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Li Po Lounge: Chinatown Poem 

Wednesday, Jan 6 2010

Though Las Vegas is not exactly my first choice in vacation spots (or even my 139th), I do love to read about the casinos that were planned but never executed. They are always fantastic ideas, way over the top in a city founded on "over the top."

My favorite was an idea for a Titanic-themed hotel and gaming center. I pictured Edwardian interiors with huge, wide staircases with waiters running up and down them with stripes on the outsides of their trouser legs, like bellhops'; crystal chandeliers; and other general opulence. But the clincher was that in the plans there was supposed to be an entire shopping area built to look like a giant iceberg, which in itself would be a marvel of architecture, I'm sure. The metaphor is too good to be true — spendthrift tourists maxing out their credit cards in one weekend and sinking their credit scores. If I were the designer, I would also create an amazing dining room that slanted down into the pool. A string band would be playing, just as during the real sinking of the Titanic. Every night there would be a dinner special called the Lifeboat, which would be only 99 cents, so that they would always run out quickly and then the waiter could say, "Sorry, we are out of lifeboats."

Back here in San Francisco, we also have a few places to go where we can feel like we're on some sort of ride, going back in time, or having our credit scores depleted. Unfortunately, there is no more Tonga Room, a subject that is so sad that I dare not go there. But we do still have the Li Po Lounge in Chinatown, and that, gentle reader, is a good thing.

The Li Po is everything you would want in a Chinatown dive — walls that look like a cave, red-upholstered booths, good mai tais, and no sign of Van Hagar on the music system. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the bar is named for the 6th-century Chinese poet Li Po, who was a noted alkie. It is said that he died when he fell out of a boat, drunk, when trying to grab the moon. He infused his written words with his love of wine, which makes for some pretty dope literature. Most Asian poetry is about nature, but Li Po managed to combine his two loves. His work, very roughly translated, sounds something like this:

The wind blows on the mountain

A leaf falls in a stream

Holy Confucius, am I ever drunk

I sat at the bar and was greeted pleasantly by the bartender, which is another nice thing about the Li Po. Although I do enjoy a good old-fashioned crotchety server who has been working in a place for 40 years, it is indeed nice to sometimes meet someone who doesn't hate her job and her customers, something that is a prerequisite in most genuine dives.

I had just gotten off the 30 bus, which runs from one end of the city to the other and reaches critical mass near Chinatown. A bus driver told me that the line is riddled with pickpockets, and I believe it. You end up completely pancaked between other people, and have to hold on for dear life. But the worst part is actually boarding the thing, because there is a mad rush. Old ladies will strong-arm you out of the way to get inside ahead of you. I looked on aghast one time as a group of people shoved aside my friend with Down syndrome so that they could get on first. "It's a cultural thing, I think," said a guy next to me, which, I suppose, is a nice way of saying that Chinese people are rude. Unfortunately, at times, I have to agree. My client with Down's lives in Chinatown, but every day people stop and stare at her in horror on the street. Entire families point, even the adults. A friend of mine from China says that certain old-school people believe that if you have a disability, then your ancestors must have really fucked up good. Boy, that pisses me off.

"Here you are," said the Chinese bartendress, who was a peach. I know that basing entire ideas on a few people from a country whose members number in the billions is ignorant and wrong. Besides, my favorite philosopher was Chinese. His name was Mencius, he lived during the 4th century, and he was rad. He believed that everyone is born good, and that we all have good instincts and are naturally inclined to care for others. What makes people do bad things and get corrupted is poverty or ill treatment. In other words, he was a big ol' lib. Mencius, I dare say, would let a disabled person board a bus before himself.

Then of course there was Li Po, who was also cool. He wrote about drinking alone, which I suppose makes him a kind of Yangtze George Thorogood.

The hipsters were starting to shuffle in (trust me, they do shuffle instead of walk) for the evening's entertainment, the popular "Sweater Funk" DJ night in the bowels of the Li Po. The rest of the bar was filled with young locals, tourists, and a few grizzled regulars. It was cold outside, but the bar was warm, and I bathed in the rosy glow of the mood lighting. I felt like I was in a Wong Kar-wai film, with brilliant colors and rich washes of sepia. I didn't feel like talking to anyone, just sitting and being, like a leaf that had fallen into a stream and just gets pulled naturally.

When my reverie was over and my money was spent, it was time to reboard the ol' 30. Going back downtown is even worse, because it seems the buses aren't as regular and are therefore even more crowded. It started to rain, so I put up my hoodie and composed a good-luck poem for the ride. And, I suppose, for the New Year:

The Muni lurches

Eat it, Oh Very Old One

I board quite swiftly

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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