Back in another life, when I taught college students things, I got into the habit of grading their papers in bars, drinking heavily, during live shows.
People at the bars seemed to think it was a waste of time — they always suggested I’d have more overall fun grading the papers at home, alone, while spending my time at bars unsuccessfully hitting on people I had no interest in anyway. And maybe they were right. I have never been sure.
But my students, when I told them I’d graded their papers while drinking heavily at a bar during a live show, were uniformly happy. Even thrilled. Not once, across multiple semesters, did I receive a complaint that I might have been drunk when I gave them bad grade. Just the opposite: Grading their papers that way seemed to give me greater moral authority in their eyes. “Yes,” they seemed to say, in a continuous and unearned vote of confidence, “THAT is the kind of man who should hold my academic fate in his hand! We salute you, sir!”
Were they right? Or do any of them ever look back on those days and think “My God, my adjunct professor was an irresponsible madman! I deserved an A!”
I have never been sure.
I was flashing back to that as I walked into Amnesia, clutching in my hand an article on heutagogy (which is “self-determined learning,” as opposed to andragogy, which is “self-directed learning” — I swear I’m not making this up). A colleague had gotten really excited to discover that I was reading it. I was not that excited. So I brought it to a bar.
I looked around, a little stunned.
“No show tonight?” I asked as I sat down.
“Already played,” the bartender said. “This afternoon.”
Amnesia without a show is a completely different experience than Amnesia with a show. Without, one of San Francisco’s premier live music venues is a chill, spacious, neighborhood dive bar. It had the feel of a bunch of guys hanging out at a worksite that’s not open to the public. There’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s like camping in the park.
With a show, location is everything. It’s a constant struggle to position yourself properly with relation to the stage and the band. It’s like apartment hunting in the city.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been here when there’s wasn’t either a show happening, or about to happen,” I told him.
“Well, then, you’ve probably never been here on a Sunday,” said the bartender, whose name is Sean.
“The owners have tried everything to get people in on Sundays. Different show times, different kinds of bands. It’s just not happening on Sundays right now.”
“I actually really like the chill hangout vibe, but I can see why that’s a problem.”
“Yeah, the landlord doesn’t take chill hangout checks.”
I ordered a Book of Ginger beer, from Laughing Monk, and found it a superb blend of moderately sour and slightly spicy. Amnesia’s beer list, though small by San Francisco standards, is well curated and interesting.
A guy came into the bar: He’d lost his credit card, and was pretty sure it was here. The bartender shook his head, told him no, no credit cards had been reported. The guy left, dejected.
He’d come back a second time, a little while later, saying “sorry to bug you, but I’m sure it has to be here.” It still wasn’t.
An eclectic mix that Sean had put together on Spotify was playing on the speakers. It didn’t contain a single song I’d ever heard, but it created an atmosphere that was easy to slip into. It was dark in the back, the lights were off, but plenty of late summer daylight was streaming in through the door. I read my academic paper at the bar, and Sean, sitting on the back counter next to the taps, perused a copy of the New Yorker. He writes short stories, and carries the magazine around with him in his back pocket to check out what the tastemakers of the East Coast establishment are blessing now.
Our small crowd grew when two more people, Vinood and Sheila, came in and asked Sean real questions about the beer selection — a conversation that Sean was clearly into. He’d obviously done his homework.
Sheila asked about the Cellarmaker “milk shake”-style IPA, and Sean said it’s one of the weirder beers they have, and gave her a sample. It sounded great and I was ready for another round, so I asked if I could get in on that action. He poured. I did like it — I was ready to order it, but then Sheila asked if she could also try the Founders “Green Zebra” watermelon sour beer, and I just had to get in on that too. “That is the other weirdest beer we have,” Sean said.
I liked this even better, and ordered it after checking to make sure that Sheila wasn’t going to try any other samples – she was obviously good at this. Time flew by as I drank, read, and lightly eavesdropped on Sheila and Vinood’s detailed argument about Japanese comedy … and I realized, suddenly, that between the New Yorker-reading bartender and the multilingual comedy critic patrons, I was probably the least cultured person in the bar, despite having an article about heutagogy. It was amazing: These are the moments I go to bars for.
Just as I finished the article, Sean put the open New Yorker down in front of me.
“This is pretty boring,” he said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, though I hadn’t read the piece. “I find the whole MFA/New York fiction scene to be bloodless and dull.”
“It’s well-written, technically” he said. “It’s just … who cares?”
“Are you guys slagging on the New Yorker’s fiction?” Sheila asked.
I grinned. “Yep.”
“What is it, another T.C. Boyle story?” she said, rolling her eyes.
I grabbed the magazine and looked at the story Sean had indicated. The author was, in fact, Thomas Coraghessan Boyle.
These people are SO good!
“It’s fucking dull,” Sean repeated.
We talked about the history of the New Yorker’s fiction for a while, then Vinood and Sheila went back to their conversation, which became an argument over whether irony and sarcasm are universal forms of comedy (Vinood, who speaks Hindi and French as well as English, says yes; Sheila, who has extensive knowledge of Japanese culture and language, says no). I once studied humor in Tibetan Buddhism, so I just had to jump in on Sheila’s side. We discovered that neither Japanese nor Tibetan traditional jokes have punchlines — that crescendo and resolution just wasn’t part of their comic aesthetic. Gradually, the conversation shifted to Vinood’s contention that most people would rather be funny than smart.
“Would you?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I get quite offended when people tell me I’m not funny. I don’t mind so much if they tell me I’m not smart.”
Sheila smirked and sighed. “He really does.”
I think my students liked me better when I came across as putting funny over smart. I think I’m going to spend the next week asking people which they would rather be.
Eventually they left. Before I left, the guy looking for the credit card came back, one more time.
“Sorry to bother you again … ” he said as he walked back into the bar. He was just positive the credit card was here. It had to be. “Can I see the lost and found?” he asked.
Sean said he’d look through it again, but that he couldn’t just let anybody root through it themselves. There’s a code of ethics around lost and founds. He placed the cardboard box on the bar, and the guy leaned forward over it, watching Sean like a hawk. Sean picked everything in it up, then put it down again, and even ran his hand along the bottom of the box, just for show.
And there it was, tucked into one of the box’s folds. The credit card. There the whole time.
That’s either the moral to this story, or its punchline.