“This is my new friend Lawler,” Alaric the bartender said to me, indicating the man I was sitting down next to at the bar. “We just met tonight. Lawler, this is Benjamin Wachs. THE Benjamin Wachs. I love him more than you do.”
She was going to introduce me like that all night. It was going to be that kind of night.
Oddjob’s entrance is in an alley named Washburn. When you walk in, you are immediately confronted with a choice: turn right, or left. If you turn right, you go into a big, spacious, bar with industrial furnishings, booths, lots of chairs, and plenty of places to stand. Plus, a mechanical robot that can make one drink. If you go left, you enter a small room with no chairs.
They are two very different experiences. People who want a bar turn right. People who want magic turn left. Normally, I always turn left, but tonight I was visiting Alaric, so I was sitting at the big bar. For now, let’s talk about the bar to the right.
“Lawler just made his first hollandaise today,” Alaric said.
“Really?” I said, not actually interested, but vaguely curious to see where this was going.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m really proud.” He was a young guy who looked like he had come here from L.A.., full of enthusiasm about what a cool city we are, full of opportunity. The kind of enthusiasm that I can’t really hold against someone, even though it gives me a rash. “Well,” he said after a moment’s thought, “my girlfriend helped. Actually, she made it, if I’m being honest. And I helped.”
I gave him a skeptical look. “Did you really help? Or were you just in the kitchen?”
I’d caught him, and we both knew it. “She doesn’t really let me in the kitchen.”
I nodded. There should be truth between us.
“Do you want a drink, THE Benjamin Wachs?” Alaric asked. We go way back, but it’s been months since we’ve seen each other.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s what I’m here for.”
“What do you want?”
I gave her a skeptical look. “Come on, it doesn’t really matter what I say, you’re going to make what you make and I’m going to drink it.” There should be truth between us.
“Coming up!” she agreed.
For the last five years, I have told anyone who cared to listen that San Francisco has many good bars, and some great bars, but that there is only one bar that matters: OddJob, on Mission, home to the Standing Room Only (SRO) program. A damn good bar on the outside (when you turn right) with a perfect “bar-within-a-bar” cathedral at its center (when you turn left), a sacred space for nightlife, a place of miracles and wonders.
That may not be true anymore. We’re going to have to wait and see. It was already coming apart at the seams when new ownership bought it, and now they’re struggling with new staff, a new vision … honestly, I was expecting to be depressed when I walked in. I thought this was going to be a sad story.
“Here’s what we’re doing,” Alaric told me and Lawler. “Each of you think of your most recent existential crisis, and then describe it in three words. Go!”
Lawler came up with “Substance, plans, others.”
I came up with “Dasein, daimonic, stasis.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” he said. “Dasein?”
Dammit, I can get too pretentious about these things. “It’s a term used by Heidegger …”
“You’re using an existentialist term to describe an existential crisis? If you’re doing that, are you really saying anything?”
I stared. I had been prepared to take some deserved heat over having been pompous, but he’d taken this in a completely different direction. I took a deep breath. “Okay, just to be clear, you’re throwing down with me over the quality of my existentialist shop-talk?”
“Yeah, I think I am, because … ”
“BECAUSE LET ME EXPLAIN SOMETHING TO YOU, LITTLE MAN!” I leaned forward, got into his face. “I apply Heidegger with the care and precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, which is why you don’t get some shitty Satrean concept like ‘being-for-others,’ or any indirect ontology Merleau-Ponty nonsense. But if I wanted to — IF I WANTED TO — I would fucking go back to goddamn Edmund Husserl and reference the classic epoche and the ‘spirit of owness,’ and you would sit there AND TAKE IT, because you think you’re being clever but you don’t actually know SHIT about the origins or terminology of existentialism, DO YOU?” I stood up from my chair. “DO YOU?”
He stared at me for a moment. Neither of us were sure what was happening. He blinked. “I think I’ve learned my lesson.”
I sat back down. “Yeah, I thought so.”
Alaric popped back over. “THE Benjamin Wachs, I love it when you yell. Would you like another mystery drink?”
I did. The new management has been developing a new drink menu for the bar on this side of the building — but it wasn’t ready that night, so Alaric was improvising. It’s as dangerous as it is fun. But this is a bar very much in flux.
Lawler’s friends Kevin and Danielle came over. They were all going to see a show later, but for now they were drinking, and we demanded that they play our game. Kevin couldn’t come up with three words, not all night, but Danielle went straight to “Heartbreak leaving San Francisco.” Which is technically four words, but still such a compact and relatable story for our time that Alaric and I accepted it instantly.
Lawler didn’t. “I don’t know if that’s really an existential crisis,” he said.
We gaped. “Are you fucking kidding me with this?” I asked him.
“You know, if you really want to get technical,” Alaric said, “I’m not sure if ‘substance, plans, others’ represent an existential crisis so much as a first-world problem.”
Mic drop. All his friends laughed, and he admitted it was probably true. A moment later, his girlfriend, Megan, joined them, and sat between us. Her three words were: “tumultuous cocaine awakening.” She and Lawler make quite the pair.
“I understand,” I said to Megan, having no idea what else to say, “that you made a hollandaise sauce today.”
She tilted her head. “Yes, how did you … ” then she shrugged, putting it together. “I understand,” she said back to me, “that you’re THE Benjamin Wachs?”
I sighed. “Yeah, apparently.”
“And you write about bars?”
I grimaced. “Something like that.”
“So what’s the best bar you’ve ever been to here?”
I hate that question. “Well, it depends on what you’re looking in for in a bar, what kind of experience you want to … ” I stopped. “Wait. Question: Have you ever been here before?”
“No, first time.”
“Ah, well then. In fact the greatest bar experience in the entire Bay area is sometimes within that archway there, through the curtains.”
“Yeah. If you turn left when you’re coming in the entrance.”
“Can I … ”
“Yeah. I’ll introduce you to it. It’s actually better to be introduced to it. The perfect storm. Alaric, save my drink, I’m going into Desmond’s territory.”
“Yeah, it’s here waiting for you,” Alaric said. “Unless I drink it. But this chair will always be yours. Your chair. You’ll always have that. Just maybe not a drink.”
We walked from OddJob’s long, luxuriously spacious, industrially furnished main room into a small, dimly lit side room, where a heavily tattooed man was surrounded by an alchemist’s lab of a bar, making drinks for a man and a woman.
“Hey, what were your three words?” Megan asked me.
“Dasein, daimonic, and stasis.”
She considered. “I don’t know what that means, but it sure sounds like a crisis to me.”
“THANK you! I thought so.”
The tattooed bartender, Desmond, looked up at me. “Benjamin!” he said. “I haven’t seen you here in a long …”
“Wait, wait!” said the man getting a drink. “Is his name Benjamin?”
“Yeah,” Desmond said.
“I’m Benjamin too!” the man said cheerfully.
“He is!” the woman with him agreed. “There are now two Benjamins!”
“Well … ” I couldn’t believe I was saying this. “It turns out I’m THE Benjamin, you see … “
“He is,” Desmond confirmed.
“Yeah, it’s true,” Megan said. “THE Benjamin.”
“Really?” the other Benjamin said. “Oh, okay. I guess I can’t feel bad about that.”
“I think we can handle this,” the woman, Rachel, said.
Later, we would discover that other-Benjamin’s existential crisis is: “who can forgive?” And Rachel’s existential crisis is: “what is art?” Later, we would discover that I actually know Megan’s boss, who I have been through several existential crises with. (“Malicious desert clowns.”)
But for now … since what happens in the bar to the left is another story — for now — I am pleased to tell you that the magic is still lingering at OddJob, a flame that, though low, can still be rekindled, if given care. It could still be the only bar that matters.
Not everything here, not yet, is heartbreak leaving San Francisco.