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To Live and Die at The Alley 

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"I'm getting used to the idea that I'll never have children," Jess told me as we approached The Alley in Oakland. "It took a while for me to say 'Okay, this a reality I'm accepting rather than something I'm fighting.'"

We were covering big topics: death, the meaning of life, existential despair. A mutual friend is struggling with cancer. Jess is hoping to get out in time to see "Tracy" before she goes, but the doctors are saying they might induce coma if the pain gets too bad.

I can't picture it. So full of life, so full of energy ... but Tracy's nearly gone.

The exterior of The Alley looks a little like the house every kid in the neighborhood knows is haunted. The second floor windows that face the street are a little crooked. The letters on the sign are askew. Everything's off — especially for an, ahem, gentrifying neighborhood. In front of us, two white guys in suits step inside, look around, and walk right back out.

"We'll find someplace else," one of them says.

"Yeah," Jess says loudly. "You do that."

The Alley is a dive bar the way the Vatican is a church. I can see how that would intimidate people whose idea of a good time involves customer loyalty cards. And The Alley is sacred to Jess. It's a place where magic happens. She used to have a tradition, back in the day, of smoking a bowl with friends and coming to The Alley for drinks and burgers.

What I wouldn't give to have known her back then. Or maybe I did; ours has been a strange friendship, characterized by long silences marked by sudden, intermittent intensity. We went to plays together and she invited me to spend Christmas with her family, and then we didn't talk for years.

We walk inside like we're coming home.

Every square inch of this large wooden room is covered by business cards stapled to the walls and furniture. The Alley dates back more than 80 years, and some of the estimated 50,000 cards are yellowed and shrunken. Fire retardant gets sprayed directly on them so as to stay up to code. Strange knickknacks have managed to survive for 80 years, too: a bag with a clock attached to it, an A's cap sitting on a Cabbage Patch Kid hanging from a beam. There's a bar with about 12 seats, diner-style booths, and a piano around which regulars will crowd later that night. Ordinary people singing classic American songs, not because they think they're artists but because singing is good for the soul.

The Alley is very good for the soul, even if the drinks are iffy — stronger than they are good. I had a Manhattan, a Dark and Stormy, and a Mai Tai. Tasty, but overall I'd stick with the (limited) beer selection.

The Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno said that we can never understand life because life is meant to be lived, not understood. I told Jess that, but I also think it applies to bars like The Alley. In a time when every new bar has to have a goddamn theme, The Alley demonstrates that a great bar transcends any cheap gimmick or easy explanation. You can call it a dive, a piano bar, a grill — at least, once the 60-year-old equipment is updated. You can also call it weird. But it is so much more than any of these things — a bar with an identity, and that identity encompasses and surpasses any quick descriptions.

You make a great bar not by being clever but by doing what is good for the soul. I have never been more convinced of this than I am listening to amateurs sing their hearts out as I talk about life and death with a beautiful woman in a bar filled with the names and ephemera of 50,000 regulars.

Our friend Tracy stopped talking to me shortly after her diagnosis. Tracy had to focus on what was important to her, and I say without bitterness that I understand I didn't make the cut. Decisions like this come to us all, and I hope for mercy and compassion when it is my turn.

Unamuno also said that, while we can't know if there is an afterlife, we can live lives so interesting as to make death an injustice. Tracy has.

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