Illustration by Molly Oleson

I wandered aimlessly around the Mission, waiting for a call back from a friend who would eventually stand me up. Before the pandemic, this would have been easy: I would have just gone to a bar and hung out and made things interesting until I figured out I was on my own for the night. 

I used to love going to bars by myself, because that could be an adventure. It was easy to meet new people and slip into conversations you’d never imagined having and be baffled and awed by the parade of humanity that walked by you. 

I hate going to bars by myself right now, because social distancing makes mixing and mingling nearly impossible. If I want to sit outside drinking by myself at night, I’ll go to a park, offer strangers cans, and see what happens. 

If I didn’t want to go to a bar until I had company, what I needed was a cafe, which is a better environment in which to read a book, open a laptop, and be collectively solitary. Cafes aren’t as interesting in plague times as they used to be either, but they still fit my mood better. Plus: The Mission is full of great cafes. 

Unfortunately, it turns out they close early. Muddy Waters closes at 2 now. Manny’s closes at 3. Cafe La Boheme is supposed to be open until 9, but it wasn’t open when I got there hours before that. 

I have never before been in the Mission and wondered, “what the hell am I supposed to DO around here?” 

Meanwhile, on 24th Street…

Beloved Cafe was there too, and open. I have never gone in it before. I have never wanted to; I am not the target market for its mix of organic juices and new-age spirituality. But dammit, I was there and they were open and sometimes you dance with whoever shows up and it changes your life. I was just looking for a place to sit and read with a coffee while I waited to get a drink with someone who would never show up. 

Beloved Cafe, on 24th Street between Mission and Bartlett streets, doesn’t have booze, but they swore their chai was homemade and it’s been a year since I’ve had any chai at all, and so I ordered some. I tried to pay in cash but it turned out they didn’t have change, so I switched to a card, asked if they have Wi-Fi (they don’t), and then went into their cute outdoor seating structure to wait. 

The chairs are a little dinky, but the outdoor area is what they want it to be, and it’s even more spacious than the interior, making it a pleasant option. I hope they get to keep it. The chai came out and, while I was a little shocked that they’d describe the cup they gave me as a “large,” it was indeed tasty as advertised. I sat, and read, and waited, alone outside in the Mission, and absolutely nothing happened, until eventually I got a call from my friend and we established that, yes, I wasn’t temporarily alone tonight; alone was my condition. 

I sighed and winced. Was I really going to go to a bar just to do this all over again with a beer?

Finishing my chai, I decided to walk back in and ask about their “Elixirs & Tonics.” It wasn’t so much that I was “interested” as that it was a good delaying tactic before I decided what I was going to do next. I looked over the list of offerings — “Joy Nectar,” “Lover’s Potion,” “Resilient Tonic,” and “Visionary Cordeil” — and finally went with the Lover’s Potion (Peruvian cacao, damiana, hawthorn berries, shatavari, cardamom, rose water, black pepper, wild honey). 

“Oh, that’s one of my favorites!” the barista said, and we debated the finer points of whether it should be served with nut milk or coconut water. She prefers nut milk, but I went with coconut water. I know what I like.

Back at the outdoor seating, two very pretty young people — a man and a woman — came in and took a table, drinking tea. I closed my eyes. It has been over a year now since I got to eavesdrop. They were talking about how much they enjoy supporting their favorite meditation retreats during the pandemic, and how glad they are that no one else is supporting their favorite meditation retreats during the pandemic because that way the facilities are mostly empty and they don’t have to deal with a lot of other people. 

I was in the presence of enlightened souls. 

Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

“What’s your meditation practice?” she asked him, and he explained it to her, in great detail, including the proper positioning of her third eye. 

“Does it have to be aligned with the crown chakra?” she asked.

Yes. Yes it does, he replied. 

I let out a deeply contented sigh. Oh, how I’ve missed these encounters. 

He told her some of the words he likes to meditate on as mantras. It’s a long list that includes “love,” “radiance,” and “unity.” But he also told her that the specific language doesn’t really matter. “It’s whatever you feel comfortable with,” he said. 

“Wow,” she says. “That’s amazing.”

My Lover’s Potion came out, in a portion that made it the health food equivalent of a double shot, I suppose. It was genuinely tasty — if you like this kind of thing, you’ll love it — but it didn’t open my third eye. 

He went on to tell her about the meditation injuries he’s suffered from pushing himself too hard “into places the mind can’t really grasp,” and how you have to make sure you’re doing it in a healthy way. She ate it up. Her back was to me; I wished I could see the look on her face.

Coincidentally, before I’d gone to the Mission I’d been sitting on a grassy hill in a park talking with a friend about occult weirdness. These are strange times, and epistemologies go all to hell in strange times. If we had been under normal conditions, I would have walked over to their table, apologized for interrupting, and said “What you just said reminded me that the Madhyamaka philosopher Nagarjuna wrote about how grasping emptiness incorrectly is like picking up a poisonous serpent by the wrong end …” and seen if I could go from being an eavesdropper to part of their story. One where they’d tell their friends “we were at a cafe, just talking about our mantras like normal people, and we met this really weird guy who was all into Buddhist metaphysics …”

But we’re not allowed to do that yet, are we? Right now that seems aggressive and weird and requires an uncomfortable conversation about vaccination and it’s technically against policies to let people mix at tables (Isn’t it? What’s Gov. Newsom’s latest ruling on that?) and I haven’t figured out how to get comfortable doing it yet. So instead, I listened as she told him how she went to a therapist to cleanse herself before going to a shaman so that the Earth Mother could heal her trauma. 

I am so hooked. This is weird and beautiful and an experience I never could have imagined having when I left home. That’s what bars are for. Maybe, like green shoots in the spring, they’re coming back. 

The boy said he once met Jesus on the astral plane. I leaned back and took it in. 

“Jesus was definitely a yogi and a reiki master,” she agreed.

There are so many things I want to jump in from my distant table and say: “And he kicked the tech bros out of the meditation retreat!” or  “I hear the astral plane has really gentrified!” Or “Jesus has a camp at Burning Man, doesn’t he?” But … no … like Mission nightlife itself, I’m not quite there yet. Maybe next week. 

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  1. Damn, Benjamin. If you’re one of the many interested in the open Burger Wars column spot, even this life-long vegetarian says, ahem…yes, please. If not, then at least give us an observation piece on Nagarjuna and Jesus discussing rangtong and shentong. They are contemporaries, if not a cohort, after all.