When you're a kid, you keep hearing the refrain, "Just be yourself!" But this can be puzzling, especially if you have no idea who you are. And what if you don't like yourself? Are you supposed to be that person? If you don't like her, why would anyone else? So "Just be yourself" has generally been pretty useless to me. Until now. Now, I get it. Because I know myself. I can no longer sing the refrain, "But I've never been to me ..." Oh, I've been to me. I waddled into Me-Town a few years back and pitched a tent on Dork Street. Actually, I just gave up caring what other people think, which, when you get right down to it, is the ultimate expression of "being yourself."
Il Pirata in Potrero Hill knows itself really, really well, so well that it doesn't have to cater to any one kind of customer. Il Pirata just is, man, and you can either join in or waddle off to the next Me-Town. Il Pirata means the Pirate, but there is no sign of anything Jolly Roger about this place except for the rum behind the bar. It's big, with several anterooms and two patios. You might even need a treasure map to get around — especially to the women's room, which can make you feel like a rat in a maze. In some ways, the bar seems enchanted, because, depending on the evening, it can be a sports bar, a salsa club, a trance and house party, a reggae fest, or a plain ol' pizza place.
On the day I went, Il Pirata was just a place to chill after work. I showed up determined to enjoy the strangely warm weather we've been having by sitting outdoors and flashing passing cars. There was a mighty fierce darts game going on, and I realized that darts players are a lone breed — more cerebral than pool players, but somehow denser than shuffleboarders. I can't explain this fact; I just know it.
I'd had a weird experience on the 22 bus ride to the bar. I ran into someone I never thought I'd see again, a random stranger I'd first encountered a few months ago. I'd boarded a crowded bus and made my way toward the rear, where I managed to find a seat. We were all packed cheek to jowl — professionals, elderly Asians, elderly Latinas, elderly white folks, almost all old and infirm except myself. And then there was the guy, the one guy, who was making a spectacle of himself. He was completely thugged out in black pants and a black hoodie, his face in a bet' not fuck wit me scowl. He had a gold grill and was playing a loud beat on his knee with a rolled-up newspaper. The "music" he was playing was accompanying his rap, which he was sharing with the entire bus very loudly. It was a charming lil' ditty about eating pussy, killing Chinese people, buying drugs, eating more pussy, and killing white people. As usual, the rest of the passengers acted as though they didn't notice and avoided any and all eye contact with him.
The bus made a stop and the guy next to me got off, so, lucky me, the thug came and sat right next to me. He was very young. I got a glimpse of his eyes — which were, dare I say it, kind of sweet. Bloodshot, but sweet. He started his dirty rapping again, and man, was I ever tempted to interrupt him with a rousing refrain from "The Wheels on the Bus." But instead I squished over toward the window.
"Do I make you nervous?" he asked me, though it wasn't really a question, it was more of a statement. I wanted to say what everyone else on the bus was thinking: Shut the fuck up! But instead I did something that can only be described as insane. Reader, I reached over and I tickled him.
"What the fuck is yo' problem?" he asked. He was so shocked that he just sort of froze. But, under all that, I could see that he was trying not to laugh. So I went in for another armpit grab 'n' tickle.
"You have a baby face," I said, matter-of-factly. "You don't scare me." At this, a middle-aged black woman in the seat in front of us whooped out a big laugh and gave me a visual high-five. Long story short, he shut up rapping and I got to know him a little bit. I liked him. He was sad and in desperate need of attention.
Anyhoo, on the way to Il Pirata, who should I run into again but Lil Thuggie, as I like to call him. He was stretched out over three seats, even though the bus was packed. I asked him to move even though no one else did — he still looked just as imposing. Then I recognized him. And he recognized me.
Lil Thuggie and I bonded even more. I don't remember how we got so deep so quickly, but in about five minutes I learned that he was trying to hang on to something that would improve his life, some persona that would be a golden ticket to happiness. Until then, he was just trying to get any attention he could, and, as he saw it, being an obnoxious young kid was one of the only ways he could do that. Even though his raps were derivative and X-rated, I could tell he was quite bright. I said, "Just be yourself. You are interesting enough."
"Okay, mom," he said. Then he asked for money to go to Burger King. I gave him five bucks.
When I got to Il Pirata, I put my sunglasses on and tilted my head back as the waitress brought my drink. Around me, people were biking, driving, and walking up and down 16th Street. Of all the neighborhoods in the city, this one probably gets the least amount of out-of-'hooders. Chances are that most of the people to your right and left in any given Potrero Hill venue actually live in Potrero Hill. That somehow makes Il Pirata even more authentic to me. Normally I don't kowtow to bars that try to be too many things, but for this place, it just works. It's not self-conscious about it. Il Pirata just acts like itself.
I wondered if I'd ever see Lil Thuggie again. Maybe if I ride the 22 to try to find him, I'll have another excuse to go to Il Pirata.
Inside the bar, a victorious darts player exclaimed, "Whoaaaa!" His excitement came from either his play or something good that happened during the game on TV. I sat and drank and watched the sun sink lower in the sky.