Say Schwa

Spending depressed days at Tosca, eavesdropping on silly bands

Many artists have died before finishing great works. Spalding Gray's ironically titled Life Interrupted, Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Giacomo Puccini's Turandot were all in mid-schwa when the call came. I doubt anyone will try to finish Spalding's monologue (very bad form, indeed), but others have stepped in to finish the work of Dickens and Puccini. Rupert Holmes, the guy who likes piña coladas, gettin' caught in the rain, and makin' love at midnight, apparently also likes a good Dickensian yarn, because he wrote a musical based on Drood. Why he neglected to leave this factoid out of his personal ad we will never know. He could very easily have replaced "I'm not much into health food" with "I don't dig debtor's prison," or "If you have half a brain" with "Please then, guvna, 'ave you 'alf a crown?"

Puccini's opera was finished by another guy after his death, who I suppose did a good job because no one seems to notice. Of all the guys who wrote operas, I like Puccini the best. You can't beat Madama Butterfly. My favorite is La Bohème, the love story of wretchedly poor people dying of disease. Then we have Tosca. Oh, yes, we have Tosca... and there, of course, is where I ended up last week.

Say what you want about Fisherman's Wharf and tourists, but my money's on North Beach when it comes to pulling in the out-of-towners. You can usually find these citizens of leisure, their hip guidebooks neatly stashed away, lined up at the bar at Tosca on any given evening, waiting patiently for Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, Sean Penn, or, heck, maybe even Sammy Hagar to waltz in. I too went in hopes of espying someone famous, but several hours later and $60 poorer, I was prepared to settle for Phil Matier.

Tosca, for those of you who have never been there, is quite beautiful. It's long and deep, with high ceilings and amber-colored paintings of old Italy peering down at you over ornate chandeliers. The background music dips in and out of opera and standards, and the bartenders wear smart little white blazers. It's dim enough to invite conversation, but bright enough to let people see and be seen. In addition to attracting sightseers, Tosca is the meeting place of old, first-generation Italian men, three-martini business conference attendees, and new couples grabbing a fancy drink before dinner.

My reasons for coming were different. It is at this time of year that I go through my usual depression, where I visit suicide memorial pages, sit on the beach thinking about disappearing while the wind whips romantically through my hair, and listen to opera -- La Bohème, to be exact. Those characters were poor, too, and consumptive, and tended to generally see the glass as half empty.

There is something completely self-centered and fetishistic about my returning to sadness at this time each year. But I don't really give a shit.

Don't worry, though, I shan't cut myself off mid-schwa. I will instead take this opportunity to go to places alone and listen in on other people's conversations. Like the one I heard at Tosca.

The scene: A man enters the bar and removes his jacket and black motorcycle helmet, revealing thick, dark hair, punk rock earrings, and an Italian racing shirt. He greets the bartender, who looks like a younger Woody Allen, with a how-do and orders a beer. Very slowly, other men come in to join this person, each of them with the same look of restrained excitement on his face.

"Oh, man," says one guy with facial hair, "this gig is going to be hot. Have you seenthe stage? I mean, it's so cool."

In two seconds I had them all figured out and couldn't believe my luck: I had somehow situated myself next to hopeful yet clueless bohemian musicians bent on finding that big break. First off, they used the word "gig." Then they used the word "hot" with no detectable irony. Here they were, in San Francisco (!) having a drink at Tosca (!) before their big show. It was the first act of La Bohème, right here on Columbus Avenue.

They continued to chatter, each one surreptitiously looking my way to see if, in fact, the girl was listening to them and may then figure out that they were touring rock stars. I surmised that they were probably the opening act for a group like Maroon 5, possibly in some contact with the guy who signed Third Eye Blind, but more likely using the friend of the producer who works with Mickey Hart.

"Oh, shit, we have to make the goddamn set list," said the guy who got into this whole thing for the chicks, saying it loud enough for everyone to hear. Jesus, they were cute to watch. It was like looking at kindergartners getting ready for their fall play. I didn't even want to find out who they were, for fear of spoiling their dork-wad sweetness. I mean, what if they were Finger Eleven or something? That would suck.

Normally I wouldn't be able to resist approaching people like this, those I have listened in on and been intrigued by. And I knew they wouldn't be offended if I asked them what band they were in; in most cases, my curiosity and OCD would force such an inquiry, like a recovering drug addict who makes the unfortunate decision to live right next to the 16th Street BART station.

I'm sure all this back-and-forth betwixt my ego and my id was being played out on my face. I know it was, in fact, because there are mirrors across the bar at Tosca, and I found myself quite embarrassed when I realized that the facially gesticulating Muppet in the glass was actually me.

Then I did something pretty amazing. I got up mid-schwa and left without talking to the goddamn band. I left without an ending, and the strange thing is, it actually lifted my spirits. Here's to incompletion.

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