If you walk west down the Ithaca Commons late on a Saturday night, past Moonies and the State Theatre, the vibe starts getting weird. You see fewer and fewer people, and the people you do see don’t look like students going out to party. The thumping music coming from the bars gives way to a strange quiet.
Head down to Geneva and State and you’ll find a “community labyrinth” behind the office of The Sun. This labyrinth, a set of jagged rocks arranged in spirals, is next to a stairway that leads down to a door. Open that door and you’re inside Sacred Root Kava Bar. I went there last weekend intending to review a few bands, but ended up finding something different.
Kava, if you’re unaware, is a plant native to several islands of the western Pacific. In these ocean cultures, the kava root is ground up and mixed into water to produce a thick, brown drink that tastes exactly like I imagine dishwater would. The reason people drink it anyway is that kava is a mild sedative with mind-altering properties. Kava bars, like Sacred Root, sell it by the bowl.
Though I was there to see the show — which turned out not to be bands but a gothic, industrial DJ — I got there early enough to have some kava. Word to the wise: one shot of the stuff costs only four bucks, but a bowl, which contains five shots, costs twenty and is supposed to be shared by several people. Unfortunately, I did not understand this distinction and ended up accidentally drinking twenty bucks worth.
Kava kind of makes you feel like you just chased a cup of coffee with a shot of NyQuil. The wooziness it induces comes with a pleasant sensation of mental clarity and confidence. It doesn’t get you high, but it can bamboozle you, and the more you drink, the stronger its effects become over time.
Slightly disoriented, I decided to check out the Sacred Root clientele. There were two pleasant middle-aged ladies at the bar whose names turned out to be Kelly and Mary, and also two male bartenders, both of whom had ponytails. One, named Paul, owns Sacred Root with his wife. He explained that there used to be two kava bars in the Commons, but Sacred Root ran the other one out of business. The other bartender, whose name I didn’t catch, wore a possibly ironic pink Oxford button-down. I wasn’t able to figure out the DJ’s name either because I asked him twice but still couldn’t figure out whether it was “Nes” or “Nez,” and he seemed like he wanted me to bug off.
Nes/z was playing to a completely dark dance floor by the bar, and I liked his set a lot. He wore a leather BDSM jacket covered in zippers and had long stringy hair and tape across his nose, and half of his head was shaved. The dance floor was filled with fog and lit by candles. Before he started playing, Nes/z mentioned industrial and 1980s post-punk as musical touchstones, and his website cites lots of other genres that I haven’t even heard of: no wave, witch house, minimal wave. The music sounded a bit like the music from an old John Hughes movie if it were performed by severe depressives.
Not too many people danced. A girl in black fishnets and combat boots did, along with a guy whose jacket was covered in bright red lights and a three-pronged glowing blue symbol. I’m pretty sure the jacket was battery-powered but I didn’t want to bother him and ask about it while he was dancing, so I never found out how it worked. Kelly and Mary danced, too. The kind of dancing I know how to do is pretty much jumping up and down in a circle, and that night it was more like people swaying and sashaying around, so I didn’t dance. (I might have needed more kava.)
In the men’s bathroom at Sacred Root, the initials “JM” are scrawled into the wall, plus a peace sign. The first “JM” I thought of when I saw the initials was John McCain, but he seemed unlikely to be at industrial goth night at a kava bar, and I definitely can’t imagine him drawing any peace signs. So it must have been a different one.
I went into a bright little room by the dance floor, with books and beanbag chairs and what looked like a great place to smoke hookah. The books at Sacred Root are pretty cool, although they’re mostly too complicated to read at a bar: the I Ching, Buddhist literature, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. That night, there were two couples in this room: a pair of bearded men and a guy with his girlfriend. The men, holding hands, left almost as soon as I got there. But I talked to the guy and the girl, whose names I agreed not to use, for a long time.
The guy had just turned 40 and had a beard and glasses. His girlfriend was dark-haired and attractive, and she wore mostly black. We talked about books and traveling and college, and then I asked the question I always ask couples: “How did you two meet?” It turned out that they met at a sex party in New York City.
These parties, the guy explained, are actually attended by many businesspeople and finance types, not just hippies. There are also all different kinds of sex parties — for instance, “kissing parties,” which are presumably rated PG-13 instead of X — and the whole community is very female friendly, with strict rules about how to approach people. I wanted to know more, since my jaw was more or less on the floor, but I got the sense that the girl didn’t want to get into too much detail and so I let it drop. The couple, the guy said, have now lived together for two years.
After they left, it occurred to me that this extremely interesting and offbeat scene right next to mainstream Cornell culture is part of a bigger dichotomy that exists everywhere: artsy versus professional, hip versus pop, kava versus champagne. Sometimes the lines get blurred. Some of New York City’s investment bankers are attending secret fuck parties; some of Ithaca’s frat boys are attending kava bars. And there’s also a version of that same distinction within every person. Call it your public face versus your private self, or maybe who you are at noon versus who you are at midnight.
Exploring Ithaca’s artsy side could give you a chance to explore yourself, too. This stuff is in the Commons, right before your eyes — the used bookstores, the street magicians — and too many of us students never see it. You have time to check Sacred Root out and you should. Go see it.
The community labyrinth outside had been empty when I entered the bar. But when I left, it was now lit by candles, and people sat close by in solemn silence. There was a bright, full moon in the sky above them. When I asked what they were doing, no one responded. I did take a picture; it’s the picture above this article. As I walked home, back towards the thumping bass at Moonies, they still sat by the rock spirals in the chilly darkness, for a ritual whose purpose I never managed to find out.
Max Van Zile is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lukewarm Take appears alternate Fridays this semester.