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Aub Zam Zam: Martinis at the Oasis 

Tuesday, Dec 30 2014
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The first time I ever went into Aub Zam Zam on Haight was my first Christmas in San Francisco.

It's a beautiful faux-Persian room with a large semi-circular bar at one end under a colorful mural. The rest of the room contains small tables, decorative stained glass windows, and perfect lighting to complement the sense that you've walked into another world.

I sat down, ordered a gin and tonic, and began to be chatted up by a married couple who were fascinated to learn the details of my life and couldn't stop bickering. The husband would compliment me while the wife took pot shots at him, and then, as though signaled by a shift in the wind, they would switch roles.

I realized that they were desperately looking for a one-night-stand to take their focus off each other, and that the longer I kept talking to them, the more likely it was that they would take me home and have hate sex through me.

I finished the drink they bought me, and excused myself to go to an imaginary Christmas party.

I've barely been to Zam Zam since, although it's beautiful and conveniently located. But when Miriam texted me late at night to say that she was in the Upper Haight and wanted me to explain the nature of reality, that's where we went.

Miriam had saved a seat for me at one end of the bar. "What do you do exceptionally well?" I asked the bartender.

"Well, we were founded in 1941, so we're kind of focused on drinks that speak to that time," she said. "Gin martinis, Manhattans ..."

We went with a gin martini. She asked if there's any gin I'm particular to, and I said that I'm a Hendricks man. She asked if I'd tried St. George, and she's not the first bartender to do so recently. When I said I'm unfamiliar, she brought two bottles of it over and had me sample each: one tasted of pine needles, the other had a floral bouquet. I picked the floral, and she made a killer martini out of it, adding a twist at the last minute. You can't get more care and attention to craft than that.

Miriam was drinking a martini too, but she wanted it with vodka. You could feel the room hiss. That's not how they do it here.

"So how do you tell the difference between reality and fantasy?" Miriam asked, over the possibly imaginary hissing noise.

"Reality is a better story."

She asked how you can know whether you're being authentic or just following a pattern set out for you by upbringing and culture and mass media, and something about this all seemed very familiar. I was having intense déjà vu as I talked to her about whether there's a reality beyond base matter, whether we have free will ... and I couldn't figure out why.

"We need a record of this!" Miriam said. "Do you know how many of our conversations I wish I had a record of, to review later?" To be fair, she thinks that about conversations she has with a lot of people.

But oh God — this has happened before. In Moscow, around the turn of the century. I was on a date with a club photographer — Maria — and in the middle of dinner she asked me whether synesthesia implies something about the nature of ultimate reality. As I grasped for an answer she took out a notepad and started writing my remarks down in shorthand. "So I can review later," she said.

I'd thought we had chemistry; she'd thought I knew the secrets of the universe. I have no idea why. It was one of the worst dates of my life. At 4 in the morning she told me I'd transformed her life. I went home realizing I knew nothing about women.

Back at Zam Zam, I was so shocked by the repetition of history that I missed the name of the next gin drink the bartender made for me. It was still delicious.

I marveled at Miriam's ability to accidentally offend me with synchronicity. It's happened before.

"Well, we're not doing that," I told Miriam. It's what I should have told Maria. "We're just having a conversation."

Or maybe this was Zam Zam. Maybe the bar likes to screw with me. It is a beautiful oasis, no doubt, but it's also sharp, like good gin. I recommend it, but I don't think I'm going to be a regular. Too much history.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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