The trick to the show is that the producers pick two categorically opposite families, like bikers versus lefty commune dwellers, or a family of goths versus evangelical Christians. The show is then edited in such a way that it seems like both sides learn a li'l something when it's over, but in the end it's just super fun to watch people duke it out in uncomfortable, temporary domestic situations.
Which, coincidentally, is the same reason I love hotel bars. Nothing says "make it a double" like home-away-from-home lodging. Granted, there's usually not as much fighting as on Wife Swap, but the forced congeniality betwixt lonely traveling patrons and jaded bartenders makes for almost as good entertainment. If that hotel bar happens to be a proto-hipster hot spot, the juxtapositions are even sweeter.
In San Francisco (possibly the wife-swapping capital of the United States, by the way) we have the mother of all hip hotel bars, the Tonga Room at the Fairmont. The space was originally just a pool with tables and chairs around it, but after World War II so many GIs were coming back with stories of the beauty of the South Pacific that the owners just had to convert the entire space into a Polynesian playpen.
I go to the Tonga Room at least once a year, usually when I have out-of-town visitors who have never been to San Francisco. And let's face it, you do, too. The Tonga's business depends on a) tourists, and b) kitsch-loving locals bringing in their houseguests.
This week I had a doozy of a guy visiting me, Rusty from Hoopeston, Ill., home of the Cornjerkers, a high school team named for the brave men and women of corn detasseling, or ripping the husk off a cob of corn for you city types. Not to say Midwesterners are a simple folk, but the last time my friend Rusty visited I was living in Berkeley, and he was astounded to see a lemon tree in my back yard. "Dang!" he exclaimed, "I've never seen anything like that before!"
"Lemons?" I asked in disbelief.
"No, of course I've seen lemons," he replied, obviously offended. "Just not hanging off a tree!"
Rusty was in town and had called me out of the blue earlier in the week and wanted to grab a drink, stressing that it had to be a place that served "yellow beer," not that stuff you can't see through. But Rusty isn't a total hick and I knew he would appreciate not only the pastiche of the Tonga, but also the high-fat appetizer spread they serve at happy hour. This place is mistakenly awarded Best Happy Hour year after year, despite the watered-down, overpriced drinks, surly staff, and inexcusably shitty $7 buffet.
We made a pact not to spend more than 20 bucks each and sauntered in to join the 5-to-7 p.m. rush. Rusty seemed unfazed at the surroundings, having perhaps logged too many Grand Theft Auto hours to truly appreciate the nonpixilated.
The bar was full of the usual post-Union Square shoppers and giggling 21-year-old baby hipsters on a kitsch safari. Mix that crowd with the extramarital-affair couple in the corner, the possible high-priced call girl doing her rounds, and the ever-present traveling alcoholics at the bar, and you've got a perfectly awkward, Wife Swap-worthy setting.
Sitting across from Rusty, I realized that the years had been unkind to him: Like a shucked cob of corn, nary a wisp was attached to his head. Thankfully he still had that great smile and a real affinity for the work of Todd Rundgren, so yeah, maybe we were gonna have sex.
We resumed our argument about Wife Swap the minute we sat down and ordered mai tais. "Oh please," he said incredulously, eyeballing the shellacked ribs in the chafing dishes to our left, "tell me you don't watch that crap. Reality TV is [blah blah blah ...]."
The No. 1 thing people who think they are smarter than you because they don't watch reality TV want to tell you about reality TV, as if you didn't already know, is that, "It's really not reality." Well, doy. There I was sitting next to a guy who had a PlayStation installed in his Toyota Tacoma, being pelted by errant water droplets from a synchronized tropical rain shower in a bar in downtown San Francisco that looks like Don Ho's lanai -- was this the reality that Rusty was referring to?
"You're an intelligent woman," he continued generously. "Why do you waste brain cells on anything other than booze?"
I wanted to remind him that I had once heard him talking to himself whilst watching The Simpsons: "Ho ho ho, that Itchy! Ha, Scratchy will never learn ...."
The bartender brought us our second round, plunking the drinks down with a half smile, and with that we had broken our 20-buck rule. Every time I come here I swear it's the last time, yet again and again I return like some dipsomaniacal character out of Groundhog Day with a taste for fake orchids and thatched roofs. Fellow San Franciscans, vote yourself off the island that is the Tonga Room; leave that disturbing reality to the tourists and the call girls.
As Rusty piled his plate with fried cheese drizzled with sweet 'n' sour sauce, any lingering thoughts of giving in again to a mating session with a weathered long-distance acquaintance seemed less appealing. Besides, tonight was the conclusion of Survivor: Vanuatu. There were more important things to do.