There was supposed to be a beat-boxing cellist. Instead there is a jazz quartet. You never know what you’re going to get in this city.
“Jenny” and I had managed to find a seat just outside Revolution Café, which isn’t easy. Even in a town known for small venues, Revolution is one of those places where three truly is a crowd. We were lucky to get this table, which to a casual observer was being used by a group, but to our expert eyes was probably available if we asked politely.
The vibe is as much “coffee house” as “bar.” The menu behind the counter says they only serve sangria by the pitcher, but when we asked they said sure, we’ll pour it in glasses, no problem. The casual atmosphere is appealing and comfortable. Maybe because there’s not enough room to stand on ceremony.
Revolution is the kind of café I thought San Francisco would be full of when I first moved here. Deeply embedded in its neighborhood, the center of its own scene, and filled with acoustic or only lightly amplified music. Wherever I’ve gone in the world, cafes would at least aspire to be venues: you could easily find one where a casual performance was happening. Most of them couldn’t keep up with the seven-nights-a-week schedule that Revolution keeps, but they were aspiring to it.
But that is not a San Francisco ambition. Only one coffee shop in my neighborhood made a point to have music, and soon it was gone — replaced by a chain fish restaurant. Over the years, two locally owned places near me managed to stay in business while two more Starbucks opened up within blocks of each other — but none of them have live music. Everywhere I went in the city, it was basically the same. Revolution is precious.
“I do not understand why the San Francisco music scene is like this,” I told Jenny.
“Do you think it’s because our scene is so focused on DJs?” she asked.
‘Oh, that makes sense! We are … ”
“We have a huge DJ culture,” she emphasized.
“… and a focus like that can take the air out of everything else. Yeah, I’d believe it. I don’t know if it’s true, but I believe it.”
We were a little disappointed by the sangria. It was fine, we both agreed it was fine, but it was also on the sweeter side. We were glad we hadn’t just sprung for a pitcher. An increasing number of people were standing around us now, overflow from the café into the street.
“Do you work at cafes a lot?” Jenny asked me.
“Oh God, yes. If I’m not at an office, then I have to work at cafes during the day. Home is for that really productive period, for me, between 10 at night and 2 in the morning. Then it’s great. But if I’m working from home all day? Just sitting there on my couch? In my living room? It drives me stir crazy.”
“Me too. I can’t do that.”
“No, I actually really like café-hopping all day. Like, going to a place, having a coffee, reading a book, then going to another place, working on a project, eating lunch, going to another place, drinking a beer, meeting some people … make a whole day of it, and it’s a really good day.”
“I have specific places I like to go for specific kinds of work, to set the right mood.”
“Totally. One place for if I’m just trying to read, one place for if I’m trying to focus on work, one place for a certain kind of conversation with a certain kind of friend … really, that’s the advantage of a place like San Francisco, you have the luxury of so many different niches.”
She nods thoughtfully. “Do you ever think of leaving San Francisco?”
“All the time. Not because I don’t like it, but because the way things are going, it’s impossible for me to imagine a future here.”
“Where would you go?”
“I have no idea. If I did …”
That’s the thing about the tech takeover and ongoing gentrification of San Francisco — it doesn’t just drive people and culture out, it drives the very idea us living here out. Much like the DJs might be taking all the air out of a live music scene, the futurists are destroying the future, leaving behind nothing but a desperate attempt to keep up with the present.
We decide to get another drink, which involves one of us going up to the counter at a time while the other aggressively defends the seats. I came back with a Pranqster beer, she got a red wine. A heat lamp in the patio ceiling flickered on, sorta kind-of working. The band was jamming like crazy, and people were packing the place in — God help us if we had to go to the bathroom. Music and humanity were swirling around us as the Mission went dark.
Maybe that’s why it happened. I don’t know what triggered it, except that maybe this is the kind of environment where these moments happen. A look crossed Jenny’s face, I asked about it, and suddenly a bridge was crossed, a door opened on the other side, and she was telling me a deep and personal truth that she’s needed to talk to someone about for months but didn’t know how. And after listening to it, and commiserating, and falling to pieces, just a little bit, I told her about an open wound I am hiding beneath my mask, that is festering in silence. And by the time we left we knew, without a doubt, that we had become closer friends.
And I wonder if that would have happened anywhere else. Revolution, by the time we left, was obnoxiously crowded and noisy, and beautifully human. Which brings out our own, flawed, humanity. It may have no place in the future, but I want it here, now.