Bouncer Gets Meta at the Tonga Room

The Tonga Room always fills me with gratitude. Gratitude that it wasn't demolished. Gratitude that kitsch has a revered place in any civil society. Gratitude that the happy hour buffet they serve always sounds promising yet ends up tasting gnarly. Don't go changing, Tonga Room.

Do I really need to describe the Tonga Room to you, gentle reader? If you live in San Francisco and have never gone, we politely ask you to pack up your bags and move to Fresno, where people of your ilk are more welcome. But maybe you just moved here and haven't had the chance to head up to the Fairmont, and that's understandable since there's a lot of hill-climbing involved, and your calves haven't adjusted to the rigorous workout of moving around this city. Whatever you do, don't take the trolley up there: That's for tourists.

The Tonga Room is what Thurston Howell The Third would have built on Gilligan's Island, had he been able to purchase the materials from a hotel warehouse that dabbled in all things Tiki. It's dark and Polynesian with lots of dried fronds and paper umbrella drinks. There's a “lagoon” made from an old indoor pool that has periodic “rainstorms” with thunder and lightning. The bar waitstaff is efficient if not too robotic at times, but face it, they deal in volume.

Here's another thing about the place: It's just about the most depressing spot on earth to go by yourself, though I could see arriving late at night after a long day in business meetings before you retire to your Fairmont suite. Since I can't afford nor have any interest in that scenario, I decided to take my friend along, whom I will call Pancho.

Pancho ordered a mai tai, because you have to get something stupid and expensive. I got pineapple juice because I was broke and knew I was going to have to buy Pancho's drinks since I dragged him out.

I was hoping a pop culture sponge like him would come up with some good Tonga Room fodder. Gilligan's Island is such an obvious jumping-off point that only the most pedestrian of people would ever use such a thing (ahem) but there was always Lost, or Survivor.

But he wasn't interested in either of those. “James Michener's Hawaii,” he proffered. Ah. I made it about 50 pages into that book once, but I do remember the opening is about how Hawaii was formed and it has always stuck with me. Pancho says the book is really cool, especially since each section is a different people's viewpoint, from foreign missionaries to royal Hawaiians to Japanese settlers, but by the end of the book the point of view all coalesces into one voice that is the Hawaiian people. “He was being meta in 1959,” said Pancho.

“Jeez,” I replied, “everything is meta when you look at it.”

“Duh,” said Pancho.

“Nature is meta,” I continued, on a roll, pointing out that each thing on Hawaii's slab of hardened lava came from its own genesis and either interacted and flourished or withered and perished, but ended up coming together and becoming one island.

“This bar is meta,” said Pancho, pointing out that everyone in it chose where they were going to sit and may or may not have interacted with others in the process, thereby maybe changing the course of history in those around them, ever so slightly.

“You sure that's meta?” I asked, not entirely clear on the concept. Mostly I remember that rad Community episode, you know, that one they made before the show started to suck. But I thought it meant “self-referential,” like in The Muppet Movie when they always turn to the camera and say stuff like, “Well that's what happens when you are stuck in a movie!”

“That whole show was meta,” said Pancho, right on cue.

Community? Or The Muppet Show?”


“This drink is meta,” I said, pointing to my juice.

“This conversation is meta,” he said, arguing that we began by talking about the book Hawaii and then moved even deeper into a meta discussion of what is meta. My head hurt. I longed for the simpler days when philosophical discussions of island dwellers amounted to, “Which one was more fuckable, Mary Ann or Ginger?”

Luckily a rain shower hit and drowned out all of our complicated neural transferring. The “rain” is a sprinkler system over the lagoon and it's strange how something so simple can be so satisfying. It cleansed me.

“Love this place,” I said to Pancho.

“Me too,” he said, and we let the simplicity of those statements erase everything.

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