It's hard to tell whether bars foster phony relationships. When you feel a certain fealty to your fellow man sitting next to you, is that genuine bonhomie, or just the booze talking? Or how about that cute bartender who always remembers your name, asks about your dog, and knows that you like a lot of ice in your Cape Cod? Does he really dig you, or does he know that if he's nice to you, you'll keep coming back? People who get sober and stop going to bars are quick to tell you that it's all fake — fun, but fake.
I was sitting on a stool at the 3300 Club on Mission pondering bar camaraderie recently. The 3300 is loaded with regulars who all know each other. It's a corner saloon with about a million signs saying that if you look under 30, you will be carded. It's cozy enough, with booths and tables and a big ol' wooden bar.
The real draw of the place, for me, is the bathrooms, especially the men's room. And no, not in a Senator Larry Craig kind of way. I'm talking about the, er, artwork painted on the wall. It's what a certain class of person might call Outsider Art, which is a nice way of saying that it looks like a stoned 12-year-old created it. It's an image of a full-figured naked woman with great, globulous breasts. She takes up the entire wall behind the urinal. Her face is particularly uncomely, due to the rather harsh brushwork and ill-proportioned rendering of her teeth. But she is pointing and laughing, and her finger is in direct alignment with any penis that might be taken out in front of her.
I have a friend who thinks the 3300 Club might have the largest range of generational commingling, from the freshly 21 to the one-foot-in-the-gravers. The bartenders working the night I was there were female, and they had a mildly flirty, take-the-piss-out-of-a-guy way of interacting with the customers. Sort of a laugh-and-point-at-the-willy vibe. There had to be at least one customer who had a crush on these women — a customer who comes back to hear his name said aloud and to have his dog asked about.
I was questioning the concept of bar bonding because I'd just seen the most amazing documentary, The Great Happiness Space. The movie is about male geishas in Osaka, Japan, and the women who frequent them. I don't want to spoil the film for you, because it has a lot of surprises, but basically the women are in love with these boys, and they spend all of their money just to hang out with them. These ladies have convinced themselves that the geishas love them too, but the latter are vampires who suck the cash right out of these chicks' wallets. None of the working boys have any real relationships, and none of their customers do, either. They all live in a phony bubble of pretense. It was a sad and fascinating story, and it made me question romantic love.
The documentary also made me ponder the San Francisco bar scene, where people seemingly interact very intimately. I meet total strangers and in five minutes they're telling me their life's story. If I wanted to, and wasn't wallflower-shy when it comes to this stuff, I could make eyes with a man across the bar and end up taking him home. That stuff generally doesn't happen at the Safeway. Bars are indeed special environments, but are they phony environments?
At the 3300 Club, I was sitting next to a man in a Giants T-shirt and a painter's hat. He had been chatting with the bartender, and suddenly turned his attention to me, offering to buy me a drink. "A double water, on me!" he joked.
"Jeez," I shot back, "are you trying to get me into bed or what?" (See? No way would I make a joke like that at Safeway.) He chortled. Being male, he of course appreciated the sexual innuendo. I quickly regretted saying that. Sometimes I just can't resist making a quip.
The man moved closer to me and asked where I lived and what I did. He said that he lived in Richmond, and we started talking about the crime rate there, and how his truck is always broken into, and how the busybodies on his street notice everything except crimes in progress.
I was waiting for my friends, and I was enjoying talking to this guy, so I kept fostering the interaction. We laughed and chitchatted and got to know each other better. I suppose you could say that I was using him to pass the time until my posse arrived. Perhaps he was using me to interact with a woman, or to pass the time until someone better came along. Still, whenever I am talking to a stranger in a bar and I can tell that they like me, I am always thinking to myself, how am I going to let this guy down easy? (See? Phony.)
Finally my friends shuffled in and surrounded us at the bar. The Giants fan gave everyone a warm greeting, but both of us became slightly uncomfortable. He seemed bummed that I would be hanging out with my girlfriends now, and I was bummed that I would be making him feel like I didn't want to hang out with him anymore. He immediately turned his back on us and began to talk to the person on his right.
After my friends and I sat down at a nearby table, my bar buddy did one cursory fly-by to wave at us, but it was apparent that any interaction I'd had with him was over. I'm sure this exact same scenario was being played out all around the city that night.
But not everything that happens in bars is ephemeral. There I was, sitting with three great women, talking about genuinely intimate things with people to whom I am genuinely connected. Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" came on, and I realized that there had been no music playing the entire time I'd been at the 3300 Club. My girlfriend placed a Hefeweizen in front of me and called me dearie. We all clinked our glasses in a toast.