Working out the balance of the universe in North Beach

Things fall apart. Yet despite the dips and valleys in life, in the end, I believe that the universe evens itself out. I suppose this is the sort of thinking that someone who has never had a major tragedy befall them can have. People who have, say, lost a child, or are in the throes of succumbing to a fatal disease, well, they may think differently. To them, the universe probably seems random and cruel.

I was raised by a depressive and an alcoholic. I have watched a best friend die of leukemia. I have survived an eating disorder. I once had to sit through Jingle All the Way. Life has definitely thrown me some curveballs. Yet I remain optimistic.

So, you are wondering, what brought on all this philosophical crap? Well, I went to my new favorite bar, the Saloon on Grant Street, which looks like a bar in New Orleans. New Orleans, the place where things fell apart.

The Saloon is a blues bar, where local blues musicians jam and the jukebox is full of the same. The place is old and the wood is worn to a sheen; it smells of feet, sawdust, stale beer, and hope. The patrons are from a James Agee novel, careworn and complicated, yet possessing a certain optimism. The bar sits on one of the best streets in San Francisco, a narrow shotgun of a way right off Columbus.

I went out with my friends John and Ramona. We walked in, past the elderly woman with the early-'60s haircut, past the guy with the CAT baseball hat. The place was dark and cozy, with a tiny stage off in the far-left corner. The bartender was a stocky, Midwestern sort of guy, with a deep, raspy voice. He was leaning over the bar and into the face of a woman in her '50s with big glasses and her hair swept into a bun, telling her a story. Periodically he would look up at us. We sat and waited. And waited. And waited. I was beginning to think that this place didn't take too kindly to strangers. The next time he looked up I tried to get his attention, and it worked.

"Sorry, sorry!" he said, shuffling over. It soon became apparent that he wasn't being rude; rather, he was wrapped up in the revelry of the conversation. I liked him. John and Ramona ordered Jamesons and Budweisers, despite the fact that this place had Busch on tap, something I have never seen in California. I ordered a whiskey and soda.

"Any special kind of whiskey?" he asked me.

"Nope," I replied.

"That's my kind of woman!" he guffawed.

"Well," I said, "I take my whiskey like I take my men: whatever is in front of me." This seemed to endear him to us further, and he offered us free jukebox programming.

It was at this point that it really started to feel like we were in New Orleans, a city in which I have spent many wasted nights. The Saloon looks and feels like a French Quarter bar. I began to wax nostalgic about the city that hosted most of my spring breaks in high school. John's dad had just returned from New Orleans himself. He is a gregarious guy who managed to participate in a few jazzy funerals and chill with some gangstas.

When Katrina hit I was of course sad for the people, but I was also sad for the city itself. The idea New Orleans would be bulldozed and rebuilt, with its old wood worn to a sheen; smelling of feet, sawdust, stale Dixie beer and hope; that was sad. It would never be the same again, how I remembered it. Things fall apart. Yet John's dad said that it was the same, just a bit more jumbled. Many of the old buildings were still standing. The French Quarter was the same. This was the best news I could hear.

The bartender started doing a slow 'n' sultry White Guy dance, and I encouraged him to take it all off. Shortly thereafter he and John went outside to smoke, and John was entertained with ribald stories told about three centimeters from his face.

Ramona and I got on the subject of old cars that we'd owned. (As I said, there was just something about this place that brought on nostalgia.) I remembered an old Datsun hatchback that I'd inherited from my dad. It was like driving on four cinderblocks. The handling was about as smooth as Kentucky hooch. One time I was plodding down the street and a friend pulled up next to me. Beyond the usual waving and hellos she was encouraging me to roll down my window. Well, this alone took about five minutes in this car, since the proper torque was required to crank that baby down without breaking your wrist. "You have a flat tire," she informed me. I had been driving all day with a totally flat tire and I didn't even notice because that car was such a shitter.

Things fall apart.

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