The bar at Chow is my own private Idaho. It also offers many escape hatches from my little fiefdom in the form of the F, the J, various buses, and the underground Muni station at Church. Just like gangsters never sit with their back to the door, I never drink where I can't flee at the drop of a glass.
Chow's bar counter is small and only seats about eight people, butt-to-butt. I plopped mine at the end stool and perused the menu. My grand plan was to go to the Pilsner Inn next door to watch the Giants/Dodgers game, but I took one look inside, saw a plethora of large men in sports regalia, and suddenly found myself craving a sandwich instead. Sports are the great handicap for dedicated bar enthusiasts such as myself. They're as obligatory as the in-laws, the pap smear, the tire rotation. I deal with them because I have to, not because I want to.
The evening had already begun for me at Embarcadero station, where a schmuck in royal blue yelled something stupid at a gaggle of schmucks in orange and black. Hilarity ensued — if you define "hilarity" as a prelude to fisticuffs. At times this city is a total assault: human misery, bigotry, in-your-face sexuality, conspicuous wealth, and the flotsam and jetsam of various sports franchises.
Now, Chow was good. Chow was playing the Cure and was full of nondescript people. My bartender was nice but not intrusive. She playfully chatted with the customer next to me, but she also knew a taciturn curmudgeon on the lam from Major League Baseball when she saw one. She even knew enough not to blot the paper I was reading after she spilled water all over it. I didn't really care, it would be recycled anyway, and doing so would be entering into my personal space bubble.
It had been an interesting week. My father visited for six days and was incorrigible for three of them. My best friend's mother discovered lumps in the lymph nodes of her armpit. One of my favorite high school classmates was in a car accident and is now paralyzed from the waist down. Another classmate attempted suicide. I turned to the obituaries.
I always have the same response to obituaries: "Oh no! So-and-so died!" followed closely by, "Man, I had no idea so-and-so was even still alive." I keep meaning to make a list of people who are Still Alive and Still Rule: Mickey Rooney, Joan Fontaine, Carl Reiner, and Muhammad Ali, for starters. Ray Bradbury's death hit me pretty hard, as he is a writing hero of mine. When I saw that Gitta Sereny had died, it was a double whammy. She was a journalist who wrote some amazing books about Nazis, principally Franz Stangl (commandant of Treblinka) and Albert Speer, Third Reich architect and defendant at the Nuremberg Trials. I have always secretly admired Speer. He was the only one to denounce the Nazis' actions, for one thing, although it was quite possibly because he was smart enough to know that that was what his accusers needed to hear. But his book Inside the Third Reich is essential reading.
Sereny did what I would do with Speer, which is try to figure the guy out. Was he lying? Did he really not know about the Holocaust, as he asserted? She concluded that he knew as early as 1943. Journalists are not supposed to figure people out, per se — we are supposed to obfuscate our opinion. That is, of course, total bullshit, and Sereny dispensed with the pretense. I will always admire her for that.
Anyway, she's dead.
"Steak frites?" said the busboy, putting my plate down in front of the woman next to me. She clapped her hands together and said, "Oh, I wish!" as if it were lobster or something. She scooted it down to me and I smiled at her. That should keep her going for a while.
I looked at the time; 15 minutes to the first pitch. If I hurried, I could make it next door to the Pilsner in time. Or, if I dawdled, I could avoid the idea all together. I decided to chew my food carefully. Still, in 20 minutes I was done. Damn.
I paid a nice tip to show that I really, truly did not care that the bartender spilled water on me. Then I pulled myself up and outside, turned left, and headed to the Pilsner. I peered in. The same dudes were there, on their third or fourth beers, chuckling and gesticulating. Oh Jesus, no. No no no.
The J pulled in and beckoned me. Imagine, if you will, a train whistle and clouds of smoke. A conductor leans out and checks his pocket watch. I gingerly board the vessel and take a seat in the back, in steerage. Slowly the train chugs forward. I tip my fedora down below my eyes and lean back for a rest. Yes, at this point I am a man. (It looks cooler.) The train picks up steam as we go farther down the track and toward the tunnel.
"Go Dodgers!" says some schmuck. I pull up the collar on my coat.