At a bus stop on the way to Hayes Valley, I saw a street kid walk up to the bus driver and say, "You've got to watch how you work that back door. It brained me."
"Sir," the bus driver said, "the back door is all automated. I don't control anything."
The kid told the driver to be more careful anyway, at which point the driver pulled out the ultimate weapon: "Do you have a proof of payment, sir? Clipper card, payment slip, anything?"
"Sure," the kid said, "in my bag," and returned to the rear of the bus, opened the automated back door, and ran out.
What an amazingly self-destructive move that was, I thought to myself. Why would somebody who had snuck on a bus initiate an argument with the driver? How could that possibly end well?
I met Eric at Two Sisters Bar and Books. It's a small and narrow space with a high ceiling, packed with people sitting either at the bar, the low bookshelf (which serves as a counter for drinks and food), or the small tables just across the room.
I had recently turned up at Eric's place on a Saturday night as he and his wife settled down to a movie, informing them that I had brought good beer and self-loathing and was going to do what comes naturally. They graciously accepted my pathos; two movies and a six-pack later they gave me a ride home. Tonight we were talking about Eric instead.
"I'm not really going to drink tonight," he said. "I'm working on myself. I've discovered that I have really good days if I get writing done and meditate. And I've discovered that this doesn't happen if I drink more than two nights a week."
"So don't drink," I said. "Definitely don't."
"I'm so boring, though. I'm sorry." We always seem to associate "interesting" with "drama" in our lives. I got into a big argument with the bus driver is supposed to be more interesting than I got where I was going.
I drank a Dark Knight (gin, cherry-balsamic vermouth, Aperol, Campari) while Eric mused about the bar. "There's a renaissance of 'parlor bars' popping up in S.F. now, isn't there? Pretending to be a Parisian parlor or something, with high ceilings? I love it. I wish I had a parlor."
We perused the bookshelf by our knees and Eric was astonished to find a copy of the 1944 book The Horse's Mouth. He'd never read it, but saw an excellent 1958 movie version with Alec Guinness. I opened it up. The first paragraph contained the similes "like an orange in a fried fish shop" and "Like a viper swimming in skim milk."
I closed the book and put it back.
I'm getting annoyed with bars that use books as decoration. It makes a promise that is never kept: The only guy who ever stands up in a bar to quote Leibniz or riff on Terkel is me, and I assure you that nobody claps. Two Sisters handles it better than most by hosting a monthly book club, but it has no relationship — at all — to the books it keeps shelved by your shins. I'd like to ask San Francisco bars to stop doing this. If your bartender doesn't open up one of those books to make a valuable point about Aristotle or quote Mary Wollstonecraft at least once a night, then either the books or the bartender has to go.
As a "parlor bar," Two Sisters is deliberately derivative, imitating not only the bookstores, bars, and coffee houses that the founders encountered in their European travels, but other trends in Bay Area taverns.
"So many S.F. bars have gone all mixology that you need one of three things to stand out," Eric told me as I drank a Smoke & Flowers (hibiscus-infused tequila, mezcal, lemon, lime, simple syrup, Malden salt). "Really great bartenders, a unique signature cocktail or gimmick, or adequate cocktails in a very good atmosphere." We both agreed that Two Sisters is the third, and there's nothing wrong with that. Derivative is only bad in a bar if it's dishonest. Done right, it's an homage to something the owners love.
Let's not put on airs: Most of us are just trying to get through the day without hurting ourselves. Usually we fail. But sometimes we're able to do something right, share it, and be happy. It might not make for a dramatic novel, but it's a good life.