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Pondering Cafe Culture at Vinyl 

Wednesday, May 20 2015

Flippit is in town from Chicago for a few days, and he's regaling me with stories about his time in the Chicago improv scene over coffee at Vinyl Coffee & Wine Bar.

Flippit has stood this close to greatness. Half the people he started out performing with have been cast members on Saturday Night Live. "When I read Amy Poehler's autobiography, I wasn't in it," he says, "but I remember the early shows she's talking about. If it were a photo and you panned the camera out, you'd have seen me hanging around back stage or working the lighting board." He always thought he wasn't any good at improv because he was comparing himself to people who would turn out to be its modern masters. But he was there, back in the day.

Sadly, this close to greatness gets you nothing more than a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with me on a slow and sunny afternoon. As consolation prizes go, it's not very consoling.

I've gone on a lot recently about how much I like bars that are following the classic "café" formula: Vinyl might go a little too far in that direction. It's sleek and modern, sure, but also a cross between "Seattle Coffee House" and "painfully hip record store." (There is indeed a collection of vinyl albums up for perusal.) It's the kind of place where young people aspiring for greatness go to plot their next moves, and people old enough to see greatness in the rearview mirror come to distract themselves from the view.

We are surrounded by both kinds of people, at tables small and large with what I have to say are pretty damn uncomfortable chairs, as I sip a mocha. I like it, but Vinyl could use more life: It seems like a "chill out" room, rather than a part of a scene.

Perhaps I should have gone there for one of Vinyl's events — it has a trivia night and a Taco Tuesday, and a lot of pizza-based things — but unless it's specifically a venue, I usually don't go to bars for "events." Events at bars, other than live music, usually annoy me.

While not nearly as extensive a wine-list as most places calling themselves a "wine bar" have, Vinyl's is solid, even a little daring — if pricey. By-the-glass averages $10, and by-the-bottle skyrockets fast. The beer list is much more reasonable: a solid set of bottles that shows a flair for the dramatic. No tap standards, no Pabst, not even Anchor Steam — but a CoCoNut Porter from Maui Brewing, a Session Black Lager from Full Sail, and an Organic California Blond are all available. It says something very good about a place that can be so daring in such small ways, showing a sense of perspective and balance. I can see why it gets such a diverse crowd. And isn't that the best thing about cafes?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the Vienna coffeehouses, about the way some of the world's greatest mathematicians and poets sat around the same table with leading-edge magazine publishers and physicists creating a common culture in the ruins of a fallen civilization, and how I wish we had that in San Francisco. We're so close — so close — but we're self-segregated. The techies hang out with techies and the literati hang out with literati and the politicos with politicos and the journalists barely even hang out with each other. And I'm sorry, but all of these scenes are, by themselves, dreadfully dull.

Flippit gave up improv comedy for involvement with Burning Man.

"Actually that's not true," he corrects himself. "I took up Burning Man instead of hanging around bars with other improv comics talking about nothing but improv comedy."

Oh, do I feel that. The advantage to having sat this close to greatness is that you don't have to pretend to be impressed the trivial bullshit that strivers do to get ahead. If only Flippit were in town more, I could see pulling him and a few more interesting people from different fields together, sitting at Vinyl, talking over coffee, beer, and wine.

Maybe there'd be an older record, in the background, playing. It's that kind of party. Vinyl just needs the right crowd to break it in.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs


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