To young SLO County ex-pats like myself, who left town before turning 21, McCarthy's Irish Pub serves as something of an embassy for locals in what is ostensibly our hometown, a place where we know we can find each other among the crowds of college-age extras from Marin and the OC. Coming home every six months or so for the past six years, I've only seen San Luis change in periodic bursts like slips of thumb over a flipbook on growth. On my most recent trip back around Christmastime, finding the bar on Marsh Street was the most noticeable change, and we were anxious to get out of our parents' dens and see how the new place measured up.
Yet, as much as I genuinely missed the bar--especially after having lived back home for most of the year before it moved--the ceremony of those black T-shirt-clad mourners proceeding the Court Street bar down Higuera for its third life had seemed a little overblown to me. I mean, this was, after all, just a bar.
That such extended ritual over a few pieces of gin joint seemed overdramatic at the time is only because I failed to realize that, in a downtown as regularly Botoxed as San Luis Obispo's, a welcoming old bar becomes a real gem because of its ordinariness. Considering that chunks of the Blackstone Hotel and Mee Heng Low Chop Suey will soon be tossed unceremoniously into some contractor's Dumpster, I think an old bar top does deserve to be carried down Higuera like it's the Feast of San Gennaro.
A city's architecture is its only volume of history that most people ever bother looking up. Each block could tell you something of a trade or a group that once lived there. Sometimes, even, a street will present you with a chronologically perfect chapter: Walk east on Monterey Street from the Mission to Santa Rosa Street, past the Sinsheimer Bros. building to the proudly fire-resistant brick of the J.P. Andrews building, then to the alternately gaudy and subdued art deco styles of the Fremont and the county courthouse--and witness three centuries of city history in as many blocks.
I understand, of course, that these narrative changes and new styles are what give the city its historical scope, profiling the growth and transition of its character through time. All architectural merit aside, the sprawling tracts of the Arbors with their botanical street names and the 10 or so trailer parks tucked away behind main thoroughfares tell us as much about San Luis Obispo now as Palm Street or a good old bar tell us about its past.
It's not change or growth in principle that irks me--it's watching the town's aged core get the kind of makeover meant for an affluent teenager. Each time I return, I see more of the old story in the streets obscured by the white-out brush of Spanish tile, and inevitably someone tells me that I'm bemoaning plenty that I'm too young to remember. Even though you don't need much age to grow nostalgic about San Luis, that's probably so, and I guess that's what really rankles: that I didn't get to see more of those pages before they'd been ripped out.
It's from this view of the city that, as much as I miss drinking beer in a dusty green shoebox and seeing the sting of sunlight into the old men's room during the middle of the day, it was heartening to see pieces of the old McCarthy's reconfigured in its new home. The new bar, thankfully, is not some Epcot Center model of the old one, yet before I even walked through the door, I knew where I was. Sure, the new place is a little too clean, and I'm sure I'll keep hitting my head on that low-slung flat-screen TV, but it is still a building where I can count on running into folks I haven't seen in three or six or 12 years the type of place where my friend and I might once again sit between an ex-con and the district attorney who put him away.
Now that pink stucco has grown over the old bar front as though it (or Angelo's or Mo's) had never been there, the new bar is as much its old self as it could be. The transplant job of the stools, the old pictures, and the ladies frosted in the mirrors lets me still drop in to a part of town otherwise plowed under by tiny-girl shops and their tiny-girl clerks. The neon sign, split into halves, and the old green door hung upon an interior wall, where it will inevitably function as a sobriety test to someone who knew the old place, do something to sustain a small, but constant part of San Luis' story.
Zubin Soleimany is looking for a place in Brooklyn where he can get a Mexican Martini. Send him comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.