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Bob’s Bar - Matty Heimgartner

I had made sure that everything in my life was temporary and disposable – my job, my car, my home, my pride – just in case he changed his mind and wanted me to move to Indiana with him. After his first six months there, including my visit to see him for Thanksgiving and his visit to see me for New Year’s Eve, he didn’t ask me to move in with him. Sometime around Valentine’s Day, I realized he wasn’t going to ask. He was busy studying for his master’s degree. I was busy waiting. After two more months, we called it quits. Our five good – great even – years could not stand up to one bad one. Once I realized I wasn’t moving to Indiana, the disposability of my life suddenly lost its appeal. I grew insecure with the lack of permanence in my life. I began to feel uncontrollable symptoms of my clinical depression, something I was usually able to manage by using tools I had learned from various doctors.

 

I had been here before. When I was 19, I suffered a depressive episode. Before I found the tools to help myself, I found band aids in glass bottles and small baggies from strangers in shadow-casted late-night transactions. As scared, alone, and hurt as I felt from the break up, I knew I wanted a different outcome. I decided that very night to get sober, a move I had been hesitantly dreaming about for years. Within a week, I quit my barely-above-minimum-wage food service job. Before I finished out my two weeks, I had an interview for a position as a part-time Art Teacher at a highly acclaimed private Art studio. I landed the job and my roots began to grow firmly into my home-city again.

 

Within the short time between him leaving and us breaking up, I moved out of our shared apartment because I, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend could not afford the rent without the fourth income. I moved in with my 88-year-old widowed Grandma. Prior to moving in, I saw her about once a week. It was generally a coffee date in her family room, a tradition that we both cherished. Some visits were a plain and simple coffee date for an hour, but others would last an afternoon if she needed help with small things that she could no longer do herself because she developed a degenerative eye disease. All three of her children still lived in San Jose at that time and they each helped with something (i.e. groceries, bills, and yard work), and my brother did a lot of the handyman type of work. So I got to do the fun stuff with her. Our coffee dates often led to a caffeine-fueled drive to the Dollar Tree for cards. Two cards for one dollar, can’t beat it. Grandma was known to never miss a birthday, anniversary, baptism, whatever the occasion – there was always a card from Grandma. And she wasn’t going to let her failing eyesight change that. I would pull each card off the rack, explain the image in vivid detail, read the front, and read the inside to her so she could really choose which card she wanted to send. Then we’d go back to her house for another cup of coffee and craft a message for each one.

 

Despite our great friendship, I will admit that I was afraid to move in with Grandma. She told me that she wanted me to commit to one full year because my oldest brother had “moved in” a year prior, hung shelves, made himself a home, and then promptly moved out. He didn’t even last three months. She didn’t want that to happen again. After living a disposable life for so long, the commitment scared me. There were, however, clear benefits on both sides of the deal, even beyond our strong friendship. With her eyesight only getting worse, combined with a major loss of hearing, she could use some help around the house and getting to doctors’ appointments. As for me, she offered the cheapest rent in all the Bay Area. With skyrocketing housing prices, a family discount did not sound bad at all. Grandma also told me that I was welcome to use my late Grandpa’s bar as an Art studio. The legendary Bob’s Bar. Growing up, I had always heard stories about the wild nights in Bob’s Bar. Every relative – even ones that were on my Facebook feed but I wouldn’t recognize in person – had a story set in Bob’s Bar.

 

Grandma told me that the backyard was so full of weeds when they purchased it in 1961, that they found an old Chevrolet truck buried below them in the back corner. As we sat on comfortable outdoor chairs on a perfectly manicured lawn, I found that hard to believe. A man who never let anything go to waste, Grandpa Bob used recycled materials and leftover wood and concrete from his bridge-building job to create a haven for himself, Grandma, and their three children. Once the essentials were laid out – like a strip of concrete holding a clothesline that separated two lawns and a long stretch of sidewalk that connected the front gate to the back gate, Grandpa Bob began to have fun while creating the space.

 

Before Bob’s Bar was a bar at all, it was a patio roof over a twenty-two-foot by twelve-foot slab of concrete. Grandma told me that Grandpa Bob did not have a solid plan when he started developing the patio, he just created as he went. Just a few years after completing the patio, Grandpa Bob and some of his friends moved a portable manager’s office from a jobsite in Pacifica to the backyard. They made sure to sneak it in after dusk because the lowbed truck was so tall that they had to lift the telephone wires to enter the back gate. Once the new building was moved in, right against the patio, Grandpa Bob began to build walls around the patio to close it in against the portable office. That office lived a second life as Grandpa Bob’s metal shop. One small piece at a time, Grandpa Bob began to convert the patio into what would eventually become Bob’s Bar.

 

By the 1970’s, it was a complete building that had windows, a telephone, a television, and a heater. I have seen photographs of my family playing darts and cards, always with a smile, whether they were looking at the camera or not. Except Grandpa. He didn’t smile much in photos or in person from what I can remember, however, I don’t think that was due to him not having fun. He was the kind of man that always seemed to be thinking about several things at once.

 

For decoration, there were cologne bottles from Avon in the shape of old cars. There were different sized antique models of old cars. The walls were curated salon style with a mixture of framed mirrors that featured popular beer logos, pictures of tractors, and other Midwestern memories. There were unframed snapshots of the family tucked into corners of the mirrors, on shelves, and anywhere else that they fit. He also collected hats and hung them from the ceiling. Grandma told me that, one night, my aunt counted them all and there were over one hundred.

 

He had helping hands along the way but it was largely a personal project. Bob’s Bar was a work in progress for many years. The finishing touch was an actual bar to put inside to solidify the ambience of a public bar in the private bar behind my grandparents’ house. Unsurprisingly, Grandpa Bob got his hands on an old PG&E electric wire canister. He sawed it in half and used one half to create the bar. The outside of the bar had many thin slices of wood standing vertically to produce a striped effect. Inside were two shelves made of metal, with carpet tops. He also installed a fluorescent light above the top shelf to make it easy to see small things in the dark. The top of the bar was made with a beautifully thick slab of polished auburn wood. For decoration, triangular shaped flags promoting his favorites sports teams (i.e. the Oakland A’s and San Jose Sharks) were evenly spaced and thumb-tacked to the exterior.

 

By the time I was a child, most of the family had moved onto the next chapter of their lives, whether that was starting a family of their own, progressing in a career, or moving out of San Jose. To me, Bob’s Bar was an old building out in the backyard that had some cool antiques and lots of spider webs. Despite changes in the extended family, my grandparents’ house was still the meeting place for every holiday and most birthdays. My father, stepmother, five siblings, and one aunt and uncle were the regulars, with occasional longer attendance lists. The women cooked side dishes and prepared the plates and utensils in the house, drinking White Russians, and the men were out in the backyard – some by the grill, some in Bob’s Bar – drinking beer. My two sisters and I bounced between the two spaces and then eventually made our own fun with a set of Lion King toys and Chinese Checkers.

 

I was only ten years old when Grandpa Bob was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As he became less mobile, Bob’s Bar grew less inhabited by people and more by storage boxes. Remnants of the past still hung on the wall, layered with dust and accompanied by spider webs. The last big party that we had for Grandpa was his 75th birthday party in 2003, two years after his diagnosis. My parents, all my siblings, both of my aunts and their families were all at the party. Familiar faces, but it was rare to see them all together. There were also many unfamiliar faces. There were family members from Iowa that I had only heard stories about and there were family members from various parts of the country that I had not heard about. There were church friends. Neighbors. Old colleagues. It was a huge party to celebrate Grandpa Bob, no matter what chapter of his life the guests met him.

 

My family had a new video camera that could transfer the recording to a VHS. Although it was a family toy, I took the biggest interest in it. Most of my siblings played video games, skateboards, bass guitar – stuff I didn’t care about. My youngest sister and I made short films for fun. Upon arrival at our grandparents’ house – shortly before most guests because we always arrived early to help set up – our father told us that we had a job with the video camera. We were told to document as much of the party as possible and record individual family members wishing Grandpa Bob a happy birthday. Sharing the camera as little as possible, I directed most of the video. It was exactly what you would expect from an untrained twelve-year-old. The video contained lots of nothing with commentary, also about nothing. Toward the end of the afternoon, Dad reminded me what I was supposed to be doing with the camera. I started easy, with my favorite cousin. She was eleven years older than me and had a house with her tattooed boyfriend. They had motorcycles and a pool table in their garage. She was so cool.

 

When I pressed record and listened to her wish Grandpa Bob a happy birthday, along with a short personal message, I noticed Grandpa standing on the second lawn. Alone. There was nothing in his hands and his shoulders were slumped forward. He wasn’t talking and it hardly looked like he was even thinking. That was the moment that I realized how sick he actually was. It was then when I understood the importance of the video and recorded quite a few family members, even ones whom I didn’t know.

 

For the next year or two, he was very quiet at family gatherings. We are fortunate that he never became angry or violent, as some people do when their Alzheimer’s progresses. Seven years after his diagnosis, he was bedridden. His three children and their spouses split duties to help with different tasks; my parents helped lift him out of his bed, change the bedding, and his clothes on every day except Thursday. Due to the fact that my parents’ visits were more about helping with Grandpa than socializing, my siblings and I stopped tagging along. Plus, by this time, the four of us who still lived at home had discovered marijuana. When our parents would go to help Grandma with Grandpa, we knew exactly how long they would be gone and we could plan our smoke session in the shed accordingly. We went through a lot of apples and aluminum foil.

 

In the last years of Grandpa’s life, my oldest brother – a self-proclaimed collector (a hoarder, in my opinion) – made use of Bob’s Bar to store extra “collector’s items,” that he didn’t have room for where he lived. Eventually, Bob’s Bar became a thing of the past, like a faded photograph in your wallet – you could still make out what it once was, but only because you saw it when it was there.

 

Grandpa died in 2011, ten years after his initial diagnosis. For the next few years I rarely went into Bob’s Bar, despite visiting Grandma often. It stood tall in the backyard with so much potential, but it seemed far beyond hope for a revival. And with my brother’s stuff in there, I never bothered to even try. Spider webs grew larger in every corner. Dust collected on the orange stadium seats. Less of the walls became visible, but every family gathering had at least a few moments of conversation dedicated to its nostalgia as we squeezed into the room to sit on one of the tractor seats that Grandpa made into bar stools many years prior.

 

In February 2019, when I moved into Grandma’s house, I scooted some of my brother’s stuff around to make a comfortable walkway. I wiped out visible spider webs and added a few touches of my own, like small Spice Girls figurines and other little knick-knacks that survived my many moves throughout undergrad. I wanted to clear out the space and start fresh but everyone in my family seemed to have an emotional investment in Bob’s Bar staying exactly how it was (even though I was the one inhabiting it). On April 1st, my partner of over six years (roommate for over five), and I broke up. When I listen to pop songs about one person not expecting the breakup to happen, I always wonder how they could not see it coming. Now I know. I wanted to marry him. I wanted to be a part of his family forever. We spent holidays with my family for those six years, which was nice. But we had a more consistent relationship with his family, dropping in on random days just to hang out, have a drink, and spend the evening together. I was devastated to lose him, but I was losing so much more than just him. All it took was one phone call from graduate school in Indiana.

 

Being almost two years alcohol-free at that point, yet still using street drugs with friends when the opportunity presented itself (and that was pretty often), I considered reaching for the drugs in my dresser or even grabbing one of my brother’s nasty Pabst cans from the small fridge behind the bar. But I didn’t. Something stopped me. I later recognized it as my Higher Power giving me strength. Instead, I painted. I was thirty days into a one-hundred-day art challenge on Instagram and, up until that point, I had been creating singular illustrations each day. Most of them were fun and had a little story in the caption. Unsure how to process the end of the relationship that I had worked so hard to keep, I considered it a special occasion and pulled out a canvas to do a much bigger acrylic piece. I painted all my feelings into a piece called “Committed,” which looked quite different from the work I had been creating up until that point. The painting is of an anatomical human heart with a chain around it. Over the three or so days that the painting was created – and the booze stayed in the fridge and drugs in my dresser – I realized how possible it actually was for me to move on without him.

 

In fear of not following through, I announced my sobriety, joined AA, and gave my drugs away. I distanced myself from my friends, quit my job to search for another, and spent my time making Bob’s Bar into a safe space because that was all I craved – a feeling of safety. The initial redesign only took a weekend. I did not ask anyone for help because, frankly, I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to hear their opinions. I had spent so long working in a team, I felt like the renaissance of Bob’s Bar was my first official task as a single person. Grandma popped her head in from time to time, but she mostly understood that if the music was so loud she had to shout over it, I didn’t want company.

 

Avril Lavigne had just released an album after a hiatus due to contracting Lyme disease. When I say her name, most people think of the17-year-old who told us how “Complicated,” a “Sk8r Boi,” was. This new album, Head Above Water, radiates 17 years worth of growth. She survived something that could have killed her. In my mind, so did I. Over two days, with help only from Avril Lavigne, I emptied out the entire bar. I removed everything from the walls, every shelf, every crevice. I threw away stuff that I knew no one would miss. I made piles of things for specific family members to sort through. And I kept enough important memorabilia to preserve Bob’s Bar, but not so much that it would overwhelm Matty’s Studio.

 

One wall of the studio had windows from end to end. The wall directly across from that was turned into a rotating gallery space for me to hang my art. This worked quite well when I began recording my YouTube series, “Matty’s Palette.” The studio looked like a fancy set built just for the show. Once I was comfortable socializing again, my closest friends came to my studio, one or two at a time, for “studio hangs.” Sometimes that meant a painting session, while other times it meant a photoshoot but more often, it meant a safe space to spill our hearts out to each other.

 

Grandpa Bob built his bar with love. The family and friends of family who spent their evenings there felt it. They knew they could go there for a good time. When his bar became my studio, the love stayed firmly ingrained in the building. When artist friends came over to create and later artists whom I hardly even knew, they would tell me how comfortable and welcoming the space was. It was a haven that I shared with anyone who cared to join. Grandma recognized that it had been given a second life and, although that was beautiful, the years in between Bob’s Bar and Matty’s Studio took a toll on the physical structure.

 

With each rain, I had to move everything away from the gallery wall – the paintings, the lights, the chairs, all of it. Being the first year out of a decade-long drought, we had quite a bit of rain and the moving of everything (and waiting for it to dry) got old quickly. My brother and I patched a hole in the roof, but we learned in the next rain that that hole was only part of the problem. Grandma hired a man to check out the studio and see what the repairs would cost. Ultimately, we would have to remove all the walls and ceiling and start over.

 

My uncle, a contractor, and his team came to remove Grandpa’s metal shop, the portable manager’s office, which was overridden by asbestos. Although the shared wall protected the studio from asbestos, the team convinced us that the building was hardly safe to inhabit. With the rotting framework, the entire building leaned and, when you pushed the corner hard enough, the whole structure moved in that direction.

 

On the very last night, after I emptied everything that I could lift by myself, except the sound system, I put on Grandpa’s work hat, my crop top denim jacket (a little Bob’s Bar, a little Matty’s Studio), turned on Avril Lavigne’s Head Above Water, and thanked the universe for allowing me to share this space with my late Grandfather – someone I mostly got to know posthumously through his art. I swept the studio one last time so a few of my tears could fall onto the clean concrete Grandpa Bob poured decades earlier.

 

Like clockwork, Grandma walked into the studio just after Avril’s album finished. We reminisced about Grandpa and about the building. I read her the post that I published to Facebook to welcome the rest of the family to mourn with us. Being a few weeks into COVID-19’s shelter-in-place, we were unable to have a goodbye party for the sacred space. I didn’t realize it then, but those last moments of Grandma and I standing in the empty building, talking about Bob’s Bar and Matty’s Studio, was the only goodbye party we needed.

 

A building that took years to make and continued to evolve for decades was torn down in less than three hours. Most of Grandpa’s memorabilia was distributed to family members. Although it was my space for a while, I felt no need to keep any of his physical memories other than the mirrored sign that reads, “Bob’s Private Bar.” It hangs above my paint brushes in my brand art studio, right where his metal shop once sat.

 

Matty Heimgartner is a California artist and writer whose surreal paintings and personal essays tend toward the introspective and reflective. Heimgartner often participates in art shows around the San Francisco Bay Area, and their art has been featured in the magazines CreativPaper, Beyond Words, Content, Midnight Chem, Cerasus, and Artist Portfolio. Their nonfiction appears in Reed Magazine, Thanks Hun, The Rromp, Resurrection, and Beyond Queer Words. Matty holds a BA in art and an MFA in creative writing. MattyHeimgartner.com / @fabulousmatty

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