Sarcasm is the music of the bourgeoisie — folks who live comfortably, free from most wants and fears, who need to create tiny conflicts where there really are none.
As a young journalist emerging in the late '90s, I was steeped in cynicism, turning a critical, sometimes-jaundiced eye to whatever crossed my path, as did many "new" journalists. The cultural touchstones of less-educated whites generally bore the brunt of my examinations: Monster truck rallies, baby beauty pageants, and professional wrestling were grist for my mill. Now that I work in San Francisco, where I'm more likely to encounter well-off subcultures, I have turned my sneer toward the bridge-and-tunnel crowds, any woman who would date Gavin Newsom (before he got hitched), and my latest prey, wine bars.
I'm coming clean here, people, and admitting my biases and shortcomings. What has given me this new-found clarity? It was Barack Obama's inaugural speech, wherein he basically said we should set aside childish things and grow up; in short, cut the bullshit. I'm trying to do that in my own life. It's hard. But the core of what Obama is trying to teach is tolerance. Usually we associate that word with racist or homophobic bigots, but we all have people against whom we hold prejudices, and progressives are no different. People on the left have preconceived notions about soldiers, Southern Baptists, and Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. The trouble, of course, is that, at least in the case of the Baptists and the cheerleaders, they really are fucking ridiculous. Oops! There I go again. It may be impossible to deprogram myself.
And so it was that I found myself at CAV wine bar on Market, my oppositional-defiant mind already cataloging and tagging the place's perceived shortcomings: cold, modern interior; no beer; robotically friendly yet somewhat aloof staff; and lots of stupid wine. But this is the dawn of a new era, and I told myself to remain open-minded.
The woman who served me was the owner. I knew this because the front window bore a review with her picture on it. She was wearing a hat that reminded me of Buster Keaton. On the far wall was a chalk drawing of Curious George. These two things converged to make me feel happy. I told her I wanted a wine that would make my adenoids pucker, and she said she had just the thing. TV on the Radio was playing in the background, and that was mighty okay with me, too. So far, so good.
I set up my new library books in a pile and started reading the first page of each one, which I really should do before I check them out to save myself the burden of lugging around crappy stories. Not that there are any crappy stories, mind you, because this is a new era for me, and I am trying not to be critical of other writers.
Anyway, I was reading some godawful first lines ("Zooey couldn't tell if it was a car coming at her, or if someone had just squished a lightning bug on her glasses"), when I was immediately confronted with my first task of tolerance. A gaggle of wine enthusiasts, most of them CAV employees, had gathered at the end of the bar. When you work at a wine bar, you have to taste everything so you know what you're talking about. I'm pretty sure salespeople come in and offer free samples, and I'm pretty sure that's what was happening to my right. I was also certain that I was about to hear some good old-fashioned pompous wine talk, the stuff of dreams for a sarcastic bastard like myself. The glass swirling, the sniffing, the turtlenecks, the adjectives ... this would indeed be a hard time for me to set aside any childish things.
Okay, I told myself, first I need to view these people as individuals with their own histories and motivations, and not pigeonhole them into any preconceived idea of what a wine snob — er, enthusiast — might be. Before me stood a middle-aged man who I figured was a manager because of the way he unpleasantly berated one of the bartenders (right in front of me) for putting glasses away incorrectly. The guy was nose-deep in a glass of red, sucking up its waft. In his defense, I thought, maybe the bartender had stored the glasses wrong 20 times, and this was the 21st time, and the dude was exasperated. Maybe this manager loves wine the way I love guinea pigs and crossword puzzles and the Bee Gees (all of which I freely admit are more than worthy of a new journalist's cynical gaze). I shouldn't poke fun at his pre-sip rituals of whirling and smelling and holding the glass up to the light. Hey-hey! This was easier than I thought. Barack would be so proud of me.
The manager was surrounded by people who were also sipping and concentrating on their samples. A smartly dressed young woman in glasses was letting the wine dance on her tongue. "Hmmm," she mused. "I taste licorice ... am I insane?"
Okay, never pose a question like that around a sarcastic bastard. My brain automatically went there, to that dark place, into that ebon eve of moribundity with her name on the tombstone. No! I could not allow it to happen. Let this woman detect whatever she wants on her palate; let her find joy in whatever she brings to her lips; let her travel on a padded gurney to Bellevue with Twizzlers on her breath! Live and let live! Yes we can! Yes we did! Obama! Obama!
Feeling rather magnanimous, I gathered up my books, put on my coat, and sauntered outside with a spring in my step. I took the last remaining seat on the bus, next to a homeless woman who was talking to herself. She pulled up her stuff and motioned for me to sit down, apologizing kindly for taking it up. She smelled terrible. I can see the folly in wine tasters and people in heavy metal parking lots, but I have never turned a cynical eye to the truly destitute. She started talking about Barack Obama and how things were going to be different now. She was really up on the issues and brought up the stimulus package, and we both shared in the hope. She had a weathered face, but I could tell she had been cute at one point in her life. She told me she had bladder cancer, and that she'd just come back from the doctor. I said I was really sorry to hear that. Just then I started to feel something warm on my right thigh. It could only be one thing. She got off at the next stop, leaving a puddle of urine in the seat and on me.
There's a metaphor here, I told myself. I am supposed to take something from this day, and I think it's humility.