Nicole went inside to order drinks at Rosamunde off 24th and Mission while I secured one of the only open outdoor tables. It was a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon, perfect for drinking outside and acknowledging that, sometimes, the world can be beautiful. I was supposed to call her from the table and tell her what to get me, but our phones kept dropping the calls. Even in a beautiful world, plans don’t work out. Eventually she came back with two glasses and handed me one.
“I just told them ‘something Belgian,’ and this is what they gave me,” she said.
We laughed, because even without knowing anything about beers she knows my tastes well, and because it’s a good puncturing of my pretensions. Beer is something we both love in very different ways. I have no idea what beer she got me but, sure enough, it was a Belgian style ale and I liked it fine. I don’t know what she ordered for herself, but I know it was some godawful IPA with a taste profile like the invasion of Normandy. We are never going to see eye to eye on this, but that’s okay: The point is that we’re watching each other with care.
Nicole lives in the neighborhood, and Rosamunde is one of her bars. She passes it every day on her way home, and if she’s having a bad day, it’s the place she’ll stop and sit and drink as she reads or listens to podcasts or just cries.
“Honestly, I don’t think I even need to order for myself anymore,” she said. “If they see me coming, the bartenders just get out a Pliny the Elder. I actually might be the reason they keep it on the menu. I’ll be waiting in line to order and suddenly they’ll just call out to me ‘I’ve got your IPA here!’”
We’re spied on so constantly by companies and governments and monsters of the internet that we’ve forgotten how good it can feel to have someone paying attention. The difference between a company that uses your data to create an ad on a website to sell you a beer, and a bartender who pours a beer she thinks you’ll like when she sees you coming, is everything.
We haven’t seen each other in a few weeks, so we had a lot to talk about. And we’d just come from an underwhelming art experience: “The art community disappoints us again, so San Francisco is healing,” we joke. A lot of people in the art communities I know have been worrying that during the pandemic San Francisco lost too much — too many institutions, too many people, too much energy, too much innovation — and now we’re no longer distinctive or interesting. That there’s nothing in San Francisco that you can’t just go find in L.A. or New York.
I disagree: I think that already happened. Those bigger cities were long ago imitating the art scene that our cost of living was chasing away. The question isn’t whether we’ve lost those edges, it’s whether we’re doing something new that will be worth imitating in a few years. And honestly, I’m not sure.
Some people I’ve been discussing it with think that San Francisco still has greater resistance to “art as a party:” that our artists are willing to spend our time on small, weird, art experiences that are probably never going to make real money, rather than spending their energy decorating big parties with DJs that are, when you think about it, pretty much identical to every other big party with DJs. This theoretically makes our art, pound for pound, much more interesting — and means our artists need day jobs.
But that’s just a hypothesis. Who the hell knows what’s really true as we emerge out of the pandemic? To the extent we are actually emerging out of the pandemic, rather than just stretching and shifting our weight in it.
The server stopped by with Nicole’s salad. I gave Nicole a look. Rosamunde is famous for its sausages, which dominate the menu. Who the hell orders a salad here? It’s not even vegan or vegetarian: It comes with cheese and a chicken sausage.
“The cheese is good,” she said, passing over a piece for me to taste and verify. “It’s really good cheese for a salad, you know? Most places, if you order a salad, put really mediocre cheese on it, because who cares? But I love how this place, if you order a salad, it comes with sausage and great cheese. It’s like they’re lovingly asking you, ‘A salad? Are you sure? Really? Okay, we’re just going to put a sausage here just to make sure you’re okay.’ I love that.”
The Giants had just lost in an agonizing Game 5 to the Dodgers, but we’re the kind of people who only knew about it tangentially. Nicole figured out that something was happening when BART was crowded with people wearing Giants gear, and I’d understood that something was up because a few friends of mine had been excited, then despondent.
“I never know what to say to people who get such strong emotions about this sort of thing,” Nicole said. “I’m sorry your team didn’t win? When I say that, they always give me looks that tells me what I’ve just said is very, very, inadequate … but I don’t understand what else there is to say.”
Nicole works with the mentally ill homeless. She knows how to comfort them about their problems. Anything with lower stakes than a schizophrenic trying to find housing doesn’t seem worth getting worked up about.
I nodded. “I don’t know, either. A friend of mine said that his young son, almost seven years old, was just devastated by the loss, and he had to explain to him: This is what being a sports fan is. You have to accept the sad losses, so that you can really be part of the great wins.”
Nicole nodded and chewed her salad thoughtfully. “That’s really good advice for a marriage, too. That’s how they work. Hey, do you think sports fans are better at marriages?”
“I … don’t know that anyone’s ever suggested that correlation before …”
“But it’s true! That’s what a marriage is, you stay and root for your team in the down times so you can be a meaningful part of their good ones.” She looked at her empty glass. “I’m going in for more beer. What should I get you?”
“Okay, tell them you want a Chimay Red for me …”
“Chimay Red …
“Okay, I think I’ve got it.”
Rosamunde is a lot more focused on its sausages than it is on its booze. But it has a very solid beer list. Somebody thought it through. Any place that can make both of us feel like we’re drinking well is doing something right. God, I hate her taste in beer so much.
Rather than “accept the sad losses so that you can be part of the great wins,” I have lived my life far closer to the old proverb “take hold lightly, let go lightly — that is the secret to success in love.” Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. Or maybe … and I suspect this is more of the point … the grace and intentions with which you hold on to someone is just as important as how intensely you do it, like the difference between having your preferences spied on by a big company and having a bartender know what you like.
Nicole came back holding the right beer. “I told the bartender ‘apparently I was supposed to ask you for a Chimay Red rather than to shout ‘SOMETHING BELGIAN’ at you. The bartender laughed and asked ‘are you in trouble?’ and I said ‘Kinda …’”
Bartenders love Nicole. I’ve seen it again and again. Even when she isn’t a regular, they love having her around. I think it’s because, in this area of her life, she takes hold lightly and lets go lightly with a playfulness that demands nothing.
If you can pay that kind of caring attention while demanding nothing, you have discovered the secret of life.
Wild boar sausage and duck with figs helps too, along with wildly different kinds of beer, and sunshine as the whole Mission seems to walk by your perch. Life can be beautiful. Even when your team loses.
Read more Distillations here.