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Distillations: Reaching the End of the Line at Cafe Terminus 

Wednesday, May 7 2014
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Café Terminus is a small chrome rectangle just two blocks away from the Ferry Building; it brews its own coffee in the mornings and serves absinthe punch all day. I imagined it fitting perfectly in a European train station, someplace where businessmen coming into the city and revelers heading out of it would meet at the end of the line to grab a quick drink before they caught their next train. That's even where I thought the name came from: "Terminus," last stop.

I like to imagine things like that. I have never been so wrong about a bar.

I was trying to figure out why it also had a French Revolution vibe going ... with drink names like The Citizen's Committee and Death in the Morning ... when I turned to the guy on the next stool over, who in a green T-shirt and hoodie was the only person there more casually dressed than me.

He'd just ordered a Metro (bourbon, pastis, black currant liqueur). I was drinking the absinthe punch (absinthe, cucumber, sugar, lime) which I highly recommend for anyone who doesn't need to ask themselves, "Would I like absinthe punch?"

"Have you noticed," I asked, "that there's an almost even split in this bar between people in suits and people who look like bike messengers?"

"You know," Josh said (his name was Josh), "I almost never make it out to this side of Market Street, but I'd noticed that as I got closer. A lot more guys in suits. I thought that didn't happen here."

"Yeah, that's the neighborhood" the bartender chimed in.

"Are they different kinds of customers?" I asked. "Can you tell how they'll behave by how they dress?"

"Nah." The bartender shook his head. "All the same."

"Where I work," said Josh, "I never see suits. It's completely informal."

"What line of work are you in?"

"Software."

"Yep."

"I actually wouldn't mind if things were a little more formal," he said. "To tell you the truth. But I'd never say that there."

We live in a time when the informal is seen as a more honest expression of self, and the inarticulate is seen as more trustworthy. That usually happens when the young become powerful, when age and wisdom are seen as deficits. But youth and informality are only good at bringing chaos — they can rarely establish order, and "tech" is surely a guillotine in which the jobs of older workers have been placed. That's why most people still have a yearning for hierarchy somewhere in them, for a uniform that tells the world who they are and what their place is ... which is really a yearning for stability. For a chance to be certain about the world and your place in it, rather than seeing everything around you constantly disrupted.

The trouble is that you can't trust people in suits either. The more uniforms become fashion statements, the less they mean.

I'd thought Café Terminus was wearing a uniform, when in fact it was being informal. As we talked, the bartender told me that "Terminus" has nothing to do with European train stations: It's a brand of absinthe. And the Citizens Committee drink refers not to the bloodthirsty Reign of Terror but a San Francisco preservation group that kept the old cable cars intact. Death in the Morning? That's a Hemingway reference, of course.

Terminus seemed so much more ... prosaic, now. I'd thought this was a bar with an odd connection to something deep and dangerous in the human psyche, instead of an absinthe bar that made offhand references to San Francisco history.

I am a storyteller at heart — I have a yearning to turn places like this into mythology. But not every bar has a grand truth on the menu. I ordered a Citizens Committee (gin, pastis, orgeat, mint, lemon) and enjoyed it thoroughly while perusing the list of spirits. Lots of good whiskeys here, plenty of absinthe, a limited selection of beer and wine, and a crowd that is just passing through. Nobody lives around here: They're catching a drink after work before they move on, to their real lives. There may be grand themes and elements of the collective unconscious at play in the Financial District, but mostly we're just waiting to go home. Thinking about other things. Terminus is not the end of the line.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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