The best bars in S.F. don't have to try too hard. Olive is small and artfully arrayed, like a hipster Munchkin. Bright, abstract paintings line the walls. The proprietor has put a lot of DIY love into the place, and made sure to hire friendly staffers. No fewer than three of them approached me when I was cozily ensconced in a corner booth, waiting for the rest of my entourage to arrive. I got there early to save the seats, which proved to be very shrewd, as the place filled up one by one with postwork imbibers, all jockeying for a stool. My guess would be that most of them work in Civic Center, possibly in the courts that handle those unfortunate aspects of alcohol — DUIs and other misdemeanors — all day long.
I was also there for after-work revelry. Eventually my co-workers showed up. We had planned on a cathartic, job-related bitchfest, and chose Olive for its cheap drink and food specials at happy hour. They ordered the signature olive martinis and I got a $8 pizza. By then the whole bar was filled with others engaging in cathartic bitching, and you couldn't hear the music over all the chatter. This was okay with me, because when I arrived they were playing some pretty stale mash-ups and Katy Perry.
Our conversation ran the gamut, but turned to drugs eventually, as all good conversations do. Our jobs involve doling out some pretty serious opiates — Vicodin, Oxycontin, and even fentanyl. We all remarked at how liberally they seem to be prescribed, which led us to talk about what could probably be the nuttiest legal medication out there: Ambien. Alcohol, apparently, is not the only way to voluntarily check out and go berserk.
Ambien, it seems to me, is one of those drugs you'd better get while the gettin' is good, because once the 10,000,000th person does something completely insane on it, the FDA will pull it off the market. It's one of those substances where you suspect scientists created it in a lab, studied its effects on mice, and then figured out which ailment they should market it to for maximum profitability. Since it probably knocked out all of the lab rodents, insomnia became its application. But using Ambien to help you fall asleep is like shaving your legs with a lawnmower.
"I took it and ended up on Haight Street all night," one of my co-workers said. She had needed to sleep, but instead felt compelled to go sit on the sidewalk in a zombielike state. "Cops came up to me to see if I was okay," she said. "I was like, yeahhh ... I'm totally fine ... derrrrrr."
She was lucky, because people have done far worse things on Ambien than breaking S.F.'s sit-lie law. Other unfortunate users have reported sleepwalking, sleep-driving, and even sleep-sex, which is when you have sex with someone and are completely unaware of it. This means that some people have gotten out of bed, left their homes, and presumably knocked on neighbors' doors until they found someone game, did the nasty with them, and then went back home, all in a state of complete ignorance.
My first encounter with the drug was on a flight to London with my mom. She always takes a sleeping pill on international flights so she can fight jetlag. She took an Ambien and went from Aunt Bea to Keith Richards in about 20 minutes. She began to nod a bit, midconversation, and then flopped face-first into her in-flight meal. When I tried to rouse her, she sat up, cussed me out, and went back to eating, only to fall face down into her food again. Everyone was looking at us, and seemed to feel sorry for the daughter who had to care for her drunken, abusive mother. Like most people on Ambien who have "episodes," she had no memory of this once she came to.
So, in short, Ambien is some good shit.
I have never been a good drug-taker, as the effects usually leave me discombobulated and agitated, no matter the substance. Marijuana is the worst — all of the "bad" side effects present themselves immediately, like severe paranoia, panic attacks, and a sudden affinity for Neil Peart's drum work. While everyone around me is enjoying themselves, this is going through my head: When is this going to be over? When will I feel normal again?
Booze, on the other hand, is different. I like it because it makes me feel in control, even if I am not. I can adjust its effects easily, depending on the number of drinks I ingest, unlike creeper weed or something that has been laced (which is the main paranoia that presents itself when I smoke pot: "Dude, is this shit dusted?"). The unfortunate thing about alcohol, though, is the fact that it can impair you to the point where you lose good judgment. Potheads don't necessarily lose their judgment; they just don't give a shit. There is a big difference.
Bars depend on this aspect of alcohol use because it leads to higher bar tabs. This city is full of people who voluntarily want to have their judgment impaired. They want to switch off something in their brains and move into a different state of being. It's almost a Twilight Zone episode: An entire town voluntarily alters its consciousness at 5 p.m. on Fridays, opting to turn off all the reasoning centers of their brains. That is why I love bar culture so much. Every week I get to enter a new dimension of space and time, the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition — that which lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge.
You know, like going to the happy hour at Olive on Larkin.