Q&A with Benjamin Wachs – Author of A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City
Is there a connection between spirituality, music, and bars, during your travel experiences in the world?
Absolutely. In no small part because there was a connection between these things during my life at this time. I sat down, meditated, and asked myself: “What do I really want to be doing?” And the answer eventually came back: travel the world. Bars originally had nothing to do with it. But it absolutely blended the world of bars and nightlife into my post-modern spiritual quest.
How did you come up with the title A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City?
I started looking for patterns, and realized just how many stories from this period involved somebody walking into a bar, meeting someone, having a complicated discussion, rising sexual tension, and then an experience of the magical or divine that resolved it somehow.
Where is the Sacred City? Are we all looking for it?
Every city is an outer borough of the Sacred City, which means if you go deep enough into any city … if you go where the dreams are dense and hopes are stacked like skyscrapers and possibility hangs out of windows like air conditioning … you step into it. That much human activity, that much input, it’s a kind of prayer, and to go deep into the heart of it is to experience the holy and magical pumping through the city like blood.
I don’t know if we’re all looking for the Sacred City all of the time, but we’re all looking for it at some point in our lives.
After dropping out of graduate school, you worked as a freelance nightlife Playboy.com reporter. Was dropping out of school the right thing to do?
It was a terrible decision in so many ways. If I had it to do over again I probably wouldn’t, but I don’t regret it for a moment. There are times when you have to be true to yourself and this was one of them.
What can a city’s nightlife tell you about the people there?
It tells you about their aspirations and their taboos, along with the state of gender politics. Discoveries like:
- What vices the police tolerate, and which they crack down on
- How much a bribe can let you get away with
- Who people are pretending to be when they go out (are they trying to be Scarface? John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever? Donald Trump? Muhammad Ali?)
How much fact is there within your stories?
All the stories take place in real cities, most were inspired by one or more elements in real life, and everything in between is a jumble. No story is directly true to life.
Can you name a couple of your favorite stories?
“The High Prices of Venice” where an American tourist discovers his life’s calling – living the high life with a prostitute while he waits for the devil to come to the ancient city. One of my best works includes “Feeding Time” about three friends out on the town who discover a homeless man with an extraordinary knowledge of theoretical physics. They want to find out his story, but he just wants to eat.
One of the biggest surprises for me has been the reception to “Free Will,” a story about a man who comes to a bar because his attempt to live a life free of intense addiction is failing him, and how he tries to keep from bending his knee to a visiting God. The story almost didn’t make the book, but I’ve had people from across San Francisco’s counter-culture text me at three in the morning saying “I just read Free Will – I can’t believe how much that speaks to me!” That’s really gratifying.
How many cities have you visited? Which ones were the most exotic?
I can confirm fifty-one during the period of time that inspired these stories. Twenty-six cities are covered in the book, including Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Budapest, Prague, Moscow, Istanbul, Zurich, and Rome.
The question of how exotic a city is must be matched by the question of who you are in it. I have seen teenagers enter the Kingdom of Death and leave talking about who had a crush on whom. I have seen Americans walk right past great works of culture because they were looking for a beer. I have seen first world liberals walk through Havana and miss the deprivation around them because they wanted it to be a worker’s paradise.
You’ve sung in some of history’s greatest cathedrals. What was that like?
I love cathedrals so much, and I love singing in them. Those acoustics aren’t an accident: they were built on purpose. To “see” a cathedral without experiencing the acoustics is to be half-blind.
Any life-changing revelations during your travels?
I discovered the following.
- It’s important to not be afraid
- Strangers will often be kinder to you than you would be to them
- People who say they love you are far more likely to let you starve than are the people who work in a homeless shelter
- People are absolute geniuses at finding innovative ways to make themselves miserable
How does your involvement with Burning Man impact your writing?
It’s helped me to become good at actively engaging rather than being a spectator to one’s own life. It’s been especially helpful, as I’ve moved from fiction to non-fiction.
You consider your book to be spiritual. Yet, it takes place in bars around the world. How can that be spiritual?
I’d go so far as to say that there is more spirituality in a bar where people are actively engaging with their spiritual hungers and needs than there is in a church where people are passively accepting the idea that as long as they sit still in the right place for a minimum number of minutes, they’ll be spiritual.
Does your job of Communications Director for Saybrook University which is focused on Humanistic Studies, figure into your writing?
My passion for humanistic studies does. We’re too ready to abandon the human for the technical. Our notion of what people are capable of – of what makes us human – is getting narrower and narrower.
You’ve traveled the world, lived in a Buddhist Monastery, worked as a nightlife reporter for Playboy.com and you’re the bar columnist for SF Weekly. Considering all of that, what’s one of the most memorable things you’ve done in your life?
The more interesting question is: what memorable thing is going to happen to me tomorrow? To the extent this book (and my life) are about longing, and need, and sorrow, they’re also about possibility: about our capacity to rise up and be part of something miraculous.