Finding Solace in a Sea of Misery at Twin Peaks

The Twin Peaks is soothing. It is soothing from the outside, where the amber-lit patrons look like San Francisco's answer to Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. It is soothing from the inside, where older men huddle around tables and talk about neighborhood gossip.

If I am lucky, I can get a window seat and watch the busy intersection out front. If I'm really lucky, people will be walking their corgis or bulldogs past. If I'm really, really lucky, the nudists are out in full force.

I needed to be soothed; it had been a hard week. I wanted to feel like I was part of something without actually having to actively participate, and what better place to do that than at a bar? Twin Peaks is a parlor, it's someone's living room, it's a salon. I just wanted to sit there with my book and occasionally look up at people who seemed content.

I was doing what I usually do when I am feeling down: reading about people who are worse off than me. That's not hard to do, because I don't have much to complain about. Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship fit the bill, though; during Black History Month I usually read some civil rights thing, but this year I decided to delve further into history.

I fluffed up the Elizabethan pillows that line the windows at the Twin Peaks and settled into my book. It was packed, as usual, but this place is no Badlands — people come here for the opposite of small talk (big talk?). Maybe I was also drawn to this bar because it resembles the inside of a ship: a yacht in the '20s, with bolted-down Tiffany lamps and Edwardian woodwork.

"The captain always goes down with his ship," I overheard a guy say. There seemed to be two kinds of conversations one could overhear that week — the Niners or the capsized cruise liner off the Tuscan coast.

"At the very least the captain is not supposed to zip off in a fucking speed boat, throwing everyone under the bus," said another guy, to a round of chuckles.

"Under the bow!" said another. "Literally!"

Somewhere along the line it has been decided that the captain of a ship is morally responsible for everyone on board. This is a relatively new idea; historically, sailors were a sorry lot for the most part, hence the phrase "motley crew." The only thing a captain had to worry about was delivering whatever monetary value his goods contained. The people were expendable. On a slave ship, the human cargo was the commodity.

On a cruise ship, the commodity is the experience. As soon as you get on one of those things the crew starts the big sales pitch to get you to enjoy yourself by spending even more money. Once aboard, the passengers are captives.

Still, the cruise industry can't compare to the cruel kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans: Even with a singing Kathie Lee Gifford, the Love Boat was not an 18th-century slaver.

Once sailing became something pleasurable that could be bought and sold, a captain had to have a moral obligation to the people on board. Otherwise no one in their right mind would get on something that weighs 220,000 tons yet still manages to float.

The men had moved on to talking about the Niners, at which point my mind went blank. I went back to my book. So far the most interesting thing I have learned about the slave ships was the symbiotic relationship that they had with sharks. The fish would follow the ships for their entire course (usually ending in Jamaica) and would dine off of everything that was thrown overboard along the way. That meant several bodies a day. There were shark families that had never known another life; new baby sharks were born into this gruesome nomadic life, where eating people was just what you did. It was a good time to be a great white.

The men nearest me bought another round of red wine. Twin Peaks was a red wine sort of bar. I had just finished reading about a young man who was stolen from his tribe when he was 14, bought and sold all the way to the African coast, ripped away from his sister and then tearfully reunited with her again, only to be permanently separated when he was put aboard the slave ship. The book was working: My problems seemed incredibly petty.

A man was reading the Sunday Times; a picture of the cruise ship resting on its side filled the top fold. There were stillpeople inside.

Yes, things could be worse.

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