To my knowledge, people never claim Nob Hill as their favorite locale, unless they are middle-aged tourists, wealthy socialites, or weirdos like me. I love it there, because it always makes me feel like I am on vacation. I can stand up on that hill and look down on everything and see it like someone who has just arrived here for the first time. San Francisco looks regal and cosmopolitan, yet somehow affordable.
I don't know Nob Hill that well, so it intrigues me. There are parts of the city that I know so much better, and I can imagine what is happening in them at that very moment. For example, I bet that when I am at the top of Nob Hill at 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the men who work at Orphan Andy's in the Castro are calling people "darling" and giving each other shit. The bottom floor of the Westfield Centre will be packed with people carrying trays of food and searching for empty seats. Regular patrons will be shuffling into the Lucky Penny on Geary, and newbies will wonder why there are so many empty booths — until they try the food, and it becomes painfully obvious. Someone will still be sitting on the N-Judah as it goes to make its turnaround at the beach, and the driver will not have noticed.
Yes, there really is nothing better than roamin' in the gloamin' in Nob Hill. You can only do so much wandering, though, before thirst or hunger begins to strike, and then you come to the realization that there ain't no such thing as a $4 burrito in these parts. Most of the bars and restaurants here are in luxury hotels. I love them, don't get me wrong, but I am always reminded why I return only once a year.
Last week I was with my friend Allen, who stopped every few steps to log into Foursquare on his phone. When I pointed out the Big 4 Bar, he began to sweep and type with his fingers, quickly realizing that no one he knew had checked in there yet and he could be on his way to becoming "mayor" there. I haven't figured out how I feel about our new ability to tell what our friends are doing at every given moment; worse still is the idea that some people need to share this stuff with others because it is supposedly interesting.
The door to the bar is imposing. It just says "The Big 4" on an awning that hangs down grimly, giving no indication that there is a party on the other side. I'm sure this is to keep out the riffraff, but if there is one thing this riffraff has learned, it is that if you walk into a place that wouldn't normally have you as though you go there all the time, no one will really bat an eye. I was wearing black jeans, Adidas, and a ratty old Amoeba sweatshirt. Allen was in a similar outfit. We trundled up the stairs and sat at the bar, defying anyone to question our right to be there. This is one thing I love about San Francisco. I am sure that other big, fancy cities are less accommodating to outsiders. That is just not our way.
The first thing you notice when you enter the bar is how dark it is; even after your eyes adjust, you will have a hard time seeing across the room. This is perfect for all the famous people who stay here and do not want to be bothered or recognized. (It also helps your cause if you are ugly.) The decor is early-20th-century, which may be based on the fact that the "Big 4" refers to the railroad industry. There is a lot of wood and beveled glass, and amber globes buried in brushed-crystal sconces.
The bartender made us feel very welcome, although the people around us seemed to get a bit prickly and sniffy, in a "Well, I never!" sort of way. The woman to my right actually moved her stool farther away from me. Then she methodically pulled her soup bowl, breadsticks, and white wine along with her. I used to be disgusted by such things. Now I try to be amused.
Allen ordered some 15-year-old scotch and began to log in his whereabouts. This is what bugs me about this stuff — it is just skimming the surface of experience. Okay, so you are at Zuni Cafe with your wife — so? What am I supposed to do about that? What are you talking about? Is your sciatica acting up? Give me some details.
"Are you gonna link this on Facebook and say that you are with me?" I asked him.
"I'm trying," he said, furiously sweepin' 'n' typin'. While he was living his reality on his phone, I decided to listen in on some realness nearby. Two businesswomen were sitting with a guy in a fedora. His cheeks were bright red and he was in the giggly stage of what was probably going to be an all-night drinking binge. "You live in Beijing, right?" he asked one of them, foppishly splashing his chin with his napkin after a failed martini delivery to his mouth.
"Did you figure it out yet?" I asked. He wasn't sure, so I looked at Facebook on my own phone. There was nothing on it about he and I being there at that moment. "We aren't here, man," I said.
"Are you sure?" he said.
I was sure.
Allen gave up and switched to a game on his phone. We ate and drank and listened to people talk, lamenting the fact that we could never log into Foursquare.
When we were ready to leave, Allen went to the bathroom, so I stood and waited for him by the piano player. He was playing Irving Berlin, so I gave him a nice tip. I couldn't help but notice all the stuff he had on his side table: a handheld mirror, the kind Snow White's stepmother might use; two bottles of prescription medication; a metal tin of what looked like shoe polish; and what appeared to be a stiff drink. This was his night table. I immediately wanted to tweet about it, but there was something about it that probably would not translate. That is the problem with reality.