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The smell of fear, beer, and sausages at Gestalt 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2009

There's something about naming your bar after a social or psychological term that strikes people's fancy in this town. We've got Amnesia, Zeitgeist, and Gestalt. Amnesia I totally get as a nod to drinking. Ditto with Zeitgeist, since bars tend to reflect whatever culture is happening at a particular time. Gestalt is harder for me to wrap my head around. In fact, I don't even really understand the term at all, other than that it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe it's an approach to therapy that looks at everything, including the subconscious, to treat the patient. I suppose you can translate that into a boozy feng shui approach to barkeeping. The theory is that a tavern as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and when it comes together, all the parts — decor, selection, and, of course, clientele — are working in harmony. Plenty of bars try to get all three elements working and fail miserably.

So, what is the sum of the parts of Gestalt, the bar on 16th Street in the Mission? It's big, with sofas in the front and two-seater wooden tables around the perimeter. Bike racks along the wall in the back beckon the messenger demographic — a subculture a few S.F. bars perennially jockey for. The decor is sort of plain, with an industrial edge. The bar serves nummy brats and other sausages. It generally has a good beer selection, but lately it's been out of a lot of stuff. Someone hasn't been reordering in time. The jukebox is pretty crappy and generic. It sounds programmed by someone who last bought a record in the 1990s, then said, "Fuck it, I like the classics — Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Aerosmith, and, for kicks, the Rushmore soundtrack." I put a dollar in for three songs, and had to really scrape to find anything (I settled on my favorite fallback, Tom Petty).

Owners don't have as much control over some of the defining points of a place, such as how folks will interact once they're drunk, and, for that matter, who exactly those folks will be. This is the stuff I love about bars — the wild card, the inkblot test, the customers.

I was a Gestalt customer, as was my new roommate, who I will call Amélie, since she is French. As for the rest of the place, well, it was a bunch of quiet dudes hunched over their beers, watching football. Yeehaw.

We sat at the bar, which is pretty high up in comparison to the stools. I felt like a little kid. I looked at the sausage board. "So," I said from behind my resting forearms, "how late can a gal get a wiener around here?" The bartender didn't take the bait, which I saw as a real point in his favor, since I immediately regretted saying it. "10 o'clock," he said, adding, "and they are really good."

"I slept with that guy over there," said Amélie, pointing to a dude I recognized as someone who hated my guts. I had given him a bad review a few years prior for a show he put on, and he wrote me the mother of all hate mail. He also warned me never to go into certain bars again, because there would be people there who wanted to kick my ass. (I don't think that shit ever happened to Lois Lane.) So, add this to Gestalt's gestalt for that evening: I felt a tad nervous and was worried he might hit me with a chair. (This, in turn, led me to talk quietly, drink less, and leave early. Once we left, there were only men in the bar, which further changed the landscape.)

But there was a part of me (my subconscious?) that sort of hoped this guy would start some shit with me. Every critic has the same fantasy, I'm sure. We swallow our pride and have to face up to things we've said about people time and time again, but just once we would like to be able to say, "Look, fuckface. A: Your shit does stink, so stop actin' like it don't. And B: If you can't handle a review, then don't put said shit out there in the first place." Hell, I'd even throw in C: "You ugly."

But no. The dude was in his hoodie, watching the game, and seemed to have no clue that we were there. That was okay, because I was trying to console my roommate about homeless people. She saw a guy on BART who made her start crying. To me, he just looked like an older black man going to the airport. He was wearing secondhand clothes, but they were clean, and his suitcases looked like they were from the 1960s. He nodded to us and told us to have a nice night as we got off the train. A tear ran down her face.

"Amélie," I said, "I don't think he is homeless."

"He is!" she cried. "It makes me so sad!" I wasn't sure what to do with this information.

Once we got to Gestalt, we had a conversation about how you can't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, and how you should do things to help people every week, but you cannot dive into the pit of deep despair that is America's poverty problem every minute. She wiped her tears. New Order was playing, and she immediately switched her focus there.

So the energy we were projecting from one corner of that bar became a mild fear of ass-kickage mixed with the thrill of a fight; misery and heartbreak for a (possibly) downtrodden man; and a mutual love for New Order. On second thought, Gestalt is a perfect name for a bar, because so many things were happening inside at once.

The bar was out of a lot of stuff, so we decided to leave. On the way down the street, we passed a very young girl sitting cross-legged and reading a book. It was really cold outside, so it was obvious that she was homeless. She had a cardboard sign. She didn't look strung out or anything. I was immediately moved to give her some money. In fact, she said, "Do you have any spare change?" without even looking up. She seemed tired of asking and not getting any response. Then I remembered Amélie, and I am ashamed to say that I picked up my steps and passed the young woman before my new roommate could get upset.

"It's okay, Amélie," I said, steering us toward BART.

"Wow," she said, shaking her head. "Why doesn't she get a job?"

This was, of course, not what I expected to hear. In fact, I sort of laughed. "I think I'll never understand you," I said in a friendly way. We walked down the stairs and got onto the train.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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