Picture this: you are leading the pack around a dirt track race in the sixties, somewhere near, say, Rockingham. As the dust starts to clear from your victory lap, you emerge from your muscle car and make your way to the podium. The woman waiting there, beaming with your trophy in hand, might look a lot like my drinking partner for the evening, the bartender Fiona Matthews.
Matthews stands in front of Carrboro’s Bowbarr, smoking a cigarette. She wears a flouncy black-and-white checkered blouse, a pleather black skirt, and a pair of white high-heel sneakers. She stubs out her smoke and pulls me inside, seating us pole position in front of Louise Calhoun, who has taken Matthews’s shift for the evening. I recognize Calhoun from Durham’s Alley Twenty Six and learn that both she and Matthews work two or three other jobs.
Bowbarr is a perfectly realized, unpretentious neighborhood bar. I’m annoyed at myself for having never visited. It’s a narrow shotgun setup with just enough deck out back for the occasional breather. Tucked away on Rosemary Street, it offers a respite from the collegiate frenzy of Franklin. The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” streams from the speakers.
I tell Matthews my plan for the eveningto pace myself by only ordering drinks with lots of mixers. The on-duty and off-duty bartenders decide I should have a Carrboro Mule, consisting of whiskey, ginger beer, soda water, and lime. Blenheim’s and Maker’s Mark is a personal favorite, so this variation feels familiar and welcome. Matthews orders a Naraquila, a Bowbarr specialty made with tequila reposado, sweet vermouth, dry curacao, sweet orange, and walnut pepper bitters. She gives me a taste and assumes the role of bar spokesperson.
“Bowbarr has some really great specialty cocktails,” she begins. “They’re seasonal, and they use a lot of local ingredients…”
Fine, fine, I tell her, we’ll get into all that. First, I want to know her story.
The twenty-seven-year-old bartender with the wide-open brown eyes and laser-straight bangs grew up in Germantown, Maryland, just outside of D.C. She went to high school in Rockville, the same one R.E.M. urged us not to go back to.
And she didn’t. She came down in 2007 to earn a dual degree at UNC and never went back. As the evening progresses, she becomes more and more adamant about her loyalty to Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
“Carrboro is like a crazy community. I’ve been here nine years, and every year I’m like, ‘I should move,’” she says, “but where? Everyone here rules.”
Her parents followed Matthews, an only child, to North Carolina before she attended college “so I could get in-state tuition.”
“Sounds like a ploy,” I say.
She laughs, agrees, and insists they have a great relationship. “Last Sunday a bunch of my friends went to hang out with them … while I worked.”
I would argue that her parents have a lot to do with Matthews’s specialty. Her parents married in 1971 and now work together at a Harris Teeter in Burlington.
“My parents always taught me that anyone that comes into a place you work at is like a guest in your home,” she says. “Treat them like that.”
As the night progresses, you can tell she believes this. As we talk, friends and fans won’t let her pass without slinging an arm around her and giving her a squeeze. Normally, the journey from Bowbarr to The Cave takes five minutes. When you’re walking with Fiona Matthews, it’s a leisurely, and social, commute.
As the Triangle undergoes convulsions of development above ground, the stucco interior of the subterranean Cave is still monkey-shit brown. The band is still loud as fuck. The drinks are still relatively cheap.
The country singer Sarah Shook is behind the bar, and Matthews hurriedly puts in our drink order. Slingshot Cash has strapped on guitars, and the band doesn’t seem like it will be playing the soft jams. We grab a booth, and Matthews tries to yell the names and ingredients of our drinks over the band. For me, she’s ordered a Gatorade Shot, for herself, something called a Fluffins.
Both are sweet and deceptive, going down too smoothly. The Gatorade Shot is three parts Burnett’s citrus, two parts lemon juice, and one part Sprite. You’d swear you were drinking actual Gatorade. The Fluffins Shot is a concoction of vodka, lemonade, and peach schnapps. I’m glad I scored the Gatorade. We finish our drinks and, after some smiling and shrugging, decide to head to the Nightlight, where we might be able to talk again.
The Nightlight’s continued existence is a beautiful thing. The books are long gone, of course, but the Nightlight remains, in my guide’s words, “a safe space for experimental sound.” She started volunteering here about six years ago, was quickly promoted to run the soundboard, worked the door, and settled in as a bartender. It was the perfect place to cut her teeth. As if to prove this point, the young woman behind the bar tonight has to call over a veteran to make our drinks. It’s her first night.
After conferring with Nathan Taylor, a friend and bartender, Matthews decides I should have a Fresh Start to stay hydrated. It’s a pint glass of grapefruit LaCroix, with vodka and lime, served with a purple bendy straw. It’s my least favorite drink of the evening, but probably the one that saves me from calling an Uber. Matthews orders a rye Manhattan.
Just as we put bendy straws to our mouths, a very tall man in a monk’s robe and a surgical mask fires up some sequencers and drum machines. Matthews looks back to me and at the door. We head to the benches that line the alleyway.
Her face flushed, Matthews looks around and becomes visibly nostalgic.
“I just love Carrboro,” she says. “I just feel like with everything going on in Durham, Carrboro gets a little forgotten.”
She tells me how this town embraced her, took her in, supported her transformation from student to conscious adult who wants to buy a home, even run for the board of aldermen. She goes in to say goodbye to friends and grabs some LaCroix for the longest hike of the nightto the Orange County Social Club.
Who’s your bartending hero around here?” I ask.
Matthews thinks for a minute, then says, “He doesn’t tend bar anymore, but definitely Lee Waters when he was at the OCSC.”
“He was always so kind and considerate, but strict,” she says. “You didn’t call him sweetie or darling or honey or any of that. Everyone knew that Lee wouldn’t let shit fly at the bar, so you didn’t do shit.”
As we enter the Social Club, I’m again relieved that some things stay the same. Some of the paintings have been replaced, but the hammered copper bar still begs to be touched. The dark corridor between the bathrooms and outside deck still suggests sudden make-out sessions. Matthews orders herself a shot of tequila and a glass of Prosecco. I point to the Golden Grove; she agrees that it’s the perfect last drink of the night for me. One sip of the rye mixed with hot Blenheim’s ginger ale and orange bitters, and I’ve got a new favorite.
We take our drinks to the back deck, where a raucous table of twelve playing Hot Dice raise their glasses and hail Matthews over. Everyone scrunches together to make room, and she graciously introduces me to everyone, as she has done everywhere. It’s bartender’s night off, and the crowd loves it. She’s very animated.
“I don’t know about you guys, but two days before my period, I can drink forever,” she proclaims.
A quick survey suggests her experience is not universal. Loud debate ensues among the women, while sheepish men only smile. Matthews is so happy.
Just before I say goodnight, she tells me again: “I just love Carrboro!”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Plenty of Fluids”