruit her into my spontaneous effort to give an out-of-town guest a magical time. Miriam — who is still angry at me because she thinks I portrayed her as "the worst date in the world" when she first appeared in this column — said yes, and agreed to rendezvous with Jimmy and Helena at the bar.

I had pizza with E. and her new boy. Hopped on BART. Raced to OddJob. Arrived just after Helena texted me, asking, "Are you even showing up?"

"Oh ye of little faith!" I said when I arrived.

"I had the most amazing drink!" she gushed.

We needed a jumpstart, so we raced over to Martunis. Sat in a corner near the piano and listened to some incredible singers (and a few others) belt out classics.

"Why are you trying so hard?" Miriam whispered to me.

I had no idea. I barely know Helena. "Because ... I want to make sure the magic happens, I guess."

Miriam gaped at me. "But you don't have to try! You just are!" I've been getting that kind of thing from her a lot lately. But she's one to talk: She didn't have time to go home and change before meeting Helena, so she went to a department store and bought new clothes and a makeover. Just for this. And then had a hard time explaining why.

But it's obvious: Creating magic trumps everything. You have to understand that about us.

I got up and sang "Hallelujah" — my signature Martunis piece.

Three hours and two venues later, we were in a booth at Sparky's, on Church.

As one of S.F.'s few all-night diners, Sparky's is a crucial part of many nightlife experiences. It's run-down, with a slightly terrifying boy mascot who looks like he was lifted off an '80s videogame, and a wait staff that forgets about a third of what you order. We need it so much more than it needs us. We ordered pizza and hash browns and pancakes and grilled cheese. I had a "Sparky's Lady" (vodka, triple sec, lime juice), which was smooth and easy. We ate like crazy.

"Tonight's been amazing, but I'm so glad we're done," Helena said. "I can't take any more."

I had nothing more. Our last stop had been a show at the Old Mint, and now I was tapped out. But she didn't know that. "What do you mean, done?" I asked. "Next we're going to a warehouse after-party!"

"Oh God ..."

"In Berkeley!"

"NO!" she leaned over the table. "Benjamin, please don't make me go to Berkeley!"

I sighed. "Okay. But we're still going to sunrise champagne in Pleasanton."

"Make it stop!"

"Let's get you back to your hotel."

It took us 10 minutes to get the check. We walked out the door. Helena admired the exterior. "I do love a good neon sign."

Oscar Wilde said to "cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul." Sparky's is a place where we overindulge in one kind of excess to recover from another kind. It turns out that's an essential technique. And even if it wasn't ... we can't help ourselves.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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