The bouncer outside Emperor Norton's Boozeland, in the Tenderloin, got mad at me for holding my license in a way that obscured the birth date. Come on. Who are we kidding? I'm not nearly pretty enough to get carded.
One step inside was all it took to make me gasp. Boozeland boasts gorgeous art deco fixtures — pillars; great molding; tasteful wallpaper; a split level with wooden floors where they keep the pool table; an outdoor nook with picnic tables — oh man. I took a seat at one end of the beautiful elliptical wooden bar and wished I lived there.
The bartender was hassled. Someone hadn't shown up for a shift. He would periodically jump on the phone to arrange coverage. He shot down my "What do you do make especially well?" shit before the words could get out of my mouth. "There are the specials," he told me, pointing at the wall. It was mostly beer-and-shot combos. I ordered the blood-orange punch. Seemed unusual.
I was having a hard time placing the crowd — a strange mix of the hard-knocks and hip, of visiting money and regulars. Maybe that's because the bar itself is a hybrid — a high décor beer joint in a rough neighborhood that's rapidly gentrifying.
A new bartender had arrived and was settling in. She saw what I was drinking. "How do you like it?
"I'm on the fence about it, honestly."
"It's got nice qualities but the bitter isn't blending well with the sweet."
"Oh," she said. "Well, I made the whole batch of it this morning."
Damn. She moved on to other customers. I never saw her again.
Eventually the original bartender came back to me. "Want another?"
He seemed more relaxed, so I tried again. "Do you have any drinks that you especially..."
"Look," he said, as nicely as possible, "I'm a bartender, not a mixologist. I don't take pride in making homemade bitters. I pour things." He thought about it for a moment. "We are developing a specialty cocktail, like a sazerac, but it's not worked out yet and I'm not pouring anything until they can give me a recipe. Okay?"
Emperor Norton's is a bar that's developing a specialty cocktail but hires a bartender who refuses to make it. Awesome — but also emblematic of the contradictions it straddles. Much too beautiful for an ordinary neighborhood joint, much too confident for a hipster destination, not nearly pretentious enough to attract big money, it's balancing on a shot glass. Sooner or later it has to fall in one direction.
"Hey," I heard a purebred hipster tell his friend. "You've got to take over with the jukebox. I've run out of songs, and they don't play any music unless you're paying for it!"
I jumped in. "You've got a problem with that?"
He looked shocked. "Well, yeah."
Old argument. "You come here not to hear people? To interact with them less?"
"No ..." He thought this through. "I like to interact with people in a lively atmosphere. Work is quiet enough already."
"Okay," I said, "but what have you been talking about all this time while the music was playing? Be honest."
The hipster's face fell. "Work."
His friends came to the rescue. "Well, okay," one girl said, "but we're talking shit about work!"
"And the music helps?"
"Absolutely," said a gorgeous, quiet girl. "I think most conversations are better if you can't really hear what anyone's saying."
I nodded. "That does guarantee you'll always get the conversation you came to have." Pretty people often prefer to be seen and not heard. Whereas I'm a word guy: I have to be heard to attract that kind of attention.
"Why do you come to bars?" one of them asked.
"Amazing and unexpected things can happen at bars, if you pay attention. That's why I'm skeptical about gratuitous music."
They all nodded. "What do you do?" one of the girls asked.
Work again? It's always work with these kids. I handed them business cards that say "Fascinating Stranger" and left.
There's room enough for everyone around the gorgeous bar at Emperor Norton's Boozeland — but the sweet and bitter aren't mixing in this neighborhood. Only some can become regulars. When the neighborhood picks a direction — or has one picked for it — Emperor Norton's will accommodate its regulars, whoever they are, and do it well.