Distillations: Shuffling False Papers at Southside Spirit House

“Can I see your ID?” I ask. The stranger stops, takes it out of his wallet, and shows it to me.

I take it from him and squint. “This doesn't look like you.”

“Well …” he says, puzzled, since it's clearly him. “I guess I …”

I look back up. “Different haircut.”

He relaxes. “Yeah,” he says, even though it's the same haircut.

I give him the ID back. “Go on inside,” my friend Scott says.

Scott and I are sitting at a table at the end of a long hallway that is one of the entrances to Southside Spirit House, and it occurred to us that two guys sitting in front of a tavern door can just start asking for IDs.

We're drinking conspicuously, the way bouncers shouldn't: I'm having a Maiden Lane (whiskey, fresh strawberries, lemon juice, ginger beer), and Scott's having a Triumphant (bourbon, tart cherry aperol, lemon, maple syrup).

Still, people hand their licenses over without question. Even the people here for a company party, who don't notice that I don't have a list to check their IDs against.

We assumed we'd get caught by the manager, but Southside is packed to the walls — which is the reason we're at this lonely table in the first place: It was the only spot in the bar where we could possibly have a real conversation. I hadn't seen Scott in months.

Scott picked Southside because it's “kind of a cool bar” and right where he works. Southside certainly has all the trappings of “cool” — lots of wooden furnishings, quirky drawings everywhere, a wall tiled with cassette tapes, artistically designed menus that make it more difficult to find the drink you're looking for … Southside would be very cool, except that cool implies a kind of effortless ease, and Southside is trying too hard. It has pulled out all the stops, and however nice it looks it also reeks of self-consciousness, like it's asking “are we cool enough yet?” when it passed it a mile back.

Scott and I agree that the specialty cocktails, all of which are fruit heavy, suffer the same fate: They're good, but they're also conspicuously flashy rather than smooth and tasty. You can't sink into these cocktails because they're always shouting at you.

“Can I see your ID?” I ask somebody trying to get back in.

“I just stepped out to take a phone call,” he says, which is absolutely true.

“It doesn't matter,” I say. “C'mon, let's do this thing.”

“But …”

“I can sit here all night.”

He pulls out his ID.

Scott and I are getting away with this precisely because we're not trying at all. We're sitting here like we belong, not working to impress anyone, and people respond to that. Even the bar staff walks by and just nods at us, instead of asking who the hell we are and why we're harassing their customers.

People talk about the “Disneyfication” of San Francisco, but I don't think they fully appreciate that Disney is a company overflowing with talent. Some of the best people in the world at what they do work for Disney. It has a level of technical competency that few can match, and they use it to create amazing things.

It's just that they're usually the same things. How many damn princesses do they need?

We could do a lot worse than Southside, but it doesn't have an artsy, graphic menu because it had a great idea for one. Instead, it has one because that's part of the San Francisco bar formula now. It's what you do if you want to be part of our oh-so-discerning scene. You get a theme, you get an artsy menu, some “unique” decorations. To some audiences, technical skill is indistinguishable from art, and they love it when you insert part A into slot B so long as you do it deftly.

Southside is full of people like Scott who are here because it's near work and close enough to cool. The half-assed formulaic mediocrities that I condemn are always packed. Just like Disneyworld, or McDonalds. We need to admire the technical prowess of the people who are stealing our souls. It's not easy.

“Can I see your ID?” I ask a guy trying to get in the bar.

“What?” he asks. “Oh, sure. Sorry. I thought you guys were just sitting here. I mean, you're drinking …”

I wait until I'm holding his ID to tell him, “You're right, we don't work here.”

He's paying attention. We like him.

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