Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
This is Matt’s last post with us, so a hearty thanks and a warm goodbye goes out to him today. Matt has been writing with us since August 2015.
It’s 11:04 p.m. in Austin and I can’t find a margarita. All the bars on my street apparently close down at 11, one of the few things that my expansive Airbnb host did not describe.
Then I see it, shining across the across the street. A second floor, open rooftop bar with a flickering open sign, ringed in neon. The Kava Bar. Worth a try, but there’s no sign for drink specials. This may be a twenty-four-hour coffee place or something of the like. More than worth investigating however.
The place has a bit of a strange vibe and some weather-beaten clientele, but it is Austin on a Tuesday night, close to midnight. Doesn’t seem like a bit of a unique crowd would be out of the norm. There’s also a general hippie vibe, but that seems fairly par for the course around here. I am on Barton Springs Road after all.
I peek behind the bar. There are bottles in the fridge, though I can’t make out the labels. Obscure Austin craft beers for sure. Phew. This isn’t a coffee place. And a margarita machine! Beautiful, like manna from heaven. I have found my margarita.
A pretty, dark-haired bartender stops by. She’s young and dressed vaguely hippie-ish as well and has welcoming brown eyes and a habit of excessive eye contact.
“Can I get a margarita?”
“Yep! A kava margarita?”
“Sure. Is that your house margarita?”
“Yeah. Wait, you know there isn’t any alcohol in these, right?”
“We don’t serve alcohol here, we serve kava.”
The skepticism on my face must have shown through and clued her into the face that I was about ten seconds from calling it a night.
“Have you ever had kava before? No? Kava has been used for centuries as an alcohol replacement in the Pacific Islands. It ‘s a root beverage and really hard to find on the mainland. It cures anxiety. If you have around three glasses it should give you a gentle relaxed feeling and a buzz.”
This isn’t her first time giving this spiel. She’s says it with quickness and confidence, knowing she has a limited time window here before I’m off the bar stool and ubering to a place that serves the real, fermented stuff. And she keeps the steady eye contact.
I’m about ready to turn tail, but in the back of my mind a little voice whispers aren’t you supposed to do a stunt journalism assignment this month? Combined with the general absurdity of the situation, I make my decision.
“Fuck it. I’ll try it”
She grabs my credit card and goes to fill up the glass. I do a quick and frenetic Google search: what is kava is kava harmful side effect of kava Is kava legal
You know, the basics.
It turns out she was right. Used by the Pacific Islanders, kava is a traditional root-based beverage or powder that is currently exported in small controlled quantities mostly by the island nation of Vanuatu.
Vanautu! That’s a real place. My wife’s aunt and uncle are missionaries there, I think. My mind is clearly looking for any type of familiarity. Of course, the only thing that I know about Vanautu are Bekah’s stories of crossing a piranha-filled river on a rickety raft with her grandmother. Oh and that the north of the island is still occupied by cannibalistic tribes. A root beverage from here seems reasonable.
There are unsubstantiated claims about anxiety relief, and a warning that drinking excessive (read gallons) could lead to extreme liver and kidney failure. Three glasses though, should be okay.
The bartender returns with a half coconut shell and places it before me.
“Just a heads up, expect an earthy taste. It might take some getting used to. I’ve added an anti anxiety booster and a calming aroma something or other.” (She had more official, bullshitty language, but that’s the basic nature of it.)
“Thanks for the warning.”
“Oh,” she adds, almost as an afterthought, “Your mouth will start to tingle and go numb after a few sips. Don’t panic, that’s just a harmless side effect.”
Huh. Would have been nice to know.
The beverage resembles muddy water that a dog shit in and then buried it in a clay pot underground for several months during monsoon season. It was then dug up and consumed by a large Pacific Island finch, consumed and promptly regurgitated mama-bird style into this empty coconut shell. As it turns out, it tastes even worse. The tingling starts after the third sip, and it’s like being in dentist office with the guaranteed sanitation and medical degrees. Somehow, the numbness doesn’t affect my taste buds. If anything, it exasperates them.
Noticing my confusion, the guy working on his laptop down the bar leans over.
“Salud. Your first kava?”
“Cool, I’m here almost every night. I’m a freelance e-commerce web designer. I come here to get my work done. It relaxes me.”
“Oh, cool, what kind of sites do you work on?”
“Dildos, like the sex toys. Here’s let me show you my latest.”
I sit in bemused silence as he pulls up his browser window and types in an address. Sure enough, the screen fills up with dildos in every imaginable size and color. Surprisingly, it seems relatively tasteful all things considered. No naked women, no salacious font type, not even the silhouette of lingerie or lipstick by the logo. Just a marketplace of dildos with names, product descriptions, and specs organized like any other.
“Yeah they’ve got everything, optimized SEO. Search by features and taglines. I do good shit.”
I’m now beginning to pick up the sour smell that comes from too much caffeine and about a week’s lack of showers. An acrid, dried sweat that carries an echo of Mountain Dew and junk food (not a broad ranging programmer stereotype: he also mentioned that he drinks a lot of Dew before hitting the kava house). This is not a dude I want to spend a whole lot of time talking to. I’m getting a bit of the “slip something in your already questionably legal drink” vibe from this guy. I make my excuses and grab a paperback version of The Hobbit from the nearby, branch-made bookshelf. It’s right next to a book on crystal healing and another on opening up your chakras.
The bartender stops by.
“Are you ready for your second Matthew?”
Ahh there’s the conspiracy. She read my name from my credit card and is trying to pretend familiarity and flirtation to get me to stay for two more in order to achieve the promised buzz. The disgust of the first glass must have shown on my face, transparently. But regardless of her, I’m committed to this whole thing now. I’ve got journalistic integrity to think of. Not to mention that I’m never planning on doing this again.
Though that is a potentially dangerous attitude, in retrospect.
The second is even worse than the first. My small sips aren’t doing much to hold this at bay. The texture of this glass is grainer, and it’s slowly filtering into my mouth as I sip with gritted teeth. This also has apparently different healing qualities from the first. It certainly tastes worse. Vomiting has never sounded like a better idea.
“We’re closing down? Matthew, I’ll pour you your third before we shut down.”
Great a third it is.
At first, it’s smoother and more palatable than the second. All right, I’m getting the hang of this. Then it all comes back worse. I half vomit into my mouth, look around in a panic, and make the questionable choice to attempt to swallow whatever liquid combo is now brewing in there as opposed to swallowing my pride. I get it down barely and stare down the coconut shell in consternation. I’m not quitting now. I’ve never hated a coconut shell more. I’m pretty sure literal dog shit water would be better. This is the marathon running of a drinking experience. Mind over matter, let your body perform. How bad would this taste without the numbing properties?
I can do this though. And I do, truly ready to vomit at this point, my small mastery of self-control and larger dosage of pride being the only thing that prevents me.
The bartender comes by again.
“Would you like some water Matthew?”
She knows I need it, and she’s taken sadistic pride in this. When she comes back with it she advises me not to drink any alcohol tonight under any circumstances and not to drive a vehicle for six hours. This is when I’m fairly sure that kava has increased my level of anxiety as opposed to reducing anything at all.
I walk out of the bar, stopping a few times to dry heave into the passing shrubbery, heading back to the relative safety of my Airbnb and, unbeknownst to me, the strangest, trippiest night of dreams in my life.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.