Distillations: Exploring the Transitory Nature of Life at The Interval

A recluse named Noah bumped into me at a party. “You must really love nightlife, right?” he said. “Parties, bars?”

“Well … sure,” I said, desperately hoping he wasn't going to ask me what my “favorite bar” is, or to tell stories. “But, it's just a part of what I do. There are plenty of other good things in life.”

“Here's what I've noticed.” He refused to let me change the subject. “Back when I was going out all night in New York, the nightlife experience usually turned poetically sad before dawn. Doesn't it? Right?”

Oh boy.

Bars are as much a haven for solace and human misery as they are for giddy good times. The entirety of the human condition is expressed in the places we go drinking. If we were really just looking for booze, we could drink alone. A bar that focuses on the drinking experience, as opposed to the human experience, is a bar that has lowered its sights.

Not The Interval, a bar recently added to the San Francisco headquarters of The Long Now Foundation. The Interval, like the foundation, tries to get people to think of human culture and responsibility in terms of the next 10,000 years. The bar's very purpose is to remind you that if you step outside for a 10,000-year smoke break, your drink will not be there when you get back.

I tried to decide if there was something cynical about all this as I walked around the clock gears, screens of information about cultural sustainability, and the bookshelves that make up The Interval. It's a cool environment, no question, but if the Vatican were to open a bar in St. Peter's Basilica, wouldn't we think of it as a marketing ploy rather than a real drinking establishment? Drinking is, in its way, the opposite of long-term thinking. A drink is a temporary good, defined by its finite nature, consumed for sheer irresponsible pleasure, and then gone. A smile in the darkness. A toast to today.

“It often gets sad,” I told Noah. “But that's why it matters when you leave. Sometimes the people who stay all night are having a magical experience, but often they're the ones whose dreams aren't coming true. I spent a number of years identifying my personal tipping point, that point past which I'm going to start having less and less fun if things continue as they are, so I could get out in time. So that I don't suffer the heartbreak of sitting at a bar at closing time, being asked to leave, and thinking, 'Why me?'”

Noah nodded. Clearly he'd never learned to do that.

A tavern may or may not be wholly compatible with The Long Now's mission, but The Interval is designed and run by people who love bars. The menu is one of those giant illustrated tomes, increasingly popular in high-class mixology establishments, that organizes drinks by history (“The Daiquiris of Floriditas”; “Brooklyn Variations”) and provides a little story for each one. The atmosphere is much more “coffee house salon” than “traditional bar” — and that's a good thing, especially in the Marina, where the idea that you're living your life on shaky ground is more than just a metaphor.

I sip a strong but tasty Regent's Draught Punch (brandy, rum, citrus, black tea, pineapple, sparkling wine, nutmeg) as I stare at the books on the shelves. They're mostly “the wonders of science” kind, and how-to's. I can appreciate that: If you think about civilization collapsing, it will be very tempting to have plenty of practical books on hand to get engines roaring again.

But science being constant, all these discoveries can hypothetically be discovered again, right? While if we lose Shakespeare, Freud, Dante? Certain insights into the human condition will never come back. What do we value?

The bartender slides me a Green Point (rye, carpano, yellow Chartreuse, orange bitters, lemon twist) and tells me the books aren't a deliberate statement. “We're a bunch of geeks,” he says. “We put things on the bookshelves that excite us.”

That's bar thinking: “This is what's cool” getting traction over “This is what should be preserved for future generations.”

But then this is a bar, and a good one, encompassing the contradictions of a foundation dedicated to long-term thinking putting its headquarters in a city famous for its fault lines.

Whether that seems like a good idea depends, I suppose, on when the earthquake comes. Timing is everything.

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