The naan, the bitch, and the mall bar at Straits

When I was a kid, the most exciting part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the beginning of the book, when a child pushes through the back of the wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek and ends up in Narnia. I wanted to be able to do something like that so much. I could never understand why in children's literature, the kids always went to cool fantasy lands like Oz, only to spend the entire time trying to figure out how to leave. That's probably why I have a particular affinity for that Twilight Zone episode "The Bewitchin' Pool," where children dive into a pool in their backyard and emerge in a wonderful place with a kindly old woman who cares for them better than their parents ever did. Well, they weren't stupid. They eventually dove in for the last time and decided to stay in the other world forever.

I can't say I ended up in a better place, but last week I had the sensation of going through a wardrobe and ending up in a bizarre new land. I'd passed the entrance to the Westfield San Francisco Centre at the Powell BART station many times, and it always looked about as inviting as any other mall (i.e., not very). But I was determined to see the movie Up in 3D, which was playing at the very top of the galleria. Well, imagine my surprise as I passed through the automatic doors and into a bustling "city" of shoppers, high school kids, tourists, and people in suits. Not only was there a gigantic mall in the heart of S.F. I had never set foot in, but it was also actually teeming with business. Weren't we in a recession?

The elevators went up and up and up, each level peopled with odd new lifeforms and space-age seating structures. Five minutes prior I was in the BART station, listening to a man singing gospel a cappella and being jostled by elderly Asian women, and now I was in another country entirely. I loved it.

I went all the way to the top, having read on the information kiosk that the food was on the fifth floor. I wanted to grab something before my movie. There was an array of choices, all sort of fancy places, with waiters and stuff. I settled on a place called Straits, which was a small-plate, upscale number with Indian food and a large bar area. It was the odd name that drew me in. Yes, a strait is a narrow passage of water. But it also can mean "a situation of perplexity or distress." If this was Oz, then Straits had named itself for the haunted forest with the trees that throw apples at you. The owners might as well have called their restaurant Duress or Heebie-Jeebies.

I went in and sat at the bar, and was once again surprised at how busy a place in a mall could be. It reminded me, fondly, of an airport bar. I looked around and saw that, just like in an airport, I had nothing in common with any of the assembled. They all looked like they shopped at Forever 21 or even St. John; the men were in high-end suits and sipping martinis. The bartender was furiously muddling drinks for the women at the bar.

As for me, I parked it on a stool next to a pole and whipped out my crossword puzzle. I ordered a $4 iced tea and some nibbles and looked around. Straits is high-ceilinged and becurtained hither and yon, with vaguely Mogul art prints and a rich brown color scheme. A gaggle of birthday girls came and sat on the three stools next to me, ordering shots and chartreuse cocktails. They were probably in their 30s and had been to Straits before.

" ... and the guy at the spa was like, 'You have the most beautiful skin,'" one woman was saying as she sat down.

"Oh my god, you do, Amber," her friend said.

"I so don't!" Amber said.

"Compared to my skin?" (um, probably Britney) said.

I sighed to myself and pretended to do my crossword.

"You so have to have your wedding in Puerto Vallarta so I can go back!" Amber said. Total, I thought.

The bartender was running around like crazy at this point, and the Sex and the City crew beside me wasn't helping things. They kept wanting straws or naan or another shot. I was feeling resentful toward them. I was feeling superior.

I wondered whether this sort of disliking people simply because they're different from you is the same thing as being a racist. These were not my people. I was a stranger in a strange land. I decided to embrace the situation and view it as an anthropological study.

Then the unexpected thing happened — or perhaps the expected, when I really think about it. Britney turned her head midsentence, coughed in my face and in my food, and then went back to jabbering like a fool.

"Thank you for coughing all over me," I said.

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