Speakeasy, Halloween 2013

Our San Francisco hotel isn’t right in the Tenderloin district but it’s close enough to know that the costumes of some are the lives of others.

The streets leading to the Bourbon and Branch speakeasy on a chilly Halloween night are cluttered with people conspicuously unaware of the occasion, dressed up only as themselves.  And we can’t move quickly: my colleague is waiting for a hip replacement so the short walk from the hotel to the bar gives us plenty of time for feeling out of place.

There’s a man looking more smug than officious in front of an unremarkable wall. This is Bourbon & Branch “speakeasy.” We were supposed to need a password, but a chipper woman in tattered clothes with a black eye waves us in to the roar of the bar.

Bourbon & Branch was actually a speakeasy during Prohibition. True to its history, you’re never supposed to order a drink by name–rather you discuss your choice of “flavours” with the bartender and enjoy whatever it is he produces. There’s no proof that the layout today is the same or better than it was back then, but the bar is laid out as a maze of different offices and shops, secret doors and quirky flights of stairs. It would be fantastic any day of the year but it’s intoxicating on Halloween.

We squeeze through a secret door into the “offices” of Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency, and put all thoughts of the Tenderloin streets out of our heads.  My husband, conpicuously uncostumed makes his way through several sexy witches, some overheated animals, and a Harry Potter or two, to order us a round of whatever the barkeep wants to make us.

At one point, a bartender manages to light his wig on fire, but no one is too perturbed–not even the bartender who douses his head and carries on. Too many cocktails later, my husband and I teeter out through the secret door to head back to the hotel, leaving my colleague to fend for himself. He’s eyeing up a young Frida Khalo who likely won’t have noticed his cane under the table. I wish him the best of luck. I’m exhausted. I need to work tomorrow. I just need to get to my bed.