“I want to tell you to buy me a drink,” Tessa said to me. “But I need you to know it’s not because I’m being a jerk, it’s because I’m being poor.”
Hearing this, the bartender at the Flying Pig Bistro Pub laughed. “There is a difference,” he agreed.
“If you get this wrong,” I said, “things can spiral out of control.”
“Tessa” and I had just been to see a series of short plays that her friend had helped create, and they were so well-meaning, terribly earnest and blatantly righteous, that eventually we started laughing every time somebody pointed out the difference between Right and Wrong. We left at intermission.
“Save us from obvious plays that point out the obvious thing about an obvious problem!” I’d said as we walked to the Flying Pig, on South Van Ness. “I mean, DID YOU KNOW that housing in San Francisco is too expensive?”
“WHAT?” she’d said, incredulously. “Where did you hear that?”
“I saw it in a play! It really raised my awareness!”
“I saw a play too! Apparently evangelical families don’t always accept their gay children.”
“NO! My mind is blown!”
“You know,” she’d said sadly, no longer laughing, “our art scene kind of sucks.”
A prominent San Francisco art critic once told me the same thing: that for all our belief that we’re a big metropolis, our scene is still too small to really accommodate conflict and criticism. If you want to work here, you have to make sure everybody else in the scene likes you, and that makes for bad art.
I’d taken Tessa to The Flying Pig because it is the spot where, for several months last year, I met with some people to work on a doomed art project that also turned out to be awful. It had the opposite problem, though: It was all technique and no heart. Symbolically, the Flying Pig is connected in my head to discussions of bad art.
But at least I got paid for my bad art, which is more than most people can say for their good art. And The Flying Pig was always a good place for those meetings. Straddling the line between a bar and a café, it accommodates small groups and conversations beautifully, provided they’re laid back. Long and gently-but-well-lit from a series of faux tiffany lamps hanging across the room, it has an extensive food menu and a decent-if-idiosyncratic selection of beers and wine. With a bar running almost the full length of the room and a large number of small tables, chairs, and couches, walking in seems like a cross between entering a diner and getting comfortable in the living room of a large house. It was almost deserted when we arrived, with five screens all silently turned to a baseball game.
We ordered the first of many Dogfish Head Festina Pêche beers, and, after we sat down near the door, Tessa told me that she had bumped into her ex-boyfriend for the first time since the breakup … on a flight Los Angeles. After a long hesitation, they arranged to sit next to each other.
“It actually went really well,” she said. “I think because the thing we always had in common is that we’re both always in emotional survival mode, so neither of us ever feel like we have the luxury to be mad or throw a fit in a situation where we can’t get out. So we did a sort of emotional survival mode dance, where first we established whether anybody was angry enough to yell or create a scene. And of course neither of us were, so then we figured out if there was something we could do for the other person, something they needed, that would make them glad to see us. And then, since both of those things were good, we finally strategized: Okay, we have 90 uninterrupted minutes, what do we need to talk about?”
“So … it was a good conversation?”
“It was. And we’ve never spoken since.”
“Wow. That … that … seems at once way, way, more dysfunctional, and much more healthy, than any high-pressure meeting I’ve ever had with an ex.”
“Yeah, it was really good, but I think it was only possible because we both had such traumatic childhoods, we’re both so broken at the level of attachment.” She shrugged. “My family didn’t understand it either. They kept asking me ‘so, are you back together?’ As if not hating each other meant we must be in love. But … my family has a hard time with this kind of thing. At our last reunion, my grandmother started talking about her experience with the Japanese internment camps for the first time — she’s never, NEVER, talked about this before — but at the beginning of her story she started using racial slurs for other groups of people, which was completely unnecessary, obviously, and so my young teenage relatives started calling her out for racist language, and … it was tragic, because the message the teenagers were getting was ‘grandma’s a racist,’ and the message grandma was getting was ‘nobody wants to hear about what happened to me. My experiences don’t count.’ And we couldn’t figure out how to work around it.”
We sat in silence with that, and for a moment I lost all capacity to laugh. There is far, far, more human drama and complexity in the two stories she’s just told me than in any of the plays we saw tonight, or in any of the productions my colleagues and I once planned here. Our lives, viewed from the right angle, with good lighting, are exquisite works of art.
People came in and out, getting food to go. It’s strange: I’ve always thought of The Flying Pig as a place to sit and linger, but tonight it’s much more of a neighborhood kitchen for people trying to make it home. Far at the other end of the room, a lone man sat drinking and watching highlights from a baseball game, a glazed look in his eyes.
“The internet is only making this worse,” Tessa said after a moment. “It turns all of our stories into something to argue about, rather than to listen to, because it’s a system designed by emotionally stunted Californians. The block feature? That is so San Francisco. We’re not going to fix a problem, we’re barely even going to acknowledge it, we’re just going to shun you, to pretend you don’t exist. That’s how we do things here, but, it’s not how anyone else does … okay, maybe Harvard … and so it imposes this ridiculous system on the rest of the country. In San Francisco, everyone is either conflict avoidant or part of a righteous mob, and we’re creating systems where that’s the way everyone has to act. And it’s ruining us.”
“Excuse me,” the bartender said, stepping over. “I’m going to be closing up soon.”
“Right,” I agreed. “Go ahead and close my tab.”
“Sorry the theater was so bad,” Tessa said to me. “But at least you learned that inequity falls hardest on marginalized populations, which is something nobody around here would have ever told you. It would never have come up in conversation.”
“If that’s what they want to get across, maybe they should put out a press release,” I grumbled.
But in fact the most powerful moments of our lives, the most artful, the most heartbreaking, the most relevant, often occur when no one else is paying attention. These are the stories, complex and nuanced, that we usually pretend don’t exist. Even in our art.