For me, homegrown Oakland businesses have a “Let's put on a show!” energy that is cute mixed with arrrrrghh.
“It'll be a performance space! We'll have farm-to-table nibbles! Local artists will show their work! Burlesque! Bike repair workshops! Ladies' sewing circle!”
“But wait, I thought we were running a garage where people could have their cars smogged,” says the voice of reason.
“That too!” And so begins the transformation of a garage into A Chill Space For Expression and an Oil Change.
Don't get me wrong, it's sort of a relief after spending so much time in bars in S.F. that are completely dedicated to one theme/design, and it's usually the flavor-of-the-month for moneyed hipsters. But many times in my capacity as a staff writer in the East Bay I came across new businesses, full of pluck and excitement, that just kept piling on idea upon idea in some attempt to change the world. They needed to take Coco Chanel's advice and look at themselves in the mirror, remove one or two accessories, and keep it simple.
I sauntered into Room 389 with some of this biased baggage. Its website promises a hodgepodge of custom espresso blends, cocktails, gypsy jazz, DJs, tamales, African Tuesdays, and a trivia night. The décor looks like Aunt Ida's Eclectic Attic, with modern seating mixed with thrift-store stuff, potted plants, and of course, local artists' stuff on the walls. The front patio is a poor-man's Chez Panisse, with a faint wisp of Arts & Crafts woodwork, more plants, and a sandwich chalkboard.
“How are you doing, young lady?” said a man with an African accent as I passed him on my way in. Oakland has the lock on laid-back and friendly. Once inside the main room it felt warm and inviting and there truly was a completely diverse mixture of people. Could this place actually be Oaklandish in a good way? Is the patchwork quilt of “whatever the fuck” working this time?
I sat at the bar and before I could even think about what to get the bartender approached me with a big smile on his face. He was happy to be there, as was everyone else. This was one big freaking happy place. If I settled in long enough I might even be able to survive some spoken word in an environment like this … nah.
One of the reasons I think that people were so happy is that there is finally a bar on this stretch of Grand. Baggy's By The Lake is a bit far, as are the restaurants that lead up to the Sunset Casket Outlet (face it, everything in life leads up to the Sunset Casket Outlet, when you really think about it).
389 appeals to hipsters, hippies, burners, yuppies, foreigners, joggers, and anyone else who lives by Lake Merritt. Not everyone is happy to see the bar though, and it has apparently gotten crap from NIMBYs who don't like the noise. This stuff always tickles me; you rent an apartment on a busy street that is zoned for business and then bitch when someone opens one up.
I was sitting next to someone who had actually paired a beret with a striped shirt, channeling either a French gondolier or a beatnik. I looked at him a few more seconds than is the norm so he sort of stared back inquisitively. I couldn't very well tell him what I was really thinking, especially since I deduced that the hat was just to cover his bald head, so I asked him what he was reading. He smiled and held up his book, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I told him that my main go-to atheist is Richard Dawkins, followed closely by Bill Maher.
“Wannabes,” he laughed. There we stood immediately at the precipice between the possibility of having an intense, deep conversation about the nature of existence or changing the goddamn subject. The country seemed poised to bomb Syria, voting rights had been curtailed, the Bay Bridge was going to close, Snooki was cast on Dancing With The Stars. The world was too much for me.
“Is this your hangout?” I asked him, deciding to avoid God. He said no, that he had just walked around the whole lake and this was the first place that sold beer that he came across.
Just then someone started to juggle outside. I couldn't tell what exactly he was juggling but it was definitely someone who went to circus school and has a pet ferret, maybe even a unicycle. Totally Oaklandish. A group of Ethiopian men were seated at an inside table. Beret guy saw me with a bemused look on my face and asked me what was so funny.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” I said, “I don't go to Oakland bars very often but it's nice to see that not much has changed.” He looked puzzled. “It's just always a mishmash of all sorts of people that is predictable in its eclecticism.” Ah, he seemed to say, nodding his head. I sensed that he felt a bit judged, and he indeed opened his book again and began to read.
Now it was my turn to walk around the lake, or at least to Sunset Caskets. Walking it always sounds like an awesome idea until I reach the quarter-mile mark. I resent everyone who runs past me in their pristine physical fitness and I also hate the power walkers, the dog walkers, the rowers, the homeless, the suits on their phones, the lovers. Face it, I'm too damn cynical for this town. Let's not put on a show.
“Toodles,” I said to the Beret guy.
“Nice chatting with you,” he said, quickly returning to his book.