Talking to survivors at Twin Peaks

"Excuse me," I said to the man at the end of the bar at Twin Peaks. I was trying to squeeze past him and up the stairs to the ATM on the balcony. It was a close fit, and my messenger bag bopped him as I climbed the narrow stairwell. He smiled nicely despite this. Like most of the people inside the bar, he looked over 60 and affable. He was also a sharp contrast to the under-30 and pissy guy who had berated me on an overstuffed Muni car for pressing into him on the way over (okay, so my bag is kinda big ...). It never ceases to amaze me how huffy people get on a crowded public transit vehicle, when everyone is equally as uncomfortable and squished. Deal with it.

But now that I was in the comfy confines of Twin Peaks, I sat down and relaxed. The bar reminds me of the inside of the I Dream of Jeannie bottle, had it been decorated by a gay Sherlock Holmes. There are windows all around the perimeter of the corner tavern, and earth-toned pillows line each window seat. The room doesn't smell like leather and pipe smoke, but it should. The bar itself is grand and old-fashioned, with Irish coffee glasses lined up, each with its own lil sugar cube waiting to be anointed. I found the older crowd really refreshing; it seemed the folks there were all regulars, especially as more of them slowly accumulated as the hours passed. Behind me were gathered about nine men, all gray-haired and well-dressed, chatting about this and that.

I had just watched the documentary Gay Sex in the '70s, which was about the heyday before AIDS hit and the horribleness of watching so many people get sick afterwards. Sitting near me in this bar at the top of the Castro were men I assumed had lived through the '70s and were here to tell about it. They had probably witnessed most of their friends become ill. Just as most men in their '60s or '70s knew people who died in Vietnam, or went there themselves, most long-time Castro residents from this age group seem to remember the first wave of AIDS. I liked to think that I was sitting there with an unobscured view of survivors.

I started up a conversation with a guy next to me, who I could tell wanted to chat because he kept smiling at me. We talked a little about the book I was reading, and then, as seems to happen to me a lot, we cut to the chase and started talking about some pretty heavy stuff. We discussed his mother's death from Alzheimer's, his sister's MS, and his friend who died from AIDS. He said that after his friend died, he began volunteering with HIV organizations, delivering food and stuff like that. "Here's the strange thing," he said. "I realized then that not everyone who gets sick is a saint worthy of our compassion." I raised my eyebrows, though I thought I knew what he was talking about. "What I mean is, the man was ... well, he was an asshole. He didn't like anything that I did for him. I could tell he wasn't a nice person before he got sick, and he damn sure wasn't a nice person after he got sick."

Not everyone we can help will fit the smiley-faced, grateful fantasy we've dreamed up. I have to give credit where credit is due, though — and give Jesus some props — when I say that the personality or background of the person should be secondary to the importance of the service. And, for every one jerk you help, you get about five people who do appreciate your time. I brought this up to my companion. "Nah," he said, with a wave of his arm, "I quit after him. No more of that."

I looked out the window and saw a female police officer in an ill-fitting uniform saunter by slowly, one hand authoritatively on her billyclub as she twirled something bemusedly in her other. She looked like Barney Fife's butch cousin, with the same goofy pride and self-importance as Andy Griffith's sidekick. My initial reaction was to assume she was crazy and not actually a cop. "Oh no," said the bartender, who assured me that she was a staple of the Castro, and every inch an officer. Man, that's cool.

More characters drifted by — genuine crazies, oddballs on roller skates, tourists with cameras wearing San Francisco T-shirts (why do they do that?). I made a mental note to return and sit in a window seat next time.

By this time, the bar was packed and another bartender had started a shift. I must say that the servers at Twin Peaks are great conversationalists, and when I wasn't talking to my new companion, I was talking to the bartender. But there comes a time in a neighborhood bar when you start to feel like an outsider; when everyone in the place knows each other and you do not, and you start to get squished with people, just like during a Muni rush hour. That time was nigh, and I decided to take my leave. I asked the man I was sitting with if he wanted to get something to eat, but he said he wasn't hungry. I could tell that he wanted to become engulfed in the same crowd I was attempting to extricate myself from. This was his bar, and these were his friends.

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