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Ant Farm at the Tavern 

Wednesday, Mar 18 2009
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The famous biologist Edward O. Wilson has coauthored a new book, Superorganisms, about wasps, bees, and his personal favorites, ants. It's hard not to think of Wilson when I am endeavoring to annihilate whatever critter has invaded my kitchen, because the creatures he describes are fascinating.

Superorganisms states that colonies of insects behave like one complete organism, with each individual bug carrying out a task that benefits the whole. With bees, workers concentrate on delivery of food, while others deal with cleanup; the queen and her minions focus on reproduction, and the stinging guard at the hive is concerned with enemy invasion — those bees act as the immune system.

Naturally, I started to apply this idea to us humans — San Franciscans, to be exact. People have jobs (workers) in order to deliver food to their homes (queen bees). Garbage collectors, scavengers, and recyclers gather our waste. The police and fire departments are our immune system.

Zoom that microscope in even closer, gentle reader, and focus on a single hotel on Market Street, the Whitcomb. The building houses workers, cleaners, living quarters for temporary "families," and repelling agents to keep out the riff-raff in the form of high prices and a well-groomed, vigilant lobby staff.

I love the Tavern, the hotel's bar. This is the place in the hive where all the workers congregate at the end of the day, most likely because there really aren't any other bars in this part of Civic Center. The inside is dimly lit, with low, stained-glass ceilings and tapestried chairs that depict English fox-hunting scenes. Adjacent to the bar is a massive dining room that looks like it could be in Hearst Castle. Muzak — actual Muzak, the kind heard in elevators of yore — plays softly in the background. If you are lucky enough to get the table next to the front window, you can sip your drink and watch the freaky scuzzballs wandering around on Market Street.

With all the Tavern's comfy cornball faux-chic charm, I am always surprised at how amazingly good the food is. The chef knows what he's doing, and offers the best-value cheese plate in the city — it's a big dish, with quality varieties. You know I love me some bar snacks, and the Tavern offers taro chips that are light, salty, and bingeworthy.

I couldn't believe my luck on my last visit. The bartender looked like an ant. He had a light-bulbish head, with a big round forehead and sunken cheeks that culminated in an even narrower neck. He was constantly moving, and had hands with long fingers that tapped each order into the computer like little antennae.

He had a sort of "can-do" automation that is the mark of a man who takes his job seriously. The night I was there, he was complaining to some regulars about one of his co-workers. He said she always tries to help, but ends up making things worse. "I need to get stuff done," he said, filling a glass with ice while trying to remember to bring someone chips and noticing that the waiter had just dropped off another drink order. "She doesn't understand that."

When I first walked in, I looked for a barstool. There appeared to be only eight, four on each side of the square bar. All were taken. I asked the bartender if there was another stool, and he replied, simply, "No."

He didn't say, "I'm sorry, how about sitting in the lounge?" or, "Dang sorry about that, we don't have enough stools." In the interest of efficiency, he just said "No," and looked at me in anticipation of my drink order. This was also very antlike. He had one job, to bartend, and he was going to do it.

I stood there and drank my Anchor Steam.

Here's something that, to my mind, ants don't seem to care about: pleasure. I could be wrong, but it seems only mammals screw for the fun of it, or enjoy getting drunk or high. For example, koalas are stoned out of their trees most of the time from chewing on eucalyptus leaves.

I looked at my fellow pleasure-seekers in the bar. There was a man with a military haircut talking to an elderly lady in a wrap about his Marine son; there was a group of three regulars, all in their 50s and 60s, talking about how much they missed Laugh-In, and there was a lone woman, not unlike myself, sitting at my favorite window by the street, slowly sipping her wine and looking vaguely depressed.

I asked the bartender for some taro chips, but he turned his back on me and didn't say anything. He went over to the tap and poured a beer for someone, then fiddled with the keypad again. I figured that he didn't hear me, so I asked again, in a somewhat higher and sweeter voice, the kind that had a co-dependent, questiony lilt that floated up and lightly bounced against the stained glass like a balloon.

"Yeah, I got that," he replied brusquely (pop!), and then those antennae dug into the container of chips and piled them on a plate for me. He scurried out of the bar. At this point there were only four of us left in the place (I got a stool!), so I wasn't sure why he was so busy. But when you are programmed to bartend, you bartend.

You might be thinking I wasn't enjoying myself, but I was loving it. When you view life through biology eyes, you really can't take anything personally.

But here's the problem with being an antlike worker: You are discounting that aforementioned pleasure-seeking trait in mammals. We want camaraderie. We want to be attended to, and to enjoy ourselves to the fullest. We leave our homes because we think that whatever place we go to will be more enjoyable. If you want people to come back, you have to give them that added bit of hospitality. Deliver the bigger crumb.

I realized that workers like him are so concerned with efficiency and gettin' 'er done, that they are completely inefficient and devoid of customer service. If you develop rifts with your co-workers, you aren't being as productive as you can be. If you are concentrating so hard on your tasks that you don't exude warmth to your customers, then you are repelling perfectly good additions to your ecosystem and treating them like invaders. A business' colony needs repeat customers.

The bartender was still gone, so the waiter walked behind the bar and started to pour the beer for his table. When the Ant came back, he was none too happy. "Get out of there," he said, picking up his pace and waving his hand. "I got it!"

I still enjoyed the guy, for all his strange insectlike foibles. Though I must say that I smiled and thought about that sinister childhood activity involving ants, magnifying glasses, and the piercing rays of the sun. Survival of the fittest.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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