The bar at Hillstone is a big round horseshoe of upper-middle-class sippers and amber mood lighting. The man next to me was very drunk. The bartender reminded me of my sister-in-law, in a good way. The television set did not have closed captioning. Every seat was filled.
Each person around the oval had lived a life before that night, and everyone would leave that oval and go back to that life after that night. But for two hours on the eve of the U.S. election, we were all in the same place.
For someone who goes to as many bars as I do, it's strange that it took me this long to realize that each person on a stool is in their own little universe. Maybe it's because I could see everyone at Hillstone. To my right, a young couple ordered champagne. To their right, a wealthy man drinking alone bought a glass of wine for a woman sitting next to him. "Give this lady a drink!" he yelled. "She just got a job! A JOB!" (The implication was "in this economy!")
Then there was the businessman on my left, also well into his cups, who was watching the candidates give their messages during Monday Night Football, each looking exhausted but plucky while they sat in front of a row of NFL helmets. "Can you turn on the closed captioning?" he asked the bartender, who sadly related that no one in the entire restaurant had ever figured out how to do that, though they had tried time and time again.
"You should ask a 5-year-old to help you," said my companion for the evening, my neighbor Ernestine. The bartender sort of smiled back, unsure if this was an insult. "Anytime I can't figure something out with electronics, I just ask a 5-year-old," she continued. "They cut through the BS and figure it out right away."
Ernestine went back to her juice blend, which she called a Golden Tootie, but which I recognized as a "suicide:" cranberry, grapefruit, orange, and pineapple juices mixed together. Ernestine doesn't drink. She's an African-American woman in her 60s and has lived most of her life in West Oakland, where she works for the city and tends to her vegetable garden. We became friends through the back fence.
She keeps telling me stuff about her life that I never knew. On this evening, she was telling me about her job as Ron Dellums' intern in D.C. when she was a young woman, and about how everyone wanted to sleep with the interns and pages. "It was just understood that you were supposed to go out to eat with someone if they asked you," she said, intimating that more was at stake than just a date. She said Dellums was not like that, but that plenty other guys were. "Personally, I don't care who you sleep with, I care if you can legislate and lead," she added.
I agree with this, to an extent; I am sick of people defending Bill Clinton for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and brushing it off as two consenting adults. It's usually Democrats who seem okay with turning a blind eye to a boss having a sexual relationship with his employee, which is what happened. I am alone in this opinion, at least among liberals.
The jazz band started up. Hillstone reminds me of a place you might find in Santa Monica. It is elegant with a slight chain-restaurant vibe, probably because it is part of an elegant restaurant chain. During the day it is bathed with light from big windows, and at night it becomes Fernando's Love Grotto. The sign outside says "proper attire required," but they didn't seem to mind me in a ratty sweatshirt and jeans with a hole in the butt. The band switched to a peppy instrumental version of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," which couldn't help but sound incredibly cheesy. In this day and age, a musician can play such a song to an adoring crowd while at the same time feeling ironic. I'm guessing this was the case with the jazz combo, whose members looked like cool cats.
"So if Romney wins, the stock market will go up, and if Obama wins, it will shoot down?" said a middle-aged woman to her husband. I couldn't hear his response, but I noted that they too seemed totally sloshed. Forget New Year's Eve — election eve is where the real heavy drinking happens. Everyone was talking about the election. It reminded me of the dot-com boom, when everyone you overheard was talking about computers.
I took a break and headed to the restroom, which had a big etched-glass sign above it that said "WOMYN." Feminazis? On the Embarcadero?
Walking back, I heard the band play "Watching the Detectives" and "... chatter chatter Romney chatter chatter Obama ..." throughout the dining room. In 24 hours we would all know our fate.
That night, I asked Ernestine what we were gonna do if Romney won.
"Listen," she said, "I survived Reagan, Bush, and the little Bush, who was worse than the first Bush. We'll be all right."
Though we don't have to worry about that now, Ernestine was right — we are going to be just fine.