This story was originally published in Levure littéraire.
An Old Bar in San Francisco circa 2014 A.D.
My girlfriend and I had just finished eating dinner at a cheesy restaurant in North Beach. It was one of those tourist places where the host corners you on the sidewalk, accosts you in heavily accented Italian, and practically wrestles you inside. I had been given a small raise at work that day but I wanted to celebrate in a way that made me feel like I had instead received a huge raise and had taken my girlfriend Jenny on a vacation to Italy. After the tiramisu and limoncello, and after shaking out the last drops from the bottle of wine, I suggested we get one more drink at a nearby bar that I used to frequent before Jenny and I had met.
We held hands on the walk over to the bar, sticking to quiet side streets. We felt a little tipsy and talked about someday traveling to the real Italy together. We did this while speaking to each other in fake Italian accents. After that we talked naturally about things in the future that we thought were bound to happen between us.
At the entrance to the old bar, I peered in a window and could see that the place was practically empty. A few solitary figures sat towards the back, while two young men wearing khaki raincoats and fedoras were huddled around the jukebox, their heads bent to consult the handwritten list of songs. As we stepped inside and took our seats at the long wooden bar I told Jenny, “I love this place.”
She looked up at the old paintings and down at the dark checkerboard floors, slowly nodding her head in approval. “Congratulations,” she said. “We’ve successfully travelled back in time.”
A song began to crawl out of the jukebox and I recognized the old jazz tune: “My Little Brown Book.” Jenny looked at me and used her eyes to express the emotion in the music, staring intently with romantic longing, expertly balancing the desire with the melancholy. Her green eyes reflected the twinkling lights from the jukebox, the colors flashing across her irises as the record turned.
“Can I cast you in a movie?” I asked her. “You know, an old movie with lots of soft focus and the kind of kisses that look like they’d make your mouth hurt.”
“I’d have to quit my job,” she said and I appreciated her rational answer.
The bartender walked over to us. He wore a weathered, white tuxedo jacket and was completely bald. He reminded me a little of Mr. Clean, although a tired and less shiny version. He even had one of those cheap little hoop earrings in one of his ears.
The bartender made us a couple of drinks and then said to Jenny, “You know, you remind me of my little sister and I want to thank you for that.”
Jenny took the compliment graciously and the bartender nodded, then moved away. I had no idea why but I felt proud.
After the final note of “My Little Brown Book,” one of the men in fedoras snapped his fingers and he and his friend moved to leave. They kept their heads down as they exited the bar and raised their left arms in salutation when the bartender yelled, “Sayonara!”
I think one of these men must have been an actor or a dancer; he lit a cigarette in the doorway of the bar with a match and made it look like a sacred ritual, cupping the light delicately in his palm, touching the cigarette carefully to the flame, and then extinguishing the match with three kabuki-like waves of his right hand.
“A dying art,” I whispered while pointing the act out to Jenny.
The record changed and an Italian aria began to rise from the glowing jukebox. Jenny and I sipped our drinks and gazed into the large mirror behind the bar.
I felt no current insecurities between me and Jenny. We hadn’t had a serious fight in months. Honestly, I had never felt as comfortable as I did when in her presence. But I had doubts about myself and at times about relationships in general. In the present moment I usually knew what I wanted but I wondered about a love and devotion lasting years while overcoming the temptations, real or imagined, of a long life.
I mean people live for so long these days.
“They’re selling this bar, you know?” Jenny and I turned to see a middle-aged man standing at our side, a noticeable sway in his boozy posture. Before we could respond he added, “They’re not going to change it, that’s what they say. But you know they are.”
Jenny spoke up first. “They can’t change this place! I love it.”
“Me too, sweetheart.” The man mumbled this with an impotent voice and a big grin on his face.
“The whole city’s changing,” I said, although I felt kind of stupid saying it. It was the type of comment that was essentially meaningless but nonetheless true, especially these days. San Francisco was changing.
“They’re going to serve fancy food here,” the man went on, his rosy cheeks radiant in the dim light, the capillaries below his skin in vivid bloom. “You won’t be able to just mozy in and plop down. Christ, I’ve been coming here for thirty years.”
I felt bad for the guy and tried to imagine what it would feel like to have that kind of relationship with a place. Thirty years. I was twenty nine and had moved around my entire life.
The man reverently observed the room for a moment, breathing deeply while taking in the sights and sounds, before placing his empty drink on the bar. “You guys should get married,” he said and then patted me and Jenny on the back.
I thanked the man for his advice and as I watched him leave the bar, I thought of an article that I had recently read. If I remember right, the article claimed that we were now living in an era of mass extinction, with multiple species dying out every single day. Whereas previous mass extinctions were the result of an asteroid or maybe an ice age, this article pointed out that the current wave of extinctions was being caused by humans. Population growth, the burning of fossil fuels, and our increasing demand for natural resources; apparently these things add up. Looking into the mirror above the bar, I thought about the man who had just left. He was the type of person I considered endemic to a certain kind of city and dependent on a specific kind of barroom. I wondered if he would be able to survive the changing ecosystem of San Francisco.
When I glanced away from the mirror, I found Jenny calmly watching me. She was poking at the melting ice cubes in her glass with a small straw.
“I already miss that guy,” I said.
The bartender appeared from a back room. He very deliberately put a white towel on the far end of the bar and slowly began to work his way towards us.
Jenny and I finished our drinks and I pulled out some money from my jacket pocket.
"I got this one," I said.
"Thanks," Jenny said as she buttoned up her coat.
"Thanks," I told the bartender.
He nodded and then looked out the window, where great big ribbons of fog flew by on their way towards the Financial District. "You guys stay warm out there," he said.
The following year Jenny accepted an offer for a new job and we decided that it was only natural to celebrate this good news in North Beach. After dinner and on our way to the bus, we walked by the old bar and decided to poke our heads in. We had yet to see it since it changed ownership. It was very crowded inside but I could tell that, at least on the surface, it hadn’t changed much. The jukebox was still there, as were the beautiful paintings, and the long wooden bar was just as I remembered it. A kitchen was open in the back now and all the tables in the dining area were filled with enthusiastic men and women, who leaned in to hear each other over the more general roar of conversation. I had never seen the place so packed.
Jenny asked if I wanted to get a drink. “It looks challenging,” I replied.
Out of the crowd a pretty hostess emerged and began to approach us. She asked if we had reservations. I smiled and waved her away. I took a moment to scan the large room and look at all the people. I didn’t see the man from our last visit. In fact, I didn’t see anyone like him.