Bouncer Searches for Meaning at Cafe Van Kleef

Ray Bradbury had a cool way of coming up with story ideas. He would surround himself with knickknacks, collectibles, junk, stuff, gimcrack, paraphernalia, chattels, and things, and then he would come up with a memory he had of his own life and somehow try to plug one of the objects in the room around that memory. Then he wrote. I always think about that when I go to Van Kleef's in Downtown Oakland, because it's covered in stuff like boxing gloves, taxidermy, weird paintings, dust, skeletons, a coat of arms, and trophies, all bathed in an amber light with a hint of bordello.

So that's what I'm supposed to do, right? Go to a bar and take it all in, then blend it somehow with something from my own life. Or if I'm lucky, meet people and see how well their experience fits in with the wildebeest head behind them.

When Van Kleef's first opened, it was a lot easier to get a seat. I remember interviewing the jovial owner, Peter, who was so Dutch he might as well have been wearing wooden shoes, and he seemed to be doing the whole thing on a whim... which, let's face it, was how anything got done in Oakland 15 years ago. Now the bar has the patina of a place much older, and the gravitas of an establishment that is respected and cool, and the hot bartenders you might find at any hipster bar in SF.

The key to this place is showing up when the civil servants get off work, before the after-dinner or Fox Theater set roll in to down greyhounds. Sit at the bar and just wait for that Contracts and Compliance Officer to pull up next to you. That's what my friend Ernestine does, and through her I have learned that Oakland is one big high school of warring egos, rivalries, and at this point in time, a severe hatred of the dean (the bumbling mayor, Jean Quan). There is a TV show in the works about the city government of Oakland, an hourlong drama by the same people who brought The Newsroom to HBO. If it makes it past the pilot stage I will be giddy.

I ordered some fresh-squeezed juice, which was a novel concept when Van Kleef's started making drinks out of it, but now of course is What Is Generally Done. Peter wanted to create a place where people came and talked to each other, preferably strangers, which I guess is what they do in Europe when they aren't painting oils of one another. He amassed all of his stuff into one long room and then waited for us to show up and plug our lives into the story.

Lo and behold, I wasn't seated for more than a minute before a guy in a security guard ensemble came in and sat down by me and took off his jacket. Underneath he was just a normal dude. Whattaya know. We tipped our invisible hats and he ordered a beer. He had huge hands, the kind of hands that dwarf a pint and make it look like a shot glass. Men who work as security guards are forever stuck with a bored look on their face. Or, and I'm going out on a limb here, guys who are perpetually bored anyway naturally gravitate to a job that fosters it. I would have to find out what his deal was.

We started chit-chatting about Jean Quan, and how she had OK'd a lock-picking class, something so stupid that it made national news. He chuckled, which for him probably took up his laugh allotment for the day. Then I segued into his job, and he told me that he works in the lobby of a building nearby, which gave me a perfect "in" to ask him how he filled his time when he was supposed to be like a Queen's Guard and just sort of "be."

He kind of sighed and shrugged his shoulders, and I figured he would just blow the question off, but then he surprised me and settled into a long talk. It was like his entire life had led up to this point, and someone was finally asking him the question he had always wanted to answer: "LaMont T. Taylor, what goes on in that head of yours?" (OK so I never really caught his name, but that one sounds cool.)

He told me that when he started, he was "so bored he could die," but then he learned how to sit back and watch the "symphony" around him. He created backstories for the people he would see every day. He could tick the day by as each person arrived at their scheduled time and made the same small talk. He realized that he was a character in their lives, like the humble bailiff on a sitcom (so I'm saying that, not him), and that when he wasn't there, people noticed. When it's really slow though, he admits, it's like those people who are in solitary confinement and entertain themselves by reliving every moment, song, TV show, and birthday that they ever had, to keep their minds occupied. He has to do that too. Again, I'm embellishing, but that was the gist of it.

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