I do social work for a developmentally disabled client who loves to play pool. I'll call her Sylvia. She also likes bars, although she only drinks Cokes. Lucky for us, bars and pool tables go hand in hand, and she and I have scoured the city together in search of flat felt (easy to find) and non-flat sodas from a nozzle (very difficult to find).
Last week we decided to try Sutter Station, a bar I've passed a million times and never entered. It's right next to See's Candies on Market, which is a plus. Sylvia wanted to go in for a free See's sample first, and I felt it was my civic duty to go along with her. There has to be some sort of Murphy's Law of See's, though, because they always pull out the last flavor in the world I would ever eat, and then I have to decline the sample and look like a snob. But seriously, who actually eats the pineapple-flavored truffle?
"I'll take yours," Sylvia said, popping the entire thing into her mouth. She is soft-spoken and sweet, and her disability isn't severe. She gets around town by herself, for one thing, and she can name any song on the radio. She likes to repeat what I say when I'm talking on the phone around her, so I hear whatever conversation I'm having through her — it's called echolalia, for you disability nerds out there. But that's it in the peculiarities department for ol' Sylvia. She is a gentle soul, and I always feel reinvigorated when I spend time with her.
We stomped into the bar and ordered drinks, then headed to the back room for billiards. Sutter Station reminded me of the Gold Dust Lounge, only with far fewer tourists and a bordello charm. It still has that old California feel, with 19th-century chandeliers, wood and leather decor, and a deer head mounted over the center of the bar. The bartender was really nice, even though we only bought Cokes. Trust me, some bars give you the stinkeye if you don't order booze.
I put the quarters in the pool table and racked up the balls. Sylvia wanted to break, but she ended up lightly tapping one of the balls out of place and then sinking the white ball. We play our own version of pool anyway, so it didn't matter. Basically, we both suck so bad that we just hit any old ball to see if we can sink it. The game usually lasts about 40 minutes, with the last 20 minutes or so spent trading off shots at one lone ball. The last one is always the hardest.
A group of random co-workers were next to us, playing what looked like a pretty serious game of pool. Still, they were very patient and kind when Sylvia suddenly blocked their shots.
Sylvia didn't just want to play pool. She also wanted to talk to me about her dad, because she was confused. She lives with her elderly parents, but recently her father had started acting funny. He was forgetting things, and people. He has just officially been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
She asked me about the disease. I tried my best to explain it, that a part of his brain was losing power. She nodded. I said that it would be getting slowly worse over time, and we talked about how that would feel for her. "Sad," she said.
I asked her if she had heard of former President Ronald Reagan, because he had Alzheimer's, just like her dad. She nodded.
I told her that some day her dad might not recognize her.
"Did he recognize you?" she asked me.
"Your dad?" I clarified.
"No, Ronald Reagan," she said.
I explained that I had never met him. But I got a twinge of sadness for all of the confusion around her dad's illness that she would have to sort through in the coming years. When you are developmentally disabled, just commandeering though the average day is enough.
Sylvia had to use the bathroom, so she went up to the bar and asked for the key. The bartender not only got the key for her, but he also went and opened the door for her. Little do these business owners know that I am watching for things like this, taking mental notes of the small kindnesses they show to customers like Sylvia. When I walked into the Sutter Station, I liked it a lot. Now, I freakin' loved the place.
I waited for Sylvia and looked at the clientele. It was a mix of races and ages. It's hard to say who the regulars would be on this part of Market — it's a bit far for the downtown crowd, and it isn't close to any sort of housing. Maybe it's all a bunch of weary See's employees, tired of having their coconut balls or maple nougats rejected by the likes of me all day.
"Maggie May" came on the jukebox. Sylvia came out and pointed up into the air, as if she were pointing at the music itself, and said, "Rod Stewart."
"Yep," I smiled. We sat at the bar and finished our Cokes.
"Is my dad going to die?" she asked. I thought about how to address this question. I'd already left out the part about how he would eventually be completely unresponsive to anyone, which is the especially cruel way that the disease plays itself out in the end.
"Alzheimer's will not kill your dad," I told her, which was probably true. "He has lived a long, good life, though, and he is in his 80s. Some day he will die, just like everyone." She nodded.
"We better go catch BART," I said.
She jumped up and we headed outside. She had a slight smile on her face, so apparently my awkward attempts at answering her questions didn't devastate her. I had a sense, deep down, that she just wanted to know the truth. Her mother has been trying to protect her feelings. Not knowing what was happening, not understanding, had been far harder for her, though. How do you describe something that is difficult for everyone, even people who don't have disabilities, to understand? Dang. Well, I did the best I could.
"Let's go to See's again," she said, right as we were about to head down into the subway.
"Great minds think alike," I replied, praying for a toffee or perhaps something with nuts.